When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Christian.
Growing up, my family subscribed to that strange mix I call Chinese pagan culture, something which mixed ancestor-worship with scraps of Taoism and Buddhism and a larger Chinese mythological pantheon. When I was in upper primary, and miserable and lonely, I was approached by a teen at a shopping mall while skiving on the way home, and given a pamphlet that said I could have order and peace and happiness if I accepted Jesus Christ into my life.
I was eleven. It sounded nice. I took the pamphlet home and hid it in a drawer and decided I wanted to become a Christian when I grew up and moved away from my parents’ house. Until then, I was going to be a secret Christian. I didn’t have a Bible, and I had not read any scripture except for the four Gospels I had pretty much been forced to review for school (for English! for crying out loud!) and had subsequently completely forgotten. But I believed in God and I believed that he would somehow save pathetic little me. I even made up a little prayer I would recite to myself in bed, sometimes over and over: Dear God please forgive me for all the sins I committed today and let me not repeat them again tomorrow, amen.
As I said, I was eleven. And I was making it up as I went along.
When I was 17 I got into a Methodist junior college. There was devotion every morning and one hour of chapel every week, which everyone was obliged to attend (except for Muslim students, who had to go into another room and do ‘Koran studies’. Said my Malay friend, “We just did our homework or napped, duh”). But this was my chance to become a real Christian. When the local equivalent to Campus Crusade for Christ gave out little stubs for interested potential converts during chapel I took one and filled it out. It got lost and trampled on the way back to the collection basket, though.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if that little slip with my contact details had managed to find its destination. Maybe I would have successfully converted to Christianity, as my sister did when she attended an affiliated Methodist secondary school later. But I didn’t.
And because I didn’t, I also began to notice things about the structure in that school that didn’t sit right with me. It bothered me, for example, that sports teams who spent so many months training hard to get better would inevitably credit their victories to God in the speeches they gave. It bothered me that although we were supposed to be a secular institution and students were accepted or assigned to the college based on grades, regardless of religious affiliations, you didn’t have a choice whether you wanted to attend chapel or not (unless you were Muslim, because they did have some sensitivity). And it bothered me that there was a rule that the president of the Student Council had to be Christian. I thought that was manifestly unfair to anyone who wasn’t Christian.
But I didn’t walk away from organised religion just because of that. That wasn’t what did me in.
The thing that led me down the path to atheism was in fact an innocuous conversation that happened in class. It was during a short break in Biology class. One of my classmates, a very devout Methodist, asked my biology teacher, who was also the same: “Sir, how do you teach evolution when it doesn’t fit with what the Bible tells us?”
My biology teacher shrugged. “Just because I teach it, doesn’t mean I have to believe it.”
I was stunned. He didn’t believe in evolution? But he was teaching us all these things! About Darwin! And natural selection! And how all these experiments and DNA sequencing and fossil records almost definitely proves that evolution actually happens! How could he not believe any of that? How could he tell us about all these things and set us questions and mark our homework and still not believe that any of it was real?
More than anything, I was a staunch devotee of science. I worshipped Occam’s Razor, put my faith in logic and reproducibility and held fact to be divine. I couldn’t believe that my biology teacher, who was supposed to know more than us and guide us when we got lost, actually thought that everything he was teaching us was bunkum.
I felt like something had been turned upside-down in me. Maybe not the entire world, but something nevertheless.
That was the first time I realised that, given the choice between faith and scientific proof, I would always pick scientific proof. I had a religion, and it was science. It was the faith of not believing in a higher power, but in Things-As-They-Are.
I wasn’t turned into an atheist overnight. But that was where I started out. Over the next few years, over college and philosophical classes and too many hours standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I came to the conclusion that the world as it is couldn’t possibly be created by any sort of higher being, and even if it did it would be a higher being that our puny human minds could never hope to begin to put into words anyway, rendering religion somewhat a moot point.
And there’s my personal journey. How I Found Atheism. I know it’s not something that everybody can ascribe to–all sorts of belief are intensely personal, and in the end, irrational. Even my faith in science and observation is irrational, and there are Greek philosophers who will tell you that. If you believe in something, you just do, there’s really no other reason for it no matter how much you try to justify it in your head.
It’s like how I know all the folk superstitions I grew up with are just nonsense, but I still won’t tread on the charred marks left behind on the pavement by burnt paper offerings, because it just feels wrong and I cringe when I do it. And how I know there’s no such thing as an afterlife but you still couldn’t get me to go to a cemetery after dark. It doesn’t make sense, but it works for me. Belief is not a rational thing. It’s a stick-in-your-gut-and-pull thing.
And I’m fine with that.
**I do believe alien life exists, though. Somewhere out there in the universe. Just that it’s probably not something we’d recognise: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”… that’s a story for another time.