Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.
No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.
I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.
My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.
In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”
By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.
When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.
Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.
Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.
When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?
My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.
He told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing. As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.
Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.
I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.
I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.
When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.
My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.
Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.
At Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.
If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.
When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.
My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.
Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.
When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.
We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.
I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.
“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.
“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”
So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.