But here's the interesting part: I wasn't always an atheist. As a child, I was raised in the Episcopalian faith, and my parents took me to church every Sunday. I also attended a Lutheran grade school, which taught religion as a class (something I still don't understand, how exactly does one grade religious belief?), and which made us attend a special church service every Wednesday morning (which ain't the Sabbath, but whatever). While I was never a fundamentalist (neither church nor school pushed that very hard), I was most definitely a Christian. I strongly believed in the divinity of Jesus, and along with being baptized, I also celebrated a first communion at age six (awful young to start on wine, but it's just a sip.) and I was confirmed at the age of twelve (if you don't know what confirmation is, it's a bible/faith class you attend with your priest and a few other kids your age that lasts about a month and ends with you taking a written test about your faith. It's like a bar mitzvah, except less work and a way lamer party at the end). Yes, I was definitely into Jesus as a child, but then something happened.
|No, not that|
I began to become more cynical about religion at around the age of fifteen; part of this was because my parents stopped dragging me to church each week, but something else was afoot. The entire belief system of religion began to seem more and more ridiculous to me; while I'd always had trouble with the Adam and Eve story, now I began to question other parts of the bible too. My skeptical nature grew, and it was fueled by the tenor of the times; this was in the 1980's, at a time when Jerry Falwell and the moral majority were rising in power and influence, and laughable TV preachers and faith healers flooded the networks (Ok, not so much the local channels in San Francisco). Finding these people and their beliefs repulsive deepened my loss of faith. Finally, at the age of seventeen, I saw an interview with Science Fiction author Isaac Asimov on TV in which he talked movingly about being an atheist, and I found myself not only agreeing with him, but uplifted by that fact as well. It was a spiritual awakening without any spirit. The atheist had landed. And I should mention that I didn't embrace atheism with any anger towards religious people (other than Falwell and co.) or rebellion against my parents (who are still religious, but who, to their credit, took my conversion without hostility).
So, like most people who are raised religious and then turn on their religion in adulthood, I use terms like KNOWLEDGE, SCIENCE, REASON and other words that make me look smart to describe my change. But, to return to the idea of free will, I must admit there is another factor that could be at play here. Like I said, I began to be cynical about religion when I was fifteen. Now what else happened to me when I was fifteen? Puberty. As we all know, when you hit puberty, your body goes through big physical changes, changes that will really effect who you are as a person, and that include definite changes in the brain as well as the body. New hormones that can and do effect behavior are produced and dumped into your skull willy nilly. Now, is it possible that this change in brain chemistry is what caused me to reject religion? Is religious faith or lack thereof linked to certain chemical reactions in the brain that are beyond our control? Are some people just born more likely to believe than others? The answer to all these questions is a simple, big fat Maybe.
Certainty in this issue is impossible, but a genetic tendency to believe would explain why atheists and religious people can argue for so long with no clear winner or change in either opinion; it may be just too much of who we are, an intrinsic part of our being. If you ask a strongly religious person what it would take for them to stop believing, the usual reply is "nothing could do that." Conversely, I can't imagine believing in God anytime in my lifetime unless I see an absolute 100% certain miracle which could only be attributed to God, and that's highly unlikely, so I'm as stuck in my ways as the religious person.
There are, however, people who's faith or lack thereof changes when they're well past puberty and into adulthood, ( Here's a link to an article about a former Pentecostal preacher who lost his faith ) but even then, it could possibly just be a change in their brain chemistry that occurred as they aged, or perhaps even the development of a tumor, so that still proves nothing. Equally interesting is the role that gender plays; 3.6 percent of men in the US call themselves atheists, and only 1.2 of women; although those numbers are higher in other countries, the gender disparity remains. So does the differences in brain functioning between men and women play a role in belief? It would appear so.
Another interesting idea that arises is that if faith relies on brain chemistry, could an artificial change to that chemistry alters one's beliefs? Could a pill be developed that could make an atheist into a believer, or vice versa? If such a pill existed, who would take it? If someone was a Christian who believed all non believers are going to hell, could they morally argue that such a pill should be mandatory for others to take? Could they force it upon their non believing friends and relatives? How about dumping it in the drinking water?(Attention Hollywood, there's a movie plot for you.) The invention of such a drug is not out of the realm of future possibility, and obviously the moral ramifications are complicated.
And then there's yet another complication; I've already mentioned that America is far more religious than other first world countries. If being born in a certain place makes you more likely to have some kind of faith, then obviously there must be more at work than brain chemistry. It would appear that individual belief, like so many things in life, is the result of that delicate mix of unique genetics and upbringing that we all have.
One possibility when it comes to comparing America's faith to other industrialized nations is that the US has a higher poverty rate than most other such countries, and that impoverished people are more likely to look to the church for needs both physical and spiritual. Any listing of religious nations will clearly show that the higher the poverty rate, the more likely the people are to be religious.
One thing I will say for sure is that I and my fellow atheists in the world need to be respectful of people of faith even as we question them; we should always remember that the brain is very compartmentalized, and that the part of the brain dealing with logic and reason, and the part of the brain dealing with faith and belief are separate and distinct sections that don't always work together. It's entirely possible for a person to be logical and rational in some things and not others. There are, of course, religious scientists and doctors, just as there are illogical atheists. (I would add Ann Rand to that list).
So, as always when this topic is debated, a simple question remains, which this post is named after, and for which there is no definite answer.
And that's just part 1 of the free will debate...