How and Why I came to be an atheist

by Fredrik Bendz
Originally written in July 1996, and continually edited.

I suppose you could say that like everybody else I was born an atheist, because in contrast to the theists I don't think you are born with any conception of divinity. I rather see religion as a primitive stage that you enter while your brains develop. A stage that you hopefully pass by on your way to become an intelligent and mature human being. I do acknowledge that religion is mental development, but I think that atheism is a yet higher stage of that development.

At birth, your mind is much like an unwritten book. However, due to our genes, the pages are not left totally blank. There is a human nature, and though there are no finished concepts at birth, we still have some basic emotions that have been useful in man's evolution towards a social animal.

If you look at a child's development, you will find that small children do what the parents tell them, without any threats, promises for rewards or even explanations for why they should do so. This is probably because a small child has no concept of the difference between itself and the 'flock'. They also imitate their parents in what they do. A process that was used to transfer traditions before the development of speech.

As the child grows older it starts to realize that it is an individual, and so all children are at an obstinate age at "the terrible two". The next step is that the child starts to understand the concept of time, and realizes that things are causally connected. I think that this is the age where you get the pantheistic view that has been so common in ancient cultures. At the same time as you develop a belief that everything is causally connected and start to understand the concept of time, you begin to wonder about existential things. Therefore it is natural that our early ideas include life after and before death, talismans and religious rituals.

Then, you grow even older and understand that everything is not causally connected with everything else. This is the same stage as when religions introduced divine punishments for your sins, because people started to understand, for example, that nothing will happen if you steal your neighbors cattle (unless your neighbor retaliates). Nature does not strike back, there will be no natural catastrophes, no lightning will hit you in the head, your harvest is not effected, you don't get bad luck. Everything goes on as normal, except that you have become richer and your neighbor poorer.

At this stage you understand that there is no evidence of any supernatural entities, but you still have remnants of your old system of belief. That's why people even today keep their fingers crossed while watching sports on TV, even if it is not even a live broadcasting! That is also why 'New age' has such an attraction on today's people.

Now, why do I mention this? Because I think it is important to understand the stages of mental development in order to understand why there is religion. It is also a necessary background in order to understand that it is not the atheist, but the theist, who has to justify his believes. I also think that it is important data if anybody wants to understand why I am an atheist.

Sweden is one of the most secularized countries in the world. My father is atheist and my mother is an agnostic, so I never really got in contact with any religion when I was a kid. Therefore, I suppose my early believes were very different from other people's.

As a kid, I had many teddy bears and other 'stuffed animals', and when I was about five or six I made up this planetary system in a far galaxy, from where my animals came. I believed that these animals made of cloth and stuffing had emotions and intelligence, even though they never spoke to me. On the backside of my kindergarten I made a 'teddy-bear-land smithy'. Even though I had made it all up, I believed it to be true. Talk about revelation!

Some months later I read a comic book my mother had, containing all the stories of the old testament (I learned to read before I started school). Like with everything else, my imagination got to work, and very soon I believed in the Jewish/Christian God.

Then I started school, and because I live in a very secularized country, we never had any prayers or sang any psalms in the classroom at junior school. We learned about some biblical myths, but I don't recall that we learned anything about other religions. Before every holiday season there is a breaking-up ceremony. This ceremony is held at a church. In the ceremony we still sing psalms and the preacher holds a speech, but except from that, I don't think religion has any place in Swedish schools. Besides these ceremonies are only traditions from the beginning of the 20th century, so I think they will lose their religious impression very soon. We have many foreigners, mostly Muslims, in Sweden and we can't force Christianity on them.

It was about this time that I started to grow skeptic. I remember being afraid of the dark and one time I didn't want to have it like that any longer (and I was also tired of life). So I lay down on my bed, closed my eyes and told the monsters that if they wanted to kill me, this was their last chance. As you probably understand, nothing happened. Since then I was no longer afraid of the dark, and did not believe in monsters.

Later I did the same procedure with God. I prayed and asked him to give me a sign or else I wouldn't believe in him anymore. In the stories in my mother's comic book God spoke to the characters and they saw a glowing cloud, and light, and God's voice came from the light. I certainly expected that the same thing would happen to me, but to my disappointment nothing happened. I sometimes do this again, even though I am a strong atheist (i.e. have a positive belief that there is no god, as opposed to 'weak' atheism which is only lack of belief in God.), because I want to be a fair person. Every time I do it, my atheism is strengthened.

I know theists don't think that this is much of an evidence. I haven't looked hard enough, they say. But, I asked him to give me a clear sign. Something that must have been done by an intelligent being, and could not have been done by a human. I must say, that I have never, ever seen any sign of anything supernatural, so that leaves three options. (1) God can't do miracles, (2) God doesn't want me to believe, or (3) there is no god. Neither of the two former alternatives is a god I would like to worship. I hold the latter alternative to be the most probable, simply because there is no sign of God anywhere in the world. Besides a being that is not worth worshipping cannot, by definition, be a god.

If you look around you, you will notice material objects, but no god. When something happens, you will notice that it happens no matter if there is a god or not. Apples always fall down, never upwards (unless affected by hurricanes). If something like an apple falling upwards would occur, there would be evidence that there is something more than the laws of nature, but there isn't.

There are people who claim they had unusual experiences, but I think that they are people who have not yet freed their minds from what could be called primitive feelings, even if I don't like to use the word 'primitive' since it implies that natives (not so long ago they were called 'savages') would be more primitive as humans because of their not so developed culture, which of course is not a correct conclusion. Remember that I believed in things I made up myself as a kid, why should these persons experiences be any different? Eyewitnesses can only be trusted if there are several independent ones, and as far as I know there are no independent witnesses when it comes to the supernatural.

Even if I was an atheist, through the rest of my compulsory school, I thought that Christians were better people, who were morally superior other people. But on the senior level (comparable to Junior High) that started to fade away too. I especially remember that we were visiting a Christian rehabilitation clinic for alcoholics and I told them that I thought that the clinic did a great job, but didn't they neglect the patient's part of the rehabilitation by leaning so much on God, and God's help? Wouldn't it be a more durable result to plead to the patients will to be healthy and not rely so much on an external source?

I also remember that during the history classes, I got more and more hostile to religion. I also saw what evangelistic sects did to people. Finally I didn't believe Christians to be better than anybody else and I thought that religion was one of the worst power structures that had ever oppressed people. Medieval really was the Dark Ages and that was due to Christianity.

Then I started the Swedish equivalent to Senior High School, and thought that everybody at that intellectual level was an atheist. I had fully become a rationalist and thought that the only theists were elderly people, some young children and a few preachers. Except from that I thought that people were too educated to believe in that rubbish. Therefore it came as a shock to me when, in the middle of a physics class, one of my fellow students said something about God. I got quite supercilious and told him things like "don't be ridiculous, of course there is no god". We were still friends, but my image of him had drastically changed.

I now have a better understanding of theists, but I still think that religion is bad. So even if I try not to patronize theists, I think that they are wrong, and I do much to try and convert them.

In 1994 I found a notice from the Swedish Humanists. I applied for a test membership mostly so I could get their magazine cheaper. The magazine was great, and I felt pleased to see that there were people who thought much like me, and I also liked the Humanist engagement for education and health in the third world.

Later I was doing a survey, about evolution and the Soviet "scientist" Lysenko. I read a book on the topic by the famous British Humanist Julian Huxley and it was so full of optimism for the future of mankind if we let science be free. I later read a book by Huxley called "Religion without revelation". It was full of the same optimism and I encourage any atheist, and even theist, to read it.

From being a child who made up his own religion, I now consider myself a rationalist and full hearted Humanist, even if I don't agree with everything Humanism stands for. I think that for the future of mankind we need to liberate ourselves from religion. Religion is hierarchical when the world needs democracy, religion is authoritative and uniform when the world needs independent thinking people, religion is superstition when the world needs knowledge, and religious morality is based on rewards when the world needs compassion.

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Last Update December 8, 1996

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