A Personal History of Disbelief

“Don’t believe what people tell you unless they give you the evidence. What is the evidence? How do you know what you’re being told is true? Is it from faith, revelation or scripture? If it’s any of those things, forget it. Always go for evidence.” – Richard Dawkins

It is very hard for some people to live up to this standard of intellectual honesty. It is a shame that so many millions of people are ostracized for it. I have many times been treated in this way. It hurts especially when it comes from my own family. I compare it to the coming out of a person of the alternative sexualities, who receives similar treatment. There is even a study by the University of Minnesota, which shows that atheists are the least trusted minority in the country. I think that status is entirely unwarranted, and is founded upon many false ideas.

Coming to that realization, I want to present my personal experience of unbelief to give outsiders a perspective of what it is like on the inside — inside my head. I think this perspective is rarely offered to readers, and I have never attempted this as I will try to now. I will try to be as honest and accurate as I can. The reader will get to”sit in the driver’s seat” of my consciousness, while on a journey through the history of my thought.

Part I: In which I am raised as a Catholic child

The first casualty of my religious faith was doubt. I confidently rose to the defense of God with arguments similar to the ones taught to me by people who were in positions of authority over me. I thought merely because of the universe’s existence, there had to be a god. It was something manifestly and intuitively true to me. I gave the teleological and other arguments a free ride in my faithful head. When I studied science, I felt that I was learning about the way God ordered the universe. This made me feel happy. To me, there was no conflict between science and religion, or between evolution and Catholic teaching. (Now, I obviously think otherwise).

I prayed to God for consolation and help during hard times, and I actually felt comforted. (I did, however, believe in Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “God helps those who help themselves.”) God was ultimately the reason for my existence, happiness, neighbors, future, experience, and so on. He was the fountainhead of life, but there was also a sinister side to following ‘Him.’

Going to Catholic school since kindergarten through high school ensured that I received the trademark sexual neurosis and repression offered by Catholic dogma. It was implanted in my brain for years, and caused much anguish over my sexuality. This was by far the most relieving psychological stress to cast off once I realized there was no eternal “eye in the sky” or Big Brother keeping tabs on what went on in people’s bedrooms.

I realize now that it was a mentally straining experience to live as if I was being spied on by a God, who I was taught to both love and fear on pain of eternal punishment. I compare it to living under a totalitarian state, in which one is also supposed to love and fear the leaders with them spewing boundless propaganda about their accomplishments.

The concept of hell is, I think, the most morally reprehensible dogma one can indoctrinate in children. Telling them that they must obey, love, and fear a god who will send them to hell to suffer infinite punishment for finite sins, and that he can know about every thought-crime committed (a concept from Orwell’s 1984) should be considered mental child abuse. However, the Church has a way around this called confirmation, which is usually performed during eighth grade. This ceremony is made to look as though children freely choose to be further indoctrinated. This is not what is really happening. Children are heavily influenced by the opinions of authority figures, and have already been indoctrinated since birth (starting with baptism). The children are liable to not have fully-developed free, independent minds. I think the age for the confirmation training should be raised much higher.

Part II: In which I come to know ‘blasphemous’ doubt or: eat from the ‘Tree of Knowledge’

The psychological and cognitive harm done by my faith is reparable, fortunately. I escaped the prison of dogma last year around this time, when doubt — brought on by doing an Honors College project on Hinduism, taking Intro. to Psychology, and arguing with an extremely dogmatic CLC leader — came into my life of faith. These three endeavors are the ones that made the soil fertile for the “mustard seed” of doubt to take root (to borrow a Biblical metaphor).

This time in my life was “a perfect storm” of questioning — of thinking for myself! It was then I came to realize I could no longer believe what I had been told since birth by everyone I respected and trusted. I no longer saw my religion as the “true” one since I saw it through the lens of another religion (Hinduism). I realized my religion looked as absurd as ancient Greek paganism when studied by someone of another faith. I came to the conclusion that all religions were clearly cultural products, as was the belief in the God of Abraham, and the other thousands of dead gods of mythology. Finally, I could see that what we call religions today are actually just extant mythologies. Mythology is the name we give to all the dead religions. To me, God had died, and was buried in that mass graveyard of the gods called mythology. This was the liberating moment — the moment of doubt. Later, the ‘mustard seed’ of doubt soon grew into a tree bearing fruit (to complete the metaphor).

Part III: In which I become a citizen of the 21st century

My freedom from mind-crushing religious dogmatism to rationality has not been an easy transition. I had to change, and develop my ‘life stance’ from scratch. First, I came up with my own system of ethics (instead of the Beatitudes or the Commandments). I decided it was better to reason about every contingent moral dilemma instead of going for an absolutist moral system. I felt a greater sense of responsibility for my actions because nothing could “wipe away” my wrongs. Confession was, of course, no longer an option for me, so I decided I would not “sin” (this usage is not according to Catholic teaching, obviously) in the first place. I came to see the idea of confession as morally stupid (just like in the movie Dogma, in which people can commit the worst sins, and then “it’s all O.K.” after they walk under a doorway). Coming to that conclusion, I think there was more possibility of anomie with religious faith than without it. We need to realize that any sort of dogmatism can create a “black market” for destructive thinking. This is why I witness — in horror — the blocking of medical research, the teaching of abstinence-only sex education, and the suppression of climate science.

After grounding my ethics, I had to find self-derived purpose and meaning in life. I decided to live for science and human progress — no longer for a god. I put my hope in human potential, and in a 21st century conversation about human happiness, not an Iron Age one. I wanted to discover solutions to problems that were reality-based, not faith-based.

To do this, I was compelled to devote my life to learning science, and advocating it. Instead of waiting for heaven, I wanted to work for one on Earth with the tools of science, skepticism, and reason.

Part IV: In which I worry about the future, but confront it with hope and reason

Fighting ignorance and dogmatism is my motivation. I see ignorance as the greatest hindrance to human freedom, open inquiry, tolerance, good will, and well-being. I think this is why we should use evidence, critical reasoning, and scientific methods of inquiry.

One of the challenges of the 21st century will be to find equally, if not, more satisfying alternatives to religious thinking and practices before religious fanatics unmake our world with modern destructive technology. We need to develop a science of human happiness. I now think that even science for its own sake — the passion and joy of learning, knowledge, and discovery — can actually replace religion by meeting the same psychological needs that religion does without believing anything on insufficient evidence. There is nothing dogmatic about science, or having a rational naturalistic worldview. In science it is extremely embarrassing to believe something on insufficient evidence. However, proving oneself wrong is applauded in science.

The sacred truth about science is that there are no sacred truths. We can work creatively to solve our problems in ways that transcend culture, nations, and ideologies. If we can commit ourselves to the honest search for truth, I think then we will also find happiness. The deciding factor in building and ensuring a lasting human project will not be moderation of dogmas, or political correctness, it will be reason. The most important thing we can do for ourselves is to use our intelligence to its full potential to ensure the happiness and survival of our species.

~ by jsacc001 on March 25, 2008.

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