What Convinced Me of Atheism

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The original version of this essay was posted as my response to Greta Christina's “What Convinced You? A Survey for Non-Believers”.

It’s weird for me to put it in words. My old beliefs just kind of… flaked off, a little here, a little there, kind of like a sunburn peeling. It was nearly all due to me thinking things through after being prodded by reality.

In my early years I was hypothetically raised Church of Christ. However, when my mother divorced my father and remarried, they kicked her out as an adulteress. My mom had been a volunteer at the church — cleaning the place up on weekdays, assisting in preparing the services, occasionally teaching Sunday School — so I imagine she was pretty upset about that, although I wasn’t really aware of it at the time (some combination of my own obliviousness and of her shielding me, no doubt).

After that fiasco, though, we upgraded to the Southern Baptist congregation that my stepfather’s family attended. And yes, it was a genuine upgrade: beyond the increased budget that comes from Southern Baptist being a relatively mainstream faith with larger congregations, it was also much more liberal in doctrine. My 8 year old self was rather struck by the fact that they didn’t forbid musical instruments accompanying the hymns; they even had a piano and a pianist, right there in the church, which blew my mind. (Even the more “relaxed” Church of Christ denominations generally forbid musical instruments in the church; the more extreme ones forbid dancing or even secular music. The explanation I remember is that using instruments to make the hymns prettier is lying to God, or something along those lines.)

I didn’t really think too hard about this stuff at the time, but in retrospect I see that it made me realize that people out there had some pretty wildly different ideas about what was good or true. I think it helped give me a more humanist outlook on the world.

Later in life, when I was 12 or 13-ish, I figured out I was gay. I’d internalized a fair bit of homophobia by that point, although the origins for me were much more social than religious. But as I worked through it, I suddenly became very self-conscious that most of the religions around me would scorn me, at best, if they only knew what I’d just figured out for myself. That took another big chunk of my trust away from organized religion and anyone in it.

By the time I’d entered high school — and probably for a good while before then — I definitely no longer considered myself a Christian of any stripe. Instead, I believed in the usual vague “searching” stuff. I flitted around, toyed with a few ideas, had a very brief but torrid affair with Transcendentalism, and ended up settling on Deism. I’d read in History class that many of the US Founding Fathers were Deists, and once I finally encountered (in those pre-Wikipedia days) an explanation of just what Deism was, it clicked in a way that Christianity never had for me: God the Watchmaker, the God who Doesn’t Intervene Because He Got It Right the First Time. I didn’t know the word for it, but I was also a Universalist at that point; the sheer injustice of eternal damnation had long since convinced me that it wasn’t on the list of things a just God would do.

A few more years passed. I went to college. I made friends. My beliefs didn’t really do much for a while; maybe they picked up some Americanized Buddha-Bits like so much salad topping, but I no longer felt the itch of my beliefs being contradicted by reality.

Then I watched my grandmother’s mind fully wither away and die from Alzheimer’s.

When my grandmother was first diagnosed, she was not much past 50 — quite young by Alzheimer’s standards. Unfortunately, the diagnosis came because she was already showing memory loss and occasional confusion. Alzheimer’s is a disease that can linger for decades, but when it starts showing symptoms with such an early onset, it tends to be very rapidly progressing. This was no exception.

When the diagnosis first came, I think I was maybe a teenager. When I graduated high school and left for college about six-ish years later, she was still recognizably my grandmother, but she was starting to have some pretty severe memory lapses and impulse control problems. After two years of college I dropped out (for reasons too emotionally complicated to explain here), and when I came back….

The neat, simple, and wrong thing to say would be “her body was there, but she was gone”. At that stage of her illness, I can’t recall ever seeing her light up in recognition of my own face; even my mom and my grandfather rarely got one of those. Her eyes tracked faces but mostly held a DMV-like vacancy. But she would constantly wander to and fro. And there was the babbling.

The babble was an incoherent stream of words pouring forth with no internal logic; the words themselves weren’t even pretending to be sentence pieces, just a fountain of junk stuck together. There were three that kept popping up: my own name, “jackets”, and “Mr. Wonderful”. This last was always said in a scathingly sarcastic tone of voice, which made us suspect rather strongly it was her private nickname for… well, we won’t go into that. But it was so clearly an echo of my grandmother, some bit of passive-aggression she’d held in secret and never uttered… well, never uttered consciously.

More than that, her babble still conveyed emotional tone, and the tone matched her face. It was clear she was still experiencing emotions. But no memories, no conversations to anchor her, just her own streaming babble as she flitted between emotions. It was astoundingly difficult being around her, because even when she was happy and giggling, she could swing to tears or anger on a breeze. When that happened it was hard not to be moved to pity, and to stew in frustration that nothing in your power could calm her.

Eventually we put her in a facility for Alzheimer’s patients. At some point while wandering the locked halls, she fell and broke her hip. After that, both the wandering and the babbling stopped entirely; she became almost vegetative. Not long after they couldn’t get her to swallow food, so they had to feed her by IV. Finally, about two years after I’d dropped out of college, about ten years after she’d been diagnosed, she died.

It took a while for a lesson of that magnitude to sink in. But I soon realized that the disease that took her life was a proof-by-counterexample that souls don’t exist. I’d previously hewed to the naïve idea that our memories, our emotions, and our decisions all came from a single, unified soul. She’d lost her memories… but she still babbled my name, and that was a memory. She still had emotions; they were impulsive and no longer anchored to the external world, but she was still a sentient being. And the decisions… it’s not as if her decision-making simply turned off one day, like a lightswitch; there was a period where she was still making decisions, but they were poorly thought out, more teenager-ish at first, more childish by the time she started babbling. How could a soul suddenly go from making good decisions to making bad ones? If it had incomplete information about the world, perhaps, but her bad decisions weren’t always a simple lack of information. Sometimes they were very out of character for her, things that would have scandalized her before Alzheimer’s.

And without a unified soul, the entire concept of an afterlife seemed… empty at best, contradictory at worst. What parts of her went to Heaven and when? Is the version of her in Heaven a snapshot, a saved backup, from some specific point in time before she suffered the worst of the disease? Or is her Heaven version a composite being, a combination of memories and emotions that never simultaneously existed in her physical body… that is, a different person than the person we knew? And if there’s no fuzzy warm glow of an afterlife waiting for us at the end… is God the Watchmaker really that useful of a concept? My concept of God had been a being that created us because He wanted to see what sorts of wacky and wonderful things we could dream up with this “life” thing, then maybe tell Him all about it at the end. But, if the end just means dying… just living followed by not-living… why would He have bothered to create all this? It would make much more sense for our existence to just be a lucky accident….

It took me a few years to consider all these and scratch my new itch. But after her death, I gradually made that final slide from Deist to agnostic to atheist.

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