There was no sudden moment when I became an atheist. Rather, my gradual transformation into one followed Theodore Kheel’s quote: “It is like sculpting an elephant: you chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant and what’s left is an elephant”. We’re not BORN with belief in a God. That stuff accretes to us as we grow up, as we learn from our parents, as we pass by churches or mosques, as we listen to sermons and read our Holy Writ, as we read ‘In God we Trust’ on our currency and recite ‘under God’ in our allegiance pledges. Like belief in the greatness of our country, or fealty to our favorite teams, we LEARN to put our faith in a deity.
There are beliefs we are born with, I think. We instinctively trust our parents to do right by us. Infants home in on their mother’s odor, their father’s face, the feel of familial hands on their skin. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these beliefs are correct and essential, though I’m exaggerating a bit when I call them ‘beliefs’–they’re really hardwired ways for our DNA to survive long enough to replicate itself, hundreds of thousands of years in the making. We don’t really start BELIEVING in things until our brains start to consider phenomena outside the small sphere of sensation that babies, selfish little bastards that they are, spend their initial days and months cocooned in. After that, ANYTHING is possible–Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, monsters under the bed, angels floating above it. We’ll believe the wildest stories when we’re four, five years old. We’ll believe in dragons and talking deer and UFOs and werewolves. It doesn’t take much to get our Belief Engines revving, either. In Stephen King’s DANSE MACABRE, he relates this little anecdote about another writer: “John D. MacDonald tells the story of how for weeks his son was terrified of something he called “the green ripper.” MacDonald and his wife finally figured it out — at a dinner party, a friend had mentioned the Grim Reaper. What their son had heard was ‘the green ripper‘, and later it became the title of one of MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories.”
We all have moments like that in our childhoods. Some spend a lifetime repressing them. Some forget about them. If you’re Stephen King, you write millions of words about them. When I was eight or nine I had one of my grandmothers baby-sit me and my brother while my parents were gone for the day. They came back with an inflatable plastic football for me and some trinket for Bart, and I later figured out that they’d driven up to Seattle to watch the Seahawks bumble through one of their expansion-team embarrassments, but for about six months I thought, for whatever reason, that they’d disappeared for the day and night because they’d gone somewhere to get married. It slowly (probably more slowly than it should have) dawned on me that, wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense…
And it’s not just really young kids who get stuff stuck in their heads and need a crowbar to get it out. It took me until the seventh grade to learn that the word…well, I’m not going to print it here. You know the word. It’s the C word, and it’s used to describe female genitalia. And I thought it meant ‘whore’, because the only time I’d ever seen it was in a book by Linda Lovelace and her ghostwriters detailing her experiences during the filming of DEEP THROAT, and every time it was used by one of the men (aimed at Miss Lovelace) it made perfect sense to me that they were referring to her history of promiscuity.
Let me hasten to add that my parents weren’t buying me books by Linda Lovelace and her ghostwriters. I had to steal them myself.
You get to seventh grade, though, your buddies are going to know what the C word means. That was a fun couple weeks, let me tell you; I actually argued that my definition was the correct one, and I didn’t hear the end of it for a while. Hell, in my freshman year of high school I got into an argument with one of my football teammates about the correct past tense of ‘cum’…
But that’s enough of that. We get our beliefs from a variety of places, people and sources. If they’re caught early enough, these wrong beliefs, we discard them. But if these beliefs are not only corrected, but encouraged by those we love and trust, they tend to calcify. If most Americans, and a good portion of the Western world, were invested in perpetuating the Santa Claus myth, there’d be a huge percentage of grown humans who still believed in him, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. And he’d be a Him, with the capital H.
I was raised Catholic. Went to Mass most Sundays, was educated by Jesuits and Christian Brothers, had advent calendars, took Communion, made confession, was an altar boy for a few weeks (I was also a Boy Scout for a few months. Neither of them took), grew up seeing Jesus on His cross everywhere (my grandmother thought, and still kind of thinks, that hanging a mostly-naked torture victim all over the house is like furniture, or artwork). All that stuff. And I look back on it now and think how WEIRD the whole shebang was. It wasn’t snake-handling weird, or flagellating the flesh off my back weird, but it was still pretty weird. And I, being a kid at the time, just thought it was normal, that everyone ate spaghetti without meatballs on Fridays, that when you went on a long car trip down to San Jose you made sure you had a St. Christopher medallion with you, that you said Grace before you ate. The other kids in the neighborhood didn’t have to do all that stuff, but they were the public school kids and I sort of worried about them, truth be told. Not ‘worried they were going to Hell’, but ‘worried that they didn’t know the right way to do things’.
I didn’t think about God much. My parents aren’t the kind of people who shoved Him down my throat. And, like I said, I went to Jesuit grade school, so we got to question things if we felt it necessary, without fear of punishment. St. Ignatius wasn’t the kind of parochial school where the students are molded into ideal little Christian Soldiers; the religion classes we took were frankly incidental to the real learning that went on. And I didn’t have to put on my jammies at night, brush my teeth, and then get down onto my knees next to my bed to implore God to watch out for all my relatives and acquaintances. I do remember that whole ‘if I should die before I wake’ bit, and that’s probably part of the reason that when I write, I write horror, but it’s not like I had fanatical watchdogs for parents, standing behind me with the strap while I made my nightly prayers to make sure I didn’t forget to mention anyone.
I also can’t remember a time I thought that the Bible was really, truly Holy Writ. The priests, at Mass, never hit on the bits that talked about God telling His people to commit genocide, to rape the women of the enemies, to stone their daughters to death, all that charming stuff in the Old Testament. It was mostly Jesus and His disciples, and a lot of Paul (I’d later think of St. Paul as the Malcolm McLaren to Jesus’s Sid Vicious–the guy who took the raw material and packaged it for the masses). But I was a reader, and I got through most of the book by the time I finished eighth grade. I skipped Numbers, of course, but who doesn’t? I’m not entirely sure the Pope has actually read Numbers. He seems more like a Psalms kind of guy.
So I was dismissing most of the trappings of Christianity, but I still had this certainty that God existed. What else made sense? All the arguments for His being had been laid out before me, with two thousand years of Church thought behind them. Without God, there is no morality. Without a Prime Mover, there is no universe. And the universe itself, with all its wonders and beauties–Someone must have made it that way. I wasn’t sure about the burning bush and the walking on water, but I was pretty sure that there was Someone out there behind everything, a wizard behind the curtain.
This is how most Americans feel about God, I think–that He’s some vague, undefined, powerful being. The strict definition of God, the one that states that he made the Earth and everything in it in six days, the guy who destroyed cities and sent floods, who set up a tree in the middle of the garden and said ‘don’t touch’, has gradually altered, smoothed itself out into something more palatable to modern sensibilities. There are still people–many of them–who believe in the six-days thing, but they skate right over the ‘don’t eat seafood’ thing and the ‘stone your daughter to death’ thing. The Bible has become a smorgasbord in which you can pick what you want and leave the rest.
The brilliant move on the part of the early Christians was to write the Gospels and the Epistles, in effect rebooting the Old Testament. Jesus came and restarted everything; He took the Ten Commandments and boiled them down to the Golden Rule. He had a last spasm of miracles (culminating in the Resurrection), and then miracles were pretty much put to bed–there would be no more Gomorrahs, no more people being swallowed by fish, and God wouldn’t come down to blast people like Job personally. The Church became flexible in a way that’s served it dramatically well over the centuries since. The Pope can come out against torture (eventually) or slavery (eventually) or whatever, and the whole contraption lurches in a new direction. Islam doesn’t do this, of course, and that’s part of the reason Islam is what it is–a putatively 21st-century religion that hasn’t really changed since Mohammed was running around the desert, that considers change to be heresy punishable by death.
In any case, I had my fuzzy view of God, and most everyone I knew had the same kind of feelings. I’d see a beautiful sunrise, or hear a baby laugh, and I attributed the awe I experienced to a Creator who was behind all the beauty, who’d stepped back from Creation to let it work the way it was supposed to. Eventually, though, I started to WONDER about things. Prayer, for instance–I’d see a football player thanking God for letting him make the game-winning touchdown catch, and I’d wonder whether the defensive back hadn’t ALSO been praying, and why God would come down on one side rather than the other. The six million Jews slaughtered by Hitler–hadn’t THEY been praying? I was butting up against the Problem of Evil, and, like so many before me, I wasn’t buying any of the explanations. God works in strange and mysterious ways, and we can’t know why He’s doing what he’s doing, letting churches full of congregants die in earthquakes, letting children be raped by their fathers, okaying witch-burning or wars of conquest, sending gays to Hell while the worst criminals get a free pass to Heaven if they repent on their deathbeds. The whole Purgatory fiasco bothered me. Even my grandmother got mad at the Pope once or twice–she’d spent vacations in Hawaii where the Catholic Masses included some hula dancing, but the Pope put an end to that eventually (something about pagan rituals), and she couldn’t understand why, because it had been beautiful and worshipful.
Why. That’s the God-killer right there. Why? Why create evil? Why set up a test you know your creations are going to fail? Why hide all evidence of your existence from those you want to worship you? If He’s going to be invisible, unknowable, impossible, why do we even need a God at all? And, most importantly, “Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth? The power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable. But does a sponge think?” (INHERIT THE WIND)
Why make us curious? Why give us brains in the first place, if you don’t want us to use them? Why, in the name of all that is wonderful and beautiful and holy, would you persecute Copernicus for delving for Truth–and finding it? As the insatiable human thirst for knowledge has advanced, pushing Creation back from six thousand years to fourteen billion, shrinking the Flood, replacing demons with germs, extending our lifespans, letting us travel off the planet entirely, religion has been forced on the defensive over and over and over again, to the point where, finally, I realized that religion wasn’t necessary. In fact, it had actually HURT the quest for knowledge, for peace, for comity, for community. It had drawn barriers over the century and when, inevitably, those barriers had been overrun by science and logic and thought, it had drawn new ones. I’m not trying to convince anyone else to become an atheist, and I freely accept that religion has done some wonderful things for civilization, but it’s not necessary to believe in God. I remember coming across Ockham’s razor–“entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”–and realizing that God Himself was such an entity. There are explanations for everything, though some things we will never reach the bottom of, but adding God to the mix is simply too convoluted, as witness the contortions Church scientists went through to keep the Earth at the center of the universe rather than accepting the elegance and perfection of the Laws of Motion. Witness the knots some religious folks tie themselves in trying to discredit evolution by any means necessary, searching for gaps and then, when the gaps get filled, searching for others.
I believe in many things I can’t prove by scientific facts, nor explain in scientific terms–love, beauty, honor, bravery, altruism. There are tentative biological explanations for all of them, of course, but, like evolution, proof is impossible. Proof of God is also impossible, but all the other things are CAPABLE of being proven, and evidence is accumulated, some of it discarded, some of it not. You can’t even have GRADUAL proof of God, but you can for physical explanations of the altruistic impulse in humans. So I cast my lot on the side of thought, of reason, of the unquenchable hunger for answers. To do anything else would be a betrayal of my own humanity.