The Atheist Goes to College
When I first got to college I immediately took some courses in philosophy. The philosophy of ethics really attracted me in particular. Unfortunately, at the time I was still in my late teens and was entering the beginning of a heavy party phase, and so my grades were sadly not as good as they could’ve been. However, the seed had been planted, and I began to think more deeply about questions of philosophy and ethics than ever before. I remember being in philosophy class one day and the professor asked everyone to raise their hand if they believed in god. To my amazement, almost everyone in class raised their hand. It turned out that I was one of the few, if not the only atheist in the class. Even with this newfound recognition of my minority status, I never felt any serious pressure to conform to those around me when it came to religion or god perhaps because New York is such a secular city. Even though many people in New York believe in god, they generally aren't religious about and it keep it to themselves.
College is traditionally when we truly grow, and as I started making new friends and spent time with a more diverse crowd of people, I learned that religious belief and concepts of “god” were about as diverse as people’s tastes in food and music. I learned that no two people quite believe in the same concept of god. Many friends I made who called themselves “Catholic” were really only Catholic in title. They had premarital sex, used birth control, were pro-choice, they never actually went to church, and on the outside conducted themselves almost indistinguishable from any other secular nontheist. These kinds of people are what I like to call non-religious theists. They technically believe in a god that perhaps intervened a long time ago, but they more or less accept that events that happen in the world are natural, and they aren’t at all religious about their beliefs. I don’t have that much of a problem with these kinds of theists as quite a few of them I have called friends during my life; they’re more like the benign tumors of theism. It’s only if and when they cross the line of secularism that my alarm goes off. So many of those students who raised their hands that day in philosophy class and affirmed their belief in god really just believed in some sort of vague spiritual force or energy that exists somewhere out there, or they believed in some kind of powerful anthropomorphized being they call “God”. It’s another form of relatively benign belief in the supernatural that I can live with, as long as that line of secularism is respected.
Some theists say that colleges are just atheist and secular factories designed to transform good natured god-fearing kids into godless moral relativists. I’ve argued with quite a few of these types over the years, but as I recall, there is a bit of truth to this claim. In my introduction to ethics textbook, which I still have, it does ask the reader to question the source of their morality and we had a few class exercises that challenged the idea of grounding your morals in religion. For example, if you believe that you should do what god says because otherwise he will punish you, we learned in class that in a sense it would turn morality into a mere obedience system whereby the actual “morals” themselves could be meaningless and all that would matter is what you believe god commands you. God could command you to plunder and kill, and you would be obligated to do so unless face his punishment. This was my first introduction to what I would later learn is called the Euthyphro Dilemma and it was the first time I had thought about morality in such a way. Most college students who came from religious backgrounds who were confronted with this dilemma I’m sure have had to reconsider why they believe it’s good to obey god. These kinds of courses do force the theist to reexamine their beliefs and I suppose that is why many theists think colleges exist only to churn out godless secularists. As a non believer, was never challenged in college on the metaphysical grounding of my beliefs, but I was challenged often as to why I hold certain ethical views – but that was the whole point of the class. Contrary to what many theists presume, we were never taught the idea that moral relativism was the solution to all of the world’s problems.
While cleaning my apartment I came across some old college term papers from one of my philosophy classes. There was an assignment where we had to create a mock trial whereby we were to imagine ourselves being accused like Socrates was in The Apology of blasphemy or some sort of thought crime and we were to write a transcript of the trial’s proceedings. So (naturally) I imagined myself living in a world where atheism was a crime and I was put on trial and asked to justify my lack of belief in god. In it, I explain to the prosecutor why I’m an atheist:
I myself am an Atheist, I don't think religion is evil, I understand it has many good aspects of it, but I just do not have a place for it in my life. Let us say for example I didn't live in this era and place of religious freedom. I probably wouldn't be an Atheist, but lets [sic] say I was in a time and place where Atheists faced punishment or even death. I am accused by the authority for not believing in God. My devotion to Atheism is so that I am willing to [face] whatever punishment they have for me, even death.
Pros [Prosecutor]: So you began to question the very existence of God. Was there a particular moment in your life when you began to question God, such as a traumatic event or was it a gradual process?
Me: It was a gradual process. I didn't wake up one morning and say "I don't believe in God." I guess as I got older I just didn't except the explanations religion gives you. I mean it's so vague.
Pros: So you weren't convinced from what you were taught as a child. And I’m assuming you have your own theory and beliefs of how the world was created. What is it that you believe in?
Pros: Evolution. I see. I've heard of this theory. Something about how we humans, are descendents from Monkeys.
Me: Yes, and it was the Apes not the Monkeys.
Pros: And this is what you believe in? You are positively sure that evolution is true.
Me: From the evidence I have see, yes, and it makes a whole lot more sense to me than religion had.
It's funny how I justified the world's existence through evolution, which not only does it not address the origin of the universe, it doesn't even address the origin of life itself! At nineteen, I wasn't as knowledgeable about the cosmological arguments or any of the other ones which theism uses. (That didn't stop me from getting an A on the paper though.)