How I Became an Atheist: Alex Freeman

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For starters, my parents were both Catholic, and I was brought up in the Catholic Church.  I went to a Catholic school and attended Mass regularly throughout my childhood.  Initially, I found the whole religion thing boring; I insisted on bringing a book to church, to read for pleasure while the rest of the congregation was doing whatever it was people came to church to do.  When I got older, however, I learned more about the meaning of the Mass and the symbolism and the history behind it all, and I became really enthusiastic about being a part of the Church.  On some level, I believed I was a devout Catholic, but of course all I’d heard of Church doctrine was the watered-down Veggie Tales version that they teach to elementary school kids.  In any case, it was more of an identity; I hadn’t really thought through the implications of what I ostensibly believed.  Catholicism was the default at home and school, so I ran with it for a while.

It was in middle school when I started to think seriously about what I believed, and although I tried to hold on to my Catholic faith, each attempt to shore up my belief left me less convinced.  I had atheist friends, and I found it strange that they couldn’t see the obviousness of God’s existence the way I could.  I didn’t buy into any facile analogy like that trying to explain God to a nonbeliever was like trying to explain colors to a blind person.  I sincerely believed that God knew each one of us, knew what was best for us, and knew what it would take to convince us of the truth.  I trusted God to guide me, to give me the knowledge necessary to make His existence clear.  But none of my supremely clever arguments for the existence of God were effective on the atheists I knew: miracle accounts were shrugged off, appeals to fine-tuning went uncomprehended, and even the knock-down argument of “something can’t come from nothing” wasn’t nearly as convincing to people who didn’t already accept the conclusion.  The older people I talked to stressed the importance of faith – they said I just needed to trust that God was really there, even if I could never know for sure.  I was somewhat confused by this, since it seemed to me that if it were really so important that everyone believe in God and worship Him as He desired, then the existence of God ought to be as obvious as the existence of gravity.

Following this line of thinking, I came to the conclusion that a lot of what the Catholic Church taught about theology had no basis in reality.  My biggest problem was with miracles.  Taking the Bible as historical truth, we know that God has supernaturally intervened in history to cause people to believe in Him, yet there are plenty of people who have received no such intervention.  Starting from a sincere belief that miracles had actually happened in the past, I saw no way to reconcile the idea that God wants us to believe in Him with the lack of clear, conclusive evidence for God’s existence that modern miracles would provide.  Not only did contemporary miracle claims seem spurious – nothing like the grand and grandiose acts of God found in the Bible – there also seemed to be plenty of so-called miracles supporting each of the major religions, which left the question of which God(s) to worship still unanswered.  I identified as a deist for a while because I was still convinced by cosmological and teleological arguments, but the idea of a personal God who communicates with humanity and miraculously interferes with human events seemed totally unsupportable.

So for several years, I was able to believe in an immaterial, timeless mind that created the universe out of absolutely nothing, but I drew the line at thinking that this mind had any ability to influence the physical world.  I didn’t think about the nature of God very much during high school, despite continuing to attend a Catholic school.  I had high school to conquer.  As far as religion was concerned, I was too busy having lively debates in my classes on ethics and the Scriptures, and sleeping through classes on the minutiae of the Sacraments, and besides, atheism and deism have no empirically testable differences.  On some level, I knew that I might as well be an atheist for all the difference it made in my life, but I was still more attached to the idea of a superintelligent being who had set everything in motion than I wanted to admit.  I’ve always loved books, so after I’d discarded the childish idea of God the Father, I turned to the thought of God the Author: even if God didn’t love us, He’d still set up the world to tell stories about us.  He had a plan for us, and that plan was going to play out in an intelligently designed manner, so I could leave a great deal of things in the hands of God, secure in my faith that everything would turn out well.

I liked imagining I was playing a carefully penned part in some primordial script, and, I thought, if it makes no difference to my behavior, I might as well believe any comforting thing I want.  And I won’t deny that it brought me a great deal of comfort to think that, even if we weren’t cradled in the arms of a loving father, there was at least someone who knew what was going on and had made sure it would all make sense.  But the comfort wasn’t complete.  Whenever I reflected on this idea, I couldn’t help but question whether it was really actually true.  Eventually I came to the conclusion that it was a pointless question: because there wasn’t any detectable difference between a lawful world created by a non-intervening God and a lawful world that had arisen naturally, it wasn’t actually meaningful to distinguish between the two hypothetical worlds.  It never occurred to me that the lack of distinguishable features between the two ought to imply that neither world is more comforting than the other, but even that would have left me an agnostic, forever asserting that the answer is unknowable and therefore not worth thinking about.  It wasn’t until I took an apologetics class, my senior year of high school, that I thought closely enough about God to even consider being an atheist.

Apologetics was the most memorable class I took during high school, and it had the end result of finally making me an atheist.  Our teacher laid the groundwork for the year-long course by discussing the nature of logic and evidence as well as how proof works.  He took great care to rid us of the very un-Catholic idea that claims about God cannot be assessed using evidence and rational argumentation; after all, the point of apologetics is the employment of reason to avoid having to retreat to faith when one’s beliefs are challenged.  He emphasized over and over that reasoning about God is possible and that many truths about God are discoverable through reason.  Once propositions about God have been brought into the domain of logic, it of course follows that God’s nature cannot be a logical contradiction.  This was a turning point in my thinking about God.  The idea that any being with well-defined properties that are logically contradictory can be definitively proven not to exist allowed me to discard my automatic response of “God can’t be proven or disproven” in favor of a case-by-case approach.  So as I learned more about the idea of God presented in class, I came to realize that this God was logically inconsistent in some pretty fundamental ways.

(Continued in part 2: My problems with God)

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