Basics: I Didn’t Decide to Be an Atheist

I occasionally hear people say things like “If you choose to be an atheist, that’s fine. It’s your decision and I respect that” (or, from less-tolerant people, “if you choose to be an atheist, don’t be surprised when you suffer the consequences”).

This bugs me because, in fact, I did not choose to be an atheist. This is a basic point, and will come as no surprise to many atheists, but I feel it needs to be underscored. This was not a choice I made.

I was born into a Russian Orthodox family, and grew up believing in God and Jesus. I learned all the usual (bowdlerized) Bible stories, went to mass, occasionally went to Sunday school when our schedule permitted. I had religious instruction class in Swiss public school. I spent my summer vacations at Russian scout camp, an explicitly religious organization.

What’s more, as the son of people who had fled the Soviet Union, I heard all sorts of horror stories about razed churches, enforced atheism, and so on. When I read the Communist Manifesto in High School, I went in with the express intention of finding the flaws in Marx’s and Engels’s reasoning and tearing it apart.

But I also grew up reading Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov (both fiction and nonfiction) and Martin Gardner’s mathematical games, and watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on PBS. I learned that the world was full of magnificent things, and all you needed to do was look for them. Heck, you did’t even need to get up from your chair, not with mathematical wonders like Pascal’s Triangle and fifteen-dimensional spaces. Notably, somewhere between High School and college, I read Richard Feynman’s You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman and learned the difference between understanding a thing, and merely knowing its name; and that a teacher who can’t explain a concept in such a way that you can understand is not a good teacher.

And through it all, I kept trying to figure out this whole God thing. Evolution didn’t pose any problem, because obviously the god of the entire immensity of space and time would work on a grand and epic scale, and would think nothing of letting things run for millions or billions of years. I worked out for myself that prayer was pointless, because God already knew what I wanted, and had a much better idea than I did of what was best. He also didn’t mind me thinking for myself. Or if he did, he never said anything.

Hell obviously couldn’t be forever: I had a pretty good idea of the difference between mind-bogglingly huge numbers and infinity, and there was no way that even someone like Stalin deserved an infinite amount of punishment (though I did play around with convergent sequences and the idea of an eternity of ever-diminishing torment, so that total suffering converged on a finite amount). Famous Bible stories like Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, the parting of the Red Sea, and so forth had to be instructional myths or allegories, since they resembled Greek myths far more than scientific or historic accounts. I’d read Jesus’ instruction not to engage in vain repetition in the book of Matthew in some hotel Gideon Bible; this immediately brought to mind a way that Orthodox priests chant “Lord have mercy” over and over during mass (and forty times at Easter mass), and undermined my faith in that institution.

I did this not because I wanted to disbelieve the Bible, but because I wanted to get at the truth. But little by little, I had to discard bits and pieces of the religion I’d grown up with. At the time I would have said I was moving from a child’s understanding of God to a more mature, adult theology.

I went through what I now think of as a deist phase, partly because there was no good evidence of divine intervention, and partly because from a divine perspective, setting up the initial conditions of the universe and then standing back and letting it unfold seemed most elegant.

I went through a Taoist phase, which (I thought at the time) was even more elegant because the Tao wasn’t even a being, a mind bolted onto the universe, but was more like an emergent property of, well, not just the universe, not just a multitude of possible universes popping in and out of existence, but of The Way Things Must Be.

And eventually I stumbled on alt.atheism on Usenet, and read its FAQ, which defined atheism simply as the absence of belief in God.

It would take a while longer, but eventually I realized that that definition applied to me. That in trying to figure out who and what God was, what he wanted, and his relationship with the universe, I’d stopped believing in him without even noticing. And that all that faffing about with Taoism was a delaying tactic, an attempt to have some sort of religion because it never occurred to me that I didn’t have to have one.

I wasn’t happy about this. After all, the word “atheist” conjured images of Stalinist purges and priests sent to work themselves to death in Siberia. But at the same time I couldn’t lie to myself and tell myself I didn’t fit the definition, when I clearly did.

The point is that I didn’t decide to be an atheist. If I had, I would have stepped back as soon as I realized what I’d done. Rather, after spending years thinking about the problem and examining it from all sides, I’d come to the only conclusion I could. And so, I had to expand my definition of “atheist”, to cover not only communist priest-murderers, but also myself. It didn’t take too long to come to terms with the word.

If you’re still reading this, then the main point that I’d like you to take away from this is that you don’t have to have a religion. If you’re looking around, trying to figure out which religion is right for you, you do have the option of saying “none of the above” or “none”, and of staying there for as long as you like, either until you find one that fits you, or forever.

The second point is that if God is indeed good and wise and loving, then how can he punish you for honestly examining your beliefs and how they mesh with the world?

And finally: you can lie to other people. You can even lie to your parents if you have to. But don’t lie to yourself.

(Update, Feb. 18: Is this autobiography week or something? Roger Ebert has a new post similar to this one.)

8 thoughts on “Basics: I Didn’t Decide to Be an Atheist”

  1. Tangentially: I think the word “decide” has broad and fuzzy boundaries. Strictly, it means an deliberate choice or act of will. But colloquially, I have heard it used (and used it myself) to mean something like “realize” or “determine” (this usage may depend on dialect). Indeed, it seems to me that the act of sitting down and mulling over all the evidence one has collected on a question and “deciding” that this, and not that, answer must be true is (subjectively, psychologically) not dissimilar to sitting down with all the car brochures one has collected and deciding which model to purchase. Ontologically, they’re not the same thing, but propagandists get a lot of mileage by exploiting such ambiguities of language.

  2. Oh, sure. But I think I made it clear in the examples at the top that I was talking about making a conscious choice.

    Besides, as you point out, there are people who make absurd arguments about choosing to turn away from God, and that sort of thing. It’s often coupled with the “you just want to lead a depraved sinful lifestyle” argument.

    To me that’s about as absurd as the “sexual orientation is a choice” argument. Yeah, I can just imagine all those teenagers thinking, “Gee, I can invite either Mike or Suzie on a date. Do I want to go with the one of the opposite sex, or do I want to become what my family, my community, and my church consider a filthy degenerate pervert, risk getting beaten up if I say the wrong thing, and possibly get kicked out of my home and my family’s life? Decisions, decisions…”

  3. The other day I was talking to my son about homosexuality and his belief was that sexual orientation is a choice. So I asked him when you see a hot girl and guy together do you have to choose which one you like or does your mind automatically think “She’s really hot!”? Of course he answered the latter and instantly realized that no it wasn’t a choice. I consider orientation a choice in the same sense as those skinny models choosing not to eat as a choice. Yet both are denying deep down biological urges that can be ignored or decided against through force of will but eventually negative consequences will result because of those choices.

    I think that people tend to explain orientation as choice because it makes it so easy to demonize and blame the person for the choices they have made. Some even go so far as to say that you have the choice to pick your parents (don’t complain about being in that abusive family, you picked those people!). It not only gives them license to hate that person for the choice they have made, but also relieves their god of any responsibility as to his (or her) role in that person’s life. It’s really amazing how many hoops they Xians will jump through and how inventive their rationalizations become to explain why their non-existent sky daddy is always so conspicuously absent.

    Another thing to consider is what is meant by atheism here? Sort of like in another article defining what is “sex”.

  4. On the latest episode of The Atheist Experience, Jen Peeples used the example of handedness to illustrate the difference between orientation and behavior: you can certainly choose to write with your non-dominant hand; you can even choose to use your non-dominant hand exclusively; but you can’t make it feel natural.

    (PS: Maybe I’m seeing a pattern where none exists, but between Jen, Jen, Jen, and Jen, I’m starting to think that “Jen” is Greek for “awesome”.)

  5. Another thing to consider is what is meant by atheism here?

    I’m using it in the simple sense of “lack of belief in any gods”, and am willing to restrict it to people who can be expected to understand what that means, and who have been exposed to the notion of gods. Basically, I’m willing to exclude babies.

    Sort of like in another article defining what is “sex”.

    I’ll let Greta Christina answer that.

  6. I did play around with convergent sequences and the idea of an eternity of ever-diminishing torment, so that total suffering converged on a finite amount

    LOL! I mean, wow, I’ve never heard anyone come up with that one before. You have a truly creative mind.

    Really good article, btw — thanks for sharing your story!

    (I followed a link back to you from your comments on Greta Christina’s blog. I read her regularly but almost never comment myself.)

  7. Alice in Wonderland:
    I once also applied the Lorentz transform to the saying “a thousand years is as a day to the Lord”, to work out God’s velocity with respect to us. I don’t remember the exact result, except that it was so close to c that I had to use an infinite-precision calculator to get something that wasn’t a 9.

    And thanks for the kind words.

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