This is the fourth and final part of an account originally published as one long post, detailing how and why I became an atheist. Part 1 (‘Background’) is here, Part 2 (‘Considering Religion’) here, and Part 3 (‘Becoming an Agnostic’) here.
When I was 29, I met the man I would eventually marry. He was (and still is) an atheist, which was fine by me as it was clearly compatible with my own agnosticism. Purely out of curiosity, I asked him why he was atheist rather than agnostic when it was not after all possible to be sure God didn’t exist?
He said “Well, do you believe that fairies definitely can’t exist?”
Lightbulb moment. After years of feeling proud of myself for being willing to admit my ignorance rather than those foolish atheists who thought they could be sure that God didn’t exist, I suddenly got it.
Of course I didn’t believe fairies existed, and I didn’t see any reason to soft-pedal that with terms indicating that I wasn’t sure that they didn’t exist. And this wasn’t because I believed that it was possible to draw a 100% confident conclusion that the existence of fairies could be utterly, completely, and with certainty excluded as a possibility. It was because nobody expected my disbelief in the existence of fairies to involve that kind of utter conviction of their absence. I could say I didn’t believe in fairies without anyone expecting me to throw in disclaimers about the slight possibility of me being wrong even in the face of all evidence; if I’d ever had occasion to discuss the topic, that disclaimer would have simply been assumed by anyone concerned, and no-one would consider that sliver of theoretical uncertainty to contradict in any way my simple statement that I do not believe in fairies. I could, in short, disbelieve in fairies without anyone expecting me to define and justify the precise extent of my disbelief.
My agnosticism wasn’t a necessary part of open-mindedness. It was the result of me giving God more of a pass, so to speak, than I would give to anything else for which there simply didn’t appear to be a shred of plausible evidence.
This revelation didn’t result in the same kind of immediate change in self-definition that I’d had when I started defining myself as agnostic, and that made me realise that at least part of what I thought of as open-mindedness was actually me deep-down wanting to believe in God. (The nice kind, not the pettily jealous and homophobic one I’d found on my Bible readings. The kind that people try to convince you of when they try to convert you; the kind who sorts out the gritty difficult stuff in the world and makes sure everything turns out all right in the end.)
But the seed had been planted. Over the next few months I repeatedly found myself turning the concept over in my mind, trying it on for size, becoming more used to it. Inevitably, in the end I identified as an atheist.
So… that’s how it happened. Or, the short version; I became an atheist because, despite looking, I couldn’t see any evidence of a god. I’ve got a couple more points to make about this, but I’ll leave them for future posts. That is the story of how my personal journey to atheism happened.
(Postscript: Interestingly enough, my sister, raised in the identical family background, spent most of her childhood uninterested in the matter apart from a brief flirtation with Catholicism when she was twelve, and eventually married a Jewish man and became a practicing member of one of the liberal branches of Judaism. I always feel there’s probably some kind of lesson in that. Feel free to decide for yourself what you think it is.)