Letter to a Young Religious Friend
By August Berkshire
My friend, you have asked me how I became an atheist. Here is my story.
I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was even an altar boy with my brother. In the small towns in which we were raised, everyone I met was also a Christian. When you’re a child, you pretty much automatically believe what adults tell you. Why would they lie?
Indoctrination is a powerful force. There is a Jesuit anecdote that says, “Give me a child until he’s seven and he’s mine for life.”
Religion actually helped me develop my imagination. I recall sitting in church wondering how Noah got all those animals on the ark, and how they survived for a year. Then I realized that a god could have easily miniaturized all the animals and put them in suspended animation! Later, I discovered that just because you can imagine a thing doesn’t mean that it’s true.
In tenth grade, I took a biology class and was taught evolution. It made so much sense! It explained things in a way creationism couldn’t. I also realized that you could believe in a god, while still accepting the fact of evolution. You could believe that a god created and directed evolution. (This is known as “theistic evolution,” and is what the Pope now accepts.) However, to me, evolution makes more sense without a god than with one.
Evolution was the “crack in the wall” as far as the Bible was concerned. If Adam & Eve and Noah & the Ark couldn’t be taken literally, then what else might not be literally true? Did Jesus really resurrect, or was that a symbolic story? Later, I also began to learn about contradictions, absurdities, and falsehoods in the Bible.
I began to realize that all religions had their gods, their holy people, their holy books, and their ceremonies. It was not logical to suppose that just because I happened to be born into a Christian family, that that was the “true” religion.
How, then, was I to choose the “true” religion? What method could I use? I decided that I had to use the standards of reason and evidence. When I did this, all the religions came up lacking, while the secular view of the world seemed to best explain the reality I observed.
I also wondered, if a particular religion was objectively true, why everyone didn’t believe it? Instead, I saw that most people believed what they had been taught, without questioning it. Thomas Jefferson wrote some very astute things about religion. These are quotes I found years later, but they express very well the kind of thoughts I was having at the time:
“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” [letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, August 10, 1787]
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” [letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823]
“To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise.” [letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820]
It took me three years to intellectually become an atheist (from age 16 to 18). At that point I thought I was through with religion. However, when my drivers license came up for renewal, and I knew that as an atheist I should have no qualms about being an organ donor, I suddenly felt squeamish. I was startled, and paused to examine where these feelings were coming from.
I realized I still had the idea that I would have some awareness after death. I didn’t logically believe this, but I felt this. Where did I get this idea? Religion. It was then I realized that religion still had some emotional ties on me.
Over the course of the next few years (from age 19 to 21), I examined these emotions rationally and was finally able to abandon them. It doesn’t make sense to fear after-death feelings that don’t exist.
There are many ways to critique religion. One of my favorites is this: if YOU had the knowledge and power of a god, wouldn’t you have done a better job designing the universe than he supposedly did? Wouldn’t you have eliminated disease and suffering? Wouldn’t you have done a better job designing the human body without birth defects and infirmities? Wouldn’t you have eliminated “acts of god,” such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, which needlessly and randomly injure and kill people?
Many fetuses are spontaneously aborted, usually in a very early stage when the woman doesn’t even know she’s pregnant (this accounts for some “late” periods). If you were a god, would you allow this to happen?
In 1984, at age 24, I co-founded the Twin Cities Chapter of American Atheists, the first openly atheist organization in Minnesota. This group continues today under the name Minnesota Atheists. I am on its board of directors. For the past 16 years, I have been exposed to some of the best pro-god arguments that religious people have to offer. I have not found any of them convincing.
As I continue to read science, psychology, philosophy, history, Biblical criticism, etc. I only become more convinced that the decision I made in my youth was correct. There are no gods. This may be a frightening idea for some people to grasp, but it can also be very liberating. Many people lead happy and healthy lives without god-belief. It puts more responsibility for your life in your own hands, but I think it also makes life more rewarding. It’s a way of life I can recommend.
(c)1998 August Berkshire