Thursday, April 23, 2009

Growing up an atheist: another internet meme

Well, I've finished my reading for today--finishing King Lear and the Rape of Lucrece (the latter of which was far more moving than I was prepared for)--so I've got a couple of hours to kill before I need to change for dinner. I could do some more reading, or muck about on facebook, perhaps do yet another quiz that started as a poorly disguised attempt for someone to find out if someone else was single and interested. But this meme the Friendly Atheist brought up today takes my fancy instead.

This is an interesting little meme that began on the Friendly Atheist Forums.

Highlight the important parts of your religious deconversion, grouping it by age. Here’s my own, with a focus on going from new atheist to wearing-it-on-my-sleeve atheist:
  • 14: My family moved and I began questioning my faith for the first time; over a few months, I came to realize I was an atheist.
  • 15-18: Became more comfortable with my atheism in high school but didn’t tell many people.
  • 19-21: Began a college atheist group; became more vocal about my beliefs.
  • 22-25: Became very public about my beliefs (got involved with national atheist organizations, wrote the book, started this blog).
  • 26-30: Used my atheism to win over the ladies.
Ok, that last one hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure I can foresee the future…

What's your story?

Unfortunately my intellectual growth is a bit lost in the depths of time, since my conversion to militant atheism, until its last stages, was not marked by any significant events or upheavals and left no date-and-time-stamped evidence. So this might be guess work, and horribly muddled. But here goes... [bxA]

0-7: went along to church without really thinking much about it. Liked hymns, the people at church, the avuncular and funny vicars, the sense of worth that being the son of prominant members of the church (organist and sometime choir soloist) bestowed upon me.

Our church several times had vicars-in-training, and one guy seemed quite cool. All I remember is him having sandy hair, his wife having black hair, and their having a baby son who we played with in the churchyard after services. At blessings at communion he would talk to me about football, which wasn't my thing, but I remember liking anyway.

When he put his hand on my head I really did feel blessed; I got a warm feeling all through from where his hand rested atop my head, down to my feet, a butterflies-in-the-stomach kind of feeling and I was sure it was God. (Later, of course, I realised I got the same feeling listening to some uplifting music, watching a moving film, and even having the barber crop the hair on the back of my neck with an electric trimmer; it wasn't God, it was just a psychological effect of being in a place with a lot of people all doing the same thing, of being released from a cynical outside world and being allowed to think things significant--you can see why people would get addicted to Church despite its fuddy-duddy reputation).

Until I finally stopped believing I got a kick out of being one of the few kids at school who went to church regularly; it made me feel superior.

7-10: started thinking more about God and what he was. Drew a picture of a cloud covered with ears (because he was in the sky and needed to hear everyone's prayers) in school. Prayed nightly for various things, treating God as a bit of a fairy-godmother for granting wishes--"God, if you do [such and such] I promise I'll really believe in you!" and suchlike. To my mind that wording (I have graphic memories of praying at this age) suggests that I'd already cottoned on a bit that things weren't as they seemed. I carried on going to church, enjoyed hymns, didn't worry my head about it.

9-13: Joined the choir. Got confirmation lessons with the vicar, and was eventually confirmed. It must have been in this period, though, that I began to value my Sunday morning lie-ins and only occasionally went to church. I still liked to go, not for the God, but for the hymns and the people and the feeling of pride and superiority. Even while I was being confirmed (it actually must have been while I was ten or eleven, because we hadn't yet moved house) I wasn't really taking God seriously and Mike the vicar's lessons never seemed to have much God in them.

12-15: By the time I was well started in Grammar school, I had pretty much stopped going to church for most of the time. I was thrilled by religious studies lessons where the teachers actually gave us the opportunity to debate. I have no idea where I'd picked ideas up from--I certainly don't think I had reasons for it--but in R.S is the first time I distinctly remember saying I didn't believe in God--backed up by my mate Duncan and others.

The next few years were spent in fairly passive agnosticism, but it must have been in 2004 or 2005 when I joined the (now defunct) mikeinside Sims2 forums, first to find out how to build cellars in The Sims, but later to read with interest the debate forums where I got my first taste of real Atheism. I cut my teeth on the topic "Who is better--God, or Satan?", and with its help and wikipedia's thought outloud into a word document, the Ultionis in Deist manifesto. My hypothesis was that God was real, but evil, and needed to be worshipped--the only way to get him to make the world a better place was to stop everyone worshipping him and get them to actively insult him.

15-16: having made a beginning, I fed my insatiable appetite on Wikipedia, and with a renewed interest in the bible devoured large tracts of it, marking with highlighter and post-it note the most debauched passages. To my delight I found that nobody else in my immediate life had ever bothered to even think about looking beyond the Good Samaritan and the book of Genesis, and had never heard the disgusting passages I read out loud to them. As late as April 2006, however, I was still writing such comments in my diary as

"I was in the choir for once, and at eight people it was one of the largest that we have had for ages. It was the first time I had been back since Christmas, almost. I felt very happy during the service, and was once again sure there is a God. Unfortunately this certainty leaves me as I leave the church, which means I spend much of my time in acute uncertainty."
Later that month I bemoaned,

"My life is filled with such confusion; god or no god?"
In July, despite my definite uncertainties (I have no idea why I was uncertain when I'd fallen upon my old confirmation bible with such glee..) I did a week's work experience with Mike the vicar. In my diary, (6th July, 2006) I've written:

"John Palin came in at about three and amongst other things came out with ‘do you think God is trying to get you to be ordained, Dominic?’ to which I had to answer…’I just don’t know’. And it’s quite true. I wouldn’t have thought it was a very good idea, and I have very little faith. But if he is up there he seems to be doing his level best…"
Actually, looking back over this, it's a bit shocking. My transformation seems to have been more emotionally charged and uncertain than I remember. My agnosticism shows up again after results day (24th August):

"I had a brief thought about whether or not the fact I had prayed to God at the start of each exam, just on the offchance as usual, had had anything to do wth getting an acceptable mark on those exams I was most worried about; certainly it was very surreal to have gained above a C on my Drama and History."
At the prizegiving ceremony, later, I remember that I'd considered asking for the newly published God Delusion but going for The Selfish Gene instead; Duncan actually asked for the former, fearing less the wrath of our notoriously god-bothering headmaster. On September 3rd I mention that I've written The Ultionis in Deist Manifesto, and that I'd been arguing God with Sam Tunmore. By the 13th I list 'proving the non-existence of God' as one of the things I can talk about but which bores other people. Seem to have had my first God debate with mum on the 28th.

16-19: Although I was immensely interested in the God debate, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion did not arrive on my bedside table until Monday 29th January. It was the turning point, changing me from a fence-sitter leaning towards maltheism or agnosticism, into a militant atheist. It was for me and those of my ilk that Dawkins wrote it. Although it came out in late 2006, I still managed to get a hardback, first edition with my Christmas money. My outlook was fundamentally changed, and since that time my atheism has grown, developed, and gained all kinds of nuances.

And that brings us to the present day. Despite my suspicions that it's not making me any more popular, that it's not the best way to spend my life, I usually think "it's fun, what the hell", and besides, I can't really remove its fascination from my life. In late 2007 I discovered Atheist blogs, and in early 2008 moved my blogging activities from Myspace to Following five blogs, several websites, and news-feeds on iGoogle RSS readers, my computer is filled with so many potential topics for consideration when I awake that, these days, I have it down to an art and could easily spend all day writing and thinking about nothing but religion and atheism... though I get no more than 20 readers a day, compared to the thousands who flock to other sites.

I don't write for you, though; I write for me.

Wow. That was more revealing than I expected. Something I should have done a long time ago, is look back. Now I have. Thank goodness I started keeping a diary (although since I started blogging I don't have much time for it). It's nice to have documentation of my formative years.

If I hadn't discovered the God Delusion, it's probable that I would have lived a few years as C.S.Lewis-like agnostic, a few more in disinterest, and later returned to the church based on my emotional appreciation of the ceremony and enjoyment of hymns and church-buildings. Thank God for Dawkins and the New Atheists.

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