Perhaps the moonlight was coating the walls of my boyhood bedroom in its frosted glow, or perhaps I was just imagining it. Perhaps glittering stars and shimmering galaxies were swirling in my thoughts, or perhaps I was simply dazzled by a moment of ecstasy of thought, of wonder, of mystery. How old was I then? Fourteen, as I recall?
I lay in my bed that night having just turned out the lights and closed the pages of a book I had been reading: The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil, a brilliant computer scientist and contemporary Thomas Edison of sorts. He seems to have a propensity for dabbling in pseudoscience at times; however, for my fourteen-year-old mind, his book brought to life, in a captivating way, an idea that I’d been taught in my childhood school classes: the theory of evolution.
I grew up in a religious household. The religion: Mormonism. Peddled as one of the more “rational” faiths, Mormonism is propped up by a well-funded apologetics and public relations effort. The Mormon leadership does not disclose the finances of the church, formally called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, estimates place the wealth of the organization well within the realm of billions of dollars.
I had been taught, for as long as I could remember, that God is a father figure for the human race, and that, through his son, Jesus Christ, we, God’s children, could return to live with him after we die, and eventually become gods ourselves. From a theological standpoint, this actually made a lot of sense if God was “perfectly selfless.” After all, what omnibenevolent parent, who was perfect, wouldn’t want his children to attain to the same level of perfection?
There was a problem, however. The particular night of reading about evolution was the first—and certainly not the last—time I encountered cognitive dissonance on a scale such as I had never experienced before. It was coupled with feelings of elation, fear, curiosity, and an onslaught of thoughts that kept me awake throughout much of the night as I was enchanted by possibilities. For the first time in my life, that I can recall, I questioned the faith of my forebears, and of my loved ones. I questioned the very existence of God.
At the time, I’d never considered the idea of an afterlife not being mutually inclusive with that of a universal creator, and the fear of death had been instilled in me from the religious views advocated by Mormonism; namely, that death is not the end. So to me, the non-existence of God meant that there was no afterlife. At the time, that was a scary notion to me.
Mormonism, like so many religions, if not all, utilizes the promise of unsubstantiated rewards for adhering to the dogmas of the faith. As a young Mormon, I was given promises by authorities within the church that were very much in line with the wishful thinking embraced by countless people: being reunited with my family in the afterlife, transcending death…the list could go on and on, I suppose.
Throughout my teenage years, I fluctuated between “shelving” my doubts about my faith to conform to Mormonism, to coming to terms with those doubts. Or rather, I alternated between overcoming my fear of death, as well as other fears propagated in Mormon doctrine, and embracing a clear-headed view of the world. Those fears even drove me to give up two years of my life to Mormonism to serve a two-year proselytizing mission for the Mormon Church. I encountered a vast array of differing walks of life. I helped people become self-sufficient. My all-or-nothing personality committed to shelving my doubts and attempting to serve with purpose and dedication as a “last-ditch” effort in many ways to “prove” my faith, according to many of the promises I was given. I was let down. I learned. I loved. I gave my all. And my faith was proven, but, for all practical purposes, proven wrong.
Now, I think on the words commonly attributed to Mark Twain, which declare, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” I also reflect with peace the words of Carl Sagan when he affirmed, “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
I now hold that religious faith—faith that is based on insufficient evidence or in spite of contradictory evidence—is intrinsically immoral because it is intellectually dishonest, dogmatic by nature, does not require objective evidence at least proportional to claims made in its name, engenders cognitive dissonance, and ultimately precludes a true understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. There is so much more beauty, courage, empowerment, and humility in discovering reality through the lens of freethought, skepticism, and the scientific method.
Ironically, I’ve found more peace since coming out fully as an atheist than I ever have at any other time in my life. As Galileo is thought to have said, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”
I am now at peace with questions. I revel in discovery. I echo Richard Feynman’s sentiments that, “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and of many things I don’t know anything about, but I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”
So what happened between the pivotal night years ago and my eventual coming out as an atheist? The answer to this question evokes within me a deep feeling of humanity, a kinship with my fellow human beings as we each strive to create meaning in our lives. It causes me to look up at the sky, to the stars, and wonder…
Image Credits: Mopic (Shutterstock)