How I Became an Atheist

The following is my submission to Itsokaytogo.com. They are gathering stories from atheists, humanists and other secular people. On there, my story is called Critical Thinking: A Catholic Learns to Doubt. Enjoy.

 

My mom is Catholic, went to Catholic high school, and was determined to raise her sons in the Catholic church. Growing up, I went to Mass every Sunday followed by catechism. I learned pretty well and served as an alter boy. In high school I stopped going except when my mom forced me. My dad was raised Baptist and claimed, and still claims, to be Atheist. Faith wasn’t something that we discussed on a daily basis, or at all for that matter. When I had other Christian friends who would say something about faith and we would feel awkward. I think it’s a Catholic culture thing: we know we’re good Catholics (however we define good) and we don’t need to talk about it. At least that’s my impression of it.

I didn’t think much about God or religion until 2005, when I first tried to stop drinking. I had heard of AA growing up, and decided that my drinking had gotten to be seriously problematic for me and my family. In the program, they emphasize a Higher Power. The phrase “God as we understand Him” is a big part of the literature. If I recall correctly, fully seven of the Twelve Steps mention God or prayer as part of recovery. I figured I wanted to get sober, so I began really taking faith seriously. I decided that my God would be the Catholic God I grew up with. Going back to Mass was like coming home. I really started reading the Bible and getting into prayer and the AA program.

About a year later I started drinking again, but my son was getting older, like almost school age. I felt that the church was a place for him to develop morals. Yes, the old saw that the church is the only and best way to give a foundation in morality. So I started taking him to church and Sunday School. I noticed people chit-chatting during service while I was shushing my son and firmly telling him to participate in all the parts of the Catholic Mass. I often felt awkward during church, a voice in the back of my mind, “This is bullshit, this is bullshit”. No real direction or anything, just a general feeling that we were all just pretending but no one was willing to be honest about it.

Then, in 2012, I started a college program that met on weekends, intended to work around working people’s schedules. This meant missing Mass every other week. In one of the classes, the instructor took some time at the end of the course to talk about critical thinking. Like most people, I thought, “Yeah, other people should really do that. I definitely do that, and other people should too.” This was before I’d heard of Dunning/ Kruger, but man was I committing it. He recommended some books on the subject, one of which I found and began reading.

It introduced me to a systematic way of finding out why we believe what we believe. When I started applying this method to my opinions on things, I found that there was nothing supporting many of my cherished opinions.

At this time, I still had not completely gotten out of religion. I was feeling guilty for not taking my son to church every week, simply for the fact that he was missing out on what I considered necessary moral instruction. I was, however, applying the critical thinking approach to everything.

One night, I was thinking about the God concept. I decided to see if there was anything on YouTube that addressed the subject. I searched “does God exist” or something and watched a debate with Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek I think. I heard things that were shocking at the time. The way Hitch heaved volley after volley of true statements that show church organizations doing harm in the world really blew me away. His arguments and the bold, shameless way he presented them showed me I could be without God. I can’t think of any specific thing that really convinced me, I think I was on the precipice of walking away from faith but just needed to know that it could be done. For that particular lesson, of being confident in one’s nonbelief, there has scarcely been a better example than Hitch. I really like his point about the Neanderthals. We know that these somewhat human relatives of ours had forms of ritual that suggested belief in an afterlife. If the same God that created us created them, where does that leave the Neanderthals? Did they not pray enough? Were they not quite in His image enough? Anyway, Hitch tells it way better than me, or nearly anyone else. From that point, I could say I was an atheist.

That was the beginning of my journey of discovery. I never want to stop finding things out, and examining why people think the way they do about things.

Alcohol

I had a drink at work once. It was one of those times that work was slow and the boss said it was OK for the staff to have a drink while we were closing up shop. I asked for a rum and coke. It was a deliciously naughty feeling, getting buzzed while still on the job. The drink was finished and I felt the pang that would come to characterize my drinking days: the unstoppable, unable to be reasoned with desire for another drink. That day I was able to placate my lower brain’s crying out want until I got home, when I opened the fridge and got properly smashed. But, by having that drink at work, a dangerous precedent had been set.

Later, I got married and moved to Taiwan (I don’t know if I left that rather important bit out of my story earlier, sorry if that is the case. It was a unique experience that I will always cherish). While I was there, my drinking, which was already really bad, was highlighted by the fact that I was alone in a foreign land, so there were no social camouflage to disguise it. It got really bad, and finally my wife gave me an ultimatum to stop drinking or get out.

I had heard of AA while growing up, and I figured it would be the way for me to stop drinking. So I looked it up and there happened to be a member in my city, an American, that I could talk to. I started meeting with him. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is based around the Twelve Steps, which involve admitting that you are powerless, asking God (as one understands Him) for help, making amends where you have harmed others, and helping others who are similarly suffering. The entire program is detailed in a book called Alcoholics Anonymous, known by members as the Big Book. Here is a link to the book. Through the spiritual principles of the program, I became re-acquainted with God. I found an English speaking Catholic church, started praying, meditating and devouring every piece of AA media I could get my hands on. One of the books I attempted to read during this time was The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. I say I attempted to read it as I don’t really remember much of the substance of it, but to say that spiritual matters became massively important to me. I had what I would have called at the time spiritual experiences where I felt God’s presence.

I came back to the US in late 2005 and fell off the wagon, so to speak. I started drinking again, and forgot about spiritual things until 2011, when I quit drinking again, for good, again and returned to the Alcoholics Anonymous program. I went to a great deal of meetings and met a lot of people and got a lot of free books. When I started, I went to as many meetings as I could, then slowly pared it down to one meeting a week with the group I had started to think of as my “home group”. Then I skipped a week. Also, I was a longtime reader of this blog by a former Army Ranger where he makes a really strong argument against alcohol in many articles. The short version of his view, as I understand it, is this: alcohol is poison, people have convinced themselves via social convention that it was a normal thing for adults to poison themselves and call it a good time. After not going to meetings for about a month and feeling kind of lousy about it the whole time, but knowing that Reed was absolutely correct in his view on alcohol, I slowly developed a new way of thinking about drinking. I made not drinking a Fact about Myself, as objective a piece of information as my eye color.

I stopped going to AA meetings on the basis that I had just decided that I don’t drink because it’s bad for you and so many other reasons. Later, I discovered the Orange Papers. I don’t want to say that the Orange Papers’ whole angle of AA as a cult was something that I suspected and gee wasn’t I clever to get out of that when I had the chance. Rather, I got out for other reasons. Mainly, that I just didn’t feel the need to go somewhere with a bunch of sad people and talk about how bad our lives were and how great they are now even though they are not so great and aren’t we so special and sobriety is such a struggle and on and on. The idea occurred to me, early in sobriety, that I was insisting on going to meetings instead of doing the dishes or cooking or whatever other thing I could be doing to support the family, and that was barely different from insisting on getting secretly drunk after work and passing out or worse. The decision to stop going to meetings started as just skipping a week of going to the one meeting that I regularly went to and had just recently asked about making that meeting “my” meeting. One week became two, then I just decided that drinking was something I didn’t do anymore, and I didn’t need a group to tell me that.

When I first stopped drinking, I didn’t say anything to my coworkers. Being in the Navy, drinking alcohol kind of goes with the territory. Plus, I typically included stories involving drinking in my conversation, so it would require explanation. Now that I am two years removed from drinking, I talk about it freely, since I don’t think of it as a Thing that I’m Trying To Do but as a Thing That I’ve Done. A Thing Done far enough in the past that I can laugh about the idea that it is a struggle, or that will power is involved.