I’ve been trying to write this for over two months. I never know where to start. The reasons why I’m an atheist now aren’t exactly the same (though they overlap) as the reasons I left the faith I was brought up in. My adult understanding of why I value evidence based belief above all other forms is better thought out, more deeply analyzed, and rooted more in rationality and naturalism than my more emotionally based adolescent rejection of religion was.
Yet when people on twitter or at bars ask me, “Why are you an atheist?” or “Why don’t you believe in God?”, the questions I feel they’re really asking are, “Why don’t you believe in my religion?” and “Why don’t you believe in my God?” I suspect that, for the most part, they’re not as interested in hearing about my views on the irrationality of faith-based beliefs as they are about my personal experiences. After all, they’re experiencing religion in a personal way right now, and so the question is an attempt to understand how it is feeling, viewing, and thinking about life from a non-religious perspective. What experiences led me to this (happily) godless life? What was my visceral reaction to abandoning all notions of gods and embracing a worldview in which religion and the supernatural hold no sway? How could my life possibly have any meaning, how could I feel complete without God? How could I possibly not believe in the first place?
This seems to be the more pressing nature of these questions, and so I’ll start at, or near, the beginning, in my early childhood, when the church’s own actions sowed the seeds of my atheism. [Note: There isn't enough time or space for me to complete my story in a single blog post, so this will be part 1 of several.]
I was raised in the Christian faith by parents who were both ministers. Yep, I’m a double P.K. But to be clear, they were not overbearing regarding religion when I was a little kid. Both were (and are) progressives, both participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Both embraced more a modern, liberal ministry and were, in their own respective ways, pushing to modernize the church.They weren’t fundamentalists, and I wasn’t beaten over the head with a Bible. As a very young child things were, for the most part, pretty loose on the religion front.
But as far back as I can remember, I always hated going to church. It was boring. I hated having to dress up in the uncomfortable child-suit with the clip-on tie. My father was the preacher so everyone knew of me, and I was always intimidated by all the strange strangers (and often stranger familiars) who wanted to make sure I knew how cute (or whatever) they thought I was. To me, the services were little more than an exercise in alleviating boredom until those final bells rang and harkened my freedom to go outside and play. Mostly, it was just a thing I had to do when I’d rather have been doing something else. The dullest, most annoying time of the week.
But all this seemingly harmless malaise turned out to be the calm before the big storm hit that nobody had seen coming.
Before I continue, I need to say here that I do love both of my parents, and that anything harsh or critical, or even just personal I say regarding my folks is not intended to publicly throw either of them under the bus (in fact, maintaining their anonymity with regards to my blogging is a big part of why I write under a pseudonym), but only because it would be impossible for me to tell my story in a complete, cohesive way if I were to eliminate certain critical aspects of it. I can’t get personal about myself without, to some extent, getting personal about them, too. And so:
It turned out that my father was gay. This was made known nearly simultaneously to my family, the congregation and (as soon as the press got wind of it, which was quickly) the public. All hell broke loose. In one fell swoop both my family and the church were torn apart. I was too young to understand what really was going on, but I knew it was important because the kids at school were talking and asking me about it, and things were getting ugly at home. It was a big deal.
The church fired my father. The congregation divided, a significant percentage of it leaving with him to form a separate, more accepting alternative church. At the time, I was pretty much on the level of, “Okay, I guess I’m going to this other church now sometimes, too.” Adults did their own things for reasons beyond my comprehension. Like most kids, I had no interest and no choice but to roll with it.
Skipping tracks to a brief aside. I remember a specific conversation with an elementary school friend which must have happened around two years later, given the friend and the school I was attending at the time. That friend was also a churchgoer. We left my house, were walking down the street, and started having what must have been an unusually profound conversation for our age. It went something like:
Friend: So, like, do you really believe in God and Jesus and stuff?
Me: Well, uh, I dunno. I mean not really. But I guess so. But I mean, I dunno.
From all I can recollect of my memories, I was never reverent, I was never devout, the faith that I had (if any) was severely weak, and although I can distinctly remember times when I sincerely wanted to believe, I really never was quite thoroughly convinced.
Back on the main storyline, where several years later I’m living alone with my mother (hopefully the divorce story is self explanatory) and, to her great frustration, developing the capacity to think for myself. As I grew into adolescence and, like most kids (although perhaps a little moreso) into a more rebellious attitude, she was growing stricter, more forceful, angrier and, at the worst times, emotionally violent. This tension wasn’t limited to religion or churchgoing, but those were the points around which it flashed the hottest.
And now we come to it.
By the time I was in high school, I’d developed the self awareness, the social awareness, and the reflective and analytical capacity to form a few opinions about the events which not only had shaped my life up to that point, but continued to dominate it on a regular basis.
The first, and probably most important: My father was a good man. He made all kinds of mistakes, to be sure. But the degree of castigation, ire, demonizing, shunning, betrayal by those he had trusted – or to put it more simply, the amount of plain old hateful bigotry – which not only was dumped on him by his peers but was essentially officially sanctioned by the church as they sacked him from his position and relegated him to second class status within their organization, was downright fucking despicable.
The second, and more urgent to me during my latter adolescence: My mother was a deeply emotionally troubled woman who no longer had the capacity to deal with me in a non-abusive way. As I write this now, I’m trying to put this in the most gentle, fair way I know how. But at the time I was an emotional trainwreck, fairly well tormented by her undermining of my dignity and self esteem at every opportunity she had, and her incessant attempts at severe, micromanagerial control over every detail of my existence.
And on Sundays I was made to go to church.
The sermons were all about the usual Christian stuff. The preacher said we should love our neighbors and accept those who are different than us, even as the church had hated and rejected my father. The preacher – my mother – said we should follow the teachings of Christ and try to be pure of heart, even as I knew well that she had done some pretty impure of heart shit that very morning before church.
The hypocrisy in the air was so thick I could practically see it. It was so rancid I almost could physically taste it. It was morally repugnant, and nauseated every corner of reason, rationality, and good sense in my brain. I could not have been more repulsed.
I was done with the church, and with religion in general. I had learned – correctly – not to trust any person who claims authority based on a self-professed assertion to speak for gods, or to be better trained in interpreting and espousing divine messages. I had seen the man behind the curtain, and he was a cheap, charlatan trickster – even if he truly believed himself to be playing The Great Oz with all good intentions.
And don’t get me wrong. I do not say my mother was, or many other members of the clergy are, lying about their beliefs. She did, and does, I’m sure, sincerely believe in the truth of every Christian message she has uttered. But having not only witnessed, but experienced and been on the shit end of the disconnect between lofty religious claims of truth, love and beauty, and the ugly, unacceptable, insipid reality which – in fact – belies them, I simply could no no longer believe or have faith in that, or any other gods, if I even ever had at all. The words rang hollow, the stories untrue, a big masquerade celebrating an illusion which no longer had any power over me.
I was an atheist.
[Note: It has taken me months to articulate this origin story of how I first became an atheist. There will be further installments picking up where this left off and culminating with why I am an atheist now. Hopefully this will be finished before 2013.]