I’ve heard this question before, and paid it little mind. Answers like “Why not?” or “It’s just the way I work.” come to mind most of the time. I’m sure you, since you are reading this post, odds are you, an atheist yourself, or at least a searching agnostic, have been asked this many times over by xians or people from other religious persuasions. But they seldom seriously want to know your answer, so why bother giving them a serious answer.
Yet, when I was asked this question the other day (in the comment section of a Word Press post by Saania Sparkle, I believe) I suddenly felt moved to answer it seriously.
What I am about to write, however, is not copied and pasted from that answer, which was written quickly with just a modicum of deeper thought. I actually want in this post to give it more attention than I think it generally deserves, and, at the end ask you, in your past or present understanding, what would you say to this question if seriously asked. I’ll bet, no two answers will be the same.
But before I can answer this question, I feel I need to start with its opposite, to wit: Why was I ever an xian? Please allow me to look backwards in my life. (I almost used the word reminisce but that implies happy remembering. My xians days were not very happy.)
My family were not church-goers. According to my father he was brought up Catholic, but did something to get himself ex-communicated. I had no idea at the time what that meant, of course, being a young child, but then I had no understanding of gods or religions at that time either, so I took him at his word. (He never did tell us what he supposedly did, but whatever it was I doubt he was ex-communicated, for that appears to be a very serious process. Knowing him now, deader than a door nail, I suspect it was just an excuse for not going to church on Sundays, though in the 50s he did go through the legal process of changing our surname for some reason, from the very Catholic surname Desmarais to the very non-dominational surname Miller. Again, no idea why, and no reason to want to find out.)
But, the thing is, when I turned about 5 years old, suddenly I was forced every Sunday to go to Sunday School. It was around the same time I graduated kindergarten, and started regular school (a year early, you might notice, through some kind of age-related administrative mix-up) and I thought the two were related. In public school I was being taught facts, so at Sunday school, I thought I was being taught facts too. (No, I doubt my thoughts were that advanced at the time, but I was quite precocious, so maybe I did, to some extent.) Anyway, I believed my teachers in both schools, and quickly earned attention from the authoritative adults around me. In other words, people were paying attention to me. At home, being the ninth of 10 kids, the tenth being still a babe-in-srms who was getting more attention than anyone, I got no attention from anyone, except that my father took the time to beat me every day whether I needed it or not! That kind of attention I did not need, or want.
The attention I got at those schools was different, everyone fussed about how smart I was, and that went to my head. I had never gotten praise before, not even from my mother, who was too busy raising 9 children (at that time) to notice she was mostly ignoring her ninth child. Praise from my father was unthinkable, he told me every day I was the dumbest–read stupidest (he thought the word dumb meant stupid, not unable to speak)–kid ever born. He hated my guts, at least that is how he treated me. (He did treat me with kindness, once, when I was about 8 years old, but not knowing he could be kind I did not recognize that until I was an adult, by which time I had removed him from my life. One day, in the almost 6000 days I was in his care! How generous of him. I’m sure he felt good about himself that day. No sarcasm here at all folks.)
Back to my story, and moving it along, I was persuaded at Sunday school to accept the Lord, my God, as my Saviour, and became an xian. I even told myself that made me a good boy, on Sundays, but that did not stop the Sunday beatings, or any other day’s beatings, either. Even when I prayed to God to stop the beatings, he ignored me too. My Sunday school teachers were gaga over my conversion, but no one else important in my life was. That was the first crack in my xianity, but in the great scheme of things it wasn’t a big one. I was a xian, and that was going to change my life.
I said above I was quite precocious as a child. I was a fast learner, and a good learner. I could quote scripture with the best of them. I read the Bible through from start of Old to end of New. I listened to what everyone had to say. And I learned to watch what everyone would do with the other six days of their weeks. The world was still dark or light at that time in my life, I took the bible literally. The Thou shalts and Thought shalt nots meant what they said, not what people decided or interpreted them to be. The biggest one, Though shalt not kill, had no basis in real life. Television was just becoming a big thing, and with me not knowing the difference between fact and fiction yet, I saw people being killed every day. Especially on the news, where there seemed to be daily reports on wars and insurrections, I watched people being killed, and God was not sending anyone to hell as punishment. If anything, the killers were being praised as heroes. Crack 2, slightly bigger than the first one.
Jumping ahead, the biggest crack yet came when I listened to my Sunday school teachers talking about going to heaven. They told me, in not so many words, that as long as you asked for forgiveness in church or Sunday school on Sundays, the other 6 days a week were virtually open game. I heard adults swearing, using the lord’s name in vain, lieing, stealing, all kinds of things, killing animals and plants without a thought about Though shalt not kill! Come Sunday, they prayed for forgiveness, and knew they were still going to heaven. In my little mind, if you were forgiven for something, and went out and did it again the next day, you weren’t being sincere, and you sure were not going to heaven, but straight to hell.
But I had been assured by my teachers, even my public school teachers, that heaven was a good place to go, and everyone should strive to be worthy of going there. So why were they sinning 6 days a week, and pretending they were so good on Sundays. It boggled my growing mind. I wanted to believe, I really did, but if I looked at the facts, as science told us to do, belief had a lot of problems.
So I started to look for solutions to my heartfelt spiritual dilemmas. And the first answer I came up with–had I heard of reincarnation by this time, or did I come up with this theory on my own, I’ll never know now. Too much water has flowed through the tap, open 6 days a week, closed on Sundays. (Do you remember when everything closed down on Sundays? So people could have time to go to church or otherwise contemplate the existence of god? If you were born after the 60s, this might seem strange, but hardly anything was open on Sundays, including grocery stores, and restaurants. Churches, and a few very essential services like hospitals and cops were all that were allowed to be open. It was a sin to do business on a Sunday. My how the world has changed. Money is now more important than your eternal soul, what a bunch of religious hypocrites!
But I was not there yet. I still thought there was a God, and a heaven. But I no longer believed in one life, and done for eternity. It only made sense, if god was a compassionate god as the New Testament considered him to be, not the angry demanding god of the Old Testament, he would not condemn a person to hell after just one try, because heaven would be a damned lonely place to be, all facts considered. I wanted god to be a compassionate god. No one else seemed to care. But when I started making such suggestions not only in Sunday school, but also in public school, I lost all those adults who had been praising me, and I was no longer wanted in Sunday school unless I recanted my sins. That I did not understand. Here I was, telling them the truth, and giving them a solution to the problem, but I began to hear words like sinner, blasphemer, infidel, and savage thrown at me, as they closed the door in my face. I was all alone. And no one cared.
But did this stop me believing in a god. I hate to admit, it did not. Yet!
The world is a lot different today than it was in 1962. Kennedy had not been assassinated yet. Why do I bring up such a bad memory? Especially since I am not even American? And there had been all kinds of history-changing moments before that? I can only speak for myself here (or anytime, anywhere for that matter) but on November 22nd, 1963, as I was riding my bicycle down a busy highway, a car pulled over beside me, the driver rolled down his window, screamed “Kennedy has been shot,” at me, then picked up speed and drove off. Hell, I knew nothing about politics at the time, had the barest inkling Kennedy was a President, that the USA was just a country that bordered Canada. But some guy I had never met and probably would never meet again, thought it was so important Kennedy was shot that he just had to tell someone, and he chose me. That too boggled my mind. But as events unfolded, I think I lost my innocence that day. Certainly, the world I knew changed!
Today, in 2021, as I write this post, we have a tool that was not available in 1963. It would not be available for almost three more decades. I have no idea when the internet was even invented, if that is the correct word. Discovered might be more appropriate. No matter, through the internet, the world is at our fingertips these days. Kids know so much more than I could ever have dreamed of way back when while dinosaurs dominated the earth. Or even farther back, when life still belonged to only one-celled beings, about 4.5 billion years ago. The universe had no idea what was to come, at least not the universe according to man, or biblical god. No one knew anything.
I did not know it was possible to not believe in god. Everyone I knew believed in god. Everyone I had ever heard of believed in god. (My world was very tiny, lol.) Atheism had not been invented yet, as far as I knew. But I also knew something was wrong with religion, and the only place I could look was in the library, our reservoir of all human knowledge. I had heard of Protestants and Catholics before, I was a Protestant living in a Catholic stronghold at the time, the city of St. Boniface, the biggest French community in Canada outside of the province of Québec. Catholic students had a class called Catechism Protestant students were not allowed to attend. At the time I was jealous, they got out of having to study chemistry, or physics, or worst of all, geography. I hated geography, the teacher was the most boring teacher in my world. I fell asleep in his class every day. They got to go to Catechism. Not fair. A few years later I learned a bit about Catechism. I was very glad I never got to go. Catholic nuns were a holy terror!
But I digress. I still did not know it was okay not to believe in god. I had never heard the word atheism. A few years past, and I discovered Science Fiction. I don’t remember which book it was, probably A Case for Conscience by James Blish, but I came across the word atheism, an ism that permitted people to not believe in god, and my mind was free to consider if I had to go on believing. The answer became “No.”
All that was the sum of my life up to then. Not the total sum, but a comprehensive summary given the space and time. It is time to stop for today. Tomorrow I enter the age of my rebirth. I hope you will be there to join me.