The recent string of "What I Believe (or don't believe)" GTKY daylogs has
inspired me, for better or for worse. If anything, writing out my own beliefs
in a (hopefully) coherent manner will help me to understand myself.
In my 24 years, I have gone from indoctrinated Christian to Rabid Atheist
to, most recently, sort of an existential agnostic perspective. I was raised
Christian, and as a child generally attended one church or another (I recall
going to Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian churches while
growing up). It made sense that I believed in the Christian God as a child; this
was the only perspective I was exposed to. It seemed preposterous to me that anyone
could NOT share my belief; after all, wasn't it obvious? The first religion
I was exposed to other than Christianity was Judaism (I had Jewish classmates in
elementary school) and my first impression of Judaism was rather South Park-esque:
"Cool, you guys get presents for EIGHT DAYS!" It didn't really occur to me until
I was about 12 that if Christianity was "correct", that meant Judaism was lacking
something. I was fed lots of "Christ is the only way to the Father" doctrine,
and once I realized that this notion excluded a lot of decent, honorable people,
it began to make me uneasy.
In third grade I was a Creationist. I remember arguing with my friend
Amanda (the first atheist I ever knew) about creation versus evolution. Our
exchange went something like this:
Anne (me): You believe in God, right?
Amanda: No, I think we came from monkeys!
Anne: But the Bible says we came from Adam and Eve!
Amanda: Yeah, but they've found fossils and stuff that support
the theory of evolution.
Anne: Then why aren't all the monkeys in zoos turning into humans?
Amanda: Not ALL of the monkeys evolved, dummy.
Anne: Oh. Well, if you don't believe in God, aren't you afraid of going
Amanda: No...I think that when we die it's just nothing.
Anne: Well I'd rather be safe than sorry!
Looking back at this exchange between two eight-year-old girls, I cringe
at my responses. Not only was I a young Creationist, I invoked Pascal's Wager!
Amanda, unlike me, had not been indoctrinated. I prayed for her soul after this
conversation, thinking that she was very unfortunate not to have Jesus in her
In about sixth grade, the critical aspect of my brain began to develop. I
had identified a phenomenon inconsistent with my worldview: lots of good,
friendly people who were not Christians. I also realized that there were people
in the world in remote areas who would go through their entire lives without
ever hearing of Christianity or its associated God. The idea that these
people might end up being eternally tormented simply because they were not
born into the "right" region of the world was abhorrent to me, and still is.
When I asked adults what would befall these individuals after death, I was
given the stock response: "Jesus is the only way into Heaven." Naturally,
I found this unsatisfying. I was no better than some child on a distant
island or in the middle of a desert. Why should I deserve some blissful
eternity, due to mere accident of birth?
I continued to call myself a Christian until about eighth grade. At that
point I realized that there was an entire world of knowledge, theory, and
culture out there that I had never even considered before. I also vowed
that I would be willing to spend an eternity in Hell, for the sake of those
who never had the chance to hear about the "right" religion. I also figured
that if it turned out there was a God, he would forgive me for my
doubts and questions, rather than punish me for using my brain! After this
point, I wasn't quite an atheist...I don't know what I was, but I was no
longer a Christian. I hid this fact from my family, knowing that they would
be upset with me. My "rabid atheist" phase did not actually begin until
my junior year of high school, when I discovered via the Internet that
there were entire communities of nonbelievers, and a wealth of literature
that theorized how a Universe and planets with life may have come about
without a conscious creator.
As is common in high school students, I began to notice hypocrisy everywhere;
the ridiculousness of such things as "Holy" wars, Crusades, and Inquisitions
really hit home. Everyone, I realized, thought that THEIR religion was correct!
Every religion seemed to have little pamphlets explaining how all other faiths
were somehow wrong. I felt like all the information I got about religion was
being filtered and colored by human ambitions and biases. I have read most
of the King James Bible (I skimmed over the genealogy listings, but I read
most of the narrative parts), and while I agree that it is a magnificent book
with great value, I think it is a very human book.
The Bible tells of a God who changes his rules, a God who
makes mistakes. This God experiences anger and
jealousy and is far more human than many adherents would like to admit. The
Old Testament lists pages and pages of rules regarding cleanliness vs. uncleanliness,
as well as dietary restrictions and regulations for proper sacrifice. This
information is vital for cultural anthropology, but I have never heard of
anyone who follows the Old Testament to the letter. Christians I've talked to
say that the animal sacrifices, etc., are no longer required because of Jesus's
sacrifice of himself. It is simply too difficult for me to take the leap of faith
that the Gospels are entirely accurate; they were written a long, long time ago,
and basically are asking me to take their word for something that happened.
I have a very, very hard time believing a fantastic account simply on someone's say-so.
Over the years I've gotten such advice as,
"Just open your heart to Jesus, He will show you the way if you are willing to listen."
"You just need to keep reading the Bible and eventually it will speak to you".
"You really ought to be more appreciative of what Jesus did for you, He loves you
and died for you and you are just throwing away this wonderful gift of eternal life!"
"Satan is using your God-given abilities in science and reason to deceive you into
believing there is no God."
While I appreciate the concern people have shown me, advice such as this rings
hollow. I will continue to read Bible passages from time to time, and I am certainly
open to the possibility of anything that might be true! I do not, however, want to
fall into the trap of believing something simply because I wish it were so. Eternal
life sounds wonderful, but do I deserve an eternity of bliss? I think not!
It would be nice, but I don't think anyone really knows what happens after death, so
I'm not going to spend this existence dwelling on something that may or may not
happen afterwards. I'm going to try to live as long and as deeply as possible,
and enter unbiased into the unknown.
It is only in the past three years or so that my position has softened. I no
longer feel angry at religion, rather, I understand it is a necessary aspect
of human nature. Whether it reflects a supernatural source or something
at the core of our humanity that we are trying to understand, I cannot tell. But
it definitely fills a need, and for some people, it is all that sustains them
through dark times. Religion cannot explain everything, but neither can 20th-
century science. I do not think we have learned all there is to know about the
Universe, and I think it is very likely we will make discoveries as a species
that will floor us with awe at the majesty of nature. When I was 20 years
old I had sort of an existential shock, and I haven't been the same since. The
Universe is an extremely weird place, with complexity operating on every scale.
We don't even know why anything exists at all, let alone sentient life! We have
yet to figure out the exact mechanism of consciousness. We don't fully understand
the nature of time. We program our minds with words and symbols from birth
onward, so everything we experience passes through a filter, a dynamic framework
established by previous generations and ever-growing with our individual experiences.
It seems that from an objective perspective, life is simply a means of
energy transfer and conversion. There is something self-perpetuating within
us that is deeply ingrained into our most primitive selves. We share this
need to survive and reproduce with every other living organism. It is perhaps
the most profound drive in the Universe. Most of us do not want to die,
despite the various belief systems which promise us eternal life. Most of
us end up reproducing. While we're here, what are we going to do with ourselves?
Our large, complex brains may have evolved simply to give us an edge in self-
preservation and the ability to stay alive long enough to reproduce and raise
our children. But an unanticipated side effect of our braininess is that we
do not like to be bored. We aren't satisfied to just eat, sleep, reproduce,
and die. We need diversions, we need significance. Just being alive is not
enough, at least not for most people. Religious faith serves this function
for some, but what of the rest of us?
For me, life is about discovery and enjoyment. I know I will never know all
the secrets of the Universe, but I try and follow the latest advances in science,
despite the fact that I never took any mathematics beyond differential equations
and calculus. I like reading about past societies and possible future societies.
I play with technology. I try to get as many perspectives as possible on difficult
issues. As for the enjoyment of life, there are games and friends and conversations
and food! Sometimes chocolate alone is reason enough to live, in my opinion.
When it comes down to it, we need to make our own meaning. This is the essence
of the existential perspective. Without consciousness to shape our experience,
our existence would be very routine and mechanical; we would be no different from
our genes themselves, or from cells who unknowingly divide and divide and divide.