I didn’t “become” an atheist. I had no particular moment of clarity, no sudden light dawned and I certainly never had any reason to become angry at any nonexistent deities. I know many atheists who were ardent believers at one point in their lives, and for one reason or another finally had enough and saw the foolishness in all of it, but that was not my experience.
We are all born atheists. If not indoctrinated into some faith by high school age, statistics say that most people will never develop a faith on their own. In my case, indoctrination was attempted, but it never took. Ten solid years of Sunday School, youth group, summer camp and church had very little effect on me. I just couldn’t get it through my thick head that people really believed all this stuff was true.
To me, there were just too many holes in too many of the stories they told me. The timelines made no sense, the science was all wrong and there was no real proof that any of it ever happened. The main reason, though, that I never became a believer had to do with the whole soul and afterlife thing.
All of the religions that preach he doctrine of eternal life seem to agree on at least one point, that all human beings have within us, in addition to our physical selves, something non-material called a “soul” that survives the death of the body, and is capable of surviving for eternity. A handy item indeed, as it is what allows us to live on after death, cavorting with our old friends and family members forever without fear of ever being parted again. Of course, the religions differ on what we must do during this life to entitle us to enjoy the next, with the penalty for believing in the wrong religion, or none at all, being an eternity of torment under the gleeful eyes of those who chose more wisely then ourselves.
Or, the whole thing could be a bunch of bunk, which is what I decided after carefully considering the implications of this “soul” thing. Even as a child it made no sense to me, and the more I have learned about the body and how it works as an adult, it makes even less.
My grandfather on my father’s side died when I was twelve or so, after a series of strokes, which left him pretty much a vegetable for the last few weeks of his life. At some point following his funeral, I overheard one of my relatives saying to another that Pop was up there with his brother, looking down on us, blah, blah, blah. I remember wondering exactly what it was that was up there looking down, ‘cause for the last few weeks of his life, Pop was a drooling idiot who could not walk, talk or communicate in any manner whatsoever.
I was very much into science fiction at that point, and I started imagining what the characteristics of this “soul” would have to be in order for Pop to function in the hereafter. First question for me was what “Pop” was up there? A young Pop, a middle-aged Pop, or perhaps a Pop from just before the stroke. In any case, in order to have a functioning Pop, instead of a drooling idiot, the soul would have to somehow store at least the “last known good” Pop, or the Pop that existed before the stroke. That means his entire brain state would have to be uploaded to the soul, kind of like a computer backup, periodically, in case he died or became (as he did) disabled.
I didn’t know about computers then, of course, but I used other analogies that were along the same lines. They all added up to the same thing: In order to have a functioning person in the hereafter you would have to capture a “well” essence of the person sometime prior to death, and I just couldn’t see how this could be done, especially when there was nothing material that could do it.
We know a lot more about how the brain works, and what happens when we die then we did back then, but nothing we have discovered has in any way answered or mitigated the afterlife concerns I had as a young boy. At present, the physiology of NDE’s has been explained, we have virtually determined that consciousness is centered in the brain (where else, for goodness sake), and as yet we have discovered nothing material or immaterial that in any way resembles an eternal soul, or any other part of us capable of surviving the death of the body, let alone something capable of storing our “essence” for use in the afterlife.
Through the years, I have engaged countless theists in a practical discussion of the soul to no avail. No apologist has ever given me a satisfactory response to my simple query: How is a persons essence stored in this soul, and what controls the backup mechanism? God works in mysterious ways is not an answer, at least not one to which I give any credence.
Shaman’s have been peddling the afterlife for probably ten or fifteen thousand years, convincing the gullible to fork over a couple of chickens to be sacrificed to ensure a good afterlife for the recently departed. A harmless custom this would be except when what’s required is not a couple of chickens but flying a couple of airplanes into buildings or blowing oneself up in the presence of “enemies” in order to ensure places in the afterlife.
Most people seem to accept the existence of something called a soul without really thinking about it. Of course, that’s the whole thing about religion, if you really think about it, it disappears into the mist like the last dream you have before awakening.