Last month marks the three-year anniversary of my blog, but this week marks the end of not only a year, but a decade. I want to end this year with a little bit of introspection on who I am as an atheist.
I’ve made a few posts before on what type of atheist I am, my own personal evolution, and how my blog is changing. But I want to go into more detail about why I’m not your stereotypical atheist, even though perhaps I used to be.
Before I go on, I want to point out that the reflections I’m about to share have been in the back of my mind for a while, and they’ve shown in a couple of recent posts. In July, I wrote 9 Annoying Things Atheists Do, which was inspired by “Internet atheism” and specifically atheist memes that I had found really distasteful. While I like that post, I decided to go even further last month and just dedicate an entire post to atheist memes that I found slightly offensive but maximally cringey. To my surprise, that may have been my most disliked post of all time. This doesn’t bother me that much, because I stand by everything I said there. I still do not like atheist memes, and hopefully this post will help explain why.
I’ve been on the Atheist Internet for a long time now, or at least a long time to me. Quotes that may have once been one-liners are now stale; I’ve heard them all hundreds of times. For example, take the quote: “You’re basically killing each other to see who’s got the better imaginary friend.” Yeah, sure. It’s not wrong. But I’ve heard it far too often to get any humor or terror from it. To me, the simile that God is like an imaginary friend in the sky has just gone stale. I know that many atheists like to say so, but if you’re going to say this to try to persuade a theist out of their beliefs, then why even bother? What’s worse, upon Googling this quote, you can’t even tell if it was spoken originally by Richard Jeni or by Blaise Pascal (although I don’t think Pascal used such modern language).
The fact of the matter is that although atheists, at the end of the day, share only their disbelief in God in common, there is somewhat of a mold that you’re supposed to fit if you’re an atheist. You should be mad. You should be offensive. You should be able to drop a one-liner to a theist as if you’re Christopher Hitchens and you think you just shattered their entire worldview with your brilliance.
But I’m not like that. Maybe I used to be, and maybe I am deep down. I was raised Lutheran (like… really Lutheran), as you probably know, and I attended a sickeningly Christian college, Grove City College. So when I first identified as an atheist and started writing, I was more angry than I am now, because I was surrounded by Christians in all 360 degrees. But that anger has faded over time, especially in the last year when I got married, moved out of my mom’s house, and got a job. I don’t have that much to be mad about. The anger I felt was mostly reactionary because of what I was dealing with.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event put on by my local freethought community. I had a great time, even though in some ways it felt like I was being launched into the past. I met some really awesome, nice people my age, and we shared stories about our religious upbringings, deconversion, and coming out. It was good to connect with like-minded people, but I had to think about things that I haven’t focused on in a long time.
I also overheard someone say, “Thank God I’m an atheist!” and for some reason I can’t stop thinking about it. Of course, I have heard people say this before, but I just stopped and wondered, Why? What does that even mean? Is it supposed to be funny? I’ve been hearing things like this for so long, and after moving past mere atheism, it feels odd that people are still relishing the sheer fact that they don’t believe in God, even years after their belief has disappeared.
Perhaps a lot of my atheistic pessimism stems from my recent reading of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? You hopefully know that I don’t take anything at face value, and that I could change my mind with better evidence, but so far I’ve found his arguments convincing. If you don’t know, Ehrman made a pretty solid case that there was a historical Jesus, based only on facts and evidence, as Ehrman himself is an agnostic and has nothing to gain in saying that Jesus existed. He made a lot of fascinating points in passing, noting that you’ll have to read his other books to learn them in detail, which of course I can’t wait to do.
More than just swaying me within the Jesus debate, Ehrman’s book has changed my worldview in a way. I’m less drawn to just claiming that the bible is a big pile of hot garbage like most atheists would, but I’d rather really study it and understand it. No, I don’t believe that the events in the bible are literally true, and obviously I don’t believe that God exists, but I don’t think you have to throw the whole thing away. The bible is so interesting: where did it come from? Who wrote it? Who changed it? Who actually was Jesus, and why did he end up how he did? If you are wondering why the bible has so many contradictions, you might actually enjoy studying why it came to be.
You might also actually gain some information to use against believers. When confronted with why the four gospels contradict each other so thoroughly, Christians often say, “Well, four eyewitnesses to an event will all remember it differently and tell the story in their own unique way.” I think that what really happened is even more interesting. None of the authors were eyewitnesses, but the gospel of Mark was the first to be written, and large amounts of Matthew and Luke were taken from Mark, although their authors tried their best to correct what they saw as errors in Mark. Furthermore, in that time, Jesus and God were believed to be two separate entities, with Jesus being only the Son of God. By the time that the Gospel of John was written, people were believing that Jesus was God, which is why John has such different theology than the other three.
At least in my case, this really does give the bible a bit of nuance. Of course it’s not divinely inspired, but it came from somewhere. Someone wrote it. But who? When? Why? Which parts are true, which are exaggerated, and which are entirely false? Most importantly, why did this old, old collection of 66 books end up controlling our country from 1776 to 2019 and beyond? Do atheists really think these questions are not worth asking? Is it really wise to just say that the bible is equally as fictional as Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, and to dismiss it entirely?
Rather than causing me to linger on the arguments for and against God’s existence, I believe that my atheism has awakened in me a greater skepticism. I covered it at length in this post, but the overall point was this:
“Now that I’m out of the closet, and out of college, I feel like I can take a deep breath, step away from the polar opposites like God is Not Great and The Case for a Creator, and revel in the fact that I get to just learn things that I never would have had the opportunity, or even the idea, of learning if I had never gone through a period of deconversion. . . .
They may not be synonymous, but I believe that atheism and inquiry go hand-in-hand. I think that I have always had a curious mind . . . I am following a new urge to take each question much further than these surface-level “atheism” questions and get to the science behind it all.”
I find it telling that I wrote that almost a year before ever changing my blog name to The Curious Atheist. That was written at the beginning of my breaking away from just being your stereotypical “friendly neighborhood atheist” to being “that girl that talks about fossils all the time,” which I’m now proud to be. My fascination with human evolution stems from the absolute joy I got from taking in every word of Donald Johanson’s Lucy, which of course, I only ever read after at first being an atheist, wondering why the bible got creation all wrong, and wanting to know where Homo sapiens actually came from. But like I’ve said before, what makes Lucy a great refutation of religion is that it never even mentions creationism.
So while I will probably always be an atheist, I will never be “just an atheist” ever again. I’m an atheist that actually wants to know what brings our world and our fascination to life outside of the myth of God. Recently, I can’t get enough of science and of history, and to the shock of my past self, none of it even has to go back to disproving religion. Tell me about the discovery of fire or about the dinosaurs. Tell me why that first australopithecine started walking upright. Tell me about physics, neurology, and ancient medicine. Tell me about the beliefs of the founders of the United States, and about giant telescopes, about tall buildings and tragic plagues.
I’m a curious atheist, and I don’t just want to disbelieve. I want to know.