Friday, July 2, 2010

Am I an Angry Atheist?

A friend referred to me as an "angry atheist" the other day. My first reaction was defensive. I don't consider myself to be an angry person. But then I thought about for a few minutes and concluded that I am.

I guess to understand why I am angry; you must first understand why I am an atheist. So, I guess I should enlighten all of you with my deconversion story. Almost all atheists have a deconversion story. Granted, mine is not nearly as dramatic, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle for myself in understanding why I feel the way I do today.

For most people, their religious beliefs are instilled in them as a child. My mother was raised southern Baptist and my father was raised, as best I can tell, in a fairly agnostic environment. When my father moved to his job, they somehow settled on Presbyterian. Well, not somehow. The truth is, when you move away from home for the first time, finding a sense of community is important and many of my father's colleagues went to a local Presbyterian church. Honestly, I think that was the extent of it aside from the fact that my mother needed something; this seemed like a good compromise. Honestly, I'm not sure I can tell you how Presbyterianism differs from Lutheran or Methodist denominations. Either way, I don't really care about the details.

I went to church as a child and I was shuffled out of the main service for the "kid" service just prior to the sermon because most kids can't sit quietly through those 20 minutes or so. We had our little songs and bible stories, and then we would get dismissed with the rest of the congregation and run around while the parents drank coffee and talked about the weather. I eventually grew out of the "kid" service and sat through the sermons. I'm not really sure I was ever convinced of what I was being told, nor did I readily dismiss it. It was just something that I had to do on most Sunday mornings. As I got older, I participated in the youth groups and choirs. They had their moments of enjoyment here and there.

I warned you that the deconversion story was not so exciting. There wasn't a single epiphany moment for me as to when I stopped believing. What I think first happened was I started to dislike the idea of religion itself and the controlling mechanism that it was. So, where did that come from? Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I honestly think that I can look back on something I saw when I was 10 years old. What started me down the path was Carl Sagan's Cosmos miniseries on PBS. I was fascinated by it. Not just by the beautiful pictures of galaxies and supernovas, but by the presentation of the material, how it was all tied to science, and how all of that was tied to history. Looking back now (I downloaded Cosmos on iTunes), the astronomy parts are a bit dated as the science in that area has progressed a great deal in the last 30 years. But that is not what struck me, it was the historical re-enactments that I found fascinating. A trip through the ancient library of Alexandria, the struggles of Johan Kepler in trying to identify the nature of the orbits of our planet, etc. A quickly discovered an appetite for the history of science and I would go to the school library and look for more information. I didn’t find much, partly because I didn’t know what I was looking for and partly because it was a school library. At any rate, my interest continued and then I discovered a hole in the timeline where pretty much nothing of scientific interest happened. In fact, it seems that science regressed. These were the Dark Ages. That period of history where the Catholic Church indirectly ruled over much of Europe by telling all the royals what was right and wrong. I came to resent religion for its repression of not only science, but the arts as well.

Eventually I moved on with a strong interest in engineering (a bit more tangible to me than science) and the whole thing sort of passed on in a way. Religion simply existed and I was only moderately aware of some of the conflict with religion and politics on the periphery. I had stopped going to church, as had my parents for the most part. Eventually the story moves along to the point where I was married and had a child. My wife (now ex) and her parents were, as best I can tell, simply people of faith. My ex-father-in-law was/is a Catholic and my ex-mother-in-law played piano and organ for several churches at some point. Church never really came up and I guess my ex would describe herself simply as spiritual. None of that is really relevant to the later story except that our lack of church going seemed to have an impact on my Grandmother who questioned whether we were going to raise our children in a Christian home or not. Well, gee, I guess so, I thought. We are decent, moral people who obey the laws, read to our children each night, don’t let them play with toy guns, etc. So, yeah, I guess. The question got asked again and again, and then videos started showing up at the house, etc. I’d had enough. This, among many other things not related to the religious upbringing of my children, led to a significant rift between my family and I and I have since moved on.

All pretty bland so far, huh?

Anyway, I started to identify myself with agnosticism. I didn’t really believe that God existed, but I didn’t really put forth any effort to look for proof (or disproof) either. I just really didn’t care. Did it really matter to me? If God existed and I lived a good life, surely a benevolent God would take pity on me if he really existed. Plus, since I didn’t consider myself an expert on religion, I didn’t really consider myself qualified to state explicitly that I did not believe in God and declare myself an atheist. I also think I tried to hold onto a some sort of “spiritual” or “lifeforce” kind of idea.

My ex is out of state with my kids and as I started to recreate a new life for myself, I started going back to the history of science interest I had when I was a kid. Now that I knew what to look for, I found books to read, and statements that questioned my agnostic indifference. As I sought out more information with the use of the Internet, I found more resources available to me and a whole bunch of people that had ideas that I had, but people that were far better at expressing them than I. I still wasn’t ready to declare myself an atheist quite yet, but I was close.

What was the straw that broke the camel's back?

Look for part two soon.

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