Back in the 1960s, when I was in primary school in Drumcondra in Dublin, we were given a project to do over the Easter holiday. We had to read the Gospels, and rewrite them in our own words. I spent ages doing this, rewriting the stories and drawing pictures to accompany them.
Midway through doing this, it dawned on me that none of this ever happened. These were comic-book stories about a comic-book character, a superhero who could do magic. From then on, I didn’t believe in gods.
My parents were cultural Catholics from Tipperary and Clare. They often went to Mass, but always told me that I should make up my own mind about religion when I was old enough. While I didn’t believe in gods, I was fascinated by the big questions that religion claimed to have the answers to. How did the universe come to be? What is the meaning of life? How should we live together?
The religious answers seemed flawed, particularly as I learned more about the scale of the universe and how life on Earth evolved. Why would a supreme being create such a vast universe for just one of millions of species living on just one of billions of planets? Why would such a supreme being care about what we did in our bedrooms, or what we chanted on Sundays? Why would he give different messages to different people in different places at different times?
And yet for years I described myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. Saying for certain that there was no God just seemed to be a step too far, as nobody could prove one way or another whether or not it was true. And so I started to believe in the analogy of the three blind men and the elephant.
One blind man touches the elephant’s trunk and says, “The elephant is like a hosepipe.” Another blind man touches the elephant’s leg and says, “No, the elephant is like a tree trunk.” And the third blind man touches the elephant’s tail and says, “No, you’re both wrong; the elephant is like a piece of rope.” In the same way, I believed there was a universal reality and that all religions had a limited glimpse of some of it.
That grated with me, because it seemed to suggest all religions were equally true, though equally flawed. But it also seemed almost infinitely more likely that there were no gods than that there were gods. And yet I could not, with 100 percent certainty, discount the possibility. The dilemma seemed irresolvable, until I realised that I was applying different standards to my beliefs about gods than to my beliefs about anything else.
Strictly speaking, we cannot be certain about anything, even that we exist. What appears to be consciousness might be an illusion, and reality may be nothing like it appears. And so, in order to function sanely, we assume that reality is broadly as it appears, based on applying reason to the apparent evidence of our senses. And the best way to test this is the scientific method: make an educated guess, conduct unbiased experiments to see how that guess matches up to the evidence, and then reject or refine your idea based on the outcome of the experiments.
When we do that, we realise there is no need to invent gods in order to explain either reality or morality. Every generation, the scientific method teaches us more about how the universe operates. Every generation, religious people describe the bits that we don’t yet understand by saying that “God did that.” Every generation, we patiently move more and more answers from the “God did that” category into the “we now understand how it happens naturally” category. And we never move any answers in the opposite direction.
Crucially, the scientific method never claims to be 100 percent certain about anything. All it says is that, based on the best currently available evidence, this is what seems to be the case so reliably that, in practical day-to-day terms, we describe it as being true beyond reasonable doubt. However, if we ever get any new evidence that shows that we are mistaken, then we accept that we were mistaken and revise our ideas to match the new evidence.
If we apply the same reasoning to the question of whether gods exist, we can reliably say they do not exist based on the best currently available evidence. This is not a claim of certainty, and it is open to change based on new evidence, but it is a reasonable response to the best currently available evidence, and to centuries of related evidence. There is no good evidence that gods do exist, and lots of good evidence that the idea of gods was invented by human beings. It was realising this that enabled me to feel comfortable describing myself primarily as an atheist rather than an agnostic.
Atheism is also a better basis for investigating morality. Right and wrong are ultimately about how we affect the suffering and wellbeing of other sentient beings. Helping other sentient beings to flourish is good, and causing other sentient beings to suffer unnecessarily is bad. It is complicated to figure out what is right and wrong in any given situation, because there are so many permutations of the effects of your actions.
However, religion distracts us from identifying what is right and wrong by adding in answers that are unrelated to suffering and wellbeing in the real world, but are based on imaginary souls and imaginary consequences in imaginary afterlives. And so you get contradictory messages in books like the bible, which tell us to love our neighbour but stone him to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. We know that this last command is morally wrong, and so we ignore it. This shows that we do not get morality from the bible, but apply our morality to what we read in it.
But aside from the science and theology, it was the behaviour of many religious people that caused me to become an atheist activist. Not all religious people, of course, but many of those that have influence. The Catholic Church has influenced many Irish laws, and has a widespread culture of covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests. Islamic states infringe on the human rights of their citizens, and Islamic extremists fly airplanes into buildings.
And so I helped to found Atheist Ireland, an advocacy group that promotes atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, and that lobbies for a secular state that shows no favour to any religious belief. We want a secular Irish constitution, a secular education system and an end to the many links between church and state in Ireland. Everyone has a right to believe what they want about the supernatural, but the state should be strictly neutral about this.
This article was first published in September in The Hibernia Times.
21 thoughts on “How and why I became an atheist”
Thanks for that Michael. I thin we are probably in the same age bracket and I can certainly identify with a lot of what you say although my mother was a very devout Catholic until all the scandals broke. I have to admit that personally I never even thought of renouncing god altogether even though I did not ‘believe’. As naive as it sounds for a long time I did not even see that as a possibility until people like yourself. People like you are doing a marvellous job of making it ‘ok’ to question religion and even disgard it altogether. I applaud you for that. So to use an old cliche …keep up the good work….
I don’t need a Man in my life…ie God…lol…!
Thanks, Mary. I think it’s important to consciously reject the idea of gods rather than just ignoring it.
Kristine, he only smites you because he loves you 😀
Thanks Michael for a well reasoned, well laid out piece. My epiphany happened much earlier when I told my Grandmother I didn’t want to go to sunday school as I thought it was silly. Although she seemed quite devout neither of my parents were and we just drifted away from church.
It was only much later that I discussed atheism with my father and found he was also an atheist although he sometimes chides my on my militancy. He is happy to let people believe what ever they like but I see the inherent evilness and want to see religion removed from schools and Government etc.
Excellent article! Thank you very much… Atheist Alliance International posted it on G+ right on time when I needed it to answer question of one guy about why are people becoming atheists, so I posted it to him as nice and representative example.
Ireland needs more like you.
This is a topic I’ve thought about from time to time. I have long described myself as agnostic, as the existence of a god is unknowable. My sense is that the presence of a god is unnecessary to explain the universe. On the other hand, you could identify some fundamental force such as gravity and call it God.
A big problem in discussion of a god’s existence is that we anthropomorphize it. I certainly don’t believe in a god with an angry visage, flowing beard, and sex organs, or that humans are so special that God must look like us.
But if one describe God as a universally pervasive force that had no beginning, has no end, and is impervious to prayer, you might win me over. However, the behavior of religious practitioners is a different matter from the question of a deity. It’s a mistake to mix the two.
Personally, I became an atheist while watching an episode of “Good Times”. Honestly! I was about nine years old and I was watching the episode in which JJ’s younger brother, Michael, has gone to work for this intelligent sophisticated older gentleman whom the family, especially Michael’s mother, Florida, just loves. He’s working for this man in a pet store and the family is very very proud of him for having such a good job and such a fine mentor. Until, that is, they have Michael’s boss over for dinner and discover that the he is actually an atheist! Florida immediately kicks the man out of their house and forces Michael, against his will, to quit his job. She goes into great detail explaining to Michael what a horribly evil man this previously upstanding pillar of the community really is and how he is going to Hell! Thus Michael must sever all ties to him!
Michael was very confused and very upset because he still really liked and respected the man who had been so good to him. I, on the other hand, was not confused! I was sitting there on my couch hating this guy! I couldn’t believe he didn’t believe in Jesus! Then after a minute or so I realized I was hating someone just for not believing what I believed. Which led me to the questions; why do I believe what I believe? And once you honestly ask yourself that question it is all over!
I soon realized I had absolutely no logical reason for believing what I believed and that I was ‘incapable’ of believing something for which there was absolutely no proof! I was an atheist. Over the years I have read and studied the subject and everything I learn only makes me more certain there is absolutely no logical proof behind any religion or evidence for the existence of a “supreme being”. Thirty-five years after that episode of “Good Times” I am still an atheist.
Your thoughtful essay is finding readers in the USA. I am a believer. I feel “religion” is humankind’s attempt to explain creation. I will continue to believe until there is irrefutable proof that God (the creator) does not exist, which is no more possible than proving that Being’s existence. I cannot intelligently argue with your points, since there is no definitive evidence to provide an answer and since both our positions are based on faith rather than mathematical certainties, but I can understand how a person might arrive at your position. The one point I would disagree with, though, is that your supposition that all (or even most) believers think the universe was created for our single species. Any belief (faith) in “God” must assume the Creator’s ultimate “Unknowability,” to coin a simple word. I consider the universe and creation and its creator a Holy Mystery, and thus prefer faith in Something rather than in Nothing.
The problem with the Elephant and the three blind men story isnt that it alludes to their being one universal reality or truth but rather that it conveniently disregards the one person in the story who has access to this universal reality – the storyteller.
The story is told by those who wish to relativise truth claims as all having equal validity and all having a portion of the truth (and hence all needing to let go of thinking they are the one true view). But of course the flaw in this is that the person telling the story is by placing themselves on the outside – a place where they can see all that is happening- claiming that in fact they have access to this universal truth. They are in effect claiming that their version of reality is a universal truth and they do not have to let go of claiming to be the correct view.
This is an philosophical attack on all atheists Christians Muslims or anyone who holds to a exclusive worldview. As such its not really a story told by people who are anti-Christian or even anti monotheistic but rather its told (and accepted) by the growing number of “apatheists”. These are those who care not for either belief or a lack of it but want instead to never have to deal with ultimate questions at all.
I wish you, your organisation and fellow thinker’s strength in your uphill battle. Enlightening the ´indoctrinated blind´ is an uphill task.
I will pray for all of you misguided atheists. Hopefully many of you will some day realise that the minds of which you are so proud are actually very rickety, and unreliable. You are being manipulated and you cannot see it because you have convinced yourselves that you are right and everyone else is wrong. I’ll pray for you, because in the next few years things will happen that will make you wish you had never been born.
Thanks for nothing. Why not try something useful you supercilious twat.
I’ll bet as you typed that rubbish you felt all noble and virtuous in your head. Pray your foolish life away if you want, we will get on with the business of living. SMH….
You seem quite concerned about misguided people…Better watch out for those addicted with drugs, kids who don’t know what to do with life..NOTE ME IN PARTICULAR :/
Seems to me you are asking to be granted some sort of privelege, try better clarifying just what point you wish to make?
If you’ve clicked on the “follow-up” widget and have been reading the dribble of comments, you might find this book review in the NYTIMES of interest:
Hi, Joe Davis
I don’t know what privilege you talking about I was replying to concerned christian somewhere up there ..That would clarify me !
Disappointingly, I accept you really don’t know what I am talking about.No, you weren’t replying to “c0ncerned christian somewhere up there…”
So you have access to the internet highway, aren’t you lucky!
Stay away from fast cars and don’t venture onto a real motorway, at least until you appreciate the importance of confining yourself to the correct lane!
Could you damn stop trolling me with unnecessary advice of yours and not teach me what to do and what not to ! If you are for preaching go somewhere else and just say things significant !
I mentioned up there too NO ADVICE PLEASE And I love fast lanes so bother with something important to you not me !
Love what you doing back home in Ireland, and indeed internationally:)
I don’t know if I can say I was brought up a Catholic. My father took us to mass every Sunday up until I was about 14/15 (my mother never came), but I now think that it was just tradition with him and/or he thought he had to bring us. Suddenly we just stopped having to go. All that mass was to me was a half hour that had to be gotten through and thinking back on it I don’t think I ever believed (or even paid attention) to what was being said. Also, religion/god was never brought up at home. Still, just the society that Ireland was/is seeped in somehow and it’s taken a while to shake off.
I’m glad to say I’m naturally inclined to disbelief but the last 10 years, and last 4/5 more specifically, of listening to and reading the thoughts of your good self, as well as Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Grayling, Dillahunty and the like, has allowed me to now articulate those feelings of uneasiness towards things that, naturally, just didn’t seem to fit right with me. It’s a wonderful feeling, like a veil has been lifted from my face, and has triggered an insatiable curiosity for all the wondrousness of the reality of life and what it means to be alive.
Thank you kindly, and keep up the excellent work:)
Even science flies in the face of evolutionary/big bang theories https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gr8Az3QQZdI
It’s pretty obvious that our solar system was meticulously and purposely designed in such a way that defies the laws of known physics. Only God knows how our universe and life came into being and continues to exist today. God bless.