Monday, October 12, 2009

Wherefore Atheism?

One of the guys that got me into this damnable Blog-a-Day death march is my colleague and friend, Lance Johnson. Although his blog is named "Comics, Beer, and Shakespeare," he spends a lot of time writing about his personal religious journey from true believer to atheism. It's compelling stuff, especially since he used to proselytize for Christianity, and now he's switched sides.

I've never written about my own journey to atheism, mostly because I didn't think anyone would care. It's not all that dramatic. But if I'm trying to churn out one of these suckers every day, hey, anything's fair game.

There's a tendency amongst Evangelicals to blame godlessness on left-wing hippie parenting and ultra-liberal university education. That certainly wasn't the case with me.

I was raised by two church-going parents. My dad sang in the choir; my mom was the choir director. To be fair, it was a pretty liberal sect of Christianity called The Disciples of Christ. They were accepting of openly gay people in the congregation, and I never heard any talk about burning in hell. I went to Sunday school every week and was a member of the youth group into high school.

So what turned me? To be honest, the first crack in the fortress of theology came when we learned about the first page of the Bible. You know, Genesis? Where they explain how God created everything? Well, in first grade they told us about the dinosaurs and how they lived hundreds of millions of years before humans did. But the Bible says that humans and animals were all created on the same day. I started asking questions in Sunday school, and the teacher said something about days being really long (not just 24 hours) because the universe wasn't set, or some rationalization like that.

Even at six years old, I could smell horse manure when I heard it. I mean, it's easy to say now that's the explanation, but for the first 1,700 years or so of Christianity's history, everyone was claiming it was a traditional day, because that's what the Bible says. It makes no allotment for a longer period of time. It seemed to me then and is obvious to me now that they were changing the story to fit the facts. Again, this bothered me in first grade. This is why I'm constantly amazed at how religious a country we are. Didn't other people learn about dinosaurs in first grade and have similar questions?

Anyway, I became the kid who asked questions in Sunday school. The poor teachers were just volunteer parents, not masters of theology. They couldn't tell me how Jonah could live for so long in the belly of a whale. They couldn't tell me how, if the human race began from Adam and Eve, where the other random people came from who pop up throughout Genesis. They couldn't tell me why God loves us and says not to kill, but he mass-murdered the entire human race except for Noah's family because he was displeased. The idea of getting exactly two of every species of animal on a boat, and being sure that they were all male/female pairs of proper breeding ability was outright preposterous. That this bothered me at such an early age yet does not seem to bother people I love and consider intelligent (in addition to legions of people I consider morons) is something that I still haven't been able to wrap my head around and is the topic for another blog.

Eventually, one of the Sunday school parents suggested the minister should meet with me one-on-one to answer some of these questions. I don't remember much of that powwow, other than he told me it was good to ask these things, and God loved and understood me. I mostly stared at the giant gumball machine in his office and hoped he'd give me a free one at the end.

Church service itself was pure drudgery. It wasn't so bad when I was younger because all the little kids got to leave before the sermon and after a delightful little bit of improv from the minister called "Sunburst Surprise." Every week, a child from the congregation got to take this empty box home and bring it back with something in it. The minister would then try to relate the object to God or the Bible in some way. After I brought a dead lizard one week, they had to create the "Andrew Nolan Rule," which stated you couldn't put anything living or once-living in the box.

Once I got to be 11 or 12, I was no longer allowed to leave at halftime and had to sit through the interminable sermons and the baffling process of communion. At first, I though it was kind of cool because I got free bread and grape juice, and it meant that church was over in five minutes. Then I actually listened to what this act symbolized. Wait, what? I'm eating Christ's body and drinking his blood? Gross! Aren't there better ways to honor and remember him than through cannibalism and vampirism?

Eventually, I threw a minor tantrum (replete with tears) at church because I wanted to go home. My mom tried to talk me down, but I finally told her I just didn't believe in this stuff. She kept up the fight for another couple years, but eventually I got too big for her to drag out of bed on a Sunday morning, and she gave up when I was about 15. The woman also had competition. To me, Joe Montana was a much more powerful God than anyone from an old book that I could never see. If Jesus Christ had hit John Taylor in the back of the endzone to beat the Bengals in the '89 Super Bowl, I might have been a bigger fan.

Up until a couple years ago, I would tell people I was an agnostic, because I didn't want to presume to be as arrogant as the people who are sure that there is a God by being positive that there was no supreme being. Lance made the point that if someone's 99.9% convinced of the reality of a Christian God, that person is a Christian. Therefore, if I'm 99.9% convinced there is no God, I'm an atheist. I guess he's right. I think I'd always resisted the label because it's been demonized and has connotations of immorality, which is nonsense, of course. Even today, I'll almost always say "I'm not religious," instead of "I'm an atheist," particularly in my classroom, just to avoid the implications from people thinking I'm trying to corrupt their children because they hear the "A" word.


Lance Christian Johnson said...

I wear the A word like a badge of honor.

Just kidding - this whole time I've been testing your faith, and you have failed. REPENT!!!!!

Angie said...

I almost wrote an essay in comment form about conversations with my brother about religion. It got too long, so I deleted it.

I have thought very similar things growing up. Ironically, even though I went to church and bible camp and religious education up until middle school, today I hardly know anything about Christianity at all. I guess once I started thinking about how ridiculous it all was I just stopped paying attention.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter if you are an Atheist or not because if there is a Hell you are going to be burning in it anyways for constantly correcting my grammar.

If John Smith can make up a crazy religion about salamanders then I am starting my own with the first rule stating "Thou shall not poke fun at someone’s inadequacies when it comes to the English language". So suck it Trebek.

John said...

I can see your logic and to be honest I feel the same way; but what lead me their was more of a theological interpretation. I always say the bible as just a book of morals, I mean with how chaotic times must of been when it was written I could see how a group of people might what to scare others straight, and back then the only way to spread new ideas and/or a religion was to witness and give out pamphlets of reasons why to believe. Also like most religions before it the best way to do this is with myths and tall tales. Which a lot of people these days take way to literal, but what really lost me were all of the contradictions and the way god was always personified to have human qualities. Like the whole story of Job, or Abraham where god tested their fate by ruining ones life and threatening another to kill his own flesh and blood I mean what does God have to prove anyway. Also how could a supposed perfect being have any emotions at all, humans are flawed and so then human characteristics must be too. It just seems hard for me to take any of it seriously, and religious fanatics make it even harder. So anyway I enjoyed your topic, and I'm sorry to have carried on like this; so maybe you can revisit this in a later post. Just something a little more targeted I guess.