Seven Years: Some Recollections of an Internet Atheist
I felt a random urge to log onto WordPress today, after many years of being missing in action. I suppose guilt from being away from blogging for so long finally caught up with me. To my surprise, a small orange dot glows in the top right corner of my screen. As chance would have it, WordPress tells me I signed up 7 years ago, today.
To be honest with you, it hasn’t felt all that long since I started venting here as an angry 15-year-old, mostly as a way of escaping the realities of my fundamental Christian upbringing. I wonder, looking back from the perspective of a now young adult, with the empirical clarity of being almost a decade removed from my rebellious childhood, if I have been somewhat unfair to my dissenting readers in all my apoplectic criticisms of their religious ways. Taking a backward glance at my old posts, I can’t help but notice a certain degree of cocksureness in much of my often incoherent rambling, but it was an over-confidence emanating from a boy who completely lacked any real courage to stand up for his opinions behind the computer screen in his small bedroom.
To this day, I have not come out to my parents fully about my complete and utter lack of belief in or respect for my religion of birth. I vividly remember trying, on several occasions, to muster the strength to confront them, with scientific objections to biblical diluvialism which I had accumulated online, or with the deadly tactics which I had picked up in my private and rather intimate study of Hitchens’ God is Not Great (a book I had borrowed from the local library and had kept hidden under my bed for the duration of its loan — its cover as egregious, yellow and bold as that of the infamous decadent periodical). There is something very different about arguing online with strangers, as opposed to in the car on the way home from church with your own mother while she was at the wheel, when the constant threat of being disowned or upsetting her into a car crash loomed at every corner. I hinted my scepticism at my mother once after a Sunday service (of course, strategically while the car was parked), questioning the existence of angels, but it was an incident best experienced once. I wore an evolution T-shirt to the local church and managed to have it go unremarked, but not without breaking much sweat. On another incident, I told a bunch of younger kids at Sunday school, in my feigned capacity as their event leader, that they should question everything, even (I meant to say especially) if it were inscribed in holy scripture. But I could count all the occasions of my public defiance of authority on the fingers of one hand, and I would still have enough fingers left to hold a chord on the guitar. Much of my annoyance found its expression on the Internet, where I found like-minded people in various chat rooms, forums and of course, this blog. I didn’t start blogging because I was bored, or because I particularly enjoyed writing. I blogged merely out of necessity of a friendless teenage boy — not as much for the audience as for me, as a way to keep myself afloat in a sea of growing discontent.
It’s a selfish proposition, but one that worked for a time, and I suspect my regular readers then knew about it. I cannot imagine that they would have put up with me and my impulsive, juvenile attitude otherwise, had they not been able to relate to the unspoken psychological struggle that they knew I was going through. (To all of you who are still out there that might perchance see this, I’m very grateful that you were there for me, and I’d love to reconnect with you again.) When I quietly buried my blog to pursue my studies overseas many years ago, I didn’t feel much of the solemnity and sadness as one would to be separated with a dear friend. The blog, though undoubtedly dear to me, had since become a part of me (not least because it was always–in that very selfish sense–about me). The blog had outlived its purpose, which was to be an outlet for me at a time which I needed it most. And soon enough, I left the shell of my homeschooled existence, and a world of new sights and scenes opened up before me.
I felt disoriented and a little shameful to earn my freedom on such unceremonious terms. My parents would not only agree to let me study in a different country, they would also help fund my scholastic ventures as well as support me emotionally. In a twist of fate, they became my intellectual liberators, rather than my oppressors. Life outside the shell was more daunting than I expected. For once, people I met in person could sympathise immediately with my unorthodox views, without much beating around the bush or testing the water. Disbelief in dogma seemed to be the qualifying characteristic of every aspiring intellect. I could have a meaningful discussion with someone without so much fearing the repercussions of advertising unpopular opinions, or receiving that immediate look of condescension with which a child is so often faced for daring to question authority. Yet my lonesome upbringing had left me incapacitated in a way which I had not expected. I gained my freedom, but didn’t know what to do with it. Being around too many people made me anxious. The past started to haunt me again.
Almost counter-productively, through the entirety of my undergraduate studies, I found myself seeking–or rather desperately craving for–solitude, confining myself to a sedentary hermitage in the library, especially during its least popular hours. It was by no means the kind of solitude which prevented me from appreciating new and current ideas, but one that left me free to ponder the questions of existence at my own pace. I knew I was reverting to old habits, just in a different–and a much more intellectually gratifying–setting. And oddly, for whatever reason, I felt okay with it.
It wasn’t until I picked up Hitchens’ Letters to the Young Contrarian again last week when I finally realised what real wisdom he, as well as many other freethinking authors (especially Carl Sagan), must have imparted on me as a child, who revelled and traversed in the orbit of their uncompromising literature. They taught me, not closed-mindedness, but how to survive in intellectual solitude and to rely on my own mind and reason, in the absence of any outside affirmation.
I spent my childhood wondering how, or if, I could ever convey my honest beliefs to my parents. I was anxious to gain their love and acceptance. Not knowing how they would react to my hypothetical confession led me to question the love they had for me. Even a feigned approval on their behalf would have put my mind at ease. I couldn’t understand, as a young child, how I could be judged by my own parents who knew me best based simply on whether or not I believed in a fictional book. In a sense, my parents never got to know me, the real me, because their faith in the unknown far surpassed their interests in the known. There was a noble justification for it all, of course: they loved me and cared about me too much to risk being separated from me in the afterlife. They had already lost one son, and the slightest thought of possibly losing another, albeit to a completely different fate, was too much for them to bear. Religion thus exerted a comforting presence in our family, yet an oddly haunting one. There was always this constant fear of God being taken out the equation, leaving the ordeal of my brother’s painful death completely purposeless. The cruelty of existence makes the prospect of God impossible to some; to others, necessary.
The experience of seven years has all but reverted my desire for acceptance. As I grow older, the urge to advertise my beliefs to my close friends and family rapidly dwindles, and with it with went my original anxiety. They say that people who love you will learn to accept you in due course, and I suppose–in some cases–it goes the outward way as well. I spent so long lingering in solitude and loneliness, preparing for the perfectly executed reveal, that in the end, I am more happy to remain right where I am than to wander back those whose approval I once craved. There is a crude utilitarian justification to all of this: it is far less painful for me to accept my parents and friends for who they are than for them to accept me, if for no other reason than that I am more accustomed than they are to the life of selective deception. Does the realisation of our unbridgeable distance sadden me? But I’ll make up for it elsewhere, in the all-too-human joys of daily discovery and the prospect of endless exploration, that even those who cannot accept you can still relate to in their moments of earthbound clarity.
When I left this blog, I didn’t much think that a good-bye was necessary, because I knew I would always be coming back one day in the future. I don’t have much of a real purpose of being back here today, other than this being the only place where I once truly felt at home exploring and forming my ideas, and every existential crisis I have inevitably puts me back to square one. I probably won’t recapture the consistently angry tone (if I can help it) of my fifteen-year-old self, but in many aspects I am still the same old me, and I haven’t really changed all that much. To all my new readers I invite you to stick around — I shan’t say why (because I honestly don’t know!!).