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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

How I Became an Agnostic

Before I started junior high school I had read the bible – a kid’s bible with lots of pictures and footnotes, but a bible just the same – from cover to cover. I went to Catechism lessons up through the 8th grade. I was even an altar boy (never molested once!) for about four years … I think I stopped doing that when I was 14 or so. I even remember getting offended when I saw other kids wear something like a Led Zeppelin t-shirt to church; the obviously pagan symbology had no place in the house of God, if you asked me.

So what happened? How did I end up as a secularist, a humanistst, and an agnostic?

Sometimes I give a snarky quip in answer to such questions: “I read a high school science textbook”. It’s true that exposure to science – and the critical thinking skills such exposure develops – is what more or less killed religion for me. But like anything else it’s a bit more complicated than a single-sentence answer.

First of all, one has to understand what turned me on about Catholicism in the first place. The exclusivity and rigid doctrine I could take or leave; neither particularly appealed to my nature, but I could live with’em if I had to. What I did find fascinating was the mysticism. The belief that the son of God actually lived on the Earth … that his followers founded our religion to carry on his teachings … that Christ had literally risen from the dead … that we actually consumed his transubstantiated flesh … and that there were further mysteries of the faith that were kept by the Vatican. Mysteries about the nature of existence, about why we’re here, and about where the human race is headed. I wanted to know the secrets of the universe, and the Catholic Church seemed to have them.

Fortunately, my desire for answers didn’t stop with the church. In addition to my children’s bible I had also been reading books about dinosaurs and astronomy since I was in grade school. As I got a little older – we’re talking late junior high here, maybe 12 or 13 – some of the more glaring discrepancies between biblical doctrine and scientific fact began to bother me a little. Evolution, which I understood about as well as any bright 8th grader can, was particularly troubling; it made a lot of sense, but it absolutely flew in the face of the bible’s creation story. For several years I got by on “theistic evolution” (which essentially states that evolution is God’s method of creation) but I eventually realized that I was just trying to seal the breach of cognitive dissonance created by trying to hold onto two such divergent worldviews. When I was 16 – around the time I was also dealing with zits, raging post-pubescent hormones, and the dawning realization that I was a skinny geek in a handsome jock's world – I also had a crisis of faith. Education and inquisitiveness had made me a young, inexperienced critical thinker … but a critical thinker nonetheless. Things were about to get interesting.

During my junior year in high school, much to my parent’s dismay, I began studying other world religions. Buddhism and Wicca I found particularly interesting; the former because it taught peace and enlightenment, the latter because its primal nature seemed to tie in well with science (and also because chicks seemed to dig pentacles). At 18 I was attending junior college and had moved out of the house – mostly so I wouldn’t have to go to church anymore – and was also ravenously reading books and magazine articles about philosophy. While I struggled to maintain a passing grade in College Algebra I was acing my Humanities and English courses. I took a couple science classes and did well enough, but such studies had definitely taken a back seat to comparative religion by this point. Things continued like that for a while; I spent the years between 19 and 23 smoking pot and discussing books like The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and The Celestine Prophesy with other inquisitive, nigh-wayward young adults. All of the stuff we read was interesting, but none of it, in the end, held any more of an answer than Catholicism. When the dope smoke cleared the universe still looked suspiciously like an accident.

With my mid-to-late twenties came a college degree, a drastic reduction in the amount of intoxicants I consumed, and a new sense of personal responsibility. As far as philosophy was concerned, “reason” became my operative word. I came to see that all mystical faiths shared one thing in common: They sought to comfort their believers with a sense of belonging and righteousness. Religion makes us feel special … protected, loved, and just possibly immortal. Extremely effective selling points, especially when you consider the alternative (an indifferent and dangerous universe in which we are completely free but utterly alone). Religion is a warm fuzzy, reality a cold prickly. And when I started to look at religion from the outside – from a historical and sociological perspective – I also saw that it is a construct; a framework of doctrine built around mankind's search for the meaning of the universe and our place in it. Religion attempts to freeze such spirituality in time, taking what is but one instant in a growing evolution of understanding and calling it the one true way. Sometimes it gets shoved forward – as Catholicism did in the 1960s with Vatican II – but religion is, for the most part, monstrously resistant to change. Anything new or odd is threatening, from the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun to people who, through some quirk of genetics or environment, are attracted to their own sex. Amazing how quickly the faithful abandon ideas like “compassion” when someone shows up who’s one true way doesn’t quite jibe with their own.

So, I entered my thirties as an agnostic and five years later I remain one. My knowledge of religion is good: Christianity I understand better than most of its adherents, Wicca and Judaism only slightly less well. I’m conversant with the major ideas of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I understand Agnosticism at its most fundamental level (i.e., I accept that I am an Atheist of a certain stripe and do not usually bother to differentiate myself from that larger category). The sciences I comprehend at least as well as any basically smart amateur; natural selection makes perfect sense to me, I know how far a light-year is, and I have a good working knowledge of atomic structure and what it means to chemistry and physics. I consider myself spiritual in the sense that my search for meaning and truth goes on … I simply reject the idea of faith as a valid lens through which to view the world. Reason is at once less rigid and more transparent.

As I close I should say that I have nothing against religion so long as its adherents mind their own business. I respect other’s right to believe and practice as they wish; I think they should respect mine as well. Religion can be a positive thing, so long as it does not try to enforce its will upon the unwilling (this is why we separate church and state here in the west, and why I support the strict enforcement of that separation). But until I am given evidence – solid, verifiable, empirical evidence – that gods or any other supernatural phenomena exist I shall remain utterly skeptical.

And very interested as well.