How I Became an Atheist
I’ve been writing a lot about religion and atheism lately, and I decided that it might be worthwhile to document my own transition away from faith. What follows is how it happened for me.
My family is highly religious. All the other Miessler’s I know of in my father’s generation are deeply involved in church in one form or another. A number of them are pastors/preachers themselves in their own churches. The Miessler lineage is German; we came here as missionaries to the Chippewah Indians in Michigan in 1851, and up to my grandfather every male in the family has been a Lutheran pastor.
My grandfather was a school teacher after returning home from WWII and my grandmother was a nurse before becoming a full-time mother. Their children were raised in a classic Lutheran household: lots of discipline, traditional values, and church multiple times per week. Grandpa was a pastor and grandma played the organ in the church; it wasn’t just a thing they did — it was their whole life. When we would go visit we’d sometimes go to church with them, and that was my only exposure to it.
Luckily for me, my father did not pass down the indoctrination that he received as a child. He actually strongly dislikes church (likely due to how forcefully it was pushed on him) and prefers to study religion privately using the Bible alone. He feels that most churches are glorified, feel-good social gatherings where someone on top takes advantage of weak people. He doesn’t feel any sort of proxy is needed to be deeply religious.
While my father didn’t force his ideas onto me growing up, he also didn’t hide them. It was very clear to me that he was a Christian. He’d often be found with numerous texts open, including the Bible, and would be taking notes or reading quietly. When I asked about it or just casually showed interest, he would sometimes go into this or that concept with me. Again, not in a forceful way, but that doesn’t matter.
Children are pliable in the extreme, and they without fail emulate those they respect. My father was a Christian, so I became one as well.
Realize what I mean by that: I didn’t decide to become a Christian; it just happened. As a child, if someone you respect tells you that something is true — or even just illustrates that they believe it to be true — it becomes absolute. This is something that people don’t realize. There is no choice in these matters for a human until much later in life.
I was lucky to have grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I met a friend in 7th grade who introduced me not only to role-playing, but also to the notion that God was a complete fantasy. Andrew and I would debate the issue back and forth for hours, and this went on for years.
He was raised by two atheists and was extremely well read — even if 99% of it was fiction. His objections to my faith were not very advanced as he was, after all, just a kid as well. But then again, most major debate points would not have worked on me anyway because my faith was quite unorthodox. It’s much easier to attack the more dogmatic and absurd parts of faith.
Alas, he never succeeded in changing my mind for the six years we were together. This was due to a number of reasons, but most important of them was the fact that I could not accept his ideas over my father’s given how much I respected each of them. So, being unsure of which ideas to believe I simply compared the source, and Andrew was unable to win that competition.
As I mentioned, my faith was quite different from any traditional sect of Christianity. As with most Christians, I didn’t know much about the evil in the Bible. And the evil that I did know about I attributed to errors introduced by man. I focused on the overall message as I saw it (based on little knowledge of the Bible), and I built the specifics as I saw fit.
Now that I think back on it, I did not focus much Jesus. This is not to say that I disliked the idea of him or anything, I simply developed a dialog with God rather than with other go-betweens. I think this is because I was given very little Christianity to go on. Here were my basic beliefs:
God made everything
God is extremely kind
God will listen to you and answer prayers
From there I pretty much developed my own methods of worship. Now that I think about it I wonder if I could have ever been called a Christian at all. It just really never came up. I never accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. I never prayed to him. I guess that would have made me more of a Jew than a Christian. This is an interesting idea — one that I never realized until now.
At any rate, I was quite religious in my own right. Andrew’s notion of God not being there was clearly preposterous to me, as I clearly had an intimate relationship with Him. Perhaps most interesting was my method of prayer.
I found the standard way of praying to be rather hollow and weak. To me it didn’t make sense that I could pray for any amount of benefit to others with no sacrifice whatsoever on my part. To believe that would make these two things basically equal:
God, please help Jimmy pass his spelling test.
God, please eliminate all hunger in the world.
Ultimately, is the second really harder for an omnipotent being? I don’t think so. Is it harder for me to ask for? No. So where is the meaning in these prayers? They’re not hard to answer, and they’re not hard to make. I built what I think is a better prayer system:
That may seem trivial, but think about it. I never prayed for anything without offering something that I cared about as an exchange. And I matched the offerings to the request. The power of the prayer is limited by the selfishness of the person making it.
As a testament to that selfishness, I have made hundreds of these prayers for others and I have never once offered my life, my overall happiness, or anything else that I cherished too greatly. I did, however, on one particular occasion offer to not be overly successful at whatever I do. I offered away all the power and money that I desperately wanted later in life for this particular cause. Sadly, I don’t remember today what it was that I was praying for. But the idea stands; I absolutely freely offered those things away, fully accepting that they be taken for my entire lifetime in exchange for what it was that the other person got.
As a more typical example, I was at my grandparents’ house one summer and was walking down to the lake to go fishing with my aunt and little cousin. They lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills, so the journey to the lake was down a series of steep paved hills. My cousin was very young — like maybe six or seven while I was a teenager — and he was taking extreme risks on his bike and the hill. He would gather tons of speed going down the hill, while barely in control, and then would somehow regain control only to do it again.
This made me and his mother quite upset; we warned him that he was going to fast and that he was going to crash and get skinned up, but he wouldn’t listen. So there he went again, gaining even more speed than last time, only this time he started wobbling fiercely and it was clear to me that he was going down. I made an offering to God, as if to a ultra-powerful friend:
I had been quite enthused about this upcoming fishing trip for a very long time, and it was a big deal for me to catch something. So to me it was a major sacrifice, despite what it sounds like today. And the danger to my cousin was just some scrapes and bruises, so it wasn’t a life-threatening thing.
The point is that I took the one thing that I wanted at the moment — the one thing that I was currently obsessed with — and offered it away as an exchange. It would not have been the same to me to just say, “Please help him.” God can help anyone he wants, at any time. In my mind, there has to be some way of measuring one’s desire to help another, and an offering of self-sacrifice is as good a measure as I could think of.
Well, he didn’t fall, and I didn’t catch any fish.
But here’s the thing — he never fell before that either, and I rarely caught fish in that damned lake anyway. What I still remember, though, is being quite sure when I made the prayer that this time he was going to fall. So I suppose if I go before God when I die and I tell him he never gave me a sign, he’ll likely remind me that it was he who stopped Abe from falling that day.
Losing My Faith
I maintained this same faith and same prayer system all through high school and into the Army when I joined at 18. As time went on, however, my faith began to waiver. The questions in my mind (many of which were planted by Andrew back home) were multiplying and I was having increasing difficulty with rationalizing them.
The biggest issues were the obvious ones: why does God allow evil? If prayer works because God can make good things happen, why doesn’t he just do that anyway? What if I’m talking to nobody because I just want an all-powerful ally in the sky? These were all questions that I had.
In addition, the utterly insane faiths of others were chipping away at my own. I would start by saying their faith is stupid because of a, b, and c. But my faith is different because of x, y, and z. That sustained me for quite some time until I realized later that it was really the same. Just as they had no tangible grounds on which to base their beliefs, I had none to base mine on either. It was simply a matter of personal belief, with no way of externally verifying any of it, which troubled me.
The Holy Land
I only did one deployment during my time in the Army, and that was to Egypt. I was part of the Multinational Force of Observers (MFO), which essentially made sure Israel didn’t decide to go and start WWIII by liquefying Egypt overnight. So I learned all the different ranks, insignia, planes, vehicles, etc. that were associated with both sides. I also became the group linguist because I was fluent in Spanish. It was a good time; I actually got to converse (in a rudimentary way) with real Bedouins on a number of occasions.
Our base was Sharm_El_Sheik, Egypt and we were there during relative peace between Israel and its neighbors. As such, we were able to travel. I was able to see the great pyramids and go to Israel. I jumped at the chance to see Israel mostly because I wanted to see the Holy Land. I felt this “pilgrimage” would help me resolve my faith issues.
It did no such thing. If anything it drastically damaged my faith, although it could be argued that it was already slipping away anyway, and that absent the return of Christ during my visit I was going to see the trip as a letdown. Either way, I didn’t like what I saw. The place was more segregated than anything I’d ever seen. Everyone disagreed on where Jesus was buried, where this happened or that happened, and overall had their own dogmatic and exclusionary versions of how things “really” transpired.
It was a wholly negative experience (pun intended).
Getting Help With My Faith
Upon returning from my various leave trips to Israel and Egypt I went back my duty station with much to think about. Given my non-experiences in the Holy Land my doubts were sharpened and I decided to consult the most powerful source I could think of to help my faith — the Bible.
I was stationed on top of one of the tallest mountains in all of the Sinai peninsula. And my favorite duty position (I would make deals to get extra time there) was in a lonely, metal guard shack that was perhaps 25 feet above the ground on the northeastern edge of the cliff our base was on. The enclosure was no more than 7×7 feet and it felt like you were all alone when you were up there. The wind could get downright deafening at times, and at night you could see Bedouin fires burning miles away.
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The purpose of the tower was to watch the view eastward, which was the most magnificent spectacle that I’ve ever seen. Straight west I could see the Gulf of Aquaba, then Jordan. Slightly to the south was Saudi Arabia, and all the way up to the north along the gulf was Eilat, Israel, which was just out of sight. So, with my binoculars, my SAW machine gun with live ammunition, and my Bible, I set out reading for hours and hours.
I remember the moment it happened — the moment I realized I no longer believed.
I was reading a story about Moses going into a town to spread the word of God. The people of the town must have been Pagans or something because they wanted nothing of Moses’s teachings. They became quite terse with Moses, as I remember, and invoked the anger of God.
In a fit of rage, God proceeded to set fire to the town.
As I was reading this, with all of these doubts and questions in my mind already, I was dumbfounded. Setting fire to a town? A town full of humans he created? Was he surprised at their non-belief? How could he be if he created each one of them from scratch as an omnipotent and omniscient being? Wouldn’t he have had to create the very “flaw” within them that gave them the option to choose incorrectly? If not, how did it get there without his knowledge? What part of any of this was outside of God’s control.
Nothing. Nothing is outside the control of an all-powerful and all-knowing God.
Moses ended up negotiating for the people who’s town was being destroyed by God. He begged and pleaded that they didn’t know any better, and that they should be sparred. God finally listened to Moses and stopped his attack (praise God).
That was it for me. I put the book down and have been an atheist ever since.
I was not prepared for how difficult it was to not believe. I suffered for years with the guilt of turning my back on a most intimate companion and father-figure. I felt blessed in so many ways, and I previously attributed those blessings in at least some way to God. It often felt like I was betraying the very person who gave me those gifts, and this feeling haunted me for a very long time.
It is because of this experience that I understand how it might very well be impossible to save some people from religion. My exposure to its power was so slight compared to most, and I honestly doubt I could have escaped had I been indoctrinated the way someone like my father was, for example.
Alas, even to this day, I still give thanks to the cosmos rather frequently — usually on nights when I can see the sky, or on days when I’m driving and happen upon a scenic view of nature. I view this as 99% pantheist, i.e. paying homage to the beauty of the universe, but somewhere inside me, when I kiss my fingers and offer thanks to the heavens, I feel it’s a personal thanks rather than an impersonal one. I try to control that feeling of personal thanks, as it smacks of the vestiges of my old religion, but I usually fail.
Perhaps someone is listening, but I don’t think so. Either way there’s no harm, and perhaps some good, in giving thanks for our lives.
What dawned on me as soon as I read the story of God starting a town on fire because they rejected him was that what I had created and called “God” was not real. I had constructed it. It was a morality system built on my own sense of decency and framed in the beauty of the teachings given to me by my father (i.e. Christianity). And I would argue that’s the case for all kind, loving Christians who don’t live their life based on the literal teachings of the Bible.
Let me be clear: if you don’t believe and follow ALL of the teachings, in original form, that are to be found in the Bible, then you have your own religion. You have taken a framework and built your own system from it.
Unfortunately, the fundamentalists are right. With religion you don’t do things a little bit. You either believe and accept everything, or you don’t. Moderate churches may tell you otherwise, but if you read the Bible you’ll see there is no room for moderates. As an example, the Bible clearly says that if you work on the Sabbath you should be put to death.
But millions of Christians and Jews work on the Sabbath and think it’s just fine. Why? Because they’ve justified — using their own morality — that no just God would really condone killing people for such a thing, right? Well, here’s the simple question: what gives regular men the right to deny the parts of the Bible that they see fit? What tells them to pick and choose what to follow and what to discard?
The answer is nothing. Nothing tells them it’s permissible to ignore the exact words of the ten commandments if at some future time the laws don’t permit their enforcement. Let me state this again: God commanded Moses to kill a man for gathering firewood on the Sabbath. The man was killed. There is nothing about this that expired or became obsolete due to later law. If you are a Christian or a Jew, and you work on the Sabbath, you are breaking God’s law in a way that God himself says is punishable by death.
And that’s my point. You, my fellow humans out there who know this is a hideous idea but cling to a Christian identity are fooling yourselves. You are moral because YOU are a good person. You are moral because you don’t kill people who check their work email on Sunday. You decide how your family follows the Bible. You decide the moral way to raise your family.
You think your goodness comes from the Bible, but it doesn’t. It was inspired by the Bible, and you enjoy the idea of the Bible, but that idea is actually your own version of it — not the real thing. If it were the real thing you’d be in jail right now. The same goes for Muslims, as the Koran commands unspeakable evil as well of its followers. In short, if you’re open, thoughtful and moderate then you’ve perverted the original teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by being so.
So what’s my message? If you are moral and religious it’s because you are moral. Perhaps this came originally from some religious structure, but you’ve since taken that basic framework and customized it based on your own internal moral compass.