I am an atheist. I do not hide it or skirt around the issue in conversation. I am not particularly outspoken, nor do I ever bring the subject up, but when asked about my religion, I will declare without hesitation my lack of faith.
This declaration is often met with surprise. After all, even if atheists are a large minority in the U.S., not many of us will openly admit it. Inevitably, I’m asked, “Why don’t you believe in God?” It’s a good question, one that I itch to dive into as soon as it is asked, but years of near-constant debate have taught me restraint. Why answer the question when I could demonstrate? I extract my response from the inquirer’s own lips.
“Which god?” I ask. They stumble in their responses, which, although varied from person to person, ultimately serves my purpose.
“You know, God,” or “the Christian one” or sometimes, “Any of them.”
For me, it is not enough simply to answer, “There is a lack of evidence.” Arguing the probability of the existence of the Christian god from the get-go starts both debaters at square one. Requiring the believer to give a rational basis for arguing the existence of the Christian god places me halfway through my main argument. To use a term from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, it is a “consciousness raiser” but also can be, unfortunately, a conversation stopper. At this point, most people will continue the debate only briefly and promise to get back to me later, which they never do.
I have read from various sources that there are nearly 3,000 named gods throughout human history, which is why I ask, “Which god? Why is it that I should think your god is any more valid than the Norse gods, the gods of ancient Greece, of Egypt, of Africa, Japan, China, India, North America, South America, England, Europe, Australia and the Pacific Islands?”
The idea of not believing in anything had not occurred to me.
My parents raised me to be impartial about religion (a feat that possesses more challenges than it implies). In my younger years, I took this to mean that all religions are equally valid, and, in the sense that people should have the right to believe whatever they wish, they are. I came upon Wicca in the fifth grade and followed it loosely for some time. Later, at my scoutmaster’s urging, my father took me to church. He followed my scoutmaster’s advice and (I believe intentionally) achieved the complete opposite effect. He took me to a Unitarian Universalist church. The religious education classes were not indoctrination, but rather free exploration. We studied a variety of practices, including, to my delight, nature-based pagan religions.
As a sophomore I was asked to write up a statement of faith to read to the congregation. I realized I did not believe in the God and Goddess of Wicca and no longer saw magic as a legitimate force. I set out to build my own religion. I devised one not wholly different from the Gaia hypothesis, a belief that, like cells in a human body, the independent organisms of Earth in turn made up a “super organism” that in essence was the Earth. I wrote my statement of faith and read it to the congregation. But before long, it all came crashing down.
A good friend at school introduced me to the concept of atheism. The idea of not believing in anything had not occurred to me. My own spiritual beliefs soon crumbled into dust. My time in religious education had broadened my view to the point that I could see the great variety of gods, goddesses, faiths, sects and cults that existed. I realized that each had started somewhere just like my own little religion had, as an attempt to explain that which could not be explained — to rationalize existence in the easiest way we humans know how: by making stuff up.
Religion can fill a hole. It is not a god-shaped hole in your heart, as many religious types will tell you, but a hole in your mind. Atheism, by itself, lacks intellectual fulfillment. People want to know. They want reality to be packaged in a neat little box (or book) that lets them know the fundamental nature of reality. People don’t like to feel unsure, and religion acts as a temporary prosthesis to fill that gap until truth arrives.
Some people will replace it slowly, while others let their prosthesis block enlightment. I tore mine off and left the hole unprotected, raw and empty. I was unsure about reality and admitted it. I did not allow myself a gradual transition. I was an atheist, but I didn’t know how to handle it, so I began to read.
I studied cosmology, biology, chemistry. I learned about quantum and nuclear physics. I wrote my senior research paper on abiogenesis and spent months debating evolution on online forums. I discovered that much of the unexplainable for which religion offered explanation was actually quite well covered in scientific studies, and the god of the gaps was, more often than not, the god of the imagined gaps.
The hole is still not filled. It will never be, but that is the nature of my a-religious identity. I am an atheist. You may ask why I don’t believe in god. I will answer, “Which god?”
Ben Kegerise, 19, Wilmington, Del., is a freshman at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. He’s pursuing a BFA in interactive media and game design.