Why I'm an atheist, but not a fanatic

I was 11. I remember the moment quite clearly. It was the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Every morning at my parochial school, we'd stand, pledge allegiance to the flag, say a prayer, and listen to announcements over the PA. On this day, our parish monsignor came on, which was an unusual event. He led the prayer, and I remember him saying that day's prayer was in commemoration of the tragedy of Roe v. Wade.

Now, I was 11, but I was already reading The New York Times. I was a precocious political geek. And I recall, standing beside my desk that day, that no, I didn't agree with the monsignor. I didn't consider the Supreme Court decision on abortion to be a national tragedy. And I didn't much cotton to someone else telling me what to think on a matter of such importance, with the only justification being "because the Church says so." Even at that tender age, I was very protective of my autonomy and freedom of conscience. I think that was my first step on the road away from the Catholic Church and to where I am today.

Fortunately, my parents weren't fanatical Catholics. Until I entered high school, they did insist I go to church every Sunday. But once I graduated 8th grade and was on my way to Bronx Science, they left it up to me as to whether or not I'd continue attending Mass. My decision to stay home was at first occasioned by typical teen-age laziness: I'd much rather sleep in than wake up early for church. (My father has passed away. My mother sometimes wonders how me and my brothers became non-believers. I credit her with a lot of that, for which I'm thankful.)

Then, when we moved to Los Angeles, I was placed back into a Catholic school; the prayers were back. But whereas at least in grammar school I sort of believed, in the way that children do, in high school I knew I believed in none of it. One religion teacher said that you couldn't do anything in life unless you acknowledged that Christ was Lord. I know that in my head I immediately responded "bullshit".

The failings of the institutional Church are many and varied. From covering up priestly pedophilia, to its antiquated and deadly position on contraception, from abusing its tax exemptions and still engaging in political campaigns to standing against any type of social progress which threatens its prerogatives, the leadership of the Church is as corrupt as that which precipitated the Reformation in the 16th century. Its insistence on controlling people's bodies and minds leads eventually to death. In Ireland, Indian immigrant Savita Halappanavar was denied an abortion after her fetus had miscarried. Irish law allows for abortion in the case of a threat to the mother's life, but procedures have never been codified, leaving the decision to local administrators who might have views which renders the law a dead letter. In Mumbai, Sanal Edamaruku has been threatened with jail for blasphemy, as well as receiving death threats, for debunking the "miracle" of a weeping statue of Jesus. He is in exile in Europe, refusing to return to India until his life and freedom are guaranteed. (The Archbishop of Mumbai has said that he will use his influence to scupper the blasphemy case if Mr. Edamaruku "apologized". Thankfully, he refuses to do so.)

I am an atheist because science is real. It's testable, provable, and explains the reality of the universe in a way that the Bible or Koran cannot.

I am an atheist because I'm a humanist. I value the person over the myth of a sky god who will rain rewards or wrath depending on how you interpret his words. Living under such a cloud could warp any human, and prevent him from fulfilling himself fully.

I am an atheist because I am a democrat. That speaks more fully to my refusal to subscribe to any religion which demands that I check my free will and free conscience at the door, insisting that dogma trumps my native intelligence and reason. I refuse to hand over power over myself to any man or woman whom I have not had a hand in choosing. A pope or imam or rabbi has no greater understanding of reality than I do; most of the time, their understanding is far less.

I am an atheist because no one kills as fervently as when he does it in the name of his god. Fanaticism comes in many guises, but there is no denying that religious fanaticism is one of the greatest scourges today.

And there's that word: "fanatic". I'm an atheist, but I'm not a fanatic about it. I don't want temples razed, I don't want priests killed, I don't want religion driven underground and extirpated. I'm not Richard Dawkins, seeing any expression of the spiritual as nothing but superstitious claptrap. I was raised Catholic, and while I have nothing but disdain for the Church's leadership, I know many adherents who heal the sick, feed the hungry, help those who need help. I'm not a fanatic because of the Sisters on the Bus. I'm not a fanatic because of one of my high school religion teachers who would go protest at nuclear test sites every summer. I am not a fanatic because the leadership is not indicative of the flock, of people who for the most part just want to live their lives in peace and leave a better world to their children. I am not a fanatic because my very Catholic mother is den mother to the three gay men who run the beauty salon next to her house, and accepts them as fully formed and blessed children of the God in whom she believes.

I am an atheist because religion is too important to be left to religious "leaders", assuming unto themselves sole discretion to interpret the meaning of spirituality, of the divine. There have to be people, both inside and outside of organized religion, who tell these leaders that no, your views don't represent those of your flocks when those views seek to limit freedom, limit conscience, limit free thought and free association. People of good will, both inside and outside of religion, have to remain vigilant that unelected leaders don't contort public debate to their own prejudices. And you can't do that, and make common cause with people of faith, if you dismiss them as superstitious rubes who need to be cured of their beliefs. Their belief in an immanent God is not mine, but for them it's valid; if I am to be true to my philosophy, I have to respect it, as long as they respect my path.

Fanaticism is death. Only in understanding and common cause can we hope to survive as a civilization and a species.