This post is related to my last one, because my grandmother may have — inadvertently — played a significant role in my becoming an atheist.
Someone I worked for once told me that he thought it was impossible for someone to believe in God if he was not raised with religion. I’m not sure if that’s true for all people, but that turned out to be true for me. As far back as I can remember, my family entered a church only infrequently — only when visiting certain family members (great grandparents, as I recall), or perhaps when attending a wedding. I don’t recall having any significant discussions about religion with my parents until I was at least sixteen years old. My grandmother told me a story, however, which indicates that I may have had significant exposure to religion at an impressionable age. That exposure apparently consisted of my watching bible-thumping preachers on television when I was only seven or eight years old!
I was an army brat and the first army base on which we lived was Ft. Leonard-Wood, Missouri. We used to call it “Fort Lost-in-the-Woods,” because that’s what it was at that time. Today it’s a much more developed, hospitable place to be. We lived there for only one year. My grandmother said we came home to visit for Christmas that year and, when we did, I started a very interesting conversation with her. She said that I told her that I had been watching television (probably alone, in the early mornings), and that the man on the television was talking about the devil! She said my eyes were very wide when I told her this, as if I was scared about what I had seen on TV. So what did she, the self-professed “lapsed Catholic,” tell me? She said she told me, “Oh Amy, there’s no such thing as the devil!”
She said I looked relieved.
Fast-forward a few years to the first time I remember consciously thinking about religion, at about 11 or 12 years of age. It wasn’t because my parents were starting to go to church or trying to discuss religion with me; it was because I had friends who were involved in churches and youth groups, and they wanted me to get involved as well. So I went and gave it a try. I remember going to at least a few regular youth group meetings, and one weekend camp. Yes, I spent a whole weekend at a religious youth-group camp! Most of it was fun (the cold showers at the camp were not, though), and of course I liked being asked to go along to a camp with my friends. What kid wouldn’t? But I still remember the times that we were supposed to stand or sit in a circle together and pray, and I remember looking around and wondering whether the other kids around me actually believed in God. That’s when I knew I didn’t.
So, at about age twelve, I decided that, because I wasn’t aware of any evidence for the existence of God, I didn’t believe in him. Which means that for some reason I had already internalized the onus-of-proof principle. But I also decided that it was important to be a good person, which for me at that age just meant to be honest, fair, not do drugs, etc. I recall that my rationale for not doing drugs was because I wanted to preserve the function of my mind, which I also already valued by that age. Other than that, I don’t recall having a good argument for my rudimentary ethics. Still I figure, given my age, I wasn’t doing too badly.
How did the conversation with my grandmother play a role in this? After all, she addressed only the issue of the devil. What I think happened was, when she told me there wasn’t any such thing as the devil, I inferred that the television preachers I had been watching were unreliable on any subject — including God. She left me free to dismiss them entirely.