My reasons for being an atheist or how I knew I was one.
A few years ago, I published on my blog in french my memories about my first contacts with religion during my childhood and how I dealt with it at the time. I said in myself that someday I would translate the article in English in order to publish it on Facebook but I'm lazy and a special kind of procrastinator. I regularily postponed the idea until I met a couple of francophile American friends on Facebook whose husband gladly translated the whole article. Be Toni Gandel and Gerry Kamber enough thanked for this kind attention.
Before you read the article, I have to explain a few French cultural terms so my non-French readers can understand the context and the words I used.
CE1 : Second class of primary school in France. The children start the school at 6, learn to read and count in the CP class then continue in CE1 the next year.
Guy Lux : A popular variety TV show anchorman in France during the 60's and 70's. American equivalent : Ed Sullivan.
Catechism classes : Equivalent in the USA to "Sunday school", except in France it takes place on Wednesdays, as this day is off school.
As I said earlier, the translation from French to English has been performed by Gerry Kamber, with my few corrections. Gerry, you did a great and professional job. Thank you again.
Now the article. Any comments encouraged.
The title of this article seems poorly chosen, but I don’t have a better one. In fact, the origins of atheism of every human being are in his/her actual birth. A newborn doesn’t believe in god and, what’s more, has no need of a god. It’s rather of the conscious origin of my atheism that I want to speak.
My first unconscious atheist act goes back to when I was five or six years old, when my grandmother bought me a chain with the medal of a saint. I didn’t understand what she was saying about what this medal represented. I had no idea of what religion could be, but I had the impression that I was getting shanghaied into something that I couldn’t accept, let alone understand. When I was alone in my room, I pulled the chain from my neck and threw it and the medal between the bed and the wall. When they asked me where the chain was, I confessed, got a scolding and refused to put it on again.
The consciousness of my atheism goes back to two events having no direct connection with a divinity or a given religion, but with the “supernatural.”
First event: I was about seven years old and in the CE1 class. The teacher, I no longer know for what reason, began to tell us more or less: “OK, I think it’s time to destroy the myth: there’s no Santa Claus! Are there any students in this class who believe in Santa Claus?” The class was dumbstruck; half of them no longer believed in Santa Claus; the other half, to which I belonged, believed in him. The teacher went on: “It’s your parents who leave the presents.” Shocked at the time, I walked home after school and I asked my mother. She was eloquent in support of the teacher. Then she added this phrase which would remain with me: “Marvels and magic don’t exist.” My mother succeeded in convincing me. In a sense, her explanation was much more logical even if it was difficult for me to admit to. What she said made sense while the existence of Santa Claus was in any case improbable.
Second event: I was in the habit of buying the TV Guide the day it came out on the newsstands giving the list of the programs for the following week. Once I got home, I would check all the programs that interested me. Opening the magazine to the Saturday page, I noticed a variety show with the picture of a man in a top hat holding a dove on his finger. That artist, whom I normally referred to as a “magician,” was to participate in the variety show. But under his photo following his name, was the term “illusionist.” In “illusionist,” there is “illusion” and up to that day, I accepted the routines of those artists literally. That is, if there was a dove, there really was a dove created from nothing. There again, I asked my mother. “But it’s not all true? It’s only an illusion?” I asked her. “Yes,” she answered, “it’s a trick. An illusionist is clever with his hands. If he seems to hold something in his hands, it’s only a trick. And she repeated the phrase that she had told me once before: “Marvels and magic don’t exist.” I was convinced once again even if, as with the question about Santa Claus, her explanation had shaken me up and forced me to a radical and difficult examination of the world around me.
A year later, my grandfather and grandmother were staying with us during summer vacation, and they brought my cousin, two or three years older than I. My grandfather was a deeply religious man. Every time he arrived in a strange place, the first thing he would do was take a walk to visit the local church. During this vacation, he had taken my cousin aside and enlisted him to initiate me into the Catholic religion. For the balance of the vacation, they had placed in my bedroom, a second bed in which my cousin slept. I can see us at that period, in our respective beds, in the middle of the night, he whispering to me the principal elements of belief: there exists according to him an all-powerful god who created the universe, a god who knows everything, who understands everything, who is omnipresent, who walks on water, who was crucified then resurrected, whose flesh can be eaten and whose blood can be drunk by going to church. I asked my cousin a few questions, he answered me within the limits of his knowledge. Then we fell asleep.
The next day, I went to play to play outside while my cousin was still sleeping. I reviewed everything he had told me the night before. Already the idea of believing in god without proof sounded false. The idea that we have to believe in god because “that’s the way it is,” was never a reason for me to accept either religion or anything else.
And it’s no less true today. I thought of my mother’s words: “Marvels and magic don’t exist.” I had no reason to place the hypothesis of the existence of god in any other framework but that of the marvelous and the magical. And if they don’t exist, it’s easy to infer that god doesn’t exist either. And I concluded that what my cousin had told me that night, was nonsense right down to the last word until I had proof of the contrary. At that point, I adopted a kind of enlightened agnosticism. But one thing bothered me: why do people believe in god? And why do certain persons accord so much importance to what I believe? Unable to resolve these questions, I left them unanswered. I would find the answers much later, after I had been an adult for many years.
A few months later, while I was playing outside, I got thirsty and went in to get a drink of water. My mother was watching a TV show about the sixteenth century Wars of Religion and particularly the Saint-Bartholemew’s Day Massacre. While I was drinking, I watched snippets of the film distractedly. You saw a rather violent scene of mass murder of Protestants, and then a close-up of a Catholic holding a Protestant on the ground. The Catholic had the point of his sword to the Protestant’s neck. “Give up your religion or I’ll kill you.” “Never,” answered the Protestant. That scene shocked me. Not because of its violence and bloodthirstiness, but because I could understand neither the motivation of the aggressor nor that of the victim. From a Catholic point of view, I couldn’t see why it was important to kill that man, this fellow human being who hadn’t harmed him, for the reason that he didn’t worship god in the same way. From the point of view of the Protestant, I couldn’t see why he preferred to lose his life rather than abandon his faith. Common sense shows us that life is of inestimable value. That sequence appeared completely absurd to me from one point of view as from the other. And nothing, absolutely nothing justified the fact that two persons could kill one another for that reason. It was really sick.
My grandfather insisted that my mother register me in a catechism course. I went two or three times but it left no traces. I understood nothing that was said and I was bored to death. The teachers talked on bravely in vain but nothing they said made sense to me. Moreover, the course hours cut into my free time, which didn’t make me any happier. After a few sessions, I asked to be allowed to drop it, which was done. I came out of it with a fine, brand-new catechism book bought senselessly since I only opened it to the first pages in the short time I was in the course. I never opened this book again which was certainly lost in a move. It was a great disappointment for my grandfather when my mother told him that I didn’t want to go to catechism class any more.
At school, there were Muslim children. I was shocked when they told me they didn’t eat pork. I love “charcuterie” and no religion or authority will dictate what I can or cannot eat, and still less when it’s something I particularly enjoy. I told myself that religion is absolutely no better in other faiths, that Islam equals Christianity in stupidity. Later I realized that that affirmation is applicable to any other religion not necessarily mentioned here, whether practiced or not, whether polytheistic or monotheistic, whether past, present or coming. Religious rules, above all if they deal with food, literally revolt me. I remember wanting to eat meat on purpose just because it was Good Friday and for that reason, fish was on the menu. A favor that was not accorded me.
At the age of 11, they were trying to talk me into having my first communion. I told them no. My mother said: “You’re taking a chance, you might wish you’d had done it. If you ever want to get married in church, you have to have had your communion. And everybody will make fun of you because then you will be the only adult to take your communion in the company of children 11 years old. Think about it.” “I’ve thought about it.” I held the line. I didn’t take communion. When my sister and my brother turned 11, they didn’t take communion either, to the consternation of my grandparents. I’m not any the worse for it today and I tell myself that I was right to be so stubborn and to refuse to be blackmailed. Because that’s what it was, blackmail.
I used to play with a boy my age who lived on our street. From time to time, his cousin of approximately the same age would come with his parents to visit the family of my friend. The little two-boy band of buddies became larger by one boy. The cousin was enrolled in a private Catholic school. From time to time, he’d recite his religious lessons which he knew by heart. He repeated them as if they were a recording, or a juke box that would play without our having to pay anything. This untimely zeal left me speechless. You could have thought it was a tape recorder repeating itself without understanding its own cassette. I can still hear it: “Jesus dead on the cross, resurrected on the third day,” bla-bla-bla. What babble and what unconditional surrender! Because it is surrender. This would be confirmed for me later.
In the varieties broadcasts of the 70s on TV, there was a group of hippies called the
Children of God. They were always smiling and happy, living together in a community, dressed in long white robes down to their ankles. They sang in French with an American accent. Their songs even made it to the hit parade, until one day the police found out that they were involved in child prostitution. At that time, I had no idea that anything was wrong, and I thought it was just a group who liked to get together to sing and express their enjoyment of life. It was the first time I’d heard the word “sect.” And the group which had sung on Guy Lux’s programs was only a show-window to advertize the sect through recordings and TV.
As I got older, every time I pursued to the end any given religious dogma, I’d come to the conclusion that it was at best illogical, at worst absurd. That is to say, belief was incapable of sustaining itself, of arguing its own case. On the other hand, science gave explanations, it proved what it claimed to prove, it made sense and I found it scandalous that religions always have to deny what science says. Science is after all only the observation of the things which surround us. To replace scientific knowledge by belief amounted to me to see the grass and to declare that it is not green if faith says it’s not. Moreover, faith raised more questions than it answered. Nevertheless, I remained in my agnostic position of “I don’t believe until I’m shown proof but I have nothing against belief if the proof is convincing enough.” It never was. What’s more, between science which proves and belief which proclaim without proof, without seeking proof and worse, without wanting to look for proof, the choice is easily made. The reasoning of believers is thereby falsified right from the start since it is the worst way of looking at the world around us.
At around 17, I was having a discussion with my grandfather. At a given moment, I don’t know why, he said to me: “Repeat after me,” and he recited the first verses of Saint Michael, pausing between the verses to allow me to repeat. After two or three verses, he stopped, looked at me and said: “You don’t believe.” “No, I don’t believe.” And I saw the disappointment on his face. I’ll always remember it.
Since I was a little boy, I was fascinated by advanced technology because I saw in it the means of projecting myself towards the future; I saw it as an instrument of social progress, a means for the liberation of the human race. I didn’t know at the time how right I was. I thereby came to love everything that moved in the direction of social progress. On the other hand, I was led to reject whatever removed me from humanity; and it so happens that religion is a part of that. There again, I didn’t doubt the validity of my first analysis. To sum up, I consider science, culture, intelligence, technology, democracy, a critical sense—all things that propel the human race forward. On the other hand, there is religion, the army, war, propaganda, ignorance, acculturation, illiteracy, alienation, dictatorship, poverty—all things that pull us backward. Which is what led me to revere the first and reject the second violently. That religion is clearly in the second category, there is not the faintest shadow of a doubt. I operate so strongly according this principle that I refused to see the film trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” when I learned that the author of the book was angry with modernity and progress, which is the exact opposite of what I am.
I progressed from agnosticism to atheism between 1996 and 1997 at the time of the civil war in Algeria. Every day the media announced “New tragedy in Algeria; bomb explodes in a market: 20 dead.” Or: “Horrible massacre in Algeria; entire villages wiped out: 200 deaths.” Or “A man and his father, 84 years of age, were killed as they were fetching water from the village fountain”; or “A 12-year-old shepherd was killed while tending his sheep”; or “Fundamentalists tied a man to a bottle of natural gas, then fired rifle rounds into it causing it to explode; later they found the man’s intestines draped over the surrounding tree branches; they stabbed a pregnant woman in the stomach; they threw a six-year-old girl out of a window; and they boiled an infant in the soup pot". All perfectly innocent people. Every day, the horror of the new facts was added to that of the preceding days, before we could even recover from the first. When they were asked why they killed babies, the fundamentalists answered that “it was to keep them from becoming impure like their elders.” When you want to put down a dog, you say he’s mad. Think about it.
In 2001, the events of 9/11 finally turned me into a militant atheist. Religion is not life. Religion is death. It’s even the adoration of death, the preference for death over life. Anyone who thinks he will live better in Paradise than on this earth has no fear of dying by blowing himself up, killing, along with himself, innocent people; since terrestrial life is, according to him, less beautiful than the “Beyond.” At the same time, he commits this gesture to give pleasure to god. But what a blood-thirsty god it must be. And this god, so powerful as the believers have it, who needs simple mortals (imperfect by essence, the dogma says) to accomplish his task, is decidedly not as powerful as they claim if this is how he proceeds.
A childhood friend, someone I hadn’t seen since I was 15, took the cake: in the interval, he had become a Jehovah’s Witness. He, so brilliant during our childhood, so conscientious in school, succumbed to this most elitist of sects. I’ll explain: he is convinced, like the majority of believers, that his is the best religion (the other religions for him are false, naturally), which persuades him that he is a member of the elite (I have the right religion and the others are wrong). I’ve heard him criticize celebrities known for their connection with other religions/sects (it’s all the same). For example, Tom Cruise and Scientology; Bob Marley and the Rastafarians. I’ve heard him make nasty remarks about archeologists because they study periods in history going back beyond 6,000 years in contradiction to what the Bible says. I caught him being anti-parliamentarian every time a political event took place (Jehovah’s Witnesses consider all politicians evil). I was flabbergasted when I realized that he was pleased at what had happened to the Americans after 9/11. “You could have at least a little compassion for 3,000 innocent people,” I told him angrily, pushed to the limit by his lack of sensitivity. Each time an earthquake took place somewhere in the world, there he was waiting for information on the subject. An earthquake could in fact herald the onset of Armageddon, god’s anger, which would have incited god to flatten this evil human society, a society that will be re-established from the 144,000 virtuous human beings, chosen by god himself. What a program! That’s what they tell him in the sect, and his interest in earthquakes is only to verify that what the sect tells him is true. How can I tell him that the act of seeking proof reveals his doubts.
There are two kinds of believers: followers who never plant bombs, who never kill for their god, but who constitute by their very existence a means of bringing pressure on others to forbid abortion and birth control, to oppose euthanasia, to discourage sexuality, and to assure the renewal of the generations that guarantee the perpetuation of religion. The other kind of believers, substantially smaller in number, are those capable of killing and being killed for the interests of the gurus, the pope, the rabbi or the mullah, because it is to the advantage of the latter. It is impossible for me to justify such a system; it would be like standing up for Al Capone. It’s because of gurus that the largest number of wars were fought in the last 2,000 years. To mention all the events, ancient or recent, caused by religion: The Saint-Bartholomew’s Day massacre; the Albigensian crusade; the Troubles in Ulster (Northern Ireland); the Palestinian conflict; Darfur; 9/11; Africans who die from AIDS in uncounted numbers… I willingly desist, not wishing to transform this note into an enumeration, but the list is long and frightful.
Rather recently, I came across a fair number of atheist websites that not only revealed to me that my denunciation of religion was more restrained than needs be, but they supplied me with new ammunition to fight the elements of dogma. A few examples: when Noah’s flood began, all living species not in the Ark were drowned? How about fish? They say that Cain took a wife, but according to Genesis, at that time, there were on earth only him and his parents, Adam and Eve. Where did this second woman come from? They say that Jesus dying on the cross redeemed our sins. First, the Bible doesn't say how. Second, how does this death constitute a sacrifice since Jesus was resurrected three days later? Nothing explains it.
Religion is a weapon of mass destruction. The goal of the gurus is to convert the most individuals possible so that the gurus can enlarge their zone of influence to the detriment of other beliefs and non-believers alike. Their only plan is to become powerful, influential and rich.