How I Got Irreligion

imagesAt around age six, I was sent to a Jewish “Sunday school,” featuring Bible stories: Daniel and the lions, Noah’s ark, etc. I was fine with them, as stories. But then I realized adults took them seriously; troubled by this, I confided in my mother.

No theologian, she. But I distinctly remember her ending the discussion by saying, “Well, you do believe in God, don’t you?” I said yes. And I knew I was lying.images-1

I was no rebellious kid; in fact, a meek, go-with-the-program, clueless kid. But even at six, I saw right through religion.

Odd, this common locution, “believe in God.” We don’t say we “believe in fire,” or upholsterers, or aardvarks. Few have actually seen that beast, but an aardvark nonbeliever would be pretty weird. images-2For reality, “belief” simply doesn’t enter into it. Talk of belief in God implicitly bespeaks something other than reality.

Anyway, I went on to Hebrew school, Bar-mitzvah lessons, and the Bar-mitzvah itself, on stage in the synogogue, chanting the memorized gobblydegook. It never occurred to me to say no to any of this; again, I was a go-with-the-program kid. I actually did well in Hebrew school, if only to avoid humiliation when called on in class. UnknownBut I drew the line at anything optional, to the despair of my religious teachers.

Through it all, my disbelief felt like a shameful, guilty secret, a personal failing. Performing at my Bar-mitzvah, I considered myself a fraud. The sanctimony all around me evoked virtue, propriety, right-thinking. It seemed universal – with the sole exclusion of pitiful me. Never, anywhere, was I exposed to a dissenting viewpoint. This was the ’50s, with no Dawkins or Hitchens. Nothing to suggest I was not alone, or to provide any validation for my unbelief. What was wrong with me?

In that sense, I can understand how being gay must have felt – with no validation for that either. (So underground was gayness that not till my twenties did I actually understand what it was.)

Unknown-1Yet I never agonized; never made an effort to get with the program of religion. Notwithstanding how admirable faith might appear, to me it seemed just fundamentally false. The Emperor had no clothes.

Some believers imagine atheists will eventually “see the light,” if only on their deathbeds (or in the proverbial foxholes). Human psychology varies endlessly, so it does happen, but quite rarely in fact. None of the many atheists I’ve known has ever lapsed. My own conviction has only grown stronger over time. What was at first a “simple faith” (or lack thereof) has profoundly deepened as I have learned ever more about the history of religions, the human psychology behind them, and all their spectacular philosophical contradictions. And I long ago stopped wondering “what’s wrong with me?”

My humanist atheism is indeed the essence of what’s right with me. Believers feel their faith is what gives their lives meaning. Unknown-2And if that’s really true for a person, fine. But for all the consolation claimed for religion, many are tortured by doubt. Wrestling with doubt might be portrayed, by intellectualist apologists, as part of a wholesome experience of faith. But I’m not attracted by a hopeless effort to reconcile the irreconcilable. I don’t feel it’s possible to make proper sense of anything while laboring under so basic a mistake about reality.

I have never been afflicted by doubt about my most fundamental perceptions. There’s much about life and the cosmos I don’t yet truly understand (quantum mechanics; why there’s something rather than nothing; the minds of priests who rape children); but my pursuit of such understanding is not hobbled by a need to reconcile it with preconceived dogmas that can never be squared with reality. Being thusly free to see the world as it really is, I feel, enables me to fit properly into that reality, and to make a life of authentic (not illusory) meaning.

Anyhow, that’s me. If it’s not you, I won’t try to get you burned at the stake.

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8 Responses to “How I Got Irreligion”

  1. Michael Ball (@atozstamps) Says:

    Frank, I’m curious. At age 6 did you, however, believe in Santa Claus? (99.423% of 6 year olds would have)

  2. njmolinari Says:

    “What’s wrong with me?”

    Nothing, really. You just have a scotoma, or blindspot when it comes to certain truths about the cosmos (Lonergan writes a lot about this in Insight, and it is analogous to Platonic epistemology too). Everyone has one but it takes other people to see it for them, naturally. I don’t know what mine is, but after reading most of your writings, I’m pretty sure your’s is God’s existence.

    In my own system of belief, you won’t be scolded for it, so don’t worry.

  3. Bheki Makhubu Says:

    Reblogged this on Bheki Solomon Makhubu KaNhlapho : The Pursuit of Happiness. and commented:
    My current issue

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Michael: Good question. I cannot remember a time when I actually believed in Santa. I may have when very small, but I think I understood pretty early who was bringing the presents.
    Njmolinari: I also have blind spots toward ghosts, goblins, Bigfoot, Nessie, and psychics. Though I did notice the psychic in my recent trip to San Francisco whose clairvoyant powers did not, apparently, extend to spelling correctly on her signboard either the name of the street where she was located, or the word “psychic.”

  5. njmolinari Says:

    What about gnomes? If you say you have a blind spot for gnomes I’m going to stop reading your blog. God is one thing, Frank, but let’s be reasonable.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    I’m not blind to gnomes. I see them all the time in gardens.

  7. Adam atiyeh Says:

    My man it’s all in the eye of the beholder a matter of living a life of love you live in you people may sleep next to but only you know. I’m just speaking from experience and fealt the same but the more I just lived the more the concept of God your maker made sense. There are mysteries not meant to be figured out and the unseen in a room says more then the see. And it’s living principles over personalities meaning it says no where in Catholicism to rape boys or Islam to bomb or Judaism to be greedy etc. the common denominator is love and people all see things differently. Religion is just to show us how to be the best we can and love one another. In the bible it is john that says God is love and love is God. In the end people usually want proof but how do you know you love some one you just do.

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    Adam, thanks for sharing. I disagree “there are mysteries not meant to be figured out.” At least not mysteries about the make-up of the cosmos.

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