From Sacramento, Calif., Billy Ferguson writes:
I read every page of your wonderful newspaper every month, except possibly the Black Collar Crime Blotter, which is so disgusting that I sometimes pass over it. I sometimes give copies to acquaintances or extended family members. I doubt that they read much of it because they are not the least interested in having their beliefs challenged. But at least they have it if they should decide to think for themselves.
Many of the stories are by people who once believed in God and found their way to reason. My story is quite different. I was born Aug. 24, 1936. My mother was from a Dutch family who migrated to the U.S. by way of Dutch New Guinea. She eloped with a Scottish coal miner and spent the next seven years in a tarpaper shack in a coal mining camp near Irondale, Ala. She had three live children and three miscarriages in seven years and, she later discovered, undiagnosed tuberculosis.
After serving in World War II, my father got a job with Birmingham transit, and we were raised in that Alabama city. He drank, gambled, womanized, lied and stole and caused us a lot of pain. When I was about 13, I established lifelong values mostly based on not behaving like my father.
I attribute my atheism to the fact that I was born an atheist, and the adults in my life waited too long to attempt to destroy my confidence in myself and turn me on to mysticism.
When I started school at age 6, the teacher came to our home and informed my mother that she couldn’t teach me because I behaved like a pagan and wouldn’t accept her authority without question. My mother decided to save me and spent the next nine years trying to Christianize me, all to no avail. I tried to keep quiet, even on occasion pretended to believe, but eventually it would all come unraveled. My failing was that I had too much respect for the truth. I always felt really bad at these times because I loved my mother very much and I felt like I was breaking her heart.
At age 15, I got my first job at Hill’s Grocery. My first pay was $12.50 for 25 hours work. Since my father was still carousing and we were always in debt, my mother demanded the money to buy food. At first I resisted, but then I saw the perfect solution. I would give her the money, and the money that I earned every week in the future, if she stopped making me attend church.
She refused. I told her that she couldn’t refuse, that if she took the money, then she must leave me alone. She took the money and she never seriously bothered me again. The arrangement lasted until I joined the U.S. Army at age 18.
A helping hand
A man named Walter C. Andrews significantly contributed to my ability to become a success in life. Mr. Andrews, married with two young children, was attending the University of Alabama Dental College on the G.I. Bill and delivering newpapers to supplement his income.
He stopped by Hill’s for a soft drink and, when he saw the way I was being treated, waited outside to offer me a job rolling his morning newspapers at twice what I was making in the store. Eventually he turned his routes over to me and had me babysit in his fine home in the hills south of Birmingham when he and his wife went out.
He took me to his school and gave me the first dental care I’d ever had, filling practically every tooth in my head. But most of all, he gave me a vision of what a person can do to make their life better. He’s probably long dead, but he’s still alive in my mind — the only immortality any of us get.
Interestingly enough, I was an outspoken atheist while in the military and suffered no discrimination or harassment for my beliefs. I performed my assigned duties to the best of my ability and was honorably discharged in 1958 as a sergeant after three years of duty.
As I became older, I became more outspoken. By the time I graduated from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in civil engineering at age 25, I was completely open about my disbelief.
I am now 74 and retired. I worked about 20 years for the state of California and about 20 years for private consultants, mostly overseas (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iran and Indonesia). I have always been an open atheist and, as far as I know, have never been harassed or held back from advancement for my beliefs.
Once during a census in Indonesia, the college student who came to my home asked me my religion. I said atheist. He wrote Christian on the form. I told him to change it to atheist. His reply was that if I wanted to stay in Indonesia, that I should leave it to say Christian.
Apparently, any religion is acceptable in Indonesia, 95% of which is Muslim, but having no religion is not acceptable.
I am still engaged in civil engineering. After retiring in 1999, I decided it was time to give something back to the society that had treated me so well.
For the past seven years, I have been refurbishing and reprogramming old computers for children in south Sacramento. So far, I have installed computers in the homes of almost 1,200 children who did not have one at home. I set the computers up, show the kids how to access the programs and repair or reprogram computers when they crash.
When parents say “God bless you” as I am leaving, I tell them that I will accept their blessing, but that God doesn’t exist, so “God bless you” is meaningless.
When they ask what I believe in, I tell them that I believe in them and their children and that people should help people and forget about pleading for help from a nonexistent God.