A while ago, PZ Myers made a request for people to send him letters answering the question, “Why I am an atheist.” He was promptly inundated, and has been posting one letter every day or so.
I’ve been keeping up with the letters, reading many of them as they are posted. Many of the writers very eloquently express why religion is problematic, and how their experiences with it have led them to atheism. I’d like to highlight a few of my favorites.
I lost my virginity at 17 to another virgin, who was likewise the child of evangelical parents. The next day, he was aghast at our transgression and swore we would never commit this crime again until our marriage. After a year of dating, the situation had so deteriorated in the home where I lived with my father and stepmother (who would later be diagnosed with a variety of mental disorders) that I moved in with my boyfriend’s parents. At first I was moved by their warm charity in welcoming me into their home. But from the moment I entered it, I soon discovered that every movement my boyfriend and I made was being scrutinized for signs of sexual behavior. Even though he slept in a separate room, accusations were constantly flung about. Feeling I had nowhere else to turn, after months of overwhelming pressure and condemnation, I agreed to legitimize our relationship through marriage. I was married on the morning of my senior prom in his parents’ living room, after which we returned to school on Monday as if nothing had happened.
Such tyrannical restrictions cannot be good for anyone. Fortunately, Erin’s story has a happy ending.
I learned that all of the guilt and shame I felt had really been self-inflicted. There is no Jesus to be disappointed in me when I break rules recorded thousands of years ago in a scattered collection of parchment. Once lifted of this irrational burden, I was free to exercise my own considerable rational faculties in further testing the religion I had always known. Everywhere I poked, I found the fabric of arguments I’d always accepted to be thin as tissue paper. I would continue my sentence a few more months before gathering enough courage to leave my husband for good. I moved in with my mother until the new semester started and then returned to my studies at university. There I took a minor in Women’s Studies, learning a great deal about sexuality, gender, and how humans have felt and expressed the same stirrings in myriad ways for thousands of years. After graduation, I moved to Boston, where I am now married to a wonderful man who shares my open-minded, voracious curiosity, and together we vet the various claims of the world based on sound, logical principles.
When I was 13 years old and still interested in being a good Presbyterian, I came across a few issues with my Bible that no one was willing to discuss with me. I kept finding lines telling me that I was inferior to men, that I should submit to their instructions and desires, that I should accept and learn from my father’s or my husband’s punishments, like a child should from its parents and a slave should from its master.
Her youth group leader did not see a problem with that, and this did not go over well with Kristen.
I told my youth group leader I could never tolerate that, that no man would ever be the boss of me and would certainly never punish me. If I ever got married it would be as an equal partner in a loving, mutually-respectful pairing, and I would file for divorce at the first inkling that my husband thought our family had a hierarchy.
The realization that many religious rules were written for the express purpose of repressing me unclouded my vision regarding the church. After the credibility of their central text collapsed it was then really only a matter of time before the rest of my mind found peace and sense in atheism.
My last favorite is by Jim Martin, who empathizes with the very human writings that comprise the Bible, but who nonetheless finds the ideas therein unacceptable.
I struggled with my faith for a long time, but it was a religious program that ultimately shattered it. It was a Sunday in the early afternoon, and these guys were talking about the story of Samson, and how he was God’s avenging fist against the Philistines. The story never sat well with me, because Samson really comes off like a prick to me. Sure, he’s killing the enemies of God, but they weren’t his enemies until he gave them his ridiculous and impossible riddle to solve. He then, to continue his tantrum, burns the crops of the innocent people who didn’t actually have anything to do with threats to his wife, then murders 3000 more people, and that’s just the start of the story. He didn’t seem to me to be motivated by God so much as an incurable and disgusting rage that just happened to work out good for the Jews.
That got me thinking about all of the stories, and none of them really makes any sense. I don’t mean in the “it seems nonsensical to have a talking snake tempting Adam and Eve” sort of logistical sense, I mean that almost all of the stories can be explained easiliy away as the stories of an uneducated people who were largely living in slavery and dreaming of the time when their God was going to fix everything for them. And I get that. They are the stories you tell at the end of the day when your life feels like crap, and you just want to have something to believe in that keeps you going and offers some hope.
That afternoon, watching that show, I recognized the Bible for what it is. It’s a collection of pipe dreams from a broken people wishing for something better. In a sense, that’s very beautiful, so long as you avoid the angel rapists, the instructions on slavery, the murder of homosexuals, the wrath of God, the ridiculous fables of floods, the horrifying letters to early Christians admonishing them for every last mistake they made, the brutality of the crucifiction, and pricks like Samson.
Indeed. As Christopher Hitchens often said, religion is man-made, and palpably so.
If you’re at all interested in these people’s stories, do give them a read in their entirety – they aren’t very long. And if you want to see more of these, just search PZ’s site for “Why I am an atheist” (here, I’ve constructed the search for you.)