I grew up in the southern United States, a region famous for religious fundamentalism. My parents are Roman Catholics, and nearly all of my extended family identifies as Christian. I went to a Catholic primary school and later attended a Catholic high school.
Given that history, you might be surprised to learn that I’d always found the concept of God confusing. I was 10 years old the first time I recall thinking about this subject. These thoughts usually took place at the top of an oak tree in our front yard. I’d scamper up the branches until I was above the roof of my family’s single story house. I enjoyed the challenge– it was tricky to select branches close enough to grab but strong enough to support my weight.
When I reached the top of the oak tree, I clumsily tried to climb the tree of knowledge. The oak tree allowed me to see farther than I could from the ground, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted to understand– really understand– how the universe worked. My curiosity was already an overwhelming disability.
Learning to climb the tree of knowledge was a lot like learning to climb an oak tree. I had to be sure that the assumptions I chose were simple enough for me to grasp but strong enough to support the weight of my worldview. I’d already taken science classes, and I learned those lessons a little too well. I learned to keep an open mind, to question everything. I learned to check my assumptions to see if I’d mistakenly assumed something that was wrong or (worse) ambiguous. More than anything else, I learned to falsify my ideas by comparing them to experiment.
As you can probably imagine, my childhood was a little socially awkward…
So I liked climbing trees– it was a solitary activity that left me plenty of time to think. My thoughts often turned to God, probably because He confused me so much. I’d been told that He was an overwhelmingly powerful Being, but I’d never personally seen any evidence that He existed. However, all the adults I knew insisted that He was constantly watching us to make sure we were being nice. If we were nice, He’d reward us with eternal bliss after death. Naughty people… well, I didn’t like thinking about that. (I still don’t.)
As a young boy, I felt that this claim had a familiar ring to it. It sounded like another (discredited) claim that adults had been making for as long as I could remember. But the claim of God’s existence was so much vaster in scope! I began to suspect that the adults genuinely believed in God; their belief wasn’t just theater as it’d been with the other claim. Then I noticed something odd. Whenever I asked questions about God, people became visibly uncomfortable in ways they rarely did when I inquired about other subjects. Teachers instantly became less helpful and more combative. They’d say things like “you’ve just got to have faith” and shoo me away.
That answer didn’t make sense to me at the time, so I decided to ignore the adults. Instead, I tried to test the idea of God for myself using my naive notions of the scientific method. I prayed for God to show me some sign that He existed– to move a cup across a table, among other things. (Nothing miraculous happened.)
This confused me, but one day I found these passages in the Bible:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Luke 4:12
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29
So my experiment had been flawed; its failure wasn’t proof that God didn’t exist. God simply preferred people to believe in Him based on faith instead of evidence. That’s what people had been saying to me all along: God wasn’t obliged to perform parlor tricks to convince me of His existence!
Slowly, though, I started marveling at how easy it’d be to trick people who didn’t use evidence to reach their conclusions. For instance, could I tell people that I was a “wallet inspector” and claim that they had to have “faith” to see my official badge?
Obviously that’d be ridiculous. Even I could tell that people are usually rational– they clearly used evidence to reach most of their conclusions. This distinction bothered me. Why did people take one approach to the question of God’s existence, but take a fundamentally different approach to any other question?
I never got a clear answer to that query, but everyone agreed that the question of God’s existence was much different than a question like “should I buy this used car?” They agreed that you should use evidence to decide whether you should buy the car, saying that faith only applied to a question like “Does God exist?”
But… shouldn’t you be more careful when dealing with bigger decisions? For instance, deciding what type of candy to buy requires a far shorter investigation than buying a house. You’d pore over many pages of evidence for the house purchase, but buy the candy bar on a whim. It seemed to me that the question of God, being much more important than buying a house, would require the most demanding investigation of my life.
My child’s mind was confused by the fact that most people seemed to disagree with this position. I had to be missing something! My ignorance began to gnaw at me, compelling me to read all the books I could find about religion in the library. None of the claims in the religious books seemed to be as rigorously justified as the claims made in the science books. I spent a long time in the card catalog trying to find a convincing logical argument to support the existence of God, or a well-documented miracle.
I found many proofs for God’s existence, but all of them seem flawed to me. (That’s probably just because I misunderstood them or completely missed the most solid proof, though…)
I found many accounts of miracles, and whole crowds of intelligent people had been satisfied with the evidence establishing these miracles. Unfortunately, I found that many different religions make such claims, and I couldn’t honestly say that any particular religion’s claims appeared more valid than another’s. (That’s probably just because I missed the most credible miracle, though…)
Looking back, I cringe at how simplistic my reasoning was. I’d ignored a lot of nuances and made countless assumptions that I didn’t recognize at the time.
Several years and many books later, I remember seriously wondering– for the first time– if God even existed at all. At first I instinctively recoiled from that idea. You see, everyone I’d ever met believed in God. I thought that I was the first person in history to doubt the existence of God! Adults would certainly be furious if I told them, and my friends weren’t interested in much more than video games. The few people I did tell instantly (and angrily) shunned me. I was utterly alone. As if that weren’t enough, I soon realized that I was now damned to eternal hellfire if God really did exist, or doomed to eternal nonexistence after death if He didn’t.
I was 12 years old.
It wasn’t until a year later– when I first got on the internet– that I learned the word “atheist.” It turns out I wasn’t the first person to doubt the existence of God! Just knowing that I wasn’t alone was enormously comforting, but my mortality still weighed heavily on me in a manner that’d probably be unfamiliar to people who believe in Heaven.
Life went on, of course. Catholic schools have religion classes which I continued to attend through high school. I found those classes fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, while my teachers and classmates quickly grew tired of my questions. For example, one day the teacher was discussing “transubstantiation.” She stressed that transubstantiation wasn’t just a spiritual or metaphorical change, but was in fact a tangible change.
Now, I’d grown accustomed to “spiritual” claims, and had decided to ignore them because they weren’t falsifiable. But I’ve always had trouble keeping my mouth shut, especially when it comes to subjects that confuse me. Without thinking, I blurted out: “Have I been sitting in the wrong seat in church? Is this miraculous change tangible– actually visible— from another location?”
Big mistake. She called my parents that evening (concerned with my irrational behavior) and soon became convinced that I was just emotionally reacting to a recent family event. I decided not to challenge that belief because I couldn’t imagine anything positive resulting from such a confrontation. More recently, I’ve adopted that lesson as a general guide to civilized behavior. In real life I rarely– if ever– challenge other peoples’ beliefs because the result is often divisive, frustrating, and futile.
It was around this time that I discovered Ayn Rand. Unlike some other atheist philosophers I’d found, she never made strange claims like “morality is completely relative” or “reality is a collective hallucination.” She presented a rational, objective philosophy that strongly resonated with me. Her writing had me absolutely entranced– I’m not surprised that she built “the unlikeliest cult in history.”
Inspired by her ideas, I constructed a proof at age 18 which attempted to show that God didn’t exist. It worked like this:
Assumption #1: An objective reality exists. In other words, reality is governed by laws of physics (currently known to us only as crude approximations) which are completely immutable. If I didn’t make this assumption, it seemed like I’d have to seriously consider the possibility that objects disappeared whenever I turned my head, then reappeared when I looked at them again.
Assumption #2: God needs to be able to violate those laws of physics in order to be literally omnipotent. I say this because it seems like humans might eventually be able to perform miracles similar to those recorded in the Bible if our descendants ever develop sufficiently advanced technology. But that wouldn’t make them gods (obviously) because they can’t possibly break the actual laws of physics.
Conclusion: The existence of God is incompatible with the assumption of a strictly objective reality. Because I’m unwilling to drop my belief in objective reality, I must conclude that an omnipotent God isn’t possible.
(Note that this argument says nothing about gods who are powerful but not literally omnipotent, like Greek gods.)
Because I believed that this argument ruled out the existence of an omnipotent God, I was a strong atheist regarding the deities of most monotheistic religions. (I remained agnostic with respect to non-omnipotent gods.)
It wasn’t until I was 24 that I realized I’d made a dreadful mistake. Assumption #1 wasn’t indisputably true! I could think of at least two classes of statements that were less doubtful. Also, I hadn’t considered the possibility that people could accept a different version of assumption #1 that removed the conflict between the statements “an omnipotent God exists” and “I believe that objects don’t disappear when I turn my back on them.”
When I realized how arbitrary assumption #1 was, I had no choice but to abandon atheism and identify as a weak agnostic. Also around this time, I started realizing how blind I’d been to flaws in Rand’s philosophy. While I still consider Ayn Rand to be the strongest influence on my philosophical views, I disagree with her on several important issues. I also want nothing to do with Objectivist organizations that promote her philosophy.
So here I am, just as confused at age 28 as I was when I was 10…
- I define faith as “belief in a proposition that isn’t adequately supported by empirical evidence or logical arguments.” This definition is somewhat subjective; how does one decide the amount of evidence that’s “adequate” to support reasonable belief in a proposition?
My answer is to say that the amount of evidence required is proportional to how “extraordinary” that proposition is. I determine the “extraordinariness” of a proposition by comparing it to previously established facts. For example, I believe in the existence of Moscow even though I’ve never seen it, but that’s because the existence of cities is an established fact to me. Also, if Moscow didn’t exist, that would require explaining why many newspaper stories feature it. On the other hand, in order to believe in the existence of an alien, I’d have to see it with my own eyes as well as proving to myself that it has no DNA or RNA. This is because I’ve never seen anything like an alien before- the established existence of an alien would be a huge change in my worldview.
Note that this means the degree of “faith” in a person’s belief in a given proposition is relative to that person’s collection of previously established facts. This is a serious problem, as it only takes one false “fact” to throw a person’s reasoning out of contact with reality altogether, though he will believe himself to be perfectly rational in reference to his collection of “facts.” Because of this, I spend a lot of time trying to identify assumptions in my reasoning and questioning whether they’re actually necessary, or even if they’re just plain wrong.↩ back
- I define religion as “a system of beliefs that include supernatural elements.” (When I say “supernatural,” I mean “violates the actual laws of physics” rather than merely “violates the crude approximations we currently call the laws of physics.”) This includes nearly all monotheistic and polytheistic belief systems as well as some Eastern philosophies. I’m not certain that it includes Buddhism, though, because I haven’t studied Buddhism in enough detail to conclusively identify its supernatural beliefs.
Note that I don’t consider faith to be a required element of religion. Some religious people are scrupulously rational, and seem to share my discomfort with the idea of using faith as a means to gain knowledge.↩ back