This is Part 3 of the story of how I became an atheist, initially published as a single very long post, now edited slightly and broken down for manageability. Part 1 (‘Background’) is here and Part 2 (‘Considering Religion’) is here.
When I was seventeen, all this browsing round the library shelves led me to the book that would break the deadlock; Yvonne Stevenson’s The Hot-House Plant: The Autobiography Of A Young Girl. Stevenson’s book (sadly out of print for years; nostalgia drove me to find and order a copy some years back) is a delightful account of her childhood of growing up as a lively and irrepressible questioner in a repressive vicarage family, her determined attempts to think independently and critically, and her eventual conversion from Christianity to atheism (and Marxism) under the influence of a university friend.
What influenced me about this book was not so much the specific arguments that swayed Yvonne; I could think of counter-arguments to all of them without difficulty, and in any case most of them related not to inherent problems with theism but to problems with the very hypocritical form of religion within which she’d been brought up. Even at seventeen, I knew enough not to judge all of religion or theism by the mistakes of some practitioners of it. No – what influenced me was her startling account of her actual conversion. She describes an experience so vivid she actually found herself having visions symbolising her inner turmoil (including, rather ironically, a vision of being ‘born again’ as a part of nature) followed by a sense of relief and new beginnings so profound that she described herself as seeing in full colour and three dimensions for the first time in her life. When she told her atheist friend of her conversion, her friend responded excitedly with her own imagery: “It’s the most marvellous feeling, isn’t it, when you shake off Christianity? Everything comes alive! It’s indescribable. Like springing free from a great, heavy, black cloak that’s weighed you down.” (pp 157 – 8)
The reason this made such an impression on me was because, for years, I had been reluctantly impressed with the stories I read of people reporting amazing sensations of joy and love when they ‘gave their lives to Jesus’ or ‘committed to Christianity’. I might not like the belief system, but those experiences left me worried that perhaps there really was something to it, something I couldn’t dismiss. But here was a story of someone having just as wonderfully, vividly life-changing an experience by converting in the other direction. Maybe, after all, it wasn’t Christianity itself that caused the wonderful experiences people wrote about; maybe it was the relief of finding a worldview that brought peace and comfort in the midst of struggle, regardless of what the details of that worldview were.
Emboldened with that thought, I gave more serious consideration to atheism as a belief. I say ‘more serious’ despite the fact that I’d supposedly been considering atheism as a possible option for years at that point, because, when I really started to think about it, I rapidly realised something; while on one level I’d always been fully aware that I didn’t know whether God existed and that perhaps He might not, on another level I’d always taken it for granted that God did exist. This was less out of a desire to believe in God (although, looking back, I can see that that certainly played a part) than out of habit; I grew up in a vaguely but definitely theistic society, and I’d absorbed that. My new attempts to look at the world from an atheist perspective weren’t so much an emotional wrench as an exercise in changing perception. I remember it seeming to me at the time like those optical illusions where you see the picture as, say, two faces, and have to focus on mentally flipping the image your senses give you to interpret it as a candlestick.
So, I focused on flipping my mental image of the world from one in which I vaguely took it for granted there was a God behind it all to one in which I tried seeing it without a mental image of a God behind it all, so to speak. After a few days of this, I felt I’d managed it; I could look at the world around me without some tiny default part of my brain seeing it as a creation of a Supreme Being.
At which point, I promptly realised that I had no more sense that this way of looking at things was correct than my previous underlying taking-for-grantedness about the existence of God.
I thought about this. I truly didn’t have any sense of whether there was a God out there or not. Other and wiser people had been debating the issue for centuries [or so I remember thinking at the time – in retrospect, I probably overestimated the history of atheism, but my basic point was sound] and hadn’t reached any definite conclusion, which it seemed fair to assume the world at large would have done if there was any really compelling evidence one way or the other. It was finally clear to my seventeen-year-old self; the only sensible approach was to be an agnostic.
So, an agnostic I was, and proud of it, for the next twelve years.