This essay received an Honorable Mention in FFRF’s 2009 College Essay Competition and a prize of $250, including $50 donated by Dean and Dorea Schramm.
Before I was an atheist, I didn’t understand how nontheists could be moral. In my narrow conservative ideology, atheists were dirt-worshiping materialists with no moral compass. In fact, I associated atheism with moral relativism, which I was very clearly against.
However, by the time I graduated from high school, my worldview shifted. Gradually, I began to question the conservatism I imbibed on radio talk shows and bolstered by reading Pat Buchanan and Robert Bork.
This is the story of how I, the faithful conservative who toed the right-wing party line, made it out on the other end as a freethinking young woman. The first step in challenging my faith was actually discussing the bible in my senior humanities class in high school.
In the past, it had always seemed so easy to appeal to the bible as the unqualified source of truth. However, when we actually read the “Good Book” in humanities, I learned that it was a far-from-perfect collection of myths. The thing that disturbed me especially was the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because God had told him to. “Put your faith in the Lord,” was the message of the story, yet I couldn’t fathom why faith meant doing harm to those whom you love the most.
If we heard of a similar situation on the news today, child protective services would have been called and the father would have been taken to an insane asylum. However, since the story is in the bible, it must contain kernels of truth, or so believers say. To the contrary, divine-command morality seemed wrong to me, no matter whose deity justified it.
When I was young, my brother died at age 3 from congenital heart problems. While that alone did not shake my faith, I was troubled by my mother’s lack of rational thought about the death of children in the bible. For example, Mom didn’t seem taken aback at the Lord’s smiting of the firstborn sons of the Egyptians in the Passover story. How could someone who had lost a son be so eager to accept the morality of the Jewish God, who would kill the innocent Egyptian firstborn, because of the actions of the pharaoh? While my mother would begrudgingly say that the bible was allegorical, I never could accept her equivocations at face value. Only faith could allow her such cognitive dissonance.
Although I was inclined to still believe in God, my faith in organized religion gradually waned. After reading Soren Kierkegaard in humanities, I wondered why praying in a synagogue or church was even necessary. Why did I, a strong-willed individual, need to be a follower? I had always been a person to challenge conventional wisdom, and I gradually realized that I didn’t need a god to tell me the difference between right and wrong, and religious services to tell me how I should live.
It was a scandal in my own congregation that led me further down the path of atheism. The revelation that our rabbi had stolen $400,000 over 20 years did nothing but put a damper on my faith. How could I believe in God when Judaism’s holy people transgressed Judaism’s moral values? I was disgusted by the rabbi’s actions, and even more troubled that some congregants would stand by him. Even more disturbing was my mother’s, “Well, he was a complex person and helped us through hard times” response. Here were otherwise decent people who, because of faith, would justify the actions of a thief.
Despite the aforementioned challenges to my faith, I still remained a believer through my high school graduation. However, by the time I graduated, I was eager to question my conservative worldview, to engage with great ideas and be impacted by the best minds in human history. The first step down the road to nonbelief was reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. Growing up, I had never understood why the philosopher was the bete noire of conservatives, and I wanted to know why. Although I expected Russell to offend me, I found that he spoke to things that I could identify with.
First of all, Russell believed in taking the evidence wherever it led him. This pronunciation of the freethinker’s creed was consistent with the love of empiricism I had learned in history class. As I read Russell, I realized that in my high school years I had been all too eager to embrace conservatism, because heaven sounded like a beautiful place, and because faith was comforting, not because of any empirical evidence.
In addition to helping me realize the shortcomings in my methodology, Russell helped me recognize the mistakes I committed in my desire to believe. For example, I believed in God because I wanted an all-good and all-powerful Lord to be watching over me, not because there was any empirical evidence that this God had ever existed. In short, I was starting with a conclusion about the world, namely, that there is a God, and accepting it on blind faith. This was hardly the way for an independent thinker to believe, especially someone who considered herself to have a free mind. As I soon learned, my reasons for accepting God were severely lacking. Armed with the understanding that my belief in God was more wishful thinking than anything else, I decided to follow the evidence wherever it led. And once I was open to challenging my presuppositions, I concluded that there was most likely no God. In short, as a believer, I had been duped.
Although I wanted to believe in God, the problem of evil proved to be the ultimate downfall of my faith. How could an all-good and all-powerful God permit evil? Why would God save the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, yet stand idly by when 6 million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust? From my vantage point, the Jewish God only acted in the bible, and was never immediate in the 21st century.
It was because of senseless tragedies in my own family that my faith ultimately crumbled. While the bible encourages the view that faith and goodness are rewarded, personally speaking, this didn’t square with events in my family. Case in point was my schizophrenic uncle’s suicide. Where was God for him? In such instances, the free-will response could hardly pass muster. After suffering for years with hallucinations and delusions, and without the benefit of effective medicine, my uncle had no other choice. After thinking about his situation rationally, as well as evaluating the premature death of my older brother, I concluded that God did not exist. In short, it was luck and not faith that determined who would live and who would perish.
While becoming a nonbeliever is a seamless transition for many, it was all the harder for me because I had been involved in conservative politics. When we talked about proofs for God’s existence in my first-year philosophy course, intellectually I could accept that there was no creator. However, I still found myself clinging to my conservative worldview, even after the centerpiece — my belief in God — had been shattered. In short, I had to wrestle with my political beliefs for the first time since I devoted myself to conservative principles at 14. I had spent tireless hours advocating for conservative causes, and I still felt emotionally invested in my ideology.
But how could I stand up for state-sponsored prayer, when I no longer believed in the God to whom the students were praying? Furthermore, how could I be against homosexual marriage, when I couldn’t believe in the bible that had been the bedrock of my anti-gay stance? Although I had the energy for political activism, I could no longer support principles that were at their core faith-based.
Despite a key part of my conservative worldview being shattered, I was still active in right-wing politics during my first year at college. I organized lectures for our school’s Alliance for Life. But I experienced cognitive dissonance: I would use reason in evaluating God-belief, but turned to emotion when I advocated for religious-right positions on social issues. To my friends, I was a social liberal, yet by night, I was a conservative crusader. Although I was reluctant to turn away from my previous beliefs, I gradually realized that my intellect was telling me one thing, and my emotions were telling me another. The end result was that I split with the antiabortion club at my college and stopped attending other right-wing meetings.
I had found that the religious tend to start with a conclusion, namely, that there is a God, then seek to find evidence to bolster their belief. To the contrary, freethinkers tend to evaluate the world empirically, judging it as they see it, and then arrive at a conclusion through the judicious study of the evidence. As a nonbeliever, I began to approach everyday life with the same empiricist convictions that I used when writing research papers.
Although I took a difficult road, which involved completely reevaluating years of conservative activism, I finally was comfortable in my own skin as a nonbeliever. In sum, instead of blindly believing in a God that only the psychotic have seen, I am lucky to be on the side of freethinking empiricism.
Leslie A. Zukor is a senior anthropology major at Reed College in Portland, Ore. She is founder and president of the Reed Secular Alliance, has spearheaded the Freethought Books Project and is a photographer for Reed’s student newspaper. Her hobbies include Houston Astros baseball, squirrel photography and blogging about secular issues. A prolific writer, she hopes to become a published author in the not-too-distant future.