Monthly Archives: December 2010

How I Became an Atheist

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.

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“Hope is Just a Little Bit Better Than Despair”

On Sunday my sister and I, along with a few others, participated in a burial-at-sea service for my grandmother and my great aunt, who had lived together for decades, and who both died during 2010. The weather was perfect: sunny and in the 70’s, very little wind (which made for calm waters).

My grandmother was raised a Catholic (or at least went to Catholic school), but later became an active member of the Church of Religious Science, which adheres to a doctrine known as “Science of Mind.” As best as I can understand from my limited exposure to it, Science of Mind is a mystical doctrine that can be fairly described as Christianity combined with a belief in the power of certain forms of meditation and positive thinking. The Christianity part seems to be quite watered-down. For example, the doctrine’s adherents don’t necessarily commit to the idea that Jesus was a Savior. Rather, he was just a really great guy whose behavior should be emulated.

There definitely is a core of mysticism in the doctrine, however. It might be loosely described as the “Benevolent Universe Premise” on steroids. Objectivists who understand the Benevolent Universe Premise do not believe that there is some mystic spirit in the universe who smiles down upon us and assists us in achieving our ends. We believe that the universe is neutral, open to us achieving our values so long as we use our faculty of reason appropriately and conform to the facts of reality. Adherents to the Science of Mind, by contrast, do believe that there is some sort of positive force in the universe that will help them.

As I was growing up, my grandmother peppered our conversations with various sayings that she had learned as part of her Church. If you had a cold, for example, you should “Refuse to have it!” She had magnets that she would put in her car that announced to the passengers within that God was watching over and safeguarding the vehicle. She would say cheery affirmations like, “Every day in every way, things are getting better and better.” And she loved to recite a modified version of last few lines of this poem about procrastination, which I found on p. 476 of the 1908 edition of Notes and Queries:

Lose this day loitering, ’twill be the same story
To-morrow, and the next more dilatory;
True indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost, lamenting over days.
Are you in earnest? Seize the very minute:
What you can do, or think you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Only begin it, and the mind grows heated:
Begin it, and the work will be completed.

It is good that I Googled “begin it and the mind grows heated” in order to find this poem, because my grandmother always recited the last line as “Begin it and the task is completed.” Perhaps she always said it that way because, in her church, they believed you should speak as if the thing you want to come to pass has already occurred. (E.g., “I used to procrastinate, but now I take pride in always tackling my most onerous tasks right away!” Yeah, sure. Not quite there yet!)

One of my grandmother’s sayings has stuck with me and has affected my thinking more than any of the others. Unfortunately I cannot remember the first occasion on which she said it to me. I must have said something on the order of, “I hope X occurs,” where X could have been any one of a variety of things I wanted to have happen in my life over the years. The saying is the title of this blog post, “Hope is Just a Little Bit Better Than Despair.” Despite our differences in beliefs, my grandmother and I both interpreted the saying’s meaning to be essentially the same: Hope and despair are nothing more than emotions. Emotions alone are impotent, so the only thing that makes hope any better than despair is that hope is a positive emotion. Big deal. If you want to actually change something about your life, or about the world, certainly despair alone will get you nowhere. But neither will hope, if it is not accompanied by some sort of appropriate action. So, while my grandmother apparently believed that some spirit in the universe would assist one in achieving his goals, she did not believe that one could just sit back and hope for things to be different, and that, magically, they would be. And it is because I don’t believe that the universe will even assist me, that this saying has really stuck with me over the years. Now, every time I catch myself saying (or wanting to say), “I hope that X,” I stop myself and ask why I am using that word. Do I believe the circumstance at issue is something that I can truly do nothing about? If so, is that belief correct? If it is not, am I trying to avoid doing anything about the particular circumstance?

Try thinking about this next time you use the word “hope,” and see if you find it helpful.

P.S. I hope that, given what I’ve written above, I do not have to elaborate on how utterly intellectually bankrupt it is to conduct an entire political campaign appealing to Americans’ “Hope.” (Or, for that matter, to title a book so as to describe “Hope” as “Audac[ious]”.) It seems that Obama could have learned a lot from my grandmother (and my great aunt)!

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Um, No, That’s Not What We Meant

Today former President Bill Clinton held an impromptu press conference in order to support the tax-cut deal that Obama reached with some Republicans. The mainstream media is already speculating that the circumstances of the conference, the demeanor of Obama and Clinton during it, along with Obama’s abrupt departure partway through, will provide much food for fodder for conservative talk radio hosts and others who are speculating that Obama has all but abdicated.

But let’s put that aside.

Let’s also put aside the fact that the bill that has emerged from this tax-cut deal is arguably another disaster waiting to happen, full of more “stimulus” and pork. Senator Jim DeMint is urging everyone to vote against it, with the idea that Republicans can get a “cleaner” bill after the new members of Congress take office.

The thing that struck me most about the press conference was something that Bill Clinton said about the meaning of the midterm elections in November of this year. He said, about the midterm elections in 1994, “After the ’94 election I said that the American people, in their infinite wisdom, had put us both in the same boat, so we’re going to either row or sink. And I want us to row.” He continued, “Everybody’s got to give a little.”

In other words, as one Associated Press writer paraphrases Clinton’s advice to the Obama administration and to Congress: “Republicans and Democrats both have to accept the message voters sent in the last election, which is that they want the president and lawmakers from the opposing party to compromise.”

Um, no, we don’t. I’m not sure if Clinton or the media understand this, but we were not given the opportunity to vote out Obama in November. If we had been, I’m sure we would have done that, too. We did the best that we could, which was to put as many of the “better” Republicans and Tea Party members in office as possible, with the hope that they could at least stop the bleeding. We did not vote for compromise. Gridlock, sure. Compromise, no.

On my wish list for 2011 (although I understand none of it may come to pass until 2013): A “clean” bill extending the Bush-era tax cuts; A bill that repeals Obamacare (without “replacing” it with a watered-down Republican version); Massive cuts in the size and scope and intrusiveness of government. That is what I meant by my vote.

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