There have been a number of conversations recently, both online and off, that have brought up the question of why people don’t believe in God. In every case, the question has come from someone who does, and among nearly all, there has been a general consensus that the rejection of religion must be caused by something. For those of us who have never believed, however, the question of our atheism is much less “why?” and much more “why not?” Clumsily, I’ll try to explain my own beliefs at least.
Note: This is a personal blog post. It is honest, and not especially delicate. Tread with caution.
My family likes to talk about religion. Not just religion, of course—my mom got her degree in philosophy, so as a family, we’re prone to discussions of many, many kinds—but religion is a subject that comes up quite often. Perhaps because of this, our spiritual journeys have often meandered along similar paths, if not always at the same pace. My parents have always been seekers of a kind. Each raised in their parents’ own flavors of protestantism, they moved together after marriage towards the Religious Society of Friends (“Quakers” is the more familiar term), which is the faith my sister and I were raised in during our childhood in the midwest.
There weren’t any other Quaker kids in the town we grew up in, so we became quickly accustomed to having to explain our beliefs to friends at school (and to a lot of adults as well). As I kid, I never felt any real connection to the concept of God, but I was able to find meaning in much of what the Friends stood for—things like honesty, pacifism, gender equality, and universal civil rights. These things made sense to me on a very basic, personal level, and it was easy for me to explain those convictions to other people. “There is that of God in everyone” translated easily for me as “Everyone is equal.” This made sense to me. It was profoundly fair.
If there was one thing that resonated with me as a child, it was a belief in fairness, and these principles lined up perfectly with my understanding of what that meant. It seemed obvious to me at the time that what made our actions right or wrong could be boiled down entirely to whether or not they were unfair, to me or to others. This made me pretty obnoxious at times. I’d argue tirelessly with anyone I thought was being unfair (to me or anyone else) including teachers, babysitters, my parents, or other kids. I looked to fairness as an irrefutable truth in the world. And though I had little interest in God, I was frequently offended by things he’d supposedly decreed, as conveyed to me by other kids—things that seemed to conflict directly with the concept of fairness I held so dear.
Though none of the evidence provided as to God’s wishes genuinely influenced my own beliefs, it certainly increased my feeling of disconnection to the whole idea. Attempts to read up on the subject only made things worse. Picking up the Bible (demographics in the midwest ensured that the Christian idea of God was the only one I heard much about), I was confronted with the picture of a vain, cold-hearted ruler, whose greatest priority was making sure that people revered him properly (after all, he used up four whole commandments on this topic before addressing anything else), and whose concepts of right and wrong seemed arbitrary at best. “Who would worship a guy like that?” I wondered.
Furthermore, the thing was (to my mind) a mess, filled with contradictions, silly regulations, and science so faulty that even my elementary school education was enough to see through it. I was, honestly and truly, baffled that anyone ever took the thing seriously. This was not an important revelation for me. With no pressure to believe it coming from anyone who mattered, the Bible had little impact on my life, and I continued to view God as little more than a name in songs and stories, no different than Jane Eyre or Santa Claus, though infinitely less interesting.
As I got older, my personal truths became more nuanced, able to accommodate mysteries and shades of gray that quickly took precedence over my childish sense of justice. I was captivated by fantasy and fringe science, things which often intertwined in the books I read. While my very young self had been focused on things I could understand, my teenaged self was captivated by things I couldn’t. The universe was an exciting and mysterious place, and the potential for imagination seemed limitless. If there was ever a time when I revered something like a god, it was in these years, where the capacity for creation and storytelling in a single human mind seemed like the most wondrous thing in the world. That breadth of thought, that infinite mindscape—if there was anything I ever considered worth worshiping, that would have been it.
Adulthood arrived and fantasy shifted toward philosophy, which eventually brought religion back into my line of vision, though not generally in a positive light. While I found some measure of compelling philosophy in nearly every religion I encountered, I also began to feel antagonized by it—by its dominance in philosophical conversation and the weight it held in general society. What was it about theism that demanded such respect, so much so that it must be protected by law over any other kind of philosophy or thought? People I met viewed my non-theism with fear, or worse, pity, as though an absence of religious belief constituted a lack of belief altogether, even in vague concepts like lawfulness or general human decency. Even those who had abandoned affiliation with formalized religion seemed to believe that a life was not full without “spirituality,” which sooner or later came right back to “God” in some form or another. Rejection of a “God” concept was a symptom of something broken, born of repressed anger or childhood trauma, something to be analyzed, soothed, and gotten over.
The idea that anyone might find comfort or joy in a world without God seemed unthinkable to most people, and for a while I simply avoided the subject. I repressed my inborn love of discussion and debate. I answered “Quaker” when pressed for a religious affiliation. Most often, I just let people assume I was some kind of Christian, and most of them did. I felt genuine rage when my close friend Michael, a gifted choreographer and a beautiful, hilarious man, explained to me earnestly how his mother’s persistent objection to his sexuality had convinced him to join the Pentacostal church. “I looked into several religions and this one was the most like a contract,” he said, grateful for a set of mom-approved instructions that would guarantee him a place in her heart and in heaven.
I felt rage because Michael was smarter than that—capable of working out morality for himself, without a contract with someone’s idea of God. I felt rage against his mother who made him distrust his own heart, and against the church that convinced him he could pray that heart away. I felt rage, but kept quiet, even years later when, after seeking him out online, I found him still living alone with his cat, secure in his “eternal” life but solitary in this one, simply because he happened to be gay. How was this a joyful life? How was this comfort? And how had anyone convinced him that it was? I was sickened.
It was a relief when I discovered that my parents, always my barometer for enlightened thought, had made their way down the same path as I. Though they’d both been more influenced by religion than I had, their own journeys had brought them to roughly the same place, joyful and inspired in a world where people were responsible for their own decisions and actions. A place where morality was something thought about and measured by the way it affected others, not dictated by a deity under threat of damnation.
As mystified as others seem to be at the idea of a joyful world without God, I am unimpressed by a world with one. How does one find comfort or truth when ideology trumps reason? When “righteousness” trumps compassion? When the advancement of science, which, age after age, has revealed the truths behind our greatest mysteries, is shunted aside for argument and even war over the interpretation of a few old books? Has some good been done in the name of religion? Sure. It’s also been done in the name of common sense and pure decency, a million times over, without fanfare, attribution, or religious affiliation.
The world holds many mysteries we can’t yet explain. Many of these will remain unexplained in my lifetime and for many generations after. And while I’m excited about the prospect of pursuing these mysteries, I can accept them as such, no more, no less. When I read old texts, from ancient myth on forward, I can understand why their authors, who lived in a time when so little was understood about the nature of our world, might have attributed life’s mysteries to sentient, spiritual beings who simply made things happen. Whether as serious intellectual thought or just a means to keep order, these conclusions make sense in a species so young.
What baffles me, however, given all we’ve learned about our world—all the once-great mysteries we’ve gradually explained through science—is that millions of modern people would still cling to that kind of ancient thought. That, in the face of centuries of scientific research and discovery, they would view the world’s remaining mysteries as anything other than science we don’t yet understand. I realize that for most people, religion is much more than fact, and that to boil it down to that is missing the point. But for the non-religious, this is frequently a major factor in our inability to understand your faith.
If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is that religion is deeply personal. It’s something I discuss in my own spaces much more than in the spaces of others, for their comfort as well as mine. If there is one thing, though, that I wish I could convey to nearly every believer I’ve ever met, it is simply this: My world is a joyful one. I hope yours is too.