So there are about ten times as many of these essays out there as there are atheists in the world, so I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this, but it seems like the thing to do. I guess partly because there are a hundred times as many instances of religious people telling each other made-up bullshit about why people are atheists (or pretend to be atheists, but really, truly believe deep down).
My story is pretty straightforward, actually; no sudden realization, no slow acceptance that I’d been taught wrongly. I wasn’t raised a nonbeliever, either. Not deliberately, anyway. The indoctrination just didn’t take. My father was a lapsed Catholic turned deist and my mother was a Southern Baptist. Their solution was to raise the kids in a weakly religious household with the idea that we’d come to our own decision. We’d do the occasional Easter Mass or Vacation Bible School in the summer, and growing up in Texas, we were surrounded by Jeebus-talk pretty much all the time. Staying over at a friend’s house Saturday turned into church with their family on Sunday almost without exception, even well into my teenage years.
None of it stuck, though. You know how, when you’re a kid, you figure out Santa isn’t real, but you keep on playing along for a while because it’s fun or you want the presents, or your parents can’t handle that you’re growing up? As far back as I remember, that’s what I was doing. To the best of my knowledge, it was always a game of make-believe. Same thing with the Easter Bunny and Satan and Jesus and God. It wasn’t until I was old enough that none of the kids my age even pretended to believe in Santa anymore that I started to get that the grown-ups really actually thought some of that stuff was real.
At some point in your life, usually in early adolescence, you start to suspect that you’re smarter than all the so-called adults in your life. By around fifteen or sixteen, most people are completely convinced of it. Imagine that at fifteen, you were the only person you knew that didn’t still believe in Santa Claus. All your “peers,” all the adults in your life, parents, teachers… they all put out cookies and milk and wrote letters to the North Pole saying how good they’d been this year. Then, when the presents didn’t show up, said they just hadn’t been good enough, nevermind that they didn’t get lumps of coal, that doesn’t matter. Occasionally, someone would leave the tag off a present, and that one must have come from Santa, right? That’s what the world looked like to me.
Long story short, I am an atheist because they failed to indoctrinate me as a child.
Now, if someone wants to convert me to their faith, they have to convince someone, not just that their religion is right, but that religion in general isn’t a patently ridiculous concept. That’s a much harder sell. To convert someone from one religion to another takes some work, but the hard part is already done for you. They already buy in to the idea that gods are real things and that faith is a useful trait for a person to have. Now you just slap on some emotional appeals about your god(s) being nicer or stronger or whatever, and you’re golden. To get me, you’ll have first convince me that’s there’s such a thing as gods in the first place.
So far, no one has even come close. I’ve heard a lot of people attempt to justify their faith in lots of different ways. I find none of them convincing, and neither would anyone else who didn’t already believe them. Here’s a quick rundown of a few of the more popular ones I’ve heard over the years. I’m sure many of them will sound familiar.
-The Bible says it’s true and we know the Bible is true because God said so, it says so right in the Bible. No, really, people literally argue that with no intermediary steps.
-A painting implies a painter, a building implies a builder, so creation implies a creator. Also a rock implies a rocker, so you’ve proven the existence of Ozzy Osbourne, I guess, but you skipped the step where you demonstrate the universe is a creation.
-Existence is greater than nonexistence, so the most powerful being imaginable must exist. They pretend there’s a few more steps in it to confuse people, but that’s really what they’re saying.
-“I feel it in my heart.” To which the only response is “I don’t.”
-Everyone really knows God is real deep inside, they just pretend because they don’t want to follow God’s law. A more laughable idea, I’ve rarely heard.
There are more, of course. An endless stream of nonsense and non-sequiturs. Most often, though, they skip right over trying to demonstrate that their god is real and go into why their god is more believable than others or why religion is a force for good in the world or the like.
Lots of people talk about the evil that religion in general and various religions do (and they’re often right). Lots of people talk about whether or not they’d want to live in a world with gods, or a million other nitpicks. Those people are making a mistake. They’re conceding off the bat that the entire concept of religion isn’t patently ridiculous on the face of it. Until you can convince me that Santa is real, I’ve got no interest in discussing what counts as naughty or nice, nor in whether he’ll leave a bundle of switches with the lump of coal.