Sunday, 30 September 2012

Early memories of an atheist

When I was a child my school had friday morning "scripture" and this, more than anything, is where I realised that I did not accept the claim of god.

I felt sorry then, and still do, for the woman who came in to teach all those young children about her  beliefs. A large hall full of children, sitting cross legged, listening and trying to get their collective heads around the concept of orignal sin.

My first uncomfortable question was "Why, if god knew everything, he did not know that Eve and Adam were going to eat the apple?"

And even as a child, the question of free will seemed intractable. I felt I could not have free will if god made me and knew exactly everything I was ever going to do... If the path of my life was laid out before I was born could any decision I ever made be truly mine?

The poor scripture lady was stuck, I was asking questions about god and faith far outside the "how much does god love me?" queries she was used to answering from children. The fumbled answers she gave all came back to the bible, it was the source of all knowledge of god.

Q: But how do we know the bible is true?
A: Everyone knows god in their heart.

Q: Do people find the knowledge of god without the bible telling them about it?
A: ...

At that point the scripture lady told me to pray for the answers.

My concerns are more sophisticated now, as are the responses, but I still find the answers inadequate.

When I was young, god, the bible, and the church simply did not make any sense, and no-one was able to address my concerns. The whole idea of god just left me asking why? What was his purpose? What did god want to get out of it that he could not get another way that would hurt (us) less?

The lack of a decent response led to my second problem with faith - None of the adults who tried to talk to me about faith were able to adress my concerns. Had these people committed to a belief without applying any critical analysis to it?

I rapidly lost respect for the beliefs of those adults with strong faith and no reason.

Both my mother and father had been brought up in nominally religious households, but religion was not part of my home life and we did not attend church.

My parents wanted me to find my own way and to that end they made me attend the scripture lessons at school for several years so I could make my choice with some perspective. When I asked my parents to write a letter to the school exempting me from scripture studies, the teachers complied but did not take my choice seriously.

It is strange, a child of any age able to articulate a choice of faith has the right to choose, however a child of any age that is able to articulate a rejection of the available faiths on offer is always subject to challenge.

Even in Australia where religion is not a strong influence in society, a child who says they dont accept god gets a wide range of negative reactions. From the occasional smack on the head from the elderly for being "stupid" to bullying and shunning from other children I met few people in my youth who even accepted that it was my choice to make.

Personal beliefs always get respected no matter how bizarre, but a lack of belief, no matter how rationally arrived at is not subject to the same courtesy.

While some adults were obviously unhappy with me when I said I did not believe in god, others with less mainstream beliefs, assumed that the gates were open to explain their own faith to me. I may as well have had a sign around me neck that "Proselytise me!".

I was told about the nature spirits that guided some people, the astral plain others travelled on, even the enlightenment some claimed from meditating with monks in asia. Everyone seemed to think that if I could just see how cool their faith was, that I'd jump in and get me some.

Added to my parents open lack of intellectual restriction led to a pretty broad education on religion, and now in my later years I find I know things about religions that many practicing theists do (however I do NOT claim any theological standing). The diversity and incompatibility of the different faiths I was exposed to, however, made me realize that some of them had to be wrong. There was just too many conflicting claims, and if some of them could be wrong, maybe they could all be wrong.

Most of the claims shared many common elements, but people often included the more extraordinary claims in an attempt to pique my interest. This approach universally backfired because often only a cursory investigation was required to find the evidence insufficient or totally lacking.

The best example of that was someone telling me that men had one less rib because god took a rib from Adam to make Eve.... No, not true. Humans have 24 ribs each. Male or Female, makes no difference. Some individuals have 1 pair of ribs less, but it's not a male or female specific variation. You can find this in almost any book on human anatomy even the really simple ones written for kids - yet you'd be surprised how many adults today accept that claim without even checking it once.

Disrespect and wild claims were nothing, however, compared to the condescension that atheists are often subjected to.

That look you see when someone of faith fixes you with a faint smile, a misty look in their eyes, and a sad slow nod. Then they tell you that you "dont understand", that you are "denying yourself", or worst of all, ignoring the "god shaped hole in your heart".

Atheists dont get the moral high ground on this issue, both sides look down on the other wishing they could "just let themselves understand" but it's a little soul crushing for a child to have their perspective dismissed out of hand. If a child disagrees with your beliefs, you need to be ready to discuss them openly and honestly - and that includes accepting that you may be wrong on some if not all of your positions.

In my adult life I have been very lucky in making friends who not only accept my lack of faith, but also have a sense of humility about their own.

Today atheism has become part fo the mainstream debate, I started this blog because I wanted to add another voice to the groundswell of rationalists. At leasts when an adult expresses their faith to a child today I would hope they could do so rationally and consistently, something that was sadly lacking when I was a child.

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