13 February 2012

My Thoughts on Religion as a Child Weren’t That Childish

I have been reading a lot of ‘Why I am an atheist’ posts from various people over at PZ Myers blog Pharyngula, and thought it would be interesting to tackle my own. However I found my explanation for why I am an atheist somewhat less interesting (I am an atheist, and always have been), and slowly my post turned into yet another rant. This one involved some of my early thoughts regarding religion when I was a child, and how my early version of atheism treated religion when it was thrust upon me.
I hope it is entertaining in some way for you dear reader, so please, enjoy:


I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember. I am not one of those atheists who have a nice story of discovering their atheism, or conjunctly losing their religious faith. I can’t really explain how I became an atheist, only point out that at some point along the way, I realised that I was one.
I remember attending religious education classes in primary school, I don’t recall what age I was, or why I was in religious education at a public school at all (I assume my parents could have opted out, but chose not to for some reason); but I do remember the stark differences I noticed between real classes, and what was essentially story time, with unconvincing, and un-entertaining stories.
Like when Jesus cursed a tree. That's right; a tree. A worthy foe for the son of a god
The god stuff never gelled for me, and I remember sneakily voicing this fact to my fellow students in a hushed tone.
“I don’t think this god stuff is real” I would whisper.
Many of my mates didn’t either, but there didn’t really seem to be any room for questioning the truth of these classes; we just undertook them. Indoctrination after all is only really a one way process.
I do remember one of my early reasoned arguments as to why I didn’t think that the particular religion I was being exposed to at school was the ‘right one’. Being an avid reader and watcher of documentaries as a child, I was vaguely aware of the history of western civilisation’s conquest of other nations and peoples. I knew about Inca gold, and conquistadors; about Native American Indians, and Australian aboriginals.
Thus it seemed to me at an early age that there was a conspicuous lack of verification from any of these newly encountered peoples, regarding the ultimate nature of the universe. Each group appeared to have their own guesses, and Christianity only seemed to flow from country to country with the power and influence of its current believers (or at the tip of their divine sword).
"Behold; my rational arguments for believing in Jesus!"
What would have convinced me was the arrival of Cortez to an unknown land, but one replete with Christ worshipers (or at least a form of proto-Jew still waiting to hear of the messiah’s arrival). When civilisations meet, there are generally common facts that they will be able to confirm with one another.
Have you heard of Mars, the fire planet?Yes we have, but we call him something else, and believe it is a wandering beast.
Fair enough. Not really the same answer and perhaps a charge of blasphemy if someone was zealous enough; but nonetheless a general agreement on the physical facts. Mars is up there, looks a bit reddish, occasionally moves in retrograde motions et cetera. The notion of a god however, is never so similar.
Have you heard of Jesus of Nazareth, your eternal saviour?
No I have not. But if you sacrifice a young girl to 
Tezcatlipoca, I am sure he will enlighten us.
Sure people might like to point out that most, if not all, of these civilisations nevertheless had concepts of supernatural beings in common. However if you look at the nature of these disparate deities you will see they are far too different, and often outright contradictory, to be different interpretations of the same fact.
In order for a semblance of credibility to be attributed toward the Christian explanation for the universe, and mans place within it, there would need to be interpretations which though they may differ, at least bare more than a passing resemblance to one another.
But of course, this is never the case. Some religions have similar stories to others, but inevitably, they are always within walking distance, or perhaps hiking, trading or sailing distance from each other. We would expect the Egyptian mythology to have similar characters to Greek ones. I am not in the least surprised that the religion of the Carthaginian Empire bears a resemblance to the Phoenician one because if you chanced to look at it, I would bet their cultures also share similarities.
Pictured: Carthaginians. (And if you think that was a stretch to get Gladiator in there, then you forget you are dealing with a man who had his son named Harrison Maximus Gunn Morton)
However when you look at it rationally, there is an obvious excuse for this lack of knowledge being spread around the globe, namely that it isn’t true. The Christian on the other hand must explain why, for some reason, their almighty god decided that rather than appear in one of the more advanced civilisationsof the day, it was better to confine himself to a small portion of the Arabian Peninsula.
One might then seek to get away with this lack of independent Christians throughout the world, and explain it away by pointing out a Bible passage that commands Christians to do their best to spread the word (a task I might add that surely could have been better achieved if Christ had lived in China, or perhaps if the almighty god itself had helped out distributing his leaflets). In this sense the lack of confirmation from other lands is acceptable, as the almighty predicted this occurrence, and took account for it in the decree to prosthelytise.
Ignoring the fact that this seems quite an inefficient and demonstrably unsuccessful way of spreading ultimate truth, the avid apologist would still have to account for the fact that these isolated pockets of other religions seem to have wildly different origin stories than those prevalent in the middle east. The Hindu people believe that the earth was created by a cosmic egg being split, while the early Finns will tell you about how the world was created when a beautiful teal landed on the primordial waters and laid seven eggs, one of which would become the earth. It’s not like they are just a bit out; they are way out (though both are at least ova related).
However, don’t count out those persistent Christian apologists yet, because thousands of years of cultural evolution have made quite a slippery beast of their originally desert dwelling religion.
Ask a learned Christian about the question of different cultures and languages, and you will no doubt be presented with the Tower of Babel as the panacea for all rational thought on the subject.
For those not in the know, the tower of Babel is a Biblical story whereby man got quite cocky with himself, and decided to build a tower so high, that they could reach heaven. God, seeing that and being caught quite off guard, decided to thwart mans attempt to jump the queue (he is the arch-conservative after all), and scattered them upon the face of the earth. To add insult to injury God moved to hinder mankind further by confusing his language, remarking “Come, let us go down and confound their speech”.
Considering the modest height of it, God must be incensed at the Burj Khalifa
This is supposed to explain the profusion of differing languages across the globe, but is woefully inaccurate and childish when compared to the linguistic analysis we have about the development of humanlanguages. Not to mention the odd way that this god talks, which is either to himself, or some bizarre combination of first and third person narrative (he is after all three gods in one I suppose).
So here we have a story trying to explain the different languages and cultures across the earth. However it fails to really address the question, as though it would be true that two peoples unable to communicate will develop differently; it doesn’t then follow that they will drastically change their religious views accordingly. I find it hard to believe that the Mayans developed their rich mythology and religious practises from a primitive version of Christianity, or that the fortelling of Ragnarök has merely resulted from inexact interpretations of Christian eschatology.
This smacks of a form of linguistic elitism, whereby those who follow the Bible must assume that the only group of people who managed to ‘get it right’, were those who spoke their own favoured language.
Nor does this biblical explanation take into account mankind’s adroit ability to learn other languages! Surely two groups of people living nearby would not give up so quickly upon realising they speak a different language. It is this kind of fairytale explaining that not only fails to capture the truth of the world, but also sets up our kid’s minds for failure in the future, when real life explanations cannot be counted upon to be so childish.
Though I am still partial to invoking Thor as the explanation for thunder...
Now, whether the Christian believes this story as literal or as merely metaphorical is another matter.
But, I don’t want to turn this post into a rant too focused on these particular arguments against the Christian religion. Rather I just want to highlight the fact that this was an influential argument that I came up with all by myself whilst in primary school. It isn’t really that technical, nor was it planted in my head by any overwhelmingly atheist or secular influence; it’s just what I believed to be the rational outcome after learning about humanity’s history on this earth.
As time went by, and my atheistic roots grew ever deeper, I would amass a bevy of additional arguments against the religious myths and assertions thrown my way. But I always remembered this particular set of reasoning that allowed me to come up with my own theory of what they world would be like if these religious claims were true, and why the facts that I knew about the world negated this null hypothesis.
It was my first example of what is now a long tradition of atheism setting me free.
I can only hope that by arming my son with similar tools of the mind, he too will be able to see through the false claims of religions, and observe the fundamental inconsistencies within. The world may be a bit of a harsh reality to face at first, especially with these religions tailor making their ontology to be more attractive to susceptible human minds. But I think there is a much more satisfactory existence to be had in accepting the truth regardless of the outcome, because surely there is more virtue in such a thing, than there is in the alternative (i.e. comfort in untruth).
I am a firm believer in the art of quoting other people, if only because of the modest fact that pretty much anything I say can and has been said better by more qualified people before me. So as I am wont to do, I shall end this post with a couple of quotes from my arsenal.
“The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it” – George Santayana
“I cannot believe — and I say this with all the emphasis of which I am capable — that there can ever be any good excuse for refusing to face the evidence in favour of something unwelcome. It is not by delusion, however exalted, that mankind can prosper, but only by unswerving courage in the pursuit of truth” - Bertrand Russell

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