July 20, 2009

Once I Was Blind But Now I See

I've a question for a subset of Readers, more because I'm curious than anything else. The subset I'm addressing my question to are atheist/agnostic/otherwise non-believing Readers who once either were firm believers in the supernatural or who at least practiced a religion for a significant portion of their lives (say, more than a month or two). What was it that tipped you over the edge and made you move on from belief to your present world view?

I'll start. For me, it was the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation that put me over the edge. "That little piece of tasteless bread is not made out of human flesh," I said to myself, "The priest holds up this wafer of bread and tells us it turns in to meat during this ceremony. But it doesn't. Both before and after the ceremony, I can touch it, feel it, taste it, and it's not meat at any stage. The ceremony does nothing. The ceremony is empty." And that was it. If the central and most important part of the basic ceremony of the Roman Catholic religion was an empty ritual, then that meant everything the church did was an empty ritual -- or, at best, if it did something good in the world, it did so despite the misguided beliefs of the Church and not because of them.

But to fully answer the question, the Roman Catholic sacrament of reconciliation probably had a lot of weight on that scale, too. I did not want to enter a tiny closet and tell a priest -- a teacher and a man I knew personally -- about touching myself, having unclean thoughts about the girls in my classes, or saying dirty words, or while hanging out with my friends. I just didn't think it was any of his damn business and it was perfectly clear to me that while he was a nice man, he wasn't God -- and while those behaviors were taboo to discuss, they were also not things that seemed to carry any significant moral weight, and neither the Ten Commandments nor the Golden Rule spoke to (most) of them, so why were we even talking about them in the first place?

That got the ball rolling -- reaching an age where I was able to make my own decisions about morality, and then comparing the results of my moral compass to the teachings of the church. Having found the results different, I had to decide whether to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation or not, and I chose not to. But what put me over the edge and made me say, "This is a bunch of hokum," was transubstantiation.

So that's my story. What's yours?

The title of this post, of course, is a line from Amazing Grace. It's an explicitly religious song, but nevertheless a stunningly beautiful one. See, just because I'm not religious doesn't mean I don't appreciate or am unmoved by beauty -- even when that beauty comes in religious vestments. But I'm also a member of my generation, which means I have a strong sense of irony, and that's why I use the religious lyric in this fashion.


Michael Reynolds said...

I was 15 in a Greyhound bus station in Youngstown, Ohio. Has nothing to do with my answer, it's just scene setting.

I was concerned about the logic of omnipotence, omniscience, the entire notion of a being who was not part of a relativist universe, but occupied some beyond-relativity space.

God wasn't just very powerful. Or the most powerful. He was absolutely powerful. And no matter how powerful we became a species, we would never become as powerful or even more powerful relatively speaking.

Not a great argument, but I was very tired. And 15.

Kaz Dragon said...

I'm not sure I'm the target demographic for your question, because I've never really, really believed. But I'll answer anyway.

Despite being raised in a (nominally) Christian country, to practical Christian parents (they believe, but didn't let it get in the way of their lives), it never really took a hold of me.

There was a turning point early in my life, though. I was about 9 in a school assembly. Instead of bowing my head and reciting the words of whatever prayer it was in my head as everyone else did, I opened my eyes and watched. And nothing changed. There was no effect. Nobody was listening.

I did toy with other ideas, though. My desk at work is littered with model dragons which are whimsical remnants of an animist phase (I still refer to dragons as my "totem animal"). I have a respect for Wicca and Druidism as well. After all, nature is there in front of you. You can kick it (but please don't. It's not nice).

On top of that, I was always fascinated with polytheistic mythologies, and stories of the norse, greco-roman, and even hindu gods always fascinated me.

And I think this education into other beliefs lead me to become the non-believer I am today: there are just so many ideas out there, and not a single one of them has any more evidence for it than the next. There is simply no reason to choose one over the infinite other possible deities you can dream up.

Without evidence, all religions are like my dragons: when looking at them, they vary from fun to frightening, but at heart they're just a bunch of carvings and toys.

Gregory said...

I was never really religious as an adult, but I did believe sincerely as a child, and my family practiced.

My trip to (basically) atheism has had a lot of different steps, but the turning point was reading Russell in college and seeing his perspective on religion. I don't follow his philosophy exactly, but I agree that one shouldn't believe things for which there is no evidence.

My actual beliefs are a sort of not-quite-atheism, which is rooted in the paradox Michael Reynolds mentions. Even when I believed, I believed in the Descartes solution to the omnipotence paradox: an omnipotent being would not be bound by the rules of logic. I take this one step further: The existence of omnipotence is neither (or both) true or false.

As a practical matter, though, I can empirically state that there's probably no anthropomorphic omnipotence answering prayers or transubstantiating wafers.

DaveBuck said...

My father was a Lutheran pastor. I grew up goofing off during Sunday school and knew the gist of the classic stories. Not much preaching of hell though. Plus, it was a liberal church so we didn't take everything literally.

I asked my dad how some of the old testament people could be 700 years old and he said some people hypothesized that there weren't any germs back then. That didn't sit right. He also said some of the stories like Jonah were possibly parables and just for teaching morals.

Over time I started to wonder how you figure which parts were true. I was skeptical about more and more things and didn't like that so little reason was presented or that no one had hang-ups with some of the extraordinary claims.

I used to pray at night for help to become a better person. I thought this was a noble prayer because I didn't ask for stuff for me.

I don't recall though when I stopped believing. It was gradual. I recall testing by saying outloud, maybe god doesn't exist. That was liberating. I was certainly agnostic by highschool but went through the motions in church. By college, I had terms and logic and more well-reasoned arguments presented that confirmed my doubt. After an ethics and philosophy course or two, I could no longer actually participate in church rituals. I hadn't prayed in years. However at that point I realized it was dishonest to act as though I was praying in church.

I do remember that as a young teen, maybe 14, that praying was a habit. It was automatic, done without thought sometimes. I had to consciously catch myself and remind me that there wasn't anyone listening. It may have felt a little unsettling, but at the same time, liberating and satisfying.