When I look back, I can’t say that there was one defining moment where I suddenly stopped being religious and became an atheist. Rather, there was a gradual accumulation of doubts, and there was a gradual discovery of science and how the world actually works. However, I do remember having trouble early on with one particular concept: sin.
As a young child I grew up Catholic. My mother and grandmother made sure I went to Sunday school, that I took my first communion, made my first confession–the whole nine yards. We learned about Adam and Eve, the talking snake, the apple from the tree. You all know the story, I’m sure. But even as a young child, I remembering being confused at the fact that I was being punished for the transgressions of someone else in the past. It didn’t make sense to me: how could I be morally culpable for something that I didn’t even do?
And then I learned that I was a sinner the very moment I was born. Before I even had the brainpower to understand what “right” and “wrong” were or what sin was or could even control my own actions, I was already a sinner. The concept utterly baffled me.
These things bothered me even as a child, and as I got older the questions surrounding the issue of sin deepened. If God created me, that means he purposely made me imperfect. So why am I being held accountable or punished for something God himself did? If everything is God’s will, then he knew that Eve would eat the apple. God knew all of this and let it happen–it was His will. So how can God knowingly create something imperfect and then punish it when it fails to be perfect? This was deeply troubling to me.
As I got a little older the idea of sin became directly correlated to “right” and “wrong.” We learned about the seven deadly sins in Sunday school, and hitherto I had agreed that these were pretty bad things. But then I started thinking about the idea of salvation. That was what it was all about, right? That was the goal of all this–eternal salvation. Well, how could it be that people who sin can go to heaven?
This was another concept that we learned. Jesus died for our sins, you could confess your sins on Sunday for absolution, and most crucial of all: if you believed in Christ–truly accepted him in your heart–you would go to heaven. Under this system, someone who murdered a bunch of orphans could repent and accept Jesus on his deathbed and go heaven so long as his acceptance was genuine.
I had a lot of moral and logical trouble with this. So, the actions of Adam and Eve are held against every baby in existence, babies who can’t even accept Christ into their hearts, but someone who murders a bunch of people isn’t held accountable for their own actions if they accept Christ? My mind couldn’t overcome this contradiction.
As a child, what’s the worst thing I could have possibly done? Lie, perhaps. But do the lies of a child really cause anyone harm? No, of course not. But if I didn’t accept Christ in my heart I wouldn’t go to heaven while someone who had killed another human being could. This severely distressed me.
More time passed and I continued to think about this concept. Good deeds and good works didn’t matter, ultimately, according to the framework I had been taught as a child. There was no reason to do anything altruistic, ever. If all it took to get into heaven was confession and acceptance of Jesus, then there’s nothing to motivate me to be charitable. Good works mean nothing in the eyes of God. And I remember that this made me angry.
Under this concept, I could spend my whole life helping people. I could save all the babies in a burning orphanage, grow up to cure cancer, donate all my money to charities that feed people in third world countries, and spend my weekends helping homeless people find jobs. But at the end of it all, I could still go to hell if I didn’t simply believe. All of the things that we perceive as being “good” didn’t matter. Things that even Christians would acknowledge as good didn’t matter. Someone who didn’t help or do anything to better another living soul could get into heaven simply by worshiping God and accepting him into their heart.
I remember that these realizations were the first inklings I had that something was terribly wrong with religion. Later on, I would learn about science and history and philosophy and many other things that would ultimately lead me to conclude that religion did not reflect reality. And certainly that merely being religious did not guarantee that someone was a good person. I’d rather spend my life making the world better for other people and going to hell than spend my life in servitude to a God who doesn’t care about the quality of our lives but only desires that we worship him.