When I tell people I am an atheist the most common response is: “What happened?”
As with most questions, this one reveals more about the questioner than the person being asked. Christians are either born into the church and never know there is an alternative or they have a conversion experience as an adult. They discount those born into Christianity as well they should. The number of people who have the good fortune to be raised in secular families is few and, even in those cases, the permeation of Christian myth throughout our society makes even the most secular of upbringings ill founded. The United States is a Christian nation. This is not a goal to be achieved, but a fact to be accepted in order to understand our national character. When we speak of God we speak of the Christian God. As an atheist, I am a Christian atheist. That is to say, the God I do not believe in isn’t the universal God theologians create then make apologies for but is, rather, a very specific God whose history can be traced from the nomadic tribes of North Africa and the Middle East down through various incarnations from Babylon to Islam to this very day as God is revised and edited to fit the needs of each culture and time humanity experiences. That we can trace the history of God, as Karen Armstrong does in her book of the same title, is one of the most underappreciated, yet telling, arguments for the non-existence of God any Christian has ever unintentionally created.
So when a Christian asks an atheist, “What happened?” he is assuming an experience or series of experiences must have occurred to cause the atheist to “Lose his faith” and “Deny God.” They are projecting their own experience on to others as it is really Christians who convert under times of intense stress. When they are weak and not in their rational minds Christians swoop down upon them like benevolent vultures with offers of prayers and the ever present covered dishes. Did it occur to them that there is something deeply unethical and morally wrong about approaching a person at such a vulnerable moment and asking them to make a lifetime, and presumably afterlifetime, decision? They are vain and lack the understanding this is tantamount to lawyers trolling for clients among the accident victims in the Emergency Room.
“My wife died of cancer in spite of all my fervent prayers to God to spare her life.” Silliness. Prayer (or “talking to the ceiling” as I have come to think of it) is useless and has been proven so by an experiment funded and conducted by the Templeton Foundation, a Christian organization rewarding scientists whose work can be tortured to seemingly verify the existence of God. The reality is some people die of cancer, others are cured through modern medicine, still others, for reasons yet unknown, go into spontaneous remission. Percentages and projections can be made about the likelihood of a patient falling into one of these groups. This data forms the basis of the insurance industry. Christian prayer is, to bastardize Einstein, “Rolling the God dice.” They pray over every cancer patient and the ones who survive are touted as miraculous and proof of God’s existence and benevolence. The ones who die are dismissed with a “Everything happens for a reason” platitude.
This is a cold, calculated, primitive and ultimately cruel practice. Unfortunately, it is also one of those insights that can only come from a rational mind. Remember the foolish, bumper sticker theology that says “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous”? No, inasmuch as coincidence can be said to exist at all, it is the application of statistical probability to individual instances. Coincidence, luck, serendipity and all the names improbability goes under can be broken down to a lack of data needed to draw a more precise conclusion. Case in point is lung cancer. Smoking and the deliberate job related exposure to carcinogens as in coal mining narrows down the field and allows us to say, with statistical backing, that engaging in these activities increases the chance of lung cancer. It is not only possible, it is probable that increases in computer representations will eventually lead to a close to certain diagnosis that a certain individual will succumb to lung cancer. Early treatment and lifestyle intervention will greatly reduce the incidence of cancer and the survival rate of those who contract the disease. And all without a single prayer being offered.
My personal favorite is the endless debate circling around “Why is there evil in the world?” I like this one for two reasons: it is capable of causing people to think “outside of the God box” thus requiring the use of the rational, instead of the religious, mind and the argument has a distinct answer in the very Christian scripture they claim to worship and revere.
The first reason should be obvious: by asking the question and seeking to answer it the person is acknowledging there are certain rational truths that even God is restrained by and forced to obey. This is one of the first steps towards the conclusion God does not and cannot exist. Christians, in order to defend their God, make this step unwittingly. By acknowledging the subject of the existence of God is actually a topic for discussion, not the central fact of the universe, they have forfeited the game. They have lost their faith and are now beginning a hopeless, drowning struggle to impose their own beliefs and skewed morality upon this country by force of law. They are dangerous. Far more dangerous, to more people and with the capacity for greater disruption and unwanted change to our core way of life than any internal threat the sovereignty and union of the United States has faced since the days before the Civil War.
The other thing I really like about the “why is there evil in the world?” debate is Christian scripture answers this seemingly elusive question directly and finally. Even a Mythicist would have to admit that without reference to Jesus’ existence someone, and some group they were speaking to, chose to put these words and this instance into his mouth. Jesus was being questioned about the fall of a tower that killed many people. The questioner opined that the people killed under the tower’s fall must have been the worse people in all of Israel. Jesus, as is the form of this doctrinal storytelling has it, rebukes the man with a clever response that settles the matter. In this case, his response was, to paraphrase, “Of course not, they were the people who just happened to be under the tower when it fell.” Natural and manmade disasters don’t count one way or other on the good to evil scale. They just are and the people they kill are simply unlucky. Quite an admission for God Incarnate to make! So we can take natural and manmade disasters off the table in our discussion of why there is evil in the world.
The most common answer to the problem of evil is because man has “Free Will.” Vincent Bugliosi, the celebrity lawyer, pointed out in his recent defense of agnosticism Divinity of Doubt: The God Question the idea of man having “free will” does not exist anywhere in Scripture except some obscure book in the Catholic Apocrypha and even that is not a fully developed doctrine by any means. So Christians can’t use free will as an excuse, it’s not in their Rule Book
So why is there evil in the world? Simple enough. Christians need to consult their Handbook for the Recently Saved and read it in the red. “The love of money is the root of all evil.”
Greed, coveting, lust, acquisition, pride…in a word, Capitalism. The misnamed Free Marketplace that makes “freedom” a commodity to be bought and sold like any other. A luxury only the wealthy can afford. No wonder Christian Capitalists spin wild tales about the meaning of the Book of Revelation; if they read it for what it said they’d understand that it is the wealth of Rome that is being condemned and those who Drink From the Cup of Abominations are those who trade with Rome. And the only Rome, the only Babylon, in the world today is the United States.
Jesus hammered at the subject over and over.
“You can’t serve both God and money, make a choice.”
“A rich man has as much chance of getting to heaven as a camel does of getting through a needle’s eye.”
To the rich young ruler, “Go, sell everything you have, then take the money down to the poor and hand them the money personally.”
About taxes? “Show me the coin. Who’s image is upon it? Well, give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to him.”
If you trade with Rome, then you belong to Rome. If you follow God then return to him his land. It was the land that belonged to the Jews. They survived countless client Kingdoms as long as they were left as serfs only their inherited plots of land. Land given to them by God, not by any King. Then Rome came in to Galilee and introduced factory farming and that all changed.
The peasants, driven into town as the Romans consolidated into huge factory farms, were called upon at planting and harvest time but left idle the rest of the year. Unemployment, being forced from land given to you by God, countless bodies on countless crosses as the Jews suffered under Roman rule as they were years later to suffer under the Germans.
So when Jesus told the idle peasants in the crowds to “Return to God what belongs to him” the code was easily broken. The land belongs to God. The Romans must be driven out. But first, all ties must be severed between the revolutionaries and the Marketplace.
Why is there evil in the world?
It makes it easy to be an atheist when the people you offend aren’t Christians any longer. They are a hybrid of Libertarian economics and Underground Right conspiracy theory. They are a heretical sect of Christianity. They are also the last grasp of the White Upper Class to cease power in this country before they become outnumbered by people of color. They hate democracy. They talk about being a Republic, but Libertarianism is a form of anarchy. The idea that this country would be so swept up in this madness and that the other side of the political coin is offering nothing in the form of response is maddening. Sanity hurts, only the sane can be driven mad.
To return to my original question about my atheism: What happened?
One day I got tired of coming up with reasons why God did the things he did. I had tried so many different things, went down so many dead ends, found over and over again the same pettiness and power plays, the same meddling and condemning and always, always the prying eyes. When you are a Christian, and I will reserve that word for actual church attendees, your life becomes common property shared, judged and rated by all.
I got sick with the confusion, the cacophony of all the cawing Christians crowing incoherently. I wanted peace and time to think.
I prayed what I didn’t know at the time was to be my last prayer to God. All I asked for was to know how things really worked.
I never thought about “Why do I exist?” and “What is my purpose?” and “Did you really suffer on the Cross like in that Mel Gibson movie they showed at church?” What about the intrinsic selfishness of seeking “your own salvation with fear and trembling?”
How do things work? What engine drives the world? I wanted knowledge, not mythology. Truth, not doctrine. Surety, not doubt. I wanted the war that had been raging inside of me since I was in my crib to end. I wanted peace. I wanted a “place where God will never find me.”
Less than a year later, I was an atheist.
Funny thing about fathers: the good ones want you to grow up and leave home.
So what happened?
My life happened.