‘God,’ ‘immortality of the soul,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘hereafter’: all of them concepts to which I have never paid any attention, or given any time, even as a child—perhaps I was never childish enough for them?—Atheism is not at familiar to me as a result, still less as an event: it is self-evident to me from instinct. I am too curious, too dubious, too high-spirited to content myself with a rough-and-ready answer. God is a rough-and-ready answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers—basically even just a rough-and-ready prohibition on us: you shall not think!
—Friedrich Nietzsche, “Why I Am So Clever,”
Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888)
When I was a kid I began to have dangerous thoughts—scary, world-shattering thoughts with enormous implications not merely in my daily life but the afterlife as well—thoughts that could potentially harm my family, even, and for all eternity no less. What I didn’t understand then, what I probably couldn’t understand then, as a 10-, 11-year-old boy in Pickerington, Ohio in the mid-90s, was that just on the other side of the harrowing danger was complete absolution, since if, as I suspected, there was no God, there subsequently wouldn’t be any worry of said God’s wrath—in this life or the next one (because, again, there wouldn’t be a next one).
My family attended a Catholic church in our suburb of Columbus, Seton Parish. Though I never considered it at the time—I was too busy, as a prepubescent, being so bored—the architecture of Seton Parish was somehow both drab and ominous, like guilt expressed through office décor. White, vaulted ceilings whose only color came from the dark wooden paneling that formed an octagonal spider web until it reached a skylight at its peak—from the center of which hung an imposing diamond-shaped speaker with padded covers—loomed over ripples of pews in which the number of seats increased the farther back you got, almost as if in acknowledgement that fewer people want to sit near the front at church, especially since the schematic focal point of the whole place was comprised of a single lectern, two plain candles on wooden stands, a biggish (for a Catholic church, at least) crucifix with a weirdly small-sized Jesus languishing on it, three square stained-glass windows too, again, weirdly high up to have any aesthetic effect, and a couple of really uncomfortable looking chairs, all set against a grey brick wall that conjured (for me, at least) images of rubble and ruin—not as if it were falling apart but more like it looked the color of crumbling but still-standing fortifications you’d find in city after a war, and in front of which the priest’s creepily sing-song-y recitations of biblical verse came booming down the aisles, still somehow soporific despite its grandiose pomposity.
But maybe I’m biased. My family attended church less and less frequently as the years rolled on, partly because of a world-rattling divorce (after which my father switched to a Methodist church he still to this day attends) and partly because of the natural splits in a house with four growing children with disparate needs and wants. Soon, with teenagers in the mix, we hardly did anything as a family, let alone attending an event we all found intolerably tedious. Though Catholicism in its many iterations can be a strict and guilt-inducing faith, it wasn’t the organization of the church that made me feel crazy so much as the citizenry of my town, not all of whom were Catholic but a vast majority of whom were generally religious, primarily Christian, and certainly theistic at the very least. It was an atmosphere of believing in God—the particulars didn’t matter so much, as long as Jesus was somewhere in there. In other words, if I had, say, questioned the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story, the folks of Pickerington wouldn’t find such a discussion abhorrently blasphemous, but going bigger—straight to the existence of the Man Upstairs himself and, subsequently, all the texts and morals and rules and beliefs that went with him—was much too controversial to be tolerated. As a twelve-, thirteen-, fourteen-year-old kid my burgeoning suspicions were either dismissed as a phase or condemned as arrogant, mean, and downright stupid.
This came from every angle you could imagine: a schoolteacher who claimed that the hunched-over Homo Habilis of the famous and much-parodied “evolution of man” image was merely a human with severe arthritis; a bartender who said, casually, “Yeah, but why would you want to believe in nothing?”; other students at my high school, whose reactions varied from offended to apoplectic to almost wounded, as if I’d been talking shit about their mother (which in a circuitous way I kind of was); and my mother, who never told me I was wrong, or stupid, or going through a phase, but who merely seemed saddened by my reasoning, both for its legitimacy and its implications—those stories provided her with a lot of comfort in her life, and to begin believing, midway through life, that they weren’t true (or were, as I eventually argued, even dangerous) made her profoundly dejected.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
It made me sad, too, by the way—not in the everything-I’ve-ever-believed-in-is-wrong sort of way but more the wait-so-there’s-no-heaven-now variety. Also, the scariest thing for a new (and especially young) atheist isn’t the disappearance in the universe of a God but what that god leaves behind: an inexplicable place that seems cold and emotionless, where order is an illusion at best, an exploitive tactic at worst, and where nothing I could say to anyone would make that universe more appealing than one with a deity intact. I felt, in this newly enlarged and mysterious existence, all alone, stranded on this island of a planet, without a single companion with whom to explore or have fun, only the cavernous echo of my own thoughts.
Atheism is not an identity the way gender or race or sexuality are—and that is because not believing in God must be something you choose to do, whereas aspects of one’s body or one’s preternatural proclivities are inherent and imposed. Which means that the contentiousness brought about by my atheism from the people around me was something I was willingly engaging in. So even though their remonstrations weren’t necessarily warranted, the fact that I maintained my positions despite near-universal antagonism was, ultimately, my choice.
You’re so stubborn, was a common refrain for me. And in a way I was stubborn, though I may have referred to it as dedicated, but whatever. The point is that I could have chosen not to be an atheist (or, I guess, chosen not to reveal that I was one) and the uncomfortable confrontations (be they contentious or civil) would cease immediately. That so many of my interactions around the subject were so awkward or angry was, I believed, my fault.
Also: You’re so arrogant. What makes you think you know all the answers? I never said I did know all the answers, did I? Shit, maybe I did…Nonetheless, I did feel different from the people with whom I quarreled (not always tempestuously, I should add; many were perfectly cordial, even when I sometimes wasn’t), but it wasn’t due to an overstock of answers—in fact, it was the opposite. For it was the believers who seemed to have everything figured out. Sure it was only one idea but it was an idea with endless branches and sub-branches, a canopy so vast it blocks the sharp, stinging rays of ambiguity and reduces the heat for all condundra underneath. It explained the origins of life, the mystery of consciousness, the terror of what happens after death, and the lingering question of purpose; it grants justice for crimes unsolved, redemption for people unheralded, and reward for those unremarkable. Without any special knowledge of evolutionary biology, or bio-carbon dating, or theoretical physics, or archeology, or astrophysics—they could somehow resolve the mysteries of all of these fields of study with one fowl swoop. If anything, I was the one missing something, lacking some crucial component to functionality that seemed to make things so much better for the people who possessed it.
I felt both superior and inferior at the same time—pretty much the classic seemingly contradictory but actually perfectly predictable modes of being a teenager. And what does a teenager who feels like an outsider need most? A role model, a figure who makes you feel less alone for being alike in some important way but also more confident, accomplished, or improved in some way as to provide hope for the future and a defined goal to aspire to.
But this was the suburbs of Ohio in 1998—where was I going to find an atheist role model? Lacking any such figures on television, I went to the only place that could have possibly yielded such forbidden fruit: the bookstore.
It was purple, of all colors, with a splash of yellow. And the word on the spine a bolded white, all caps, practically begging to be noticed: ATHEISM. I picked it up and noticed the subtitle, also capitalized: THE CASE AGAINST GOD. Inside, I found chapter titles like “The Scope of Atheism” and “Reason Versus Faith.” And best of all were these opening sentences from the introduction:
Does a god exist? This question has undoubtedly been asked, in one form or another, since man has had the ability to communicate. Men have pondered the question, discussed it, argued it, and killed over it. It appears to be a simple question calling for an answer, but its simplicity is deceptive. Thousands of volumes have been written on the subject of a god, and the vast majority have answered the question with a resounding “Yes!”
You are about to read a minority viewpoint.
These words stunned me, as here was a book that seemed to articulate not just my lack of faith in a god but my sense of being an outsider, a “minority viewpoint,” and as I cradled the book in my hands, I thought, with no irony at all, “Thank God for George H. Smith.”
I used to hate it when I punctuated significant moments with religious anachronisms from my youth—old habitual phrases like, “Thank God” or “I swear to God,” etc.—because I thought that people might use my exclamations as evidence of some preternatural part of humanity that needed a god, regardless of any god’s existence, rather than mere stock terminologies. Now I find my reaction to Atheism: The Case Against God to be perfectly eloquent and appropriate—because it was precisely my need for new ways of thinking, yes, but also expressing that brought me to George H. Smith. Thanking a god was shorthand for my lack of like-minded role models and authority figures, as if my spoken language had yet to catch up with my intellectual development.
Now, I’m not suggesting that my young self replaced God with George H. Smith, or that I swapped atheism for religion—it is not a one-to-one shift. No, what started in that bookstore when I was a teenage was a complete paradigm shift. That is, I learned (or began to learn) that there needn’t be anything in the place where humans place God and religion and other supernatural beliefs. I did not need figures to worship; I needed human beings to challenge me, to inspire me—and if these people (or their work) ceased to do those things, I could move on to another book, another author, another set of ideas. George H. Smith, rather than, as some theists have argued, showing me a world without magic, actually introduced me to the limitlessness of human thought and intelligence. There is, after all, more than enough accomplishments by us mere mortals to keep anyone busy for the length of the lifetime.
George H. Smith, for instance, launched me onto what might be the most important progression of my youth, but he did not remain a figure of inspiration for much longer. He is politically Libertarian and a fan of Ayn Rand—in other words, he and I don’t see eye to eye much beyond our shared atheism. But that doesn’t diminish the gratitude I still feel for him and his book.
When I walked up toward the checkout counter, Atheism in hand, a number of shoppers caught the title of the book in my clutches and gave me the harshest looks of condescension and pity. Rather than tuck the book deeper into my grasp and thereby obscure the capitalized words on its cover, I held it out, front and center, a challenge to anyone daring to say something to me about it. Because now I had back-up, and though it was only a modicum of support (what’s one book, after all, compared to the “thousands of volumes” mentioned by Smith?), it was enough for me at that moment to not feel crazy, or stubborn, or weird, to hold aloft a book that seemed, just then, to articulate who I was, and, more importantly, that I wasn’t alone, there were more of us, even if then we weren’t considered a group or even a subset of American thought and could only communicate in the oldest form there is: the printed word.
At the bookstore the other day (now in 2016 in North Carolina), I spotted Prometheus Book’s reissue of Atheism, with a new introduction by Lawrence M. Klauss, and I was immediately transported to that day many years ago when I first glimpsed those emphatically bolded words on the cover. I began writing this essay as soon as I got home.
George H. Smith gave me hope that the big world outside of Pickerington, Ohio was much more diverse and intellectually challenging than the insular suburb I’d grown up in. When I stopped believing in God, it made me feel alone, but Smith showed me that atheism reveals the exact opposite, that if there isn’t an invisible man in the sky controlling everything, then humanity’s all we got. I may have “lost” the parental figure of a god, but I gained billions and billions of brothers and sisters, and to me that’s a beautiful (and easy) trade off to make.
Featured image: Stanislaw Mikulski/Shutterstock.com