One of the problems with being an atheist is that you’re always perceived as something negative. And that perception really isn’t that far from reality. I mean most of what you hear about atheists is that they’re usually arguing or fighting against something. They’re trying to remove the 10 Commandments from government buildings, or getting prayer out of school, or they’re writing books blasting traditional religious thought.
While I do believe this is necessary at some level, there’s really nothing substantive about atheism or non-religion in general. There is secular humanism which does have positive core values, but that usually just gets lost in the mix.
I’ve also struggled to come up with something positive while at the same time promoting critical thinking. It’s kind of contradictory to lay out a set of positive values, but then saying “and be critical of everything, even what I just said”. Imagine if a Christian said, “God loves you and wants to save your soul, but also question everything. Even question whether this God exists in the first place.” It just makes it confusing.
So, what I thought I’d do was simply tell my own story of how I got to where I am today in my atheism. Well, not just atheism. Atheism is practically nothing. It is a mere sentence in the thick novel of my personal beliefs. I am a secular humanist, a transhumanist, and deeply convinced of the value and correctness of scientific methodology and of the ongoing scientific endeavor.
First, my parents. I grew up in a non-religious household. My mother is also an atheist, though not much of a critical thinker. She’s into things like Carl Jung and Carlos Castaneda; fairly flakey things about consciousness and perceiving the universe. But she’s not really hardcore into these things. She’s like the moderate Christian version of them. Sort of believes it, but isn’t devoted to it. My father was into Scientology, but was never a member; mostly because he had no money and they wouldn’t have him.
After my parents divorced, I lived with my mother and she decided to take me to the Ethical Culture of Brooklyn. If you don’t know, the Ethical Culture is a group dedicated to ethical ideas. Everyone was accepted, and no one was made to feel inferior because of their personal beliefs. It’s sort of a non-religious Unitarianism. But its main focus is on ethics: what is right, what is wrong, how we should act, etc, but also the discussion of those ideas, not just swallowing it whole without thought.
We stopped going after we moved to California. We tried the Ethical Culture here but didn’t it interesting enough to stay. A year later, when I was 12, I met a girl (now my wife) who asked me to go to her and her friends to church, which was the Methodist Church. I agreed, and found it kind of interesting. I eventually went through confirmation and joined the church, but I never really believed in it. I had just done because that was what everyone else was doing so I figured why not.
As it turned both she and her friends really didn’t believe in it either, and stopped going. I found myself alone there now, continually pressured to go by my mother. She obviously didn’t believe either, but she said I made a commitment to them and so need to see it out. Eventually I convinced her that I hated going and she let me sleep in again on Sundays.
It was during this time that I really started questioning religion and whether God exists. I hadn’t believed them before, but I hadn’t really been critical of it, and mostly didn’t even understand the concepts. I was an “implicit atheist”, where my non-belief was simply due to the fact that I hadn’t been indoctrinated into it. It was here where I shifted to “explicit atheism” where I did begin questioning and coming up with logical reasons why there is no God, and understanding just what “God” is. I now knew what I was rejecting.
So for a few years I did that until my sophomore year of high school when one of my friends, who was pretty devoutly Catholic, invited me to his church. I decided to go, but due to curiosity about what Catholics believe, not because I thought it might be a way to the truth. I went there for a couple years, and, I have to say, I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t think any of the Catholic dogma was true, but they were nice friendly people to be around. They weren’t pushy at all about their beliefs. I mean, I went to their youth group, called Life Teen, and there was a lot in there about what the church’s teachings were and how to be a good Catholic, but I was never singled out. I felt part of a group that was being taught. And I definitely learned a lot more about Catholic teachings than I did about Methodist teachings at the Methodist Church.
But I eventually decided to move on. During this time I had also really learned a lot about critical thinking and the scientific method, both from my teachers at school and online articles (particularly about.atheism.com). It was in these that I saw the true majesty of the universe. The fact that we have the tools to objectively understand the very fundamental nature of reality is astonishing.
The true power of science is in its ability to test and verify theories, and to discard those that do not conform to nature. It is this that really distinguishes it from religion. There is no faith, there is no condemnation of questioning, and there are no logical gaps and fallacies. There is just no comparison. Science is adaptable. It takes this premise that we don’t know anything about the universe, and tries to figure it out. It doesn’t claim a dogma, then try to work backwards to find the evidence for that dogma. Everything is open to investigation.
By the time I was in college I was pretty set in being an atheist. I still say that I would believe in God if there were sufficient evidence (and given the nature of the claim, the evidence would have to be extraordinarily good), but nothing has made it in so far. There are just no good reasons to believe that a supreme being exists in the universe, and a great many reasons to believe otherwise.
I still struggle with personal beliefs, though. I first discovered transhumanism when I was 19 through Marshall Brain’s web pages. At first I didn’t like it. It just seemed too bizarre and undesirable to me. But, eventually, I sorted through it with my mental critical thinking tool kit, and found there was something here. We could make people better, or rather, develop the capabilities to let people make themselves better. We could develop the technology to upload the human mind to become immortal. We could develop the technology to create vast simulated realities and live in them as literal god-like beings. It is practical.
I’ll close out here with my rejection of my belief in extraterrestrial life, and not just because it’s my latest personal discovery. I had believed that aliens must exist in some form somewhere. Given the incredibly vast number of stars in the universe, coupled with the relative ease it is to make life, the universe must be teeming with life and other civilizations. But, as I started to investigate the consequences of those beliefs, I found that they were incompatible with the universe I saw around me. Where were these aliens? I believed aliens would colonize a large volume of space, as large as they possibly could, and do it quickly, since their only limited by the speed of light. So why aren’t they here already? Eventually, I realized that the simplest explanation was that they didn’t exist at all. It was devastating to me. I wanted to believe that alien life existed so badly, but the evidence just didn’t bear it out. I had to discard that belief, but it was actually not so bad. Because of my experience with having to prune my beliefs when necessary, I found that I was glad I came to a logical conclusion. Critical thinking gets easier, the more you do it. Changing your beliefs that you hold dear, gets easier.
And it’s a good thing too. We don’t know the nature of the universe when we’re born. It makes no sense to then pretend to.