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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

Your Stories of Atheism: A Video Submission & Sunglasses

This is an ongoing series featuring your stories of how you came to identify as an atheist. If you want to send me your story, you can submit it here. To read past stories, click here.

Before we begin this week, please consider helping Mubarak Bala get to school in the USA. You can support the Indiegogo campaign by clicking here. Even a dollar helps. If you can’t afford to give anything, please share it everywhere you can using the hashtag #School4Mubarak. Thank you!

The first story today comes from Josh and is in video format, which I thought was so cool:

The next story today is from Joel and it’s absolutely brilliant:

Sunglasses Sunglasses matter. In fact, they’re the most important object in my life. Say what you will about fashion, bug-eyed pop singers and aviator-touting movie stars, but no other accessory is simultaneously so fashionable with such utility. UV damage to the retina? No more. Glare making it difficult to drive? Not with my shades. There are several additional uses for sunglasses that I could describe, but allow me to elucidate the one that I find perhaps most important.

In the summer of 2007, I embarked on a mission trip to Trinidad and Tobago with my youth group from Community Evangelical Church (to be clear, we weren’t the loopy evangelicals you see on tv… we didn’t slap people to heal them). I was an extremely devout teenager. No sex, no drugs, no swearing, no mischief, etc. I’d actually read the entire Bible and I was quite respected among my friends at school and at church with regard to my level of faith. I was that boy that every parent wanted their daughter to date and every daughter considered dating, but eventually declined knowing that she wouldn’t get anywhere with me. I kick my former self at this point in the story whenever I consider it, but I digress. This mission was a big deal for me. Upon our arrival in Trinidad, we would get situated in our lodging, a preschool built on the donations from my denomination, and the following day we would drive through the streets with bullhorns inviting children to our Vacation Bible School. Delivering this announcement (as well as several of the messages to be given before 200+ children) would be yours truly. On bullhorn day, I rode in the cab of a flatbed truck with a man and his wife from the village in which we were staying. Conversation was cordial and lighthearted, until the man asked me if I was proud to be an American. I thought the question a bit strange, but in my perfectly Boy Scout programed way, I responded: ​“I sure am!” ​“Why?” ​That one question, in a single instant, has led me on a quest to analyze, assess, and improve America (and the world, really) as much as I possibly can. Again I digress, however. My apologies. Let’s proceed. ​The week’s VBS went well and numerous children accepted Christ’s forgiveness, asking Him to become their Lord and Savior. I was pleased by the welcome we’d received from the community, but later learned that one more god isn’t particularly difficult to accept for the Hindu denizens of that village. Still, I counted our VBS as a success and, standing in the only cold shower I’ve ever been thankful for, I looked forward to our day trip to Tobago (the more tourism-focused island of T&T). ​Upon landing in Tobago, the customs officer began hassling us. The youth pastor leading our group, despite standing 6’7” and likely due to his consistently jovial manner, proved intimidating in no way to the stout woman who was nearing the end of her shift. Eventually, her successor walked up, took her place, and asked us what we were doing on the islands. Our pastor replied by explaining that we were missionaries and the woman’s face lit up: “go right through!” ​We spent a great day in the clear waters and tropical sun of Tobago and returned to Trinidad that night, our last night, to debrief. We sat in a circle and began recounting the ways in which God had touched our lives that week. My pastor, to my left, began by noting how God had cleared our path that morning… how our prayers for safe and smooth travel had been answered. ​“Were they?” I thought in my first act of questioning the leaders of my faith, “Is it not possible, in fact likely, that someone more amicable and with a soft spot for missionaries took the right shift at the right time?” ​I struggled with these thoughts for some time as testimony travelled around the circle. Had I voiced them, they might have been assuaged and the situation rationalized by the adults there, but I was also supposed to be a leader of this group. I couldn’t show weakness. I recall the subtle scent of tears beginning to fill the air. The outside world had become a bit hazy for me as I had sunken into my inner dialogue and I had failed to notice that people had been crying as they recounted their stories. ​In a moment, I began to panic. I had nothing to testify about and it would soon be my turn. I seem to recall someone delivering what was, for them, an uncharacteristically long story and in that moment I could have kissed them. They’d bought me time. ​My turn. I’d already dropped my sunglasses over my eyes as I always do when I don’t want people to gain the notion that I might not know what I’m going to say. ​“I…” ​“Oh well this is going well.” I thought. “Say (or do) something.” And yes… I really do think in parentheticals quite frequently. ​I rambled on about one particular child with developmental problems who had really taken to me. This helped me to fake tears, because I would truly miss this child and felt helpless in my desire to help him in life after we left, but that wouldn’t have been enough to make me cry those days. I was faking it. My sunglasses, in this manner, allowed me to conceal the cracks that had begun to form in the foundation of my faith. My sunglasses prevented anyone from stopping my reassessment of my faith. ​In my final years of high school, I maintained my reputation as a tremendous Christian and even began a relationship that would last for nearly two years on the basis that we thought “god wanted us to be together.” In that time, however, despite my constant efforts to demolish evolution, the big bang theory, and rational thought in my own mind, my free thought continued to weather the rocks upon which I’d built my faith. ​In college, I had chosen to study neuroscience. Now, I don’t know how much the reader, whoever you are, knows about neuroscience, but allow me to recount for you just a few discrete pieces of neuroscience that helped compose the great lightsaber of neuroscience that removed the head from my faith with little more than a flick of the wrist. ​Humans have a tendency to misattribute agency to mundane events. When that twig cracks behind you in the woods, statistically speaking, either the wind or your fat ass managed to cause that stick to crack. With very few saber-toothed cats around these days to relish said fat ass, it’s not particularly likely that you’ll get eaten, but you fear that stick cracking anyway. This is probably because your ancestors were more paranoid than their counterparts who assumed that that stick cracking was due to the wind. Your ancestors survived and passed on their genes of paranoia to you while their chilled out buddy got eaten and didn’t reproduce. This is a very simple explanation and my professors (should they ever read this) should probably go check their blood pressure, but the point is that we evolved our tendency to sense ghostly presences, to believe that if something’s missing it’s more likely that someone stole it than you lost it, and to fear those bumps in the night. For this same reason, it’s likely that many events attributed to god(s) are misattributions due to our obsession with agency. That’s not necessarily the case, but it’s very, very likely. ​During one particular class, my professor asked us whether or not we believed in free will. Reflexively, the majority of the class answered yes, but I vividly recall the most intelligent individual in that course, Charles Ford, retorting, “and how would that work.” ​Charlie’s point was that we receive sensory stimuli through our sensory organs and those stimuli are converted to a series of neurological impulses that are in turn processed via the chemical and physical properties of billions of cells (not necessarily even neurons alone) in the brain and that processing ultimately leads to an output thought and/or behavior. There’s no place for some floaty consciousness/self to control the process. If there is, we’re as of now unaware of it and if someone tells you otherwise, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. ​Now at this point, one might consider the fact that a lack of free will kind of helps the religious people out there in their desire to believe in some sort of plan that God set into effect at the beginning of time. Anyone who considers that notion long enough will find it faulty, but I’d rather focus on a more important aspect of this dilemma. ​You see, it’s not just the brain that functions entirely according to physical and chemical activity. It’s the world. On any level higher than single atoms, with enough data and processing power, we could predict the action of an entire closed system. The fact is that, if god(s) exist, they can’t be affecting a single thing in the world because they’d be violating the basic laws of thermodynamics. They would have to create and destroy energy and matter to exert their effects and we’d damn sure notice that! ​There are several other aspects of science, philosophy, and neuroscience in particular that led to my thought being truly freed from religion, but the aforementioned experiences weighed heavily on my mind in mid-march of 2010. I prayed my last prayer.

​“God. It’s not just that I refuse to see, hear, feel, or believe in you. The fact is, you’re not real.” ​… and that was it. I felt a massive weight leave me. All the guilt of every sin or wrongdoing I’d ever committed. All the burden of cognitive dissonance that inevitably builds up in intelligent, rational people who try to follow religions. It was gone. I was free. I took a drive that night, as I always did when I needed some alone time to think… some time away from our tiny, human-filled campus. I’m certainly man enough to admit that now I was crying. My tears were those of simultaneous sadness and joy. Perhaps my left eye cried tears of sadness, with the knowledge of the persecution and chastisement that lay before me in a wanna-be theocratic society. Perhaps my right eye cried tears of joy with the spell of… not thoughtlessness, but constricted, incarcerated thought lifted. Whatever the case, the days of my truly free thought began that dark night on the way to my car, with tears streaming safely behind the shelter of my steel-framed sunglasses. Ritual and tradition are silly, but sentimentality does have value to me. If you see me wearing steel-framed sunglasses… well now you know why.

If you want to send me your story, you can submit it here. To read past stories, click here.

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