This post may not seem, at first, to be immediately related to my history as an atheist, but please bear with me.
As I’ve mentioned, I was always the consummate geek, favoring an interest in intellectual pursuits over the purely physical, even from a very young age. I enjoyed computers and games, and was utterly enthralled by my first sight of the Apple ][e home computer. My sister and I received an Atari 2600 one year for Christmas, and a few years later, shortly after my parents’ divorce (still in 1984), I actually got a Coleco ADAM. This was, sadly, on the tail end of the system’s life span, but it was still a neat little system, and it allowed me to indulge my programming impulse, as well as dabble in the newest “thing,” which was…
Yes, I’ve been online in some form or fashion longer than many net-goers have even been alive. Yes, I realize that I’m an old fogey. Another time, I will speak of my role in the video game industry… but that is a tale for another day.
In the years following my parents’ divorce, I was shuffled back and forth between them, and to be honest, it’s very difficult to remember which one I was living with at any specific time. It’s easier to recall a specific dwelling. CompuServe was my first exposure to the concept of a world in the computer, yet outside of my residence. I played an interesting space game, focused on resource gathering, planet colonization/conquering and the like, but I can’t recall the name. There was also Island of Kesmai, which was the very first computer role-playing game I ever played… at a mind-boggling 300 baud!
The problem with CompuServe was that it had a per-hour charge. When my father received a $360 bill, he was less than thrilled. He was, in those days, pretty easy-going when it came to us kids… but this was another story entirely.
Aside from leading me to what would later become the internet in its most basic form in the early 90s, this experience also introduced me to another concept that was, hitherto, entirely novel to me: addiction.
As it turned out, the $360 bill wasn’t the end of things. I had a very difficult time just stopping or regimenting my time spent with the games. It was, I imagine, very much like what some World of Warcraft players deal with. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about it, and feeling a tightness in the chest (what I now know to be typical of anxiety) in anticipation of getting home to get back online.
The whole ordeal got pretty nasty, but I was, all in all, a good kid. I didn’t get into trouble. I didn’t steal, cheat on tests, bully other kids, any of that kind of thing. Maybe that bought me some leniency. It probably should not have, but what’s done is done. I got cut off from modem access… which was ironic, since I was the only one who actually understood how the modem actually worked. Bear in mind, this is literally fifteen years before the internet became commonplace.
In looking back at those early days of fixation and psychological addiction, I have to wonder if there is any commonality with the mindstate of the true believer, or at least, with the fundamentalist or Evangelical believer. I only felt fulfilled and happy when engaged with this one specific activity. It consumed my thoughts when I was awake, and I’m sure that I must have had some pretty silly dreams. The moment when I could slip back from the drudgery of typical life into this activity was pretty close to ecstasy, like some great weight had been lifted from my chest. I always felt like life had suddenly stopped feeling so threatening.
If I have any theist (or more lucid ex-theist) readers, perhaps they can share their thoughts on this matter. I imagine that there must be some studies done, somewhere. MRI scans of the devout when listening to Bible passages versus normal, baseline readings, that sort of thing. I would be very interested to see which sections of the brain light up when an atheist like myself hears them, as well as when a theist hears them.
If that sensation of release from stress is what theists experience when engaging in their ceremonies, I can see why they are so reluctant to give up their beliefs. A natural endorphine rush is pleasurable, any way you slice it. For my part, however, I simply cannot bring myself to engage in such activities, solely for the sake of giving myself a natural high. They may believe; I do not. No amount of coercion or cajoling could ever force me to do so, and any profession of belief would simply be hypocrisy on my part.
I suppose, if there were some form of higher power, that I’d like to imagine that it would appreciate honest belief or disbelief over a Pascal’s Wager approach. To thine own self be true, or something like that.