Posted by on Sep 19, 2011 in Essays | 2 comments

Name: Randy Grant
Location:  Central New Jersey
Organization/Affiliation: Currently none; I’m not much of a joiner, I’m afraid.
Label: Atheistic Secular Humanist
Former Religious Affiliation: Episcopalian/Anglican, non-organizational spiritual

My Path to Atheism

I am a fairly normal person. I am in my mid-twenties, I read a lot, and I play whatever computer games I can afford and my system can keep up with. I did well in college, but I didn’t quite get around to finishing. I have plenty of friends, some of whom are religious, some of whom are not. I write, I watch movies, I watch crime-investigation show. I have parents, one of whom died recently. I have a cat and two housemates. I generally consider myself a decent person. I watch internet review shows, and I spent the day in New York City with a pair of gay friends two days after New York’s new marriage law went into effect.

I am an atheist

The story of my path to atheism is a long one, though less fraught with perils and doubt than most, and, like most life paths, it begins with my childhood. I was raised in a non-religious household, though by no means a secular one. My mother was a lapsed Catholic, who often joked that it was Catholic school that had driven her from the fold. My father was raised by Saturday Jews, people who did not actually care much about religion, but attended temple services and sent their children to Hebrew school. He hated the majority of his family, and rejected all the trappings of being a Goldstein, including religion, and eventually even the name.

In spite of their views of both of my parents still felt that something existed which they could call  God.  My mother was taken with a spiritual bent, a fan of yoga and new-age concepts, while my father vacillated between pantheism and deism with a healthy dollop of aliens did it, accompanied by fifth-column conspiracy theories. (He was a big fan of Art Bell.) Both liked to celebrate Christmas as a general holiday of goodwill and the beauty of winter, in spite of the name, and both insisted that my brother and I ought to come to our own decisions concerning the world of the supernatural.

Having far more contact with our devout Catholic grandparents than the lip-service-only Jewish ones, and being exposed to various versions of Christianity fairly often during our tenure with the Boy Scouts of America, it was almost inevitable that my brother and I would develop an interest in at least discovering what this Christianity thing was all about. My mother was remarkably patient and tolerant on the subject, tracking down churches and driving us to a different one every Sunday for half a year so that we would have a full experience and choose a church that properly reflected our spiritual growth. In retrospect, it is perhaps telling that I vetoed the church my brother was most in favor of a Pentecostal church with more singing than preaching and silent prayer combined because it seemed too fun, which equated to insufficiently spiritual.

We eventually settled on an Episcopal church whose reverend was intelligent and well-spoken, and whose congregation seemed kind and devout. Even the reverend’s daughters were well-behaved and kind, not suffering from the child syndrome I always heard about. I won’t say that we had fun at the church, because I am fairly certain that no one in my family ever really thought of attending on Sundays as anything other than a chore, but I did learn a lot about community there, and tolerance, and it was an altogether jarring experience, some years later, to discover that Christians were often intolerant and bigoted. I was a somewhat active member of the community, in spite of the fact that I was not baptized until the age of fourteen: I encouraged my family to attend, joined the youth choir, attended special masses such as the Christmas midnight mass, and went to Rite Thirteen classes, a sort of preparatory class before confirmation. Both the church reverend and the deacon in charge of Rite Thirteen were knowledgeable about the Bible, and both were pleasantly surprised at my inquisitiveness and desire to learn in more depth than most of the other students.

Although I would like to say that this kind of encouragement may well have sown the seeds for my later deconversion, the truth is that I just got bored with church after a couple of years and stopped encouraging my family to go. I also began questioning, mostly only in my own mind, what any of this pomp and ceremony had to do with what was said in the Bible. (Had I known about nondenominational or Evangelical churches, I might have moved to one, but I would not learn about those until much later, in spite of the fact that I now know I lived about three blocks from one for two years.) My brother, who never liked anything that forced him to sit still for an hour unless it was a good book, had probably tired of church not long after we settled on one, and my mother never converted, even if she attended services with us. My father, always highly critical of organized religions, only ever attended on special occasions, such as Christmas or my baptism.

After a while, I wondered why I had stopped going to church if I still believed, and I came to the conclusion that attending church did not make sense. Thus began the years of my spirituality. I picked and chose aspects of Christian tradition that fit with my conception of what Christianity ought to be, and ignored that which did not. Perhaps most importantly, I decided that, if my religion is between myself and God, why should I need a church and a priest or reverend or preacher? I began studying the Bible and, always a history buff, the historical context of the writings. I discovered that my father was actually a great resource, having retained much of what he had been taught in his hated Hebrew school, and we spent many late nights discussing the implications and historicity of various passages.

Towards the end of high school, two things happened that are pertinent to this story. Firstly, I worked in a bookstore throughout my senior year. Taking shameless advantage of my employee discount and steady income, I bought books left and right. A fair amount were my favorite fantasy and science fiction authors, and some manga I could not afford without that discount, but I also picked up works both on religion in general, and on specific religions. I learned about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and Islam, and about Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Possibly the most interesting to me was the influence of early Zoroastrianism on Judaism, including the entire concepts of Heaven, Hell, and a Messiah, all of which are copied directly from the Avesta. Zoroastrianism as described in The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism so moved me that for a while I thought of myself as a Zoroastrian, although I never actually said so, lest people associate me with the far more tradition-bound modern sect, the Parsis. Through this reading, as well as through more detailed study of the Bible, I came to realize just how much of the Bible made no sense, and therefore how little use it was as a basis for anything. I also began to realize that the moral teachings in the Bible actually had no basis . They were stories, and why should I derive my morality from these stories any more than, say The Lord of the Rings, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, or The Keeper’s Chronicles.

The second thing was, right around my high school graduation, I started dating a Jewish girl. Her family was not particularly religious either, and, like me, she had become the driving force of any religion that did manage to creep into the household. We dated for two years, and in that time I attended temple services several times and met her rabbi, an enthusiastic scholar who loved picking apart the Tenakh and Judaism, and encouraged questions from the congregation. It was at his suggestion that I first started learning Hebrew. I believe he may have been interested in converting me.  He encouraged people to convert through genuine study and deciding that Judaism was Truth, and I think he concentrated on me because I was briefly engaged to the aforementioned girlfriend, and he wanted to be certain that if I did convert it was out of passion for the religion, and not for the woman. Nevertheless, I do believe he was honest in his encouragement that I learn as much as I could myself, and I thank him for that.

Eventually, as I had, my girlfriend realized that the organization of religion contradicts spirituality. Further, with my growing knowledge of the silliness of the Bible, she grew dissatisfied with the concept of Judeo-Christian religion altogether and turned to new-age paganism. I followed along on some of these excursions, and while I liked the idea that most people considered their religion more personal, I came to realize that these folks were still forming rituals to evoke unknown and unknowable phenomena, and my biggest question became, How do you know?

How did these people know that praying did anything? How did they know that beating a drum or living life to its fullest or praying a rosary or dancing or not dancing or invoking the word God, or invoking the names of many gods.  How did anyone know any of this? The Bible was a deeply flawed book, but at least it was a source of some kind. Neo-pagan religions were full of people just as bound in ritual, even though the rituals themselves were not old enough yet to be called tradition, and they had derived these rituals from nothing except that they found them spiritually fulfilling. Well, fine, that makes them fulfilling for the people who perform them, but it doesn’t bring anyone any closer to God. How do you even know there is something called God?

Around the time my girlfriend and I broke up, just before I started college, I began calling myself an agnostic.

;In spite of this, I still felt intrigued by the history of relgions, especially those of the Western world, which inform our modern culture. In college, I started as a Religion major. I took Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, and my classes included Jewish History and Society, Death and the Afterlife, New Testament Greek, The Old Testament, The New Testament, Greek and Roman Religions, Ancient Near Eastern Religions, and a seminar on writing about religion. During my freshman year, I found a club called the Religion and Spirituality Association, or RSA. Although the name sounded like a Bible study group (to which I would also not have been entirely averse), the club turned out to consist mostly of listening to guest lecturers discussing the ins and outs of religions considered unusual in the suburban United States or issues in religion today. There I learned about modern Voodoo, Santeria, Catholic vs. non-Catholic conceptions of sainthood, and homosexual priests in the Episcopal church. In spite of a Christian majority in that club, it was also where I first saw Jesus Camp, and the club unanimously agreed that the worst speaker was the woman whose lecture was more of a conversion speech.

This club and my classes helped me to come to realize that religion and belief in God are not even important concepts. I did not need to be the same religion of even the people with whom I talked about religion; it was just another cultural oddity that made for fun thought experiments. I realized that, if God did exist, he didn’t care about what we believed or how we worshiped, or even if we worshiped. That there was no point in being agnostic, claiming not to know if God exists, because it’s a moot point: If God or gods exist, they are not interacting with the universe, had nothing to do with the many religions claiming to worship them, and left enough physical laws in place to run the universe for them that we will probably never run out of naturalistic explanations for anything. In other words, while there was nothing to prove that God did not exist, there was nothing to prove that He did either, and no reason to use Him as an explanation for anything, nor even to reference Him in any way.

By the time I began my second year of college, I was an atheist.

Coming Out
In spite of this, it still took me a while to come out. I have never been very good at fitting in, and I know that discussing religion or politics with people with whom you disagree is generally considered a Bad Idea. I never had a lot of friends growing up, and I did not want to lose the many I had made in college. Furthermore, I knew that a lot of my friends were religious in some way. It was okay to be agnostic with them because we were all free thinkers, and none of them espoused their religious views as absolute truth, but how would any of them feel about me saying outright, I do not believe there is a God?

I still had it easier than many people. My friends, as I said, were all free thinkers. Two of my friends were staunch Catholics; one showed me Bill Maher’s Religulous, and the other watched along with us, laughing at everything. One of my friends was a former fundamentalist who had studied the Bible religiously (no pun intended) from the age of five, and was now double-majoring in Classics and Jewish Studies, reading the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, and who derived great pleasure in tearing into the hate-mongering fundamentalists who would occasionally carry protest signs in front of the university student center, using the Bible against them. Others let mention of religion creep subtly into their conversation, as does anyone for whom it is just part of the culture in which they grew up.  This one time at church, and then this one guy, who was the priest’s son. One friend talked about how he had been raised Catholic, but had been looking into Buddhism as it is practiced in Korea, from whence his family moved to the U. S. when he was five.

Could I tell these people that I did not believe in God at all?

The answer, surprisingly, is, Yes.

It started when I was talking to one group of friends whom I had met in college, but who had nothing to do with my classes.  One would sometimes talk about her fundamentalist Catholic cousin, generally in a derogatory tone, but to me that was just how anyone open-minded would talk, Christian or otherwise. On one recent occasion, however, she seemed to be saying that his very belief in God was ridiculous, and from the way the rest of our friends reacted, <em>this was an expected point of view</em>. I suddenly realized that this entire group of people, with whom I had been friends for between two and four years, were all atheists. That they may well have been feeling me out, as the most likely person in the group to be religious, since I often talk about things in Jewish culture and the history of Christianity that I find interesting.

Earlier, in college, I had introduced my friend who was interested in Buddhism to The Strand, a massive bookstore on Broad Way in New York City. I had not heard of Richard Dawkins at the time, or I might have been made far more comfortable in letting my beliefs be known by the fact that the only books he bought that day were graphic novels and The Greatest Show on Earth (Come to think of it, I might have known that my other group of friends were mostly atheists by their universal love of George Carlin.) More recently, he still has my copy of The God Delusion.

These experiences made me realize that atheists were all around me, and I just had never realized it. I now wonder how many of my friends from my college job are atheists and just never felt comfortable talking about it with me because so many of them thought I was Jewish.  I wonder how many of the hundred or so I have on Facebook are atheists.

Just so am I here to tell you that atheists are all around you, and you may never realize it. Some may already be among your friends. I can almost guarantee there is at least one among your acquaintances, someone you can befriend and have some sense of solidarity. Many more are out there on the Internet, waiting for you to meet them.

When my friend mentioned that believing in God was ridiculous, I just let it pass, acted as if it was completely normal to think that. Because it is completely normal. I am even more certain that those friends were just as afraid to come out as atheists to me as I was to come out to them because such topics have become far more common in conversation since then.

My religious friends, too, now know that I am an atheist, and they don’t care. I recently made a post about something that reminded me of Religulous on Facebook, in which I happened to mention my own atheism, and the Catholic friend who showed me the documentary in the first place commented on that status message. We joked a bit, another friend joined the discussion, and we are all still friends. Other religious friends who have to have seen at least some of the posts I have since made that mention my lack of belief still accept my comments and comment on interesting things I have to say. They generally don’t respond when I mention something about atheism, and I don’t comment on what they say about church, and that’s just fine. We don’t talk about things we don’t have in common, and we do talk about things we do have in common.

Life is better since I’ve come out. I don’t think anyone else has even noticed because I haven’t really had to change externally. I have just stopped prevaricating, stopped telling half-truths about what I believe, stopped pointing out flaws in the Bible while letting people think I believe the word of god. And it is glorious and freeing to be able to tell the truth, even if no one else around me even realized I felt burdened and stifled.

I am an atheist. People know I’m an atheist, and I still have friends. I still have a life. I still think spiritual thoughts, and I even still derive pleasure from learning about religions and discussing what I’ve learned with others. All of this, and I am an atheist.

I am atheism.

We are atheism.

You are atheism. Have the self-respect to say so. I think that, like me, you will be pleasantly surprised at the results.

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