Friday, 3 August 2012

Where did I come from?

Unlike many atheists, I am not an apostate.  I have never been anything other than an atheist.  For as long as I remember, I have had a total lack of belief in anything spiritual, or magical, or paranormal, or supernatural.  Even in my earliest coherent memories, from when I was five, I was well aware that Santa and the Tooth Fairy were made up.  I simply don’t recall ever believing in them, although I do accept that I may have when I was very little.  I have no recollection of the experience of belief in anything magical or supernatural. 

When I was still quite young, again about five, we lost a few cats to local traffic.  I held no belief, even at that time, that death was anything other than final.  This lack of belief wasn’t restricted to cats since I had the same sense of finality when my grandfather died a year or so later.

(This is not to say that there hasn’t been some wishful thinking on my part from time to time.  I recall that when I was a teenager, I did want to have paranormal powers, such as telekinesis and the ability to teleport at will.  However, this was on a par with wanting to have my own fire lizard [see Dragonriders of Pern] or my own light sabre.  I knew it wasn’t possible, but I thought it would have been so cool if it were.  To be honest, I’d still like to have a fire lizard.)

I was not totally ignorant of Christianity, which is the religion generally held by people who were into that sort of thing where I lived as a child.  For a while, when I was perhaps seven or eight, I even attended Sunday School (although I have absolutely no idea who made that decision).  My father did some work at a tourist beach from when I was about seven until I was about nine, so I spent whole summers – every single day – taking advantage of the only free entertainment on offer, something known today as “Beach Mission”.

During that time, I learnt the Bible stories inside out.  I was the most knowledgeable atheist on the beach, even winning Bibles during the quiz competitions. (I still keep the best of those prizes together with the rest of my science fiction and fantasy books, although it has the first page of Genesis ripped out which is a bit sad and, I’d have thought, totally unnecessary – there are no nut-hatches in Genesis are there?)

I do not recall my state of belief ever coming up as a topic of conversation.  The young beach crusaders seemed to be happy enough that I was a keen and involved listener and they probably assumed that since I was absorbing their lore, I was also absorbing their message.  The issue of atheism simply never came up.

Not terribly much later, von Däniken released a new book, which renewed interest in his first book “Chariots of the Gods” and also in Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision”.  I didn’t read any of their books, but I was aware of the contents in so much as both of them tried to explain Biblical (and other) events in terms of aliens and/or non-standard solar system cosmology.  It was at this time that I was struck for the first time by the thought that there are full-grown adults, who have not yet reached the point of senility who actually believe what is written in the Bible and, not only that, some of them believe it literally.

I need to keep a theist (or apostate) reader in mind here and explain some things which may seem obvious to other readers.

I was aware of myth.  I knew about Greek mythology (and, to the extent that it was slightly modified, Roman mythology), Egyptian mythology, Norse mythology (and the variant introduced to the British Isles by Angles and Saxons), Irish mythology, a little Native American mythology and some Australian Aboriginal and Maori mythology, plus I was vaguely aware that there were African and Asian mythologies.

I also knew a fair bit of Christian, Jewish and, to a lesser extent, Muslim mythology.  I was aware that these monotheistic religions were all quite similar to each other as well as being quite similar to some earlier religions from the region.  I was possibly a little better informed than the average child who would more easily fall prey to one form of indoctrination or another.

I remember a particularly loud thunderstorm from when I was about eight and recall knowing a story about how the ancients used to think about thunder in terms of giants moving their furniture around (there was a lot of rumbling thunder in this storm).  I didn’t believe that this was true: I just knew that I’d been told that people used to think that.  Note very carefully my use of words here.

I did not believe that “giants moving furniture caused the thunder” was true:

I just knew that I’d been told that people used to think that “giants moving furniture caused the thunder”.

There are four separate and distinct concepts there.

·         I didn’t mention believing anything was true.  All I had was an absence of belief.

·         I knew something (i.e. what I had been told).  This knowledge was based on some evidence (i.e. the recollection of being told something). 

·         I’d been told something, the fact that I am told something doesn’t necessarily mean I believe or, in fact, that I know it. 

·         People used to think something.  I’d been told, as far as I remember, that people used to think, not believe, that gods or giants or something magical and powerful controlled the weather, including storms.

It’s possible to say that I “believed” that the thunder was due to lightning activity, which might even be accurate since I did not fully understand the mechanism by which lightning produces thunder, nor did I understand the mechanism by which storm clouds generate lightning.  But I was most certainly not actively disbelieving that the thunder was due to giant activity, or Thor’s hammer, or any one of dozens of possible superstitious explanations.

If asked, I am pretty certain that I would have reported a considered opinion that none of the adults around me held superstitious beliefs about the thunderstorm.  I was quite used to the idea that there were many myths available to explain various phenomena and I was quite used to the idea that no-one really believed them (except possibly young, more gullible children and anyone old enough to have become senile – note that at eight, the term “old” had a lot more scope for me than it does now).

My default position then, and to a certain extent now, was to assume that unless there are indications to the contrary, a person probably won't be a believer in myth and superstition.  Yes, I realised that old people were more likely to go to church, but with the constant blathering on about things being great in heaven and the fact that death is looming, this was hardly surprising to me.  (If you are ever going to indulge in Pascal’s wager, do it when you are old and can blame it on senility.  Not that everyone will believe the senility claim, judging from the content of various blogs that crow about Antony Flew’s conversion to deism – more on that in another post.)

But when people started talking up Velikovsky and Däniken, it became apparent to me that even average people would seriously consider attempts to “scientifically” explain myth.  This was a bit of a shock.  Science, in my experience, had always served to replace myth with workable theories and this was, certainly as far as I was and remain concerned, the natural order of things.

It was probably at around this point that I became a true atheist, as a reaction to what I saw as a ludicrous situation in which people were taking selected myths seriously.  This is not to say that I was not already, to all intents and purposes, an atheist.  However, until this time, I thought that pretty much everybody else was as well.  You could say that I became a “harder” atheist, or a “newer” atheist.  If you like, you could say I was “born again” as an atheist.

Something else that might have been instrumental in my transition to a stronger stance was my introduction to Baptists.  They may well have been around before, but when I moved to a new High School I met a small group of Christians who were more overt, and more vocal, in their faith than any I had met previously.  Their tendency to challenge others on their faith meant that I had my first opportunity to publically identify as an atheist.

At the same time, I was developing a teenage interest in philosophy, which means I used to argue solipsism with people in order to annoy them.  I would be able to keep up these arguments for about as long as it took for them to punch me, which they would do in order to prove that they did, as a matter of fact, exist rather than being a figment of my imagination.  As far as I can tell, this is a standard rite of passage for a pubescent philosopher.

At some point I either challenged the Baptists on why they believed what they did, or they challenged me on why I didn’t, and a couple of years of heated debate followed.  I was probably a curious animal to them, firstly because they were used to talking to people who had a tepid, almost translucent, gossamer-like faith rather than people who had no faith whatsoever and, secondly, because my knowledge of the bible was in many cases superior to theirs despite my lack of belief in it.  I found them curious too, because they weren’t overly interested in learning more about what it was that they believed and what it was they were trying to proselytise.  They just seemed to move, as a group, from esoteric passage to esoteric passage and none of them appeared interested in understanding the whole of scripture in context.  (Later I realised that these theological herd migrations were the aftereffects of bible study sessions and sermons.)

At university, I fell into a social group which included a number of (initially tepid) Christians who were slowly ensnared in an evangelical campus group.  This experience highlighted to me the sect-like nature of these groups, with their pastor having a huge influence over their behaviour – for good or ill.  Again, there were many heated debates, but this time with a group who were increasingly interested in reading more and more of the scripture that they held to be infallibly true.  It was at this time that I became aware of the mental gymnastics required to integrate belief in the bible and an understanding of the real world – as an observer of these Campus Christians as they were being forced down the path of what I later came to know as apologetics.

I wasn’t overly concerned by these Christians; they were relatively few in number and they had little influence outside their own clique.  However, through having a privileged position among them (I was an accepted atheist who even attended the occasional Friday sermon as a precursor to a night out), I came to notice that more devout Christians can be intensely hypocritical and intolerant.  I was told more than once that I was heading to hell, when I was not being told that I was already there.

My understanding of faith and belief, such as it is, crystallised around this time.  I was talking to Dee (not his real name) about the nature of “grace”.  He explained to me that, in his conception of things, nothing he or anyone else could do would result in him being among the saved.  He would only be saved if his god so willed it.  The same, apparently, applied to me; nothing I could ever do would affect the outcome.  This was intriguing.  Is it possible that Dee, the believer, was not among the saved but I, the atheist, was?  Yes, Dee told me.  The same applied to people of other faiths.

However, Dee was unshakeable in his faith that he was saved through the grace of god.

He believed with utter conviction that he was saved.  He believed with equal conviction that I was not going to be, that Jews possibly could be saved due to a prior agreement with the man upstairs and that Muslims, who were deceived by the devil, were all going straight to hell – unless of course that god decided that he wanted us, in which case god would do what was required for us to be converted, irrespective of any ideas that we might have about it.  So much for converting me!

I’m not certain that this sort of unyielding, uncompromising faith is common to all Christians, or even to all born-again Christians.  What I can say is that while I have no personal experience of this sort of mind-set from the inside, I suspect that it is corresponds at some level with the way the majority of Christians think.

Atheism, or at least my atheism, is not similar to this mind-set at all.

Over the years I’ve ebbed and flowed on the atheism front.  I’ve discussed things theological with theist friends, been amazed that agnostic friends fanatically defend Christian culture against "invading cultures" and argued hotly with people who knock on my door to tell me that I am going to hell (no, not Mormon punks, I mean Jehovah’s Witnesses).  For the most part, so long as they are not on my doorstep taking up time that I could be wasting in some other way, being a theist is fine with me.  Sadly, theists have started to encroach on my life more over the past few years, with attempts to change how schools are run, to influence what can and can’t be taught at school, to define what is “good” in theistic terms and to corrupt science with creationist nonsense.  Theists are particularly annoyingly when misusing logic.

So that’s where I came from, and sort of where I am – standing up and pointing out where people like William Lane Craig and his ilk are wrong.

I should point out that I am totally aware that I don’t fully comprehend this whole faith thing and my take on it may well be completely wrong.  If anyone out there can go some way towards explaining what faith actually means to a Christian, I’d be very interested to hear about it.  Don't bother recounting biblical stories.  I've heard them.

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