I have been an agnostic for most of my life. Around the time I was told Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy are not real, except in my head, I began to think God might not be real, except in my head. As far as I can remember, I did not find this thought nearly as disturbing or mind altering as finding out about Santa.
I became an agnostic atheist proper following a mental health episode, which has never been properly defined for me but I can say it was the most terrifying moment of my life. I say moment; nearly two years would be accurate enough.
10 years ago I was writing a thesis for an MA, or at least I was meant to be. Several factors conspired against me to create the perfect conditions for a mental breakdown of sorts that would put an end to my academic ambitions. I found myself extremely isolated, lonely and stressed. I wasn’t coping with the basics of looking after myself. Because I didn’t receive any treatment for my condition, I cannot define what was going on in my head in any more precise terms.
It began during my honours year. I was studying toward an honours degree in history with papers in women’s studies. There was a lot of work and it was challenging but I loved it. The space to think was wonderful. Reading and analysing challenging texts made me feel properly engaged in academic life. I didn’t even mind the assessments. Despite a decidedly average undergraduate degree, I found myself at or near the top of all of my classes in my honours papers. I graduated with a first class pass, something I’m still very proud of. Unknown to everyone around me, something was making it extremely difficult to retain my good grades. I was beginning to experience my first breaks with reality and most of them were religious in nature; more precisely, Christian.
By the following year, I was having thoughts that made absolutely no logical sense and yet I was convinced that my life would be changed forever because my thinking about the world was clear for the first time. I understood the meaning of life. I understood everything. The problem was I couldn’t explain my epiphanies to anybody: 1. Because I was lucid enough to know I would be thought mad. 2. Even though everything seemed clear to me for the first time and that the truth had been revealed to me, the truth was my thoughts were in such a tangled mess I couldn’t begin to express a single one.
By the end of 2004, I had escaped my ordeal with a fragile grip on reality beginning to take hold again but without an MA. I hadn’t written one word. I had thrown away most of my academic texts thinking they were evil. My thesis topic, which happily coincided with 30 years of Gay Liberation, was to be a history of that movement in New Zealand. My books were evil, my topic was evil, I was evil.
Once I started to trust myself and my thought processes again, one of the first things that happened for me was I became an atheist. Not only could I not be sure God existed, I didn’t believe he existed either; knowledge and belief being the distinction between agnosticism and atheism.
Once I began to recover, my religious delusions seemed ridiculous, implausible and unhealthy. As time has gone on, I have become more interested in atheism and its connection to humanism. As well as an atheist, I consider myself a secular humanist. Carl Sagan is a personal hero. I believe in ethics and morality based on knowledge and reason and an understanding of human nature; I believe in logic and the scientific method as our best tools against the tyranny of ignorance; I believe learning about the world we all share is the best way to combat ignorance. I have become more interested in the contributions of human beings to the shaping of our world. I have much more of an interest in how the world works and what we actually know of how it came to be. The world is a far less scary and more interesting place without god.
Am I saying that being religious is akin to mental illness? Not really. There are many perfectly sane and intelligent individuals to whom religion is extremely important. Had I attached myself to a religious movement at the height of my crisis though, there is no doubt in my mind that my mental breakdown would have been interpreted as religious epiphany and celebrated as such. I’m not at all convinced by the distinction made between religion and mass psychosis.
In my next blog post I will discuss disability and atheism.
Please let me know what you think of this blog post and feel free to share your personal experiences regarding this topic in the comments below.