This concludes my accounting of my journey through the woods of belief. The view I have provided may be narrow – as the sole perspective was my own, from inside that turgid and stygian forest – and biased – as I am not strong enough to have emerged from the crucible of that voyage with my innocence entirely intact – and faulty – because I am a human, and as susceptible to errors of confabulation as anybody else – all which I freely confess. But it is also as full and faithful an accounting of my relationship with faith and the faithful as I’ve ever attempted. I arrive at the end of the story with the stage set and the players arranged through a series of tiny ebbs in probability over the course of my entire life, and all that remains in the telling is to describe that first step back into the world of natural discipline, represented in my case by my first reading of The Selfish Gene. Even that, however, was not my “Defining Moment” of the kind I have written, but was only the first of many small steps along a new course, a course which, itself, I only ever encountered thanks to billions of imperceptible factors aligning in just such a way as to create the opportunity for me to use my agency to this end. One different turn in that theological Schwarzwald and I could have emerged an entirely different creature.
But what happened is this: Dawkins gave way to other evolutionary biologists like Gould, Mayr, Dobzhansky, and Darwin, and reading their work and carefully studying the references lead me to Matt Ridley, Mary Roach, EO Wilson, Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Konrad Lorenz, Malcolm Gladwell, Jared Diamond, Frank Sulloway, Philip Zimbardo, James Randi, and many others. I am convinced that one cannot come away from exposure to so much information of this variety with any remaining theistic belief shaken, if not obliterated. By this, I do not mean to say that if you had read what I had read, you would believe as I believe; I am stating that my experience has been that as one’s understanding of the world expands, the difficult task of making sense of life – a purpose to which we are all put – requires belief in deities less and less. All gods appear to exist primarily in the gaps of our understanding of the universe around us, and the need or desire for them shrinks to fill those narrowing canyons. The logical terminus of this, simply said, is that belief in gods persist because we fear our mortality and do not well understand the universe around us. Belief in theology overlays a sense of order on that tapestry of natural chaos and anchors our sense of self to something larger, something powerful and not mortal and in control of the massive, terrifying, belittling universe.
The more that I went on to read, the more I gradually acquired the satisfaction and resonance that I had searched for. Here was not answers, but conclusions; no revelation but through explanation. Rather than impose upon us a set of decisions, reason and logic invite us to learn how systems operate and draw conclusions based on observable phenomenon. Nothing need be taken on faith. It was fascinating and exciting for my eyes to open to a world that made such marvelous sense. I devoured everything I could find as my understanding of the world flowered anew.
And yet, still, for reasons that I am certain many people whom I previously described as “apathetic” atheists will understand, I resisted using the word for a very long time. What began as a largely innocent curiosity provoked by the flickering of a decade-nascent interest in science had transformed me from a self-described “apatheist” to – at different times and around different people – an agnostic, a humanist, a naturalist, or a skeptic. But not an “atheist”. Never an “atheist”. Even a scant thirteen years ago, that word carried with it a significant amount of baggage of a kind that tended to provoke scandal and violence. Discrimination against people who professed an unbelief in a creator God was, at the time, a good deal more acceptable and pervasive than we encounter it now. Even as wannabe rough trade who during his teenaged years willingly adopted labels like “punk”, “anarchist”, and “warlock”, somehow to attach the word “atheist” to myself seemed to be courting a fight that I was in no lean sense unprepared for.
But that hesitation eventually rang false. As I continued to read and think and debate both with those who agreed and disagreed with my views, it became apparent that my reticence was unnecessary and insincere, and in the course of time, I stopped hiding behind that little fig leaf. The last scrap of modesty – or cowardice – that I clutched couldn’t hide the nakedness of my convictions, plain as they were to anyone who would look. And so I embraced the word: I became an “atheist”. And for a little while, I was kind of a knob about it.
Adopting that label meant quite a bit to me because there was so little glamour in it at the time. You are free to believe that after selecting a sequence of pathetic, rural, white, teenaged “bad boy” labels that “atheist” should simply be the next in line, cynically adopted because I needed a new flag under whose banner I could condescend to the greatest number of my tribal group. If that was ever the case – and I do not believe it ever was – it is at least true now that I no longer wish to condescend to anyone at this point in my life, and here I find myself crouching by the camp fires of infidels all the same. As I reexamine my life and the choices I have made, and having made sincere attempts for all directions along the axis of religious experience that were available to me, I am and remain an unbeliever, and as I approach the end of my preamble, I want to discuss what it is that I learned specifically from having lived on both poles of the religious/irreligious or theistic/atheistic spectrums. There is much that the cause of humanism can learn from the religious.
Community is Important
The overwhelming majority of humans adhere to the religious beliefs that are dominant in their community in which they were raised. The reasons for this require very little examination: “Give me the child for the first seven years”, goes the Jesuit saying, “and I’ll give you the man.” The best available neuroscience confirms how impressionable children are, and as children, most of us believe without dispute what we are told by our elders, no matter how absurd or even uncontroversially incorrect; many are those who have claimed to believe with conviction things that were mad or wicked because they were instilled by a warped upbringing. We are especially susceptible to learning from our elders, right or wrong, as a by-product of evolution; as humans, much of our mental software is acquired through pattern recognition and mimicry. The fact that children will emulate the behavior of the happy, healthy, and successful members of their society is precisely what we mean when we invoke the term “role model”, and it is why the tired joke about mugging television personalities breaking the fourth wall to say “Don’t try this at home, kids!” is such a popular trope. Children emulate those whom they watch.
In Frank J. Sulloway’s ground-breaking study on personality and birth order Born to Rebel, he discovered that only children, first children, and children born five or more years apart from their siblings tend to emulate their parents, but largely so only if they perceive the parent as successful. Children employ mimicry and pattern recognition in forming their model for being, so why shouldn’t we, then, adopt the religious beliefs of our role models? Children do not understand the tenuous and circumstantial link between correlation and causation; to their mind, the habits of a successful person are all part of the overall mosaic of habits and choices that total up to success. We refuse or buck these lessons at our own peril when we are young, many of them legitimately being vital to adapting to behavior in our tribal group, and even as adults we reject them often only after we have earned the mental fortitude and vocabulary of choice required to approach them from a point of objectivity. Having done that, we can select new software that resonates with us, or write our own to serve whatever end we require. But it seems many never examine themselves to this extent at all.
The fact that most people do not question their beliefs once they have reached adulthood is apparent when we look at people who live in extremely insular or segregated cultures where members of the tribe are not exposed to dissenting opinions at any point during their lives: there are, for example, no Buddhists in the cargo cult of Melanesia, and no Hindus among the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea. Nor is there any reason to be; religious mythology is wholly contrived by human minds and fashioned, as it ages, after the fancies of its adherents, and is in no way divinely inspired or mandated. If it was, we should see aboriginal Australians suffering self-inflicted torments in the name of the Norse god Wotan, or hear of Aleutians who find themselves compelled to kneel towards a Middle Eastern monument they have no conception of at regular intervals during their day. This is not the case. Both of these groups follow their tribal gods in some fashion and fall to apostasy only after having been exposed to new ideas. In fact, it is telling that the only belief structure that seems capable of having germinated and flowered in multiple civilizations and epochs without requiring it be “spread” by human art, literature, or speech is the lack of belief in any such divine figures.
Even if one adds to this calculus the fact that omniscient and omnipotent deities ostensibly must operate through mortal catspaws whom they empower only to reach very small portions of the sum of humanity in geographically-centric locations during times of unrest or disquiet in the historical tapestry, if the mind was truly free to forge its own path and not yoked into indoctrination of religious elders, we should see a profusion of belief structures across the world with the singularity of snowflakes. This, too, is not the case, and if you quibble with this assertion, answer for yourself why the very young children of people who worship any god but yours must believe what they do. Am I incorrect in thinking that the word “brainwashed” might arise in a statistically relevant number of responses? Moreover, how many people do you know who were furnished with an education of the world’s religions by their parents and then permitted to make their own choice, without comment or guidance or expectation? Encouragingly, this practice is becoming more common in some nations at this point in history, but it was not so in any but the most liberal of corners of the sphere a scant fifty years ago. Why do more parents not so furnish their children with the tools to make so important and significant a decision on their own? Because the overwhelming majority of parents do not want their children to make a decision.
This is less invidious than it sounds; parents wish for their offspring to share their core values, observe their taboos, and keep the rules of their home. This, at least, is understandable, and the simplest, most effective, seemingly most benign way of safeguarding this outcome is to impart upon their children the same mental software that they run, a significant portion of which is made up of religious belief. However, because so many religions are hostile to, scornful or, or ignorant of other beliefs, the child often receives a warped or malformed view of the “other”, or else has no view at all, and it is in this respect that all religious teaching is a form of indoctrination in that it restricts even the language in which an individual may consider new beliefs. By limiting the vocabulary of ideas, one effectively controls thought, and therefore controls behavior. The shaman has known this for many thousands of years, and Orwell illustrated it brilliantly with the concept of “newspeak” in his novel 1984:
“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.”
Religious indoctrination is linguistic relativity in action: by pruning the language, the very vocabulary with which individuals may think in is limited. Deviation from tribal norms becomes incredibly difficult when there exists no language in which to discuss it, speak of it, share the thought with others, or even properly visualize. It is for this reason that art, music, literature, and forums in which thoughts can be freely exchanged between peers are so important in the mental development of our species.
It is, therefore, that I assert that humanism, naturism, skepticism, atheism, and our associated philosophical leanings must become a community, and something a good deal more than one that exists only on the internet. Taken as a whole, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the internet, warts and all, but surely we can all agree that no online community is a replacement for an equally welcoming physical community. Many of us spend much of our lives online, but it is not where we raise our children. The process of shaping a young mind into a functioning, contributing, happy, fulfilled member of society is not a job that can be done by any amount of typing; we must live our principles, setting the example and showing those who would look up to us not only that one can be all of those things without faith, but that you can be those things without faith and still be a part of the world around us. As atheists, we should be more involved in the world around us than others, as we among all humanity believe that this world and the things within it are not merely a test run or audition for a greater existence to follow. Speaking for myself, I can say that if this life is all there is, I could think of no worse way to end it than to have withdrawn from the myriad sensations it had to offer.