Evolution of an atheist | Bert Bigelow on his Harley in 1956
Reading Time: 6 minutes Bert Bigelow on his Harley in 1956, at the time of writing his essay mentioned below.

Overview:

Bert Bigelow, at age 85, looks back on what influenced his early adoption of atheism and his life-long adherence.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, had some advice for those who were undecided about the existence of God. In what has become known as “Pascal’s Wager,” he argued that, given a choice between believing or not believing in God, the wise decision is to believe that God exists.

“If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

A believer will gain eternal life if God exists, but if not, he will be no worse off in death than if he had not believed. On the other hand, a nonbeliever will suffer eternal agony in Hell when he dies if God exists, and will gain nothing over the believer if not.

I first heard about Pascal’s Wager when I was in high school. My initial reaction, after I understood the logic of the proposition, was to nod and agree. It was definitely logical. And then, the cynicism of the whole idea hit me…that one could make a cold and detached calculation about the most profound spiritual issue imaginable.

This famous mathematician and philosopher was suggesting that a person could turn belief on or off by throwing a mental switch. I searched the innermost recesses of my brain, and I’ll be damned if I could find that switch. I wondered how many people who call themselves Christians never found that switch and were faking it.

Since then, I have probed a bit deeper into Pascal’s thinking, and found that he was not quite as shallow and cynical as I had thought, although his “wager” was certainly part of his mission as a Christian evangelist and apologist. He warned that choosing to believe was no guarantee of salvation, but that the wager should serve as an impetus to attain the true faith that would lead to salvation. I found his “clarification” unconvincing. It still reeked of hypocrisy.

When I was around 8 years old, my mother decided to send me to Sunday school. She wasn’t a churchgoer, and when I thought about it later in life, I wondered why she did that. She may have been trying to establish “deniability”—trying to avoid being accused of depriving me of religious “education”. Anyway, I was a very bad student. I wasn’t interested in the Bible stories, and openly disbelieved them. Finally, the teacher kicked me out for disrupting the class. When I told my mother what happened, and said I did not want to go back, she didn’t argue with me. That was the end of my religious “education.”

My father was an outspoken atheist. A voracious reader, especially on philosophy and religion. I think some of the readers here would have gotten on well with him. He had debates with local pastors on religion. He was a farmer, and never went to college, but he was Valedictorian of his high school class. Of course, I was influenced by him, but he never talked to me about it. I think he wanted me to make up my own mind.

My mother, too, never spoke much about religion, so I don’t know if she had any belief in a deity. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English, and taught for a few years before she married my father. After her children were grown, she went back to teaching until she finally retired.

I have always thought that it was a real shame that my father couldn’t go to college. He actually started one semester at the University of Michigan, but contracted the mumps and had to drop out. His parents were poor, and his father said he couldn’t send him back, that he needed him on the farm. I have always thought my father would have been a great teacher or lawyer…or maybe even a politician!

Taken in 1970 at a gathering for my father’s funeral, this photo shows my brothers (both college professors): Jerome on the right and Gordon on the left. I am the tall one with my arm around my mom.

There were many churches in the small Midwestern town where I grew up. My parents were not churchgoers, and neither were their children. I observed the families of some of my classmates attending church on Sundays, but I never felt any discomfort over our lack of participation. On the few occasions when I couldn’t avoid attending church activities, I found them boring and dreary.

I was a very bad student. I wasn’t interested in the Bible stories, and openly disbelieved them. Finally, the teacher kicked me out for disrupting the class. When I told my mother what happened, and said I did not want to go back, she didn’t argue with me. That was the end of my religious “education.”

The two infamous words, “under God,” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, when I was a Senior in high school. Although I was not courageous enough to openly protest, I refused to say those words during the daily Pledge recitation by the class. It was my own little private protest.

Prayers were common in schools in those days. Most group ceremonies, graduations, etc. were preceded by an “Invocation” and ended with a “Benediction.” These were given by pastors from local churches, who rotated the privilege amongst themselves. Most people bowed their heads during these, but from the time I was old enough to understand their significance, I sat erect, looking straight ahead. I refused to pretend piety, even though I was risking criticism from others who observed my actions. No one ever commented on it. I don’t know if they noticed or not.

The priest for the local Catholic church was a young, handsome, and very personable guy in his thirties or early forties. Everyone called him “Father K,” because his surname was one of those Polish or Hungarian strings of unpronounceable consonants. I was thinking about him recently, and concluded that he was probably not guilty of any of the pedophilic crimes committed by Catholic priests that have come to light in recent years. The reason for my doubt is that the Church had thoughtfully provided him with a live-in “housekeeper,” a very attractive…no, make that voluptuous…young woman. My friends and I, with the help of our raging teenage hormones, fantasized about what went on in that large house on the corner where they lived. There were some titillating rumors.

The good Father was having trouble with plugged drains, and called in a plumber, who found that the toilet was plugged with used condoms. It may not have been true, but the arrangement certainly made a lot of sense, and probably reduced the danger to altar boys. I thought about the Church’s insistence on the celibacy of its priests, and the apparent condoning of this arrangement. The stench of hypocrisy pervaded the whole thing. Nevertheless, we were verdant with envy of the good Father.

Even though I found organized religion tedious, unbelievable, and boring, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the question of the existence of God. I was more interested in the really important things in life: football, basketball, and girls. It wasn’t until I graduated and started my first year of college that I started to think about it a little more seriously.

In the fall of 1954, I was just starting my first college English class. The professor asked each of us to write a short essay of 500 words on any subject. I chose the topic, “Religion…Its Value to Society.” I wish I had saved that paper. I don’t remember the details of the text, but the teacher selected it to read to the class and gave me an A+ grade!

The main theme was that even though I wasn’t sure about the existence of God, I didn’t believe in any of the myths associated with Christianity. I suggested that religion probably provided a useful function of social unification, and that its value went beyond getting the farmer to “wash his neck once a week,” which got a big laugh from the class.

Since those long-ago days, I have continued to study and observe the effects of organized religion on our society, and other societies around the world. Over the years, my opinion of religion has continued to evolve. Most people tend to “mellow” as they get older, losing their youthful idealism and passion. In my case, the opposite has happened. The longer I live, and the more I see, the less value I see in religion. The late Christopher Hitchens said in his book God Is Not Great that religion is a destructive force in the world. He even claims it is immoral:

A virgin can conceive. A dead body can walk again. Your leprosy can be cured. The blind can see. Nonsense. It’s not moral to lie to children. It’s not moral to lie to ignorant, uneducated people and tell them that if they only would believe nonsense, they can be saved. It’s immoral.

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great.

Other writers on the subject have criticized Hitchens, saying that he goes too far. Even his friends, writers Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith) are quietly critical. But after reading God Is Not Great, I concluded that Hitchens got it right. I can think of no redeeming value for any organized religion. They are, individually and taken as a group, the single most destructive force humanity has ever seen, and they continue to promote ignorance, intolerance, and misery.

From age eight to eighty-five, I have been a nonbeliever. I don’t expect that to change in the time I have remaining. Even if Jesus walked up to me and introduced himself, I would ask to see his driver’s license and Social Security card, just to be sure. Any bloke can grow a beard and buy a white robe.

Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan College of Engineering, then pursued a career in electronic systems and software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. You can contact him at bigelowbert@gmail.com.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...