I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked over the years how I became an atheist, and my answer has always been disappointing, unsatisfactory or unbelievable to believers. Most people who have strongly held beliefs find it very disconcerting to contemplate disposing of them. Others who never had them, find it hard to grasp how a belief can be so all consuming as to be un-renounceable. That is until they consider their own convictions, morals, political and economic beliefs which they consider to be fully “justified” and therefore as unassailable as the religion of a believer.
I was raised as a Christian in the Lutheran church in America. When I was seven, I remember going to my Grandmother’s church in the late summer, probably in August, and seeing a drapery behind the altar cross, and asking my mother whether that was the “iron curtain” I’d heard about on TV. This was back in the mid-60s. She told me something like it wasn’t the “iron curtain” but it was holy and there was also something about the Holy Ghost (an entity in the Christian tradition I still don’t understand). Next Sunday, I went to Sunday school and took a bathroom break and went to look behind the curtain. It was cement blocks. Nothing special, no ghost, holy or otherwise.
At that time, I knew I wasn’t sure if I really liked God after my two weeks’ time in the church’s summer vacation Bible School. It was at a great church, located in a forested area, and had terrific sugar sweetened Kool-Aid and homemade cookies at snack time. That was the first memory I have of thinking about the Bible stories, learned from a teacher named Ruth. I didn’t like the Noah’s Ark story where everyone and all the animals died, I didn’t think much of Cain and Abel, or of the story of Jericho, but the one that really bothered me was the story of Jacob and Isaac where the hero lies to his father and cheats his brother and God is ok with it all. This was the founding Hebrew hero to be renamed as Israel; deemed of reprehensible moral character in the eyes of a seven year old? I knew about Jesus too, but I don’t recall having any impression either way on him or his story.
That December, I was back to my Grandparents’ house and I was in the car with my parents, baby sister and my Grandparents. It was Christmas Eve, and we were on our way to the evening church service, during which time Santa Claus would come and leave gifts. This was accomplished by my Dad who, once we were all in the car, remembered that he had forgotten to shave and had to go back into the house for a few minutes while we waited in the car. The presents from Santa were duly manifested under the Christmas tree, and Dad returned to the car.
At seven, I had real doubts about Santa Claus. While in the car, someone was telling me that Santa would come to the house soon. I looked out the car window, up to the night sky (easy to do when you’re a short kid, but not as easy when you’re a tall adult) and for some reason I said something like “I see Santa Claus” knowing that it was untrue. I said it to see what they would say. My Grandpa and Mother both looked out the windows and confirmed that Santa was indeed there. I asked my Dad, who was driving, and he said that maybe he saw airplane lights. My Dad was, and remains, a cool dude. It was then that I knew without any doubt that there was no Santa Claus. I didn’t feel bad at all, I felt happy that I knew the adult secret.
But that wasn’t the event. My world didn’t change because of Santa being a fairy tale, like Casper the ghost or Puff the Magic Dragon. I don’t know what I was thinking about next. I have no memory of it. But at some point, while still in the cold car, which took a long time for them to heat up back then, a realization dawned on me. This was my moment of truth, my epiphany. The lie about Santa was the same as about God. People were willing to believe a lie, because like Santa it was something that was supposed to make you feel good. God was a lie people tell themselves. It scared me, and I remember being afraid.
It wasn’t logical, as a lie presupposes that the perpetrator knows the truth and intentionally chooses to ignore it. I think many religious people truly believe that they know an ultimate truth denied to those lacking “faith.” So my moment of enlightenment, as it were, is not something that I hold onto today, nor does it have the same meaning for me as it did when I was a child. It was a simplistic explanation for a very complex human condition, but it carried me forward and inspired me to learn more about human psychology and comparative mythologies. At some point, I developed a desire to understand why some people can believe and others cannot. It’s still a work in progress and I will probably die without an answer, but that doesn’t mean that the quest has been unsatisfying.
I never told my parents I had lied about seeing Santa, just to see if they would lie to me about it. And I never told anyone in my family that I didn’t believe in God until it was time for me in my teenage years to attend Lutheran confirmation classes1. I then told my Grandma, who was quite religious, that I didn’t believe in God and I thought it was all nonsense and that even if there was a God, as described in the Bible, I wouldn’t like him.
She never said anything negative to me about it. She just told me that if I didn’t get confirmed, it would make my Mom feel very bad, and that if it didn’t mean anything to me, then I should do it to be nice to my Mom. For many years after that, she would sometimes jokingly call me a heathen if I said I didn’t want to go to church in front of her, and it was our secret just between us. I went through confirmation and made my Mom happy.
My other Grandfather also knew I didn’t believe, but then he didn’t believe either. He had not gone to Church as a boy, and I learned later in life that he and his brothers had very ill feelings for the Catholic Church, which they felt had treated their mother (who was Catholic) poorly when their father had died at a young age. My Grandpa was a Freemason, and was active in community charity work. He didn’t believe in a personal God, just that there “might be something.” I remember asking him about death when I was in high school, and his reply still holds me today. “When you’re dead, you’re dead. So you better live right now because you don’t get a second chance.”
Everyone goes through their own unique experiences. A few people, however, have encountered that special moment when the proverbial “light goes on,” when the “penny drops,” when the “third eye opens,” and a new understanding or empathy dawns. These moments are not limited to the contemplation of religion or philosophy, but occur in research, mathematics, business, invention, the creative arts, etc. They occur because we are human, and sometimes the human brain makes a leap into the darkness and emerges into the light. We see a new pattern, we discover a new color in the rainbow.
There is nothing special or mystical about these moments. It’s our own brains processing information, perhaps in a momentarily unique way that makes us feel as though it’s special or important. Perhaps it’s merely when we let our guard down, and our subconscious takes over. I don’t know, and it’s not really important. Maybe someday there will be a pill we can all take that will let our thoughts arrive at that “eureka” moment for both scientific and philosophical inquiry. Until then, each person, in their own way, seeks a truth realizable and understandable to them.