Whenever a group of nonbelievers get together, sooner or later the question “how did you come to your non belief?” inevitably comes up. I have always found this question hard to answer. I didn’t break away from a church, nor did I come from a religious family. My brushes with official religion consisted of my baptism into the Anglican Church and various weddings and funerals I have attended over the years. For most of my life my thoughts on the big questions were governed by that oh-so-Canadian quality – apathy.
Not that I didn’t notice religion growing up, but from my earliest recollection I always thought it just a little weird and well, uncomfortable.
Throughout elementary school there was a girl in my class. Every morning the teacher would haul out the Bible for that morning’s reading. There was a chair in the hallway and the teacher would say “Barbara you can be excused” and Barbara would go sit out in the hallway. In grade four, Barbara was joined by my friend Mahmoud. I always wondered what went on in the hallway while we had to listen to some often really boring stories. Later, it was explained to me that the other kids were from a different religion, but I still didn’t get it. Why couldn’t they listen to the stories? They were just stories. In my entire elementary school career honestly, nobody told me the stories were supposed to be true.
Finally, in grade five, on a wonderful wet fall morning making my way to school and goofing around with my friends, I took a tumble into a puddle. After running home to change I was a little late for school. I came in just as the Bible reading time started, when all the classrooms are closed and all kids were supposed to be inside. To my amazement there must’ve been 20 kids out in the hallway in groups of two or three all sitting by the doors of their classrooms. I distinctly remember thinking I’ve got to get a religion so I can hang out in the halls too, not that I understood what religion was at the time. This religious thing was indeed very strange to my young mind. By grade 6 ,my last year of elementary school, there was no more Bible reading in classes, there was also no more sitting in the halls. The “different” kids ceased to be different kids and became just our friends. It took me until adulthood to realize that getting religion out of the classrooms was a good thing.
As with most kids, my beliefs were very much influenced by my parents. Luckily I was raised by good ones. My dad regards organized religion pretty much with indifference. To this day I’m still not sure what he believes. My mother, on the other hand, was very much a believer. For her it was a very personal belief, nearly absent of dogma and tempered with reason. It was a faith she really didn’t discuss much with me, or anybody else for that matter, and she didn’t frequent a church regularly. As a kid – when asking the tough questions in life; you know the ones: “why do zebras have stripes” or “why does Saturn have rings?” – my mother was never one to say “well that’s just the way God made it”. No, my mum would make you work for the answer. “You know where the library is, go look it up!” was most often the reply to questions she didn’t have answers to.
Growing up I enjoyed a steady diet of National Geographic specials, Wild Kingdom and Jacques Cousteau. Later it was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Gerald and Lee Durrell’s The Amateur Naturalist. In the late 70s we got cable and I discovered a new station full of awesomeness – Prairie Public Television. As a kid I was never a big fan of school, but my mother sure made me a big fan of learning, and the natural world is an awesome thing to learn about.
From time to time in my life the God question would come up, either friends or acquaintances would ask me what I believe. Their questions were often met with a shrug or sometimes I would offer “well I suppose someone must’ve started it all”, in a kind of half-hearted agreement to whatever they believed in. Go with the flow – no bumps, that was my motto. From what I saw, I believed people’s beliefs were harmless. Believe what you like, it didn’t bother me, but I could never believe in God. The apathy regarding the big questions continued on for quite a long while. Kids, cars, school, mortgage, married life and the business of living were what was most on my mind.
I don’t know what triggered it, but a few years ago I just felt the need to find out what I believe and why I believe it. Maybe it was 9/11 or the rise of the Christian right. Maybe I just needed to figure out what box I fit in, what label to stick on myself. I started reading all kinds of stuff. My wife and I even attended a church twice. Hell, we even had a pastor and a couple of church members over for coffee. We’ll just say that short foray into the religious world left me confused, a tad angry and drove my wife straight into the gentle arms of agnosticism.
In my efforts to figure it all out I learned a lot about what other people believed. I also learned that for me those beliefs were completely unbelievable!
In 2006 I read an online paper called “Atheism Explained” by David Ramsey Steele (it was later to become the book Atheism Explained: From Folly To Philosophy). Well, that was it, I was an atheist and came to the realization I’ve probably been one all my life. I started to read Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, some Thomas Payne and Bertrand Russell. Today I am proud to call myself an atheist. Many call themselves nonbelievers but to call oneself an atheist, in my opinion, indicates a willingness for the individual to accept the world around them for what it is and as science finds it. That being said, it is kind of weird to describe someone by what they don’t believe in. After all, atheism is just a conclusion from the question “does God exist?” Atheism says only one thing to those who would claim that a supernatural god exists and that is, “we don’t believe you”.
Atheism may say something about the person but it says very little about what the person believes. No, if you want to talk about what I don’t believe in then I’m an atheist. If you want to talk about what I do believe in, I’m a humanist.
On my journey to figure out what I believe and why, I’ve seen the damage done by greed, personal agendas, bad ideas and, of course, religion. If we look back in history there’s no lack of bad ideas: slavery, Stalinism, Nazism, etc., but one of the chief purveyors and veritable storehouse of bad ideas throughout history has to be religion.
Voltaire said “those who can believe in absurdities can commit atrocities”. At its core I find religion absurd. As Richard Dawkins explained in The God Delusion, religion was humanity’s first try at understanding the world. Who knows, maybe evolution gave us a pre-disposition to believe in supernatural entities. But as for religion, its’ time is past and belongs in, as Dawkins says, “the dustbin of history”. All ideas must be discussed, debated and reasoned in an open and free forum. Informed by science, backed by reason and critical thought, then balanced with human compassion and empathy. I am convinced more than ever that humanism can give us that forum. It is by far the best method of living life our species has come up with. Humanism will give us the best tools to deal with today’s problems and the unknown problems that will be faced by our children and our children’s children. Fundamentally changing the way people think is a tough row to hoe – a little like moving a beach one grain of sand at a time.
But I’m happy to do my part.