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How did you become non-religious?

Apr 27 2009
Daniel O'Neal's "Doubt" piece from P&C

This essay by SHL Member Daniel O'Neal appeared in the Post and Courier on April 19, 2009:

Sometimes I’m asked how long I have been an atheist. That realization occurred while in college, but I don’t think there was any one point at which I consciously began to doubt the existence of a supernatural being. Rather, doubt seems to have always been there, at least in the background. My early mind-set toward religion was rather passive, not questioning the existence of God, but not affirming it either.

My childhood was probably not unlike that of many other Midwesterners of the Baby Boom generation. I went to parochial school and attended church. My personal guiding principles were more Golden Rule than Ten Commandments. As an adolescent, I never entertained any serious doubts about the existence of God. It just wasn’t an issue for me. I don’t recall ever being asked if I believed in God, but I imagine now that I might have answered “I guess so”.

Years later, while a student at Miami University in Ohio, I began to understand that the God question was fundamental and that I had to confront it. I needed to be all in or all out, I thought, and so I set out to definitively decide what it was that I believed. It was a search that I wanted to approach with an open mind: a search not necessarily for God, but for Truth. Since my studies in economics and foreign languages did not involve religion, I explored the issue on my own outside the classroom. In addition to general books on religion, I also read works by Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis and atheist writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Ayn Rand. I also began attending church again, after a lapse of several years. I took bible study classes and even volunteered to answer the phone at the rectory on weekends.

Those weekends provided me the opportunity to have some in-depth theological discussions with the parish priest. My questions were probably typical for a college student in the 1970s. Why was the Church so wealthy and why wasn’t it doing more to fight poverty? Why does God allow so much human suffering to exist? Why won’t He show Himself? My priest tried his best to explain all this to me, but I could tell that he was not happy with my persistent questioning. I also attended a lecture by the radical Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan. Father Berrigan proved to me that Roman Catholicism was not necessarily incompatible with my own sense of social justice, but he wasn’t able to provide a satisfactory answer to my main questions: How do I know that God exists? Why does faith play such a central role? Where was the evidence?

Eventually, I arrived at the Truth. For me, the Truth is not that there is no God, but that I am an atheist, a person without faith. One cannot disprove the existence of something that does not exist, but logic tells me that there is probably no God. Until I find some evidence, I simply cannot believe in a supernatural being. The matter is just too important to rely on blind faith.

So, now that I had a clear awareness of what I did not believe, I was left wondering what it is that I do believe. And what would be the practical implications of living a godless life. On a philosophical level, I was drawn to existentialism with its emphasis on the human condition and creating meaning within one’s own life. And the Golden Rule seemed as suitable for an atheist as for a person of faith, if not more so.

The practical consequences of being an atheist in my chosen career became apparent soon after I received my commission in the Air Force upon graduating from college. As dog tags were being issued to me, I was asked to declare my religion. When I replied that I was an atheist, the puzzled young airman suggested I choose “no religious preference” instead. However, that was not accurate because it wasn’t a case of simply not preferring one religion to another, but of rejecting them all. Since “atheist” was not an option for dog tags, I was forced to accept “no religious preference”, at least until I figured out that I could have them custom made outside of military channels.

While stationed in Europe some years later, I toured Scotland and stopped at Loch Ness. There, strolling along and enjoying the natural beauty of the Loch, I happened to strike up a conversation with a local monk. Interestingly, he claimed that he had personally seen the monster and could therefore vouch for its existence. I didn’t challenge the monk’s fantastic claim. If that’s what he saw, I thought, it’s fine with me. But I hadn’t seen it, so I had my doubts. I do know that the monster myth is good for local tourism – in fact, it’s the reason I travelled to that particular Loch instead of one of the others.

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