I am an Atheist.
This is actually not something I normally advertise. I usually keep it on the down-low, mainly because of my family. I have extended family that are believers, and I do not wish to offend them (even though I don’t think Atheism is inherently offensive), and it’s just something I plain avoid, as a subject, anyway. As conversation topics go, religion isn’t even that interesting to me.
But I am one, and I’m getting more open with it in the past few years. I’m always happy to mention, or talk about it, with like-minded people (usually when connected to another issue. After all, nothing seems sillier than saying, “Hey, wanna talk about how there is no God?” Face it, that’s a short conversation.) But I’m not looking to change anyone’s mind, or turn people into a fellow Atheist. I don’t think you can actually “turn” someone Atheist.
One thing I’ve noticed in life, that someone who “changes their life” in an instant, either hasn’t actually changed their life as much as they think… or they will “change” it again, at least a few more times. So, if someone becomes an Atheist in a moment, based on one thing, say the painful loss of a loved one, then it only takes one other quick moment to turn them back into a believer.
Becoming a true Atheist seems to be a slower process. Sure, maybe there is a “moment” that you can recall of starting to question things… but that right away is not going to do it. But after searching for answers, and not finding them, and using reason and logic, and critically looking at what is being taught… that can certainly do it. I don’t know who first said this, and I’m probably paraphrasing:
“Study one religion, and you’ll study it for life. Study two religions, and you’re done in an hour.”
Even those that had “bad experiences” with religion as a kid… note the plural. It wasn’t one instance, but a whole series of systematic screw-overs. It wasn’t one time of a priest touching them that turns them off to the whole religion, it’s the mass denial afterwards, the legions of individuals that don’t believe them, or the several high officials that cover it all up, to make it sound like it never happened, the months or years of self-doubt, of low self-esteem for feeling like you “failed” God, and then the repeated instances of the abuse. When you’re religious, you are usually raised that way, and it’s ingrained in you to believe. “Not believing” doesn’t seem an option. So, even when something that atrocious happens in the guise of religion, in the supposed sanctiful safety of a Church, that alone still won’t turn an individual off right away. But it will surely make them start to question it, after too long. (Personally, I’d rather people question it out of logic and reason… rather than some pedophile motherfucker that deserves to have his nuts arc-welded together. Logic and reason will show you it’s stupid, but trauma like that will show you how evil and damaging it can be.)
Now, I don’t recall when I started to question it. I wonder if maybe I always did. My father was raised Catholic, and my mother was raised Protestant. When we were baptized, myself and my 2 older brothers were done so in the Protestant Church. We were taught the Lord’s Prayer to say as we were going to sleep (though, we didn’t recite it every night), and we went to Sunday School at the local Protestant Church, the one my parents got married in. When we got to be about the age of 7-9 or so, my mom gave us the “option” to go to Church with her (Dad always stayed home). Normally, we chose not to. Most likely, she knew this, and just decided that wrangling us if she didn’t have to wasn’t worth it. (We tended to explore a lot, and go places we probably shouldn’t have.) I do remember choosing to go with my mom a few times, but it was mostly sounds and general feelings that I remember, no actual “lessons” were sticking. I was given a Bible, which has my name written in the inside cover, in some poor-man’s version of calligraphy.
My oldest brother was a kinda-sorta altar-boy for a time. He also was the only one that got “confirmed” in the Church just as he was becoming a teenager. He received cards, and gifts, and money… and I thought, “Cool! I’ll be cashing in, soon, too!” But it never happened. The middle brother and I never went through Confirmation, because our family had moved by that point, and we never attended or got involved with the local church. We got hosed out of the loot. Bastards.
Suffice it to say, we didn’t actually grasp what being “Confirmed” meant… the Church seemed to see it as a “coming of age” ritual, where a young boy (in this case) becomes a man. Yeah, barely 13 is “a man”? I don’t think so. That whole concept is flawed. Maybe at one point in history, the age of 13 was considered “an adult”, out of necessity (probably because people were grandparents and died in their late 30s), but that has not kept up with the times. I can’t see anyone using a modicum of logic telling me that a modern 13-year-old is ready for all the responsibilities of an adult. It’d be child abuse to expect that of them, frankly. So, why go through this ritual that is all about saying that exact thing? (*cough*Indoctrination*cough*)
Like I said, though, we had moved to a new town, and my mom never again went to Church on Sunday. I don’t know if she just didn’t want to go to a new Church, which was different from possibly the only Church she ever attended normally, or decided she changed her own mind and didn’t want to go to ANY Church, ever again. I suspect that her beliefs didn’t actually change… but more like she just didn’t bother to go again, preferring to get stuff done on Sunday morning, instead.
Throughout my teenage years, religion came up sporadically. I do remember a conversation with my father telling me that when I have kids, that they do need to be raised in *some* kind of belief system. (Though, I’m pretty sure he meant something Christian-based, at least. I don’t know if Satanism or Islam would fit the bill.) I found it odd from him, because I’ve never seen him in Church outside of a wedding or funeral. But his opinion seemed to be that it was more of the “mother’s duty” anyway. So, I guess that meant that I don’t need to be an active participant in it… just “get out of the way” of my future wife.
I did have some religious-minded acquaintances at school. Occasionally, I was invited to go with them to “youth group” night. As I didn’t have a lot of opportunities for going out and socializing (the pain of the shy teenager, a whole topic for another time), I took them up on it. Not because I was leaning religious-like… I was just looking for people to connect with. There were a ton of kids there, most of them I didn’t know (as they were from different schools), and they had a bunch of fun little activities… and by the end of the evening, everyone would be gathered in the main meeting room, and we’d all sit on the carpet, and they’d do the big group prayer, and actually mention God or Jesus for the first time all night. I just bowed my head and closed my eyes, but I didn’t pray or anything. I didn’t really see the need. So, I was mainly just being respectful. After all, the reason I was there had nothing to do with religion.
Now, thinking back on it… I think that youth group was a Mormon one. I knew many kids that were, and my first actual date, which was my Junior Prom, was with a Mormon girl. There were some downsides… as much as her parents seemed to love me, I still had to have her home by 1:30am. While the actual “Prom” ended at like 11, the school-sponsored after-party, which just about everyone went to, at the local YMCA, was an all-night shindig, and as PG as you could get. (So, yeah, our Prom looked nothing like it was in the movies.) Still, I had to leave early and get her home. Had a nice time, all the same… and it was my actual “first date” ever. But I did get the lifelong impression that Mormonism entailed much stricter parenting than most other belief systems. I don’t know if that’s fully substantiated… but I haven’t seen it really countered.
My Prom date and I fell out of touch… unfortunately, nothing developed between us at the time. Though, a few years ago (after 20+ years), she contacted me out of the blue, and we got to reconnect. We would talk about that Prom night, and why nothing ever came of it. She told me there were a lot of family issues at home she was dealing with, some of them religiously-connected. (On my end… well, I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing anyway.) She has since long-rebelled against the Mormon belief, and while she does believe in God, it seems more of a Pagan-ish form of it, with nature and fate, etc. She never gives it a formal name, but she is “sure” there is a God.
Through my teens and 20s… I wasn’t so sure.
I had long considered myself “agnostic”. I always figured that, to be honest, I just “didn’t know”. Knowing that so many belief systems were utterly positive that they had it right… I could easily recognize, “well, SOMEONE has to be wrong… but no one will ever even suggest it could be them.” So, I preferred to embrace the idea of possibilities. That maybe everyone has something right… or maybe they’re all wrong, and it’s something else entirely, that no one has even thought of yet.
But the few times I’d mention that, I’d hear… “Oh, well that’s God.”
“No, I mean… what if it’s all something else? You know, something that isn’t God, or Allah, or whatever.”
“No, you’re talking about God. That’s God, right there… everything you’re describing.”
I quickly realized, that if I was talking to a Muslim, they’d have said, “Yep, that’s Allah. Totally. You clearly believe in Allah.” Or a Mormon would say, “Oh, yeah, everything you’re saying? That’s totally God/Jesus-by-way-of-John-Smith, to a T. You agree with us.” Etcetera.
I definitely didn’t like being told “what I believed”. Especially when I was clearly asking, “What if it’s not that exact thing you’re saying?” If felt like they were completely ignoring what I was saying, and again… not even entertaining an outside possibility that they might be wrong.
My last girlfriend in Grad School was (and I hate to say this), “the good little Christian girl”, and I think she was trying to convert me a few times. We’d get on the subject, and I’d voice my very open-ended beliefs, which by this point were very much getting more science-based… and she’d say, “Oh, so you *do* believe in God.” After the third time that happened, I had to admit to myself that if our relationship were to go any further, we were going to have to have a conversation about religion and the future, one that would not go well. Knowing exactly how it was going to go, I opted for the cleaner break, and ended it.
Now, most of my relationships were with women whose religious beliefs were different than mine. Whether it was from a formal doctrine that their families followed for generations, or their own brand of Wiccan, or whatever… usually, the subject was avoided. My position was always, “If you don’t have a problem with my beliefs, I won’t have a problem with yours.” Religious beliefs didn’t disqualify anyone for me. They always said they agreed with that.
In practice, however, it turned out to be the opposite of that. More often than not… they would ultimately have a problem with mine. Trying to change or convert me… that’s clearly having a problem with my beliefs, as you attempt to get them to align with yours.
The previous relationship I had with the one known as “The Ex” (Capital “T” and “E”), she was also religious. I knew she was “religious” going in, but assumed it was about as religious as most people, not enough that it would really interfere with a decent relationship. I had no problem with her being religious, and she said she had no problem with me being agnostic (as I was still using that term).
As time went on, I saw that it was more important to her than I would have guessed. Not much. If it was a 20-point scale, and the average is 10, I’d still say she was a 12, maybe a 13. Just a little more than the average person, as it appeared to me. But I still saw no problem with it. She liked to go to church every Sunday, and I never spoke badly about it, never suggested that she shouldn’t. She said it was important to her… so that’s how I took it. Why would I not want my paramour to take part of something that was important to her? Heck, I even reminded her to go sometimes, because she hadn’t realized how late it had gotten on that day.
But at times, she would voice her wish that “we” could go to church together. So… I did. One time, I joined her in going to Church. It… was not a good experience for me. For my youthful church memories of not remembering the specific lessons or stories… this one that the Priest was talking about, I do remember. And I had a VERY big problem with it.
The crux of it was from Matthew 5:13, “Blessed are the poor of spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”. Now, even looking this one up online… there are a few different interpretations of this. Some say that “poor” really means “humble”… or that “Blessed” actually means “happy”, etc etc. I say, “Bullshit”. This book was not written in English originally. It’s a translation. (Actually, a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation, etc) If it was originally in English, then sure, you could debate how the meanings of words changed through the years… but this isn’t the case. If the true translation was “humble”, instead of “poor”, than why wouldn’t it simply say “humble” in the translated book? Or why wouldn’t it say “Happy” instead of “Blessed”? So… it’s “poor” of spirit, I don’t see why it isn’t that. But I digress…
The priest picked this passage, this line, and then relayed an anecdote that demonstrates this. A common practice, a normal technique, no problem there. He said that he was doing some mission work in either Guatemala or Honduras (can’t remember which), and was staying with this very poor family in some out-of-the-way village. They were very welcoming to him, and kind, and even though they didn’t have much, they were still happy to share what they had with this priest, and he was marveling at that.
As he said it, this family was very “poor of spirit”, and realized that these people were “the Kingdom of Heaven”… and that everyone in the congregation should be “poor of spirit” like these people, and then we’d be “the Kingdom of Heaven”.
I immediately thought, “What the FUCK???” First off… that family was not “poor of spirit”, they were very RICH of spirit! That through financial hardship, they were still loving, happy, and accepting, and enjoying the life they had. I don’t call that “poor” of spirit.
It seemed clear that the priest was equating economic poverty with being “poor of spirit”… and right after saying that “we should all seek to be ‘poor of spirit’”… the collection plate was passed around. What a great way to tell folks to give more money… by saying that you have to be poor, or you won’t be the “Kingdom of Heaven”.
This passage was from the “Sermon on the Mount”… and thing is, I can easily see a really nice way to look at this, one that seems a hell of a lot more accurate, and is a much more positive message. “Blessed are the poor of spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That is supposed to be words of comfort. “Hey, for those that are feeling depressed, or down in the dumps, who feel like you’re a piece of garbage on the world (the ‘poor of spirit’), hey… cheer up. You’re the kingdom of heaven!”
The sermon even goes on to say, “If you mourn, you will be comforted. The meek? You’ll inherit the earth. Etc” These are words of comfort to a mass of people that are feeling down, wronged, and anything but Rich-in-Spirit. But it’s not that you should actively seek out to be “poor of spirit”, or you won’t get into heaven… that’s just moronic. Instead, he so easily turned around into “hey, give us more money, and you’ll get to heaven.”
When she asked me what I thought as we were driving home… she could see I was having a problem with something from the sermon. I didn’t want to disparage it at all, but she insisted, so I told her my issues with it, and how I thought it was pretty damaging what he was saying, even though he was very nice in his demeanor, and very polite… the ideal image of a kind priest. The words he was saying just didn’t mesh with me. And she agreed, that was an odd interpretation, the way he was saying it, but she was just kind of rolling with it, really.
She didn’t ask me to go with her again. I don’t think I would have agreed, anyway.
Towards the end of our relationship, the religion seemed to come a bit more into it. She wanted to stop having sex, based on religious reasons. (Wanted to save herself for marriage) I didn’t put up a stink. If that’s what she wanted, her comfort was more important to me than my own physical gratification… so I didn’t even object at all. I had no problem respecting that decision, even though almost everyone I’ve told that to said, “That’s fucked up.” And yes, looking back on it… it was unfair to me, and she should have just broken up with me then and there. But I loved her, and I apparently give a lot of leeway to people I really care about.
She also voiced her lament that when she would go to church, she’d see this sweet old couple going together, being there worshipping God together… and really wanted that for us. Of all the things I was happy to do for her, and tried to give her… I had to admit, I wouldn’t be able to do that. I really didn’t think she’d want me to just try and fake it, because that seems disrespectful to everyone involved.
But anyway, we didn’t last much longer after that (about a month or so). Many details connected to the end of it (as there always are), but at one point, post-breakup, it had gotten back to me that someone had asked her about why we broke up, and she had answered, “He didn’t respect my religion.”
That… actually angered me. Because I feel like that was a complete lie. I supported her in her religious practices, respected everything she threw at me connected to it, never talked against it… because I knew it was important to her. I felt like I did everything I could to “respect her religion”. I tried to think about her point of view… what did I do that was so disrespectful? Now, maybe this is just the blindness of memory talking, but the only thing I could come up with… was that I just wasn’t religious, myself. There does seem to be a lot of people that believe “Respect” means “Agree”. “If you don’t agree with my philosophy… you clearly don’t respect it.” That is flawed in so many ways.
Now, if she had said, “We weren’t the same religion, and that’s important to me.” No problem… I can’t fault her for that. It’s understandable, and it places the blame on no one. I would have more respect if that’s what the reason was. But she put the blame squarely on to me, making me seem like the jerkwaffle. Not saying I never was a jerkwaffle at any point, but I know I wasn’t about that issue.
With the other myriad of details around that breakup, there were others that were religious-related. Suffice it to say, this would not be counted as a “good experience” with religion. At the close of this relationship, with my long-standing policy of “If you don’t have a problem with my beliefs, I won’t have a problem with yours” had to be adjusted. Since so many DID have a problem with my beliefs, I determined that I’m just going to have to go with it, and not get into another relationship unless the other person had the same belief system as mine. I did not want to spend any more period of intimacy arguing about religion.
So, I started examining my own beliefs a bit more… to figure out exactly what those beliefs were. Why was I “agnostic”, and is that just pushing off the question? I came to the conclusion that I was really leaning towards full-on Atheism anyway. Saying “Agnostic” just felt like waving the gun, but not pulling the trigger. (Sorry for the violentish metaphor) So, this sort of felt like a bit of a culmination of all the sporadic studying I’d done over my whole life.
I have read the Bible, did so years ago, back in Undergrad. Granted, a lot of it just kind of passed by… my eyes read the words on the pages, but not a lot was really sticking. But I would shake myself a few times to pay more attention, and then I’d notice something particularly… unsettling, shall we say. But it might be worth noting the exact Bible I was reading… the copy I received as a child, that I mentioned earlier. That was the handiest copy I have, so of course I read that one. I have come to learn… it was not the normal “King James” version… it was the “New Modern English” version. Now, I’m thinking this one wasn’t proof-read for quality by my old Pastor. Just to give an example: Genesis 19:5… in the King James version:
“And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them.”
Now, that is kind of ominous… what do they mean by “know them”? Why are they so insistent, and why is that a problem, especially when Lot then goes out and offers his virgin daughters to them instead? With the city being “Sodom”, and it’s where we get the term “Sodomize” from… The subtle implications here are kind of interesting and spooky.
Then, we see Genesis 19:5… in the version I got as a kid:
“They called out to Lot and asked, “Where are the men who came to stay with you tonight? Bring them out to us!” The men of Sodom wanted to have sex with them.”
That is a fucking quote. Literary subtlety was not the strong suit of these editors.
I have considered seeking out an actual King James Version of the Bible, just for reference… but honestly, I really don’t care enough to spend any money on it. Besides, I can find what I need on the Internet, surely. And I do look every now and then, to see if a quote *really* does say what I heard it saying. In one episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!, which was a great documentary series, they look at Creationism and the Bible, and they suggest following along in “your damn Bible”. Well, I already established that *my* damn Bible is worded very differently, so it probably wouldn’t have the same effect. So, I stuck to the Interwebby.
I also found plenty of other notable sources, and speakers… like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Christopher Hitchens, I admit, did seem like a bit of a prick (before he died), personally. But he’s still articulate, smart, well-informed, and a very good writer. So, seeing him argue with people on shows and debates… is still entertaining. Richard Dawkins seemed much more friendly, and usually attacked the same issues from a more scientific standpoint. I read his book The God Delusion, which I thought was really good, and I feel like I learned a lot from it.
There are a myriad of other modern speakers, some in the YouTube generation, other authors, etc. Some… are assholes. While the stereotype of Atheists all being mean assholes is unwarranted, there are douchebags. Just like there are douchebags in EVERY group, religious and secular alike. Every now and then, I do meet someone who vocally pronounces themselves as “a self-proclaimed Atheist”. They actually say the words “self-proclaimed” in front of it every time they say it. One of these days, I’m going to pull one aside and tell them:
“Psst… there is no certification process to be an Atheist. There’s no classes to take, no committee to impress, no reverse-baptism to schedule. EVERY Atheist is a “self-proclaimed” Atheist. That’s how you become an Atheist in the first place…. You just say so, mean it, and it’s true. So stop saying ‘self-proclaimed’, because you sound like a fool, you fool.”
Me, I still don’t really announce it very much. Whenever I talk to students, I do my best to never give an indication of what my beliefs are, because it does occasionally come up. Someone in the writing class will write a story about God, or someone in the Composition class will want to use religious reasons in an argumentative paper (which never really holds up, anyway), or whatever. I do that simply because I don’t think it’s appropriate for them to know that information, and there’s less chance of anyone deciding to dismiss my advice if they know I’m on the opposite of their own beliefs.
I also try not to mention it on Facebook. While I am subscribed to a few Atheist groups, those aren’t seen by my connections (as far as I know), and I’m very careful with my comments to not raise any red flags. Twitter and Tumblr, though… I’m a bit more open with my views, as those (and this) are still anonymous. I would like to be more open and “out of the closet” about it, though.
Though, last year I did get a small Atheist necklace, one I found on Etsy, and when I remember to, I like to pull it out and wear it. It’s also not too blatant… when one of my cousins saw it and asked what it was, I just said, “Oh, it’s just a science-y thing I liked.” (I might have told her what it was if we were alone, but surrounded by a lot of family, I decided to play it safe and not mention it. So, I tucked it back under my shirt.) So, while I ultimately feel it’s about as “flaunting my beliefs” as wearing a cross, my instinct still says to keep it on the down-low. The social consequences can be very real.
In this day and age, in this country, the religious side seems hell-bent on making it seem like THEY are suffering the social consequences, like their religion is being attacked, and that Atheism is going to be law of the land, and they’ll be arrested for being Christian, etc. There are some bat-shit crazy people out there… and what’s worse is that many of them have political power. We have too many politicians openly flaunting their Christianity and it’s making them want to do things like ban gay marriage, or totally outlaw abortions… it makes them want to get involved in affairs that have nothing to do with them, just because they don’t like what someone else is going to do with their own lives and bodies. That’s atrocious, and it’s plain evil. But they still tout themselves as the heroes. Like that the horrible woman, the town clerk that refused to issue gay marriage licenses, even though her job is a government job, and as such is not allowed to refuse any lawful service. All because it was against her religious beliefs. She even went so far as to prevent any of the assistant clerks from issuing them, either. She spent a few days in jail because she went against a judge’s direct orders… and when she got out of jail, she acted like she was emerging a hero for the cause… fighting the evil oppressors. Even though, historically, she was the one acting like the oppressor. I’m actually glad I don’t recall her name… and I hope no one does, ever again. But I never heard more on that story… if she started to issue the marriage licenses to gay couples, or stepped down from her position, or if she just went back to jail.
Or the countless stories of school boards actually giving consideration to teaching Creationism in schools, claiming Evolution is only a “theory”. How people on a “School Board” actually got out of a real “School” not knowing what the word “Theory” means… is a travesty unto itself. Gravity is a Theory, the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun is a Theory (one contradicted by the Bible)... but they're not raising a stink about any of that. Go figure.
I feel confident that more of the world is pushing towards reason and logic, and away from religion. While religion may never fully go away, I can hope that it doesn’t interfere with real learning and education, or with legal policy, or be used as an excuse to deny someone something. But there are still many places that let religious thought rule them, not just in far off countries breeding what we call terrorists, but ones here as well… breeding ones we should also be calling terrorists.
So, declaring my Atheism feels like officially joining a minority. I’m okay with that, and I didn’t get here by a bad experience. I haven’t been indoctrinated by secular thought. I don’t “hate God”, and no, it doesn’t take “more faith” to not believe than it does to believe, etc (I’ve heard some whacko arguments and explanations).
I just don’t need God to be a good person, and I don’t need religion to give my life meaning. I have good morals, and I didn’t need a 2,000 year old book to tell me them. (It’s pretty easy to figure out that murder, stealing, and rape are bad things to do.) I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the innate goodness of most people. I believe in the beauty of Science, and the eternal search for true, provable, knowledge.
I think those are good things to believe in.