As David Niose's recent piece in Psychology Today reminds us, disbelief is not a choice. I was raised in a moderate, somewhat sheltered, but non-dogmatic Protestant household in the Bible belt. But I'm not sure that my ontology ever really included the Tooth Fairy, Santa, Jesus, or the monster in my uncle's basement. If so, they were certainly not important parts of my childhood. My mom did make me go to church fairly regularly when I was very young (to light the candles - yes, I was an altar boy), but religion was never really a topic of discussion at "supper."
After high school, I got a full-time job in a hospital emergency room and started going to community college part-time. I was inspired by a math teacher and eventually got a degree in mathematics, but an interest in philosophy also led me to explore religion more in-depth (Christianity and its skeptics - everything from Why I am Not a Christian to The Myth of Sisyphus - as well as Buddhism and Taoism in particular). I became a "non-theist" (philosophical Taoist) around the age of twenty-one. I loved watching Kung Fu and worked with a physician (and homeopath) who practiced Tai Chi. I eventually studied My Jhong Law Horn and Wu Style Tai Chi with one of Grand Master Johnny Lee's first American students (and a professed Catholic). My wife and I were married by a Lutheran minister (in church), but I wrote the entire ceremony. It was predominately Taoist, and not the least bit Christian (except for the Lord's Prayer, which the minister insisted on saying at the end). Meanwhile, my interest in both science and mathematics was also growing. I developed an interest in skepticism inspired by Sagan, Asimov, and others. A career in software engineering and support exposed me to even more diversity, and engineering.
I have not hidden my doubts or disbelief from anyone, but I seldom wear them on my sleeve either (ok, maybe an occasional t-shirt at social events). And I haven't really suffered any serious negative consequences for it. Aside from the loss of relationships with a couple of "friends" and a few others in my life who "just don't want to discuss it" anymore, I haven't experienced negative consequences at work or in my community as a result of my disbelief either (unlike others). I have had supportive friends and supportive (if not always understanding) family all along the way.
I recently decided to become more active in the growing secular movement (for reasons that I will discuss in a subsequent post). After attending the Reason Rally last year, I co-founded the first (and currently only) local chapter of Recovering From Religion in the Charlotte-Metro area (there are currently six chapters in the Carolinas). I also discovered a thriving community in Charlotte (through Charlotte Atheists and Agnostics) and am now working with some other great people to start a humanist group in Hickory. These, and other local, groups recently formed a Charlotte Coalition of Reason "to foster a sense of community among the like-minded and raise public awareness that people who don't believe in a god or gods can be decent citizens who contribute to the larger society."
But getting back to Niose's point: Early doubts, supportive friends, a non-dogmatic family (if not the larger social) environment, exposure to diverse perspectives through both work and a college education, and minimal negative personal consequences are probably the most significant factors in my disbelief and coming out. And of course, an education - especially in mathematics, and a basic understanding of the real world (science) along with some experience in (software) engineering.
The good Christian should beware of mathematicians, and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of Hell.
- Saint Augustine, DeGenesi ad LitteramI'm not sure if Augustine really meant "mathematicians" or "astrologers," "numerologists," or a combination of what we understand these terms to mean today. But if you could go back in time and show him your cell phone in action he'd probably think you were the devil too! When I was starting to learn Tai Chi, I was (perhaps half-jokingly) called a Japanese devil-worshiper by a fundamentalist I knew at the time. I politely pointed out that Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art. She probably has her own cell phone now. I guess that's some progress?
More on my "coming out" later...