I did not choose to be an atheist. I looked at loads of religions, and I could not find any others that made sense.
It took a while, since my indoctrination into Christianity began when I was so young that I don’t even remember it. I grew up with parents that insisted on going to church every Sunday. I grew up with 100% of the people around me telling me about God and Jesus. Nobody even hinted that there could be any question. It was settled and certain knowledge.
But looking back, I see some early clues that I was heading that way. I was about 15 years old when I decided that I am an atheist, but here are a few suggestive vignettes that happened before about age 12.
The earliest time I can remember asking a question about God was when I was about 6 years old.
Me: Grandma, if God created everything, where did God come from?
Grandma: I asked the priest that once. You know what he said?
Me: (excited, about to learn something really cool) What?!?
Grandma: He said “You could be excommunicated for asking that!“
Me: (annoyed) That’s not an answer!
The priest threatened to excommunicate my grandmother for asking an incredibly obvious question. Even though I was so young, I recognized that what the priest said to my grandmother was not intended to answer her question; it was intended to intimidate her into not asking.
Yes, I didn’t know the word “intimidate” at the time, but I recognized the concept. I also did not know the term “escalation dominance”, but that is what was happening. The priest did not want her to ask the question, and it was so important that he threatened her with overwhelming force (excommunication) so that my grandmother would back down and stop asking.
This is the earliest memory I have of realizing there was something wrong with Catholicism; it was obvious that the priest was hiding something, or he would have just answered my grandmother’s question.
My grandmother was the daughter of an immigrant coal miner in central Pennsylvania. Excommunication really was a serious threat, because of the effect it would have on her participation in the community (who would associate with somebody who had been excommunicated?) and because of how seriously my grandmother took her religious beliefs.
(I didn’t understand her concern at the time, because I only understood that it would mean you don’t have to get up early on Sunday to go to church. It wasn’t clear to me that there was any down side.)
Catholics don’t have “Sunday School”; they call it “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine” or CCD, and it isn’t necessarily on Sunday. No, I did not (and still do not) know what “confraternity” means.
In one lesson, the teacher told us essentially that “Faith is believing without evidence“. It might not have been those exact words, but the meaning stands out in my memory because I remember having such a strong response:
I didn’t say anything because by that time I had (mostly) learned that bad things can happen when you challenge the teacher, even when they are wrong. But it really is stupid to believe without evidence, and it was another clue the church is hiding something.
After all, the real message here is “Don’t ask questions”. I had heard that before, and I still was not impressed.
( n.b. I’ve since been told that this is not what Catholics mean by faith. I don’t care. A teacher appointed by the Church said this to me. If you don’t like that, take it up with your fellow Catholics. )
There was a time when another kid I knew (who was a little older than me) asked “Have you been saved yet?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. It turns out his family was some sort of Protestant denomination, and their church had a ceremony where you go up to the front of the church and accept Jesus as your personal saviour. He told me a little about it and I told him that we didn’t do that in our church.
More data: Other churches might not be like yours.
Of course, you are supposed to believe you know the right answers, because you should have faith. Since his church is different, it must be wrong. And don’t forget, if you ask questions, you might be excommunicated.
Another thing that I noticed more or less constantly: There were often banners hanging in the church that say “Rejoice!”, “Joy!”, “Allelulia!”.
I never really understood what those are about. I never felt anything that reminded me of joy when I was in the church. It was actually pretty boring except when Father Perkins would start his sermon by describing what happened in the Peanuts cartoon that morning. My family did not get the newspaper, so I got a bonus cartoon, delivered verbally. The only problem was that he would continue on to whatever point he had to make, which usually did not interest me.
I did occasionally feel happy in church, such as when I made my first communion and received approval from my parents. But I did not feel closer to God — it was just another ceremony to perform by rote. I didn’t even recognize it as “bread” because it tasted more like a piece of wet cardboard.
By the time of my first communion, I was already familiar with the concept of “say what people want you to say”. As part of the first communion preparation, I had to make a banner of my own and have a private meeting with the priest, so I made use of my new knowledge.
I wanted to draw sunflowers on my banner. If I remember correctly, my mother thought I should draw something more appropriate to the occasion, but I certainly didn’t want to draw a banner of “Joy! Joy! Joy!”. I didn’t feel it, and anyway, I wanted sunflowers.
I told her the sunflowers represented the beauty that God put in the world. I knew it was bullshit at the time (didn’t know the word “bullshit”, but knew the concept), but I said it anyway. I thought it was a good enough story, and I could point out that I was supposed to make a banner of what it meant to me, so there wasn’t a lot of room for her to challenge it.
When I had my private meeting with the priest, he also asked me “Why sunflowers?” and I told him the same thing. I think he expected me to draw Jesus or something.
I got by. At the time, I thought I had the priest fooled, but looking back over the decades, I think he probably just didn’t want the hassle that would result from telling my parents that I failed first communion training.
So, yes, I subverted the system. But if the priest knew what I was doing, then his rules were not as important enough to give me a failing grade. And if I really fooled the priest, well, God didn’t see fit to do anything about it, and we know he is omniscient (knows everything) and omnipotent (can do anything). So, he could whisper in the priests ear, for example… but he did not.
These are just some examples pulled from memory. I did not recognize the significance of any of them at the time, but remember how young I was. If anything, I can claim to be precocious in recognizing these things while others my age did not. But I did not make the leap to disbelief until much later.
A teenage brain is smarter than a child’s brain, and it can use that improved intelligence and experience to understand better. It was as a teenager that I concluded that Catholicism is not internally consistent, and I decided to examine the variety of religious systems in the world, looking for the one that is right.
That is a story for another post.