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Growing up in a religious environment, I was influenced to believe that skepticism and atheism were terrible traits. An atheist was explained to be someone who either claimed that they knew there was no God, or a person who went through such a terrible tragedy or trial that they ended up rebelling against God and hating him. Plus, they hate religion and all churches and want the belief in God to disappear. Skepticism was frowned upon as a lack of faith and giving into the temptations of Satan. You just don't question!
Around the age of 12, I remember coming up with a scenario that I shared with my mom. I thought, maybe this entire world is some kind of creation by the devil or some other evil being, and that being created religious books and influenced people to created churches that all hated each other, all thinking they had the right answer. Those churches would constantly argue, fight, and even start wars all in the name of their version of God. Then, after we died, this evil being would laugh in our faces, almost like a GOTCHA thing, and then torture anyone who actually fell for it. If this was true, there would be no way to know since this evil being was in complete control of any information we received.
My mom was shocked that I could even consider such a preposterous idea and said I was being a skeptic. She explained that being skeptical of God and the gospel was just Satan trying to lead me away from the truth. From then on, my concept of skepticism was something that Satan controlled and anyone who questioned the gospel was in his control.
When I served a mission for the church at age 19, I remember one of my biggest concerns was having to deal with any atheists I came across. After all, Atheists just hate God and want everyone else to hate him too. Not to mention, atheists had one of the best positions, they didn't have to prove anything from any holy book. This was going to be difficult. Fortunately, I didn't meet anyone that claimed to be an atheist during my two years being a missionary (at least no one that would talk to us). Unfortunately, the thing I thought I didn't have to worry about at all, talking with other theists, turned out to be the most exhausting and soul crushing thing I had to deal with. I was under the impression that anyone who believed in God would want nothing more than to talk about God all the time, to share their understanding and hear about how Mormons have even more information than they do in their one holy book. Because of course, the Book of Mormon was just more proof that there is a God and it further supports the idea that Jesus is the savior. Who wouldn't want to know all about that?
Instead, as missionaries, we were met with all kinds of hatred, disdain, and people wanting to bible bash to prove us wrong. I spent a lot of time during my mission studying the core beliefs of other major world religions in order to try to find common ground during these discussions. I think this was a major turning point in my pursuit of truth and understanding and a healthy dose of skepticism. More on that later.
I wasn't introduced to the real definition of an Atheist until age 26 when I read a book by one of my favorite magicians, Penn Jillette. The book was God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. I was already a fan of Penn & Teller's other work like their show Bullshit where they would debunk and criticize misconceptions and extraordinary claims. The entire moral of the show seemed to be the importance of thinking skeptically and not just accepting a claim as true unless there is good evidence or reason to do so. I really loved the show, and it helped me question many of my core beliefs.
In God No!, Penn explained the definition of atheism and agnosticism and how they differ:
Agnostic answers epistemological question, atheist answer theological. If you don't know, you don't actively believe.In other words, he explained that there are two questions to ask yourself:
1. Is there a God?
2. Do you believe in God?
For question 1, the only acceptable answer is "I don't know." This is agnosticism, meaning you don't have knowledge. It could be argued that everyone in the world is an agnostic when it comes to this question and anyone who claims to KNOW is either delusional or lying.
For question 2, "I don't know" is not an option. This question requires a yes or no response since it deals with your personal opinion or belief. Do YOU believe? Of course, you could expound on this question and clarify WHICH God or what is your definition of God. But the basic question remains. If your answer is yes, you are a theist, if no, you are an atheist.
For me, this was a major realization. My version of God was a supernatural being who lived in some alternate realm and cared about the beliefs, activities, and lives of people on earth and made rules for us to follow to return to him. Not only that, but this God was a male with flesh and bone who was once a man on a different planet and lived such an amazing life that he got to be a God and live on a planet closest to the star Kolob in the Celestial Kingdom, a place only the most righteous and devote Mormons would get to live after the resurrection and where they too could become Gods of their own worlds someday. That definition of God began to seem unreasonable and just plain weird. Do I really believe that? The question stuck with me for a while and I eventually came to the realization that no, I don't really believe in that. But does that make me an Atheist? Well, atheists just hate God and claim to know that there isn't a God, right?
I started looking up videos online about what an atheist is and what they believe. It was around this time that I came across a show called The Atheist Experience. They would take calls from anyone and discuss beliefs and whether or not those beliefs were justified or reasonable. One of the hosts, Matt Dillahunty, explained that atheism is simply the rejection of the claim that a God exists. In other words, someone presents a definition for God or the characteristics of God, then we can accept or reject that definition. That's it.
Knowing that atheists weren't just people on a mission to destroy God helped me realize that "not believing in a particular version of God until there is good reason" is the position I take. I already learned how to reject every other version of God from every other religious person I argued with as a missionary, I didn't accept the Muslim version of Allah, I didn't think the angry spiteful version of God from Baptists was correct, and I didn't think the born-again version of a God who doesn't care about rituals or behavior...just accepting Jesus....made any sense. So, I was used to rejecting claims that seemed unreasonable or illogical. Once I applied that same standard to my own belief in God, I was able to realize that I was most likely an atheist. A dirty, evil, God hating, baby killing atheist.
However, even after this realization, I didn't feel comfortable sharing this with any of my friends or family at the time. I had seen what others went through who left the church. Friends reject you. family talks negatively about your lack of faith, you end up isolated from the community you were raised in. This could be extremely damaging. I chose to keep this aspect of my personality to myself and continue to go to church. I think deep down, I reasoned with myself that if the church really was true, if this version of God really was real, then someday maybe I would get some kind of confirmation or proof as long as I stayed active and put forth an effort. This pursuit has been to no avail.
- Atheist or Agnostic?
I understand that most people, with a theistic belief, have a misunderstanding that atheists just refuse to believe and will deny every definition of God. Some people are more comfortable with the word "agnostic" which is usually defined as someone who doesn't actively believe in God, but doesn't deny that God could exist. I would argue that anyone who doesn't actively believe in God, is in fact an atheist regardless of whether or not they are open to evidence or proof, in which case all agnostics are atheists. To be fair, there are some atheists who do in fact claim that there is no God, and who will stubbornly refuse any kind of discussion or evidence to the contrary, in which case not all atheists are agnostic. But that is not the general definition. Simply put, an atheist does not have a belief in God. That definition says nothing about claims to the contrary or willingness to believe in the future. It says nothing about beliefs in evolution, science, or spirituality.
The term atheism is only relevant in regards to an active belief in a God or Gods. I choose not to call myself an agnostic because it seems derivative to just calling myself an atheist. I would love to hear and explore convincing arguments for the existence of God. If I come across one that is convincing and provides some kind of evidence or proof (beyond just a claim to personal experience or faith) then I would be willing to accept it as true or at least possible. In contrast, it seems like theists are the ones who are unwilling to accept new information and are stubborn to evidence that is contrary to their own beliefs. I was like this to some degree as a Mormon and especially as a missionary. Even though I had doubts, I was firm in my position on God and refused to accept any contradicting information. In this manner, I think as a theist, I was more stubborn and refused to change my world view. Now, I am very open to new ideas and willing to change what I believe based on new information.