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By Jim Downard
Which author has most influenced your views on atheism?
This is an easy one. The Bible. I had read no criticisms of religious claims (no Thomas Paine or obviously authors who came along later like Richard Dawkins). It was giving me that cross-referenced Revised Standard Version Bible in Methodist Sunday school in the early 1960s that did it. I quickly spotted the conflicting genealogies of Joseph’s line in Matthew and Luke by checking the footnote allusions to relevant comparable passages (cross referencing that way is a dangerous thing to do around a follow-the-source type like moi, and I notice not all Bibles take that imprudent scholarly step).
We were a fully non-religious family overall (no perfunctory church attendance for us), but Mom did send all us kids to Sunday school when we reached the age for it, so we could make up our own minds. None of us became religious as a result, but I was the one who was actually kicked out for asking too many questions about the flood (causing me to sympathize wryly when Carl Sagan’s fictional Ellie Arroway had a similar experience in “Contact”). I was a model dinosaur collector even at that age, which probably didn’t help. However, as Mom couldn’t care less about religion, to the point of not discussing anything about it, pro or con, none of my flood skepticism was coming from maternal indoctrination. The instructor told me that I shouldn’t be asking questions like that, which prompted me to respond, “Isn’t Sunday school exactly where you are supposed to be asking questions like that?” Whereupon my mother was requested not to bring me back next Sunday.
There is one quote from my formative years that has stuck in my mind, one by John Stuart Mill from 1865 that I encountered in passing during my general reading on philosophy in high school: “I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures, and if such a creature can sentence me to Hell for not so calling him, to Hell I will go.” Here was a truly universal application of standards, one which was not the sort of “aw shucks, God works in mysterious ways, so shut up with all the questions” attitude that I notably did not display (nor respect) years earlier in Sunday school.
I alluded to that Mills quote in note 84 (p. 754) of my “Troubles in Paradise” project (the “Cuz the Bible Tells Me So” chapter, pdf at www.tortucan.com
), which pretty much sums up my attitude on the biblical apologetics of the antievolutionist set.
Because I had gone to the source on not being a Christian, I also didn’t bother reading atheist works except as I bumped into them in my study of the creation/evolution controversy. (Likewise for theological apologetics, unless they had something pithy to say on evolution. If they didn’t, I saw no point in looking into them.) I only dived into the Hitchens/Dawkins camp more recently as a consequence of encountering certain Kulturkampf apologetics that tended to get apoplectic about them. (And yet I’m still not finished with reading Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and haven’t yet begun Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great,” so I cannot note where those works ought to be cited relevant to points I raise in my own argument.) Although there are many atheists who point to Dawkins or others as being influential, this may be giving them more credit than they deserve in fomenting nonbelief. As public stars they have certainly made it more allowable for budding nonbelievers to poke their heads up with confidence, while certainly providing an articulation of views that now make sense to them better than whatever faith they were falling away from.
As I had no faith to abandon, and Sunday school represented a passing Christian belief ship I saw no need to hail, I likely missed a lot of the Sturm und Drang that others may well have had, particularly if they were raised in a deeply religious household, and so had more need of external authors acting as well-worded firebrands to help kindle their mounting doubts.
Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose. He’s always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor’s in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).