Above photo is me taking communion in a church some 16 years ago.
You can find a video version of this post here.
Switching from Catholicism to atheism in around 2012/2013 was a rather major point of my life, so it’s a little strange in hindsight that I haven’t spoken much about it. I recently wrote about why I think atheists shouldn’t feel afraid to tell non-atheists about why they think there are no deities, but here I want to talk about my own journey.
As I started to write this, I realised I don’t know exactly how I came to believe in ‘god etc.’ (I’ll use this as short hand for believing all the typical Catholic beliefs). As far back as I can remember, I took the existence of god etc. for granted. I found I had to ask my parents for some of the answers. Here is what I’ve been able to recall and gather.
My mum’s mother was religious, and occasionally went to Sunday mass. This rubbed off on my mum, but when asked about it today, she described herself in hindsight as being a ‘closet atheist’. It sounds like my dad’s experience was similar.
I was born in Perth where I was baptised (when pressed, my mum said that this would have been more for the benefit of my grandparents, who were all believers). I took kindergarten in Tokyo, Japan, and had my first few years of primary school at a British international school (Al Khubairat) in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Broadly speaking, both of these seemed to be fairly non-religious. However in Abu Dhabi, I took part in a Christian Sunday school at least once. As best I can work out, I went because some friends went.
We moved to Adelaide, Australia in 1999 and I started going to St Ignatius College, a Jesuit private school. I was there from year 2 to year 12. I think it’s here that any nascent beliefs I had in god etc. were solidified. My mum described it best when she said I was like a sponge and would have readily taken on what the school was teaching us.
We had compulsory mass around once a week. In later years, this became optional, but I still went most of the time since most people did. I prayed in my own time, though not consistently. I believed I was speaking to a god. I discovered in my last few years there that some of my friends were atheist, and that they just didn’t believe. We never really talked about it any more than that, but I recall feeling a little surprised and sad by this.
I’m not sure exactly when, but at some point while I was at St Ignatius, it occurred to me what it might be like if, against all odds, god etc. wasn’t real. Oblivion. This scared me, and in all honesty it still does when I’m not careful and I think about it too hard. I recall once as a child thinking about this in the middle of the night (“But if there is nothing, then that means…“) and having a panic attack. I leapt out of my bed, silently screaming “NO”, and collapsing on the floor outside my room. I never told anyone about this. I did my best to remind myself that this was silly and unlikely. I was getting heaven or hell, but certainly not nothing.
After I left school, I started studying my Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide in 2010. I would still describe myself as Catholic, and would still pray sometimes, but I stopped going to church. In 2011, my fears about oblivion were reaching a boiling point. I was having more doubts, and it was starting to seriously affect my life. Desperate, I went to mass a few times with my grandfather, but it didn’t seem to help. I decided that I needed to apply the science I was learning and find out the truth. Did god etc. exist?
I embarked on an online journey of research, reading things from atheists and Christians. I watched debates (in particular Richard Dawkins videos), and even joined an online Christian/atheist text and voice debate platform (I tried finding it to share it here, but couldn’t), where I spent several weeks/months engaging and listening. It was run by Christian preachers, but they welcomed atheists to come and debate. I described myself here as neutral and wanting to find the truth.
The more I listened and engaged, the less it made sense. As one example, I was studying geology, and I asked about how plate tectonics would fit in with a 6,000 odd year old universe. They answered that Noah’s flood smashed up the plates and they’re still moving around a little because of that. I don’t want to strawman all creationists with this one example, let alone strawman all Christians with creationists in general. This is just one example of me realising that none of the arguments for god etc. made any sense when I thought about them through the lens of science.
After this, I rather quickly realised I was an atheist. Unfortunately, this only amplified my fears of oblivion. It was now effectively a certainty – I was going to die, and I was going to be nothing. Incredibly, while writing this I’m not experiencing panic. Perhaps I’ve gotten better at separating my thoughts from my feelings, because I don’t think I’ve actually come to terms with death. As recently as about a month ago, I had a short lived (3-10 seconds) panic over this. They usually only come at night while I try to sleep now, when my mind is most free to be active and think.
Back to 2011 – I opened up about my fears to my parents and girlfriend at the time. I tried counselling, where it was suggested I was experiencing depression and anxiety. Ultimately I wasn’t prescribed medication, but it was suggested I try mindfulness, which didn’t seem to help.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what did help, but something that comes to mind is a conversation I had with my dad in 2012 about my videogame addiction (I’ve had a somewhat unhealthy relationship with videogames for years – often I’ll either play too much or not at all, with little in between), which combined with my depression was leading me to fail some university courses. We spoke about what I want to get out of life, and he said something to the effect of ‘you’re smart and can do anything you want’.
This, more than anything else, I think, put me on the path to recovery. I decided I wanted to save the world. Climate change looked pretty serious, maybe I’ll dedicate my life to that. I haven’t really told anyone this either, but part of why this mostly worked was because I decided I might just try to live forever. If I could set the world on a path of blindingly fast progress, maybe we could develop the technology to become immortal (the work of Aubrey de Grey was of interest to me here). In any case, this did seem to motivate me to go from failing my degree in 2012 to completing honours at the top of my class in 2014.
Over time, this ‘live forever’ motivation transitioned in to a ‘reduce suffering in the universe as much as possible’ motivation, and that seems to be where I remain today. I have a mission to do, and life is too short for me to spend any more time thinking about what comes after than I have to. I still go through slumps, and I suspect depression and anxiety will never fully leave me, but I am committed to this goal.
Some things I wrote about here are things I’ve never told another person. Most of it is at least stuff I’ve mentioned to very few people. I hope this inspires you to share your stories of how you came to no longer believe in a religion.