At 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.
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. For 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. But 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.)
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. And 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.