Much like any child growing up with a loving mother, I was often lulled to sleep by her gentle and comforting voice as she read me a story. Unlike most mothers though, she rarely read from the newest selections of the public library, instead delighting me with tales of Samson, King David and of course Jesus Christ himself. I was a young Hispanic Catholic boy and she was smart enough to sprinkle the adventure-laden stories and parables in with the more philosophical readings to tug at my boyish tendencies. Not that she needed to trick me into belief in a God, Hispanic culture being one of the last enduring bastions of Catholicism. And being a 1st generation immigrant from Ecuador, for her, belief was simply the default option.
Much as I complained about praying a nightly rosary with family, weekly trips to a special class where they laid down the moral lessons of Christ and of course the obligatory Mass, belief was the default for me as well. I even once proudly boasted that I had read the Bible front to back to her one day, only taking a slight pause when she informed me that I had just read up to Christ’s death in the New Testament and to the historical books in the Old. I replied back that those other parts were boring.
My belief never stopped me from asking questions though. What happens to people who don’t believe? Can you be a good person and not believe? Why do disasters happen when people ask for them to stop? All the questions I’m sure we ask ourselves growing up with faith. And for many, it stops at faith. We’re not to question the inner workings of God, my mother told me in so many words. Yet it was only by her doing that my sense of faith slowly began crashing down in the first place. Entirely by accident of course.
For as much as she wanted the stories of Christ and the archangel Raphael entwined in my life, she also wanted an appreciation for knowledge and curiosity there as well. And so she would walk hand in hand with me to the local library once I had grown too old for bedtime stories. It didn’t take long before I found my appreciation in the science section of the children’s library. More specifically the health and medicine section. I spent nights reading every book(with plenty of pictures inside) I could about human disease, with my mother dutifully dropping off a new stack alongside the week’s groceries as often as I begged. By the time I reached 12, I had run out of books to read in the ‘Science for Kids’ area at either nearby library and graduated to the ‘Diseases’ section of the dustier but more mature basement. I spent that entire summer deciphering a pictureless book on the history of the Plague, the dictionary in tow whenever I couldn’t understand a particular word or medical term; which was often.
Alas, a career in epidemiology was never in the cards for me, as I soon discovered that while I adored the science of the world, I as equally abhorred its close cousin math. Science never lost its embrace on me though and as I grew older, I learned to view the world as a series of likelihoods and probabilities. The more I did, the more I realized that the drive to believe should always be trumped by the need to intelligently and objectively question. I looked back at faith and belief, and while I appreciated the beauty it inspired in people at times, I also feared the recklessness and cruelty it more often spawned in them. Moreover I learned to accept that the world didn’t need or particularly care for a God to keep spinning.
Science and critical thinking taught me to avoid falling prey to intuition for intuition’s sake, however imperfectly. It also exposed the true beauty of the universe to me; of places too small and too large to ever truly comprehend. It taught me the nature of the night sky, explained why my heart races when my fingers brush across the freckles along a gorgeous woman’s cheek, and showed me why I am hardwired to feel both hate and compassion for my fellow man. And unlike a simple thousand or so page book written by a few select men millennia ago, science was brave enough to tell me when it didn’t know the answer to something, but also that it would never stop searching.
Now as a 22 year old atheist and returning NYC native, I look at the world unafraid of not having a grand answer to everything. I know my mother and family wish that I would believe. Wish I would see the light and glory of the world through God. The only trouble is, I don’t need a God to see light and glory in the breathtaking if chaotic acts of randomness that have so shaped our universe. I only need curiosity. That’s what my mother taught me, in spite of her own belief. That’s why I’m an atheist.
This is my personal response to PZ Myers' call for atheists to share their stories of why they became atheists. This is also taken from my personal skeptical and science blog, The Demon Haunted World. Though not exclusively atheist, I do occasionally delve into religion on it. Check it out if you like science from a slightly foul mouthed but funny twenty-something year old. Thanks.