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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The story of my atheism (so far)

I am posting this because my atheism has become an issue with people lately and rather than go over the reasons for it repeatedly, I guess I can just post a link to my blog if people want to know.  If you aren't interested in a short, mostly uninteresting biographical type story, this is your warning, stop now.  It is not offensive, nor is it meant to be.  It is just my personal story.

I was born in 1959 into a blue-collar Christian family which came complete with two uncles who were ministers. Monroeville, Alabama, the town where I was born, is the same town that the fictional town of Maycomb in “To Kill A Mockingbird” was based on. I was raised in that same rural area. It was a good place for a young boy to grow up with fields to run in and it was safe enough that I could walk the half-mile or so down the dirt road to the neighbor’s house when I was about four without having to worry about anything more dangerous than encountering a poisonous snake. It was a “dry county” but there were moonshiners behind every barn. My immediate family weren’t really practicing “Bible-thumpers”, they didn’t go to church much but they did maintain a faith in Christianity and the older ones and some of the younger ones still do. It was the only reality that I knew for years. I just took it for granted that the world was that way and that’s the way it was, without question. I didn’t see any reason to question it, everyone I encountered was a Christian and no one ever questioned it. Why would you? I am old enough to have participated in the mandatory recitation of the Lord’s Prayer every morning in school at the same time that we recited the Pledge of Allegiance and we had Christmas programs every year. Christmas programs with the nativity scenes in them or watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special still makes me nostalgic for my youth. I still have the King James Bible that I earned in the fifth grade for memorizing bible verses at school. I keep it on my desk and use it for reference now. It’s interesting to me when I look through it and see the notes in the margins and the highlighted and underlined passages. I was baptized when I was seventeen in a Baptist Church. I suppose that I was searching for something, some way to fit in.

I actually did have one friend, only one, when I was a teenager who said that he was an atheist. He happened to be one of the more educated and intelligent people in my peer group at the time. To be honest, up until I met him, I’m not even sure that I was aware that there was an option. I just thought he was weird and was saying those things for “shock value”, I had never considered a world without a god. When I told my family about my friend, the atheist, they told me that he probably didn’t have enough sense to tie his shoes, but I knew better. The next person that I met who dared say something questionable about religion was my company commander in basic training when I joined the Navy. We were told that we could request Sunday morning off to go to church so, naturally, everybody suddenly got really religious and wanted to go to church. Our company commander went on a rant and told us, “Let me tell you ‘worms’ something, God isn’t going to get you out of boot camp, I AM! I can’t prevent you from taking time off to go to church but just keep that in mind.” It sort of stunned me. I’d never heard anyone speak out in such a challenging manner about God before. Maybe that’s when the seeds of doubt were planted. Here was this guy that we were supposed to trust and learn from, basically stepping in front of God and challenging his authority. The earth didn’t crack open and swallow him up, he didn’t even get struck by lightning or anything...nothing at all happened. Life went on.

I went to church dutifully for a while and was the token “freak” I guess. I was the long-haired, earring wearing guy who read too much and asked a lot of uncomfortable questions that never really got answered. I was there every time the doors opened and went on prison ministries to witness to inmates and counsel them, I also helped out with youth programs so that we’d have something to do on weekends instead of riding around, getting drunk and high and trying to get laid. My stress levels went through the roof. I was trying hard to make my Christianity work in a world that seemed to be naturally geared against it. All I saw around me were people living wrong and doing wrong and not living the way that my preacher was telling me that people were supposed to live, and I found myself judging those people as though I had a right to. Even though I was aware that the Bible says not to judge, I was emulating the behavior that I saw in my church and reacting to what I was being taught and it wasn’t long before I started feeling the hypocrisy. Somewhere, deep in my mind this was all creating a tremendous amount of agitation. I guess that my rational mind was trying to stage a revolt to save my sanity. I was accosted one day in a coin laundry by a woman who went to my church and was soundly chastised for not tithing. I had problems paying my regular monthly bills at that time and had no “extra” money to give away, much less the ten per cent that was being demanded. I was absolutely floored by her audacity. I finally stopped going to the church when they turned their back on one of my best friends. He was also in the church but had become severely fixated on religion and he’d had a nervous breakdown. He was diagnosed as Paranoid Schizophrenic with a Messiah Complex and had to spend a couple of months in a mental hospital. He became ‘persona non grata’ at the church and I became a person who was disgusted. This went against everything that I thought that I knew about Christianity and I couldn’t make sense of it.

I marked those experiences up to the foibles of fallible people and tried not to let it effect my belief in God and my “personal Christian experience”. It went on that way for a few years, even though I wasn’t practicing or even thinking about it much anymore. If the subject came up in conversation I would claim to be Christian, then that changed to religious and then that turned into claiming to be spiritual. Finally, at some point, I had an epiphany, I realized that I had some serious doubts about the whole thing. I had never seen anything that I could qualify as being even remotely miraculous, not even close. I began to wonder, if there were so many faithful and pious people in the world spending so much of their time praying for miracles and good things and doing all these good deeds in the name of the almighty creator, why was the world in such rotten shape? I started really paying attention to what I had read in the Bible and giving serious thought to the inconsistencies and unbelievable things that were in there. I started to wonder how people could buy into this thing, this...self-authenticating document that was so obviously flawed and that made such outrageous claims. My seeds of doubt and suspicions grew into full-blown skepticism and I began to read more on other religions and books written by atheists and dissenters in addition to continuing to read my Bible and began to realize that there was an entire population out there that thought for themselves and weren’t sycophantic ideologues. It was one of the most liberating moments in my life, besides my second divorce.

The further I got into my readings and the more that I thought about what I was learning, the more religions started to sound like a political tool and a lie to boot. We all know that today’s accepted religions borrowed heavily from tribal tales, mythologies and pagan beliefs and they did that for a reason. To begin with, these are the stories that they had always heard, they just adapted them and they absorbed many of the myths to make it easier to assimilate others into the Christian belief. One of the most disturbing things that I encounter now that I openly discuss my atheism is the intolerance and hatred that self-professed Christians are more than eager to share with me. They also seem to believe that the loss of my faith in a god and my atheism somehow equates to a loss of morals and that atheism is some choice that I made one day. I have been advised to hedge my bets by Christians who don’t even know that such a thing as Pascal’s Gambit exists and they don’t see the fallacy nor the hypocrisy that would be involved in such a weaselly move. I have been asked, “How can you look at all the majestic splendor around you and not believe in god?” That question always makes me wonder whether the people who live in squalor and are starving in the Sudan or are walking past corpses lying in the streets in other countries being ripped apart by religious wars feel that way when they see the wondrous majesty that they are surrounded with. “Oh, yes, there certainly must be a god, look at all this splendor around me, and that’s all the proof that I need.”

I always try to allow people to express different opinions and, until recently, it didn’t bother me to be in an unpopular minority; I have spent my life outside the mainstream and have always been an unpopular minority. Lately though, I have seen how religious fundamentalists have gained power and are legislating their agendas to the rest of us. As long as it was just common-sense type morality it didn’t bother me very much, but now I realize that they have stymied our progress both scientifically and as a society and even set us back culturally it has made me want to be more outspoken and to express my dissatisfaction with this primitive thinking. Atheists are at best ignored, at the worst discriminated against and have violence done to them simply because they don’t share a belief in some archaic, tribal fantasy. Christianity claims to be about peace and love but what it is really about is intolerance to resistance and world domination. Does world domination sound funny? Its right there in the handbook or you can just watch the missionaries running all over the world attempting to convert everything too slow to outrun them.

I hear Christians all around me complaining about how God has been taken out of schools and that America is becoming a “godless society” and that is what is causing this country’s downfall and about how Christians are being discriminated against. I have replied to them by saying, “You ought to try telling a room-full of people that you’re an atheist.” Talk about getting the stink-eye! Most of them look at you like you could burst into flames at any second and are, quite frankly, surprised when you don’t. I am lucky in that I do have many friends who, while they may not share my skepticism, they grant me the leeway to be the way that I am and sometimes I even get to draw them into conversations about it. Unfortunately, not all of them are so open to discussion, a couple of days ago I shared a news article about the death threats and hatred that showed up on Fox News’ Facebook page a few months ago, after Fox had an atheist on one of their news programs talking about the proposed cross memorial at ground-zero, the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A Christian friend of mine took my posting of the article as a personal affront and would not accept it, he said it sounded like someone with “an agenda” and left the discussion. If it had been (estimated) 8,000 Muslims making death threats against Christians, Homeland Security would have mobilized the SWAT teams and been out there kicking in doors, but this incident just “went away” apparently.
Boy, did you just open a can of worms

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