Michael Newdow, the Sacramento doctor who is challenging "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, asked Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in early September to recuse himself from participating in Newdow's appeal. The atheist father, who is also an attorney bringing the legal action himself, won a landmark ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last summer declaring "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to be unconstitutional. The original decision declared the 1954 insertion of "under God" into the once-secular pledge to be unconstitutional on its face. In February 2003, the Ninth Circuit panel amended its decision to apply only in public school settings. Newdow has asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the original, broader ruling. The Sacramento school district, with blessings from the U.S. Justice Department, is also appealing. The Court is expected to consider whether to hear the appeals during a closed-door session on Sept. 29. It could turn back the appeals, thereby letting stand the Ninth Circuit ruling, which applies to ten western states. It could vacate the Ninth Circuit decision, as requested by the Justice Department and the school district. Or it could accept the case. Newdow filed a brief, "Suggestion for Recusal of Justice Scalia," on Sept. 5, pointing out that Scalia gave a speech in January alluding to the Ninth Circuit decision as a prime example of how courts are misinterpreting the Constitution. At a Knights of Columbus rally in Fredericksburg, Va., the Catholic justice said framers didn't intend to "exclude God from the public forums and from political life." Newdow's brief noted the "firestorm of controversy" erupting when the opinion was issued. "The associated passions--though understandable--are the very reason we have an Establishment Clause, and, perhaps in this arena more than any other, it is essential that the judiciary present a neutral front." The brief argues that statements and activities by Scalia call his impartiality into question. Newdow noted that Scalia's decision to make these remarks to the Knights of Columbus is noteworthy because the group claims responsibility for leading the effort to insert the words "under God" into the pledge. Since Scalia made his statements, the Knights of Columbus has even submitted a brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit. Scalia's "voluntary, disapproving statements about the lower court's ruling--in a case obviously destined to come before him--is at odds with the code of conduct for United States judges," Newdow further noted. Precedent has emphasized not the reality of bias but its appearance, he wrote. A survey released in August on the status of Pledge of Allegiance laws by the Education Commission of States documents that 35 states currently require schools to include recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. At least ten states have a pledge for their state flag, but Texas this fall became the only state requiring students to recite it in school. On July 15, U.S. District Judge Robert F. Kelley ruled that Pennsylvania's statute violates student's First Amendment right to free expression. The court issued a permanent injunction against the Pennsylvania law. Colorado's new law has been blocked by a temporary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock on Aug. 15. The judge found that the new law discriminates against teachers because there is no provision for them to opt out, as there is for students. The judge criticized the law for pitting students who say the pledge against those who do not, as well as pitting students against teachers. "What is instructional about that?" Babcock asked. He said the law could conceivably lead to suspensions for students and firings for teachers. The challenge was taken by the ACLU on behalf of nine teachers and students from four Denver-area districts. The injunction is in effect through the end of the 2004 legislative session at the request of the state attorney general's office. The legislature is expected to amend the law to address some of the court concerns next year. In other developments, the U.S. House, by a 307-119 margin, passed an amendment in July by Rep. John Hostettler, R-IN, prohibiting enforcement of the Ninth Circuit pledge decision. That amendment was actually opposed by the Justice Department, which said such legislation could complicate the appeal. A second amendment, adopted by a 260-161 vote, prohibited use of federal money to enforce the 11th Circuit's ruling against Judge Roy Moore. The intent was to bar the U.S. Marshals Service from enforcing either decision. "These amendments are essentially meaningless. But these votes do show a shocking contempt by a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives--not just for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, but for a free and independent judiciary," said Anne Gaylor, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's federal court victory ordering removal of a Ten Commandments monument from a public park in La Crosse, Wis., is being appealed to the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
The city council on Aug. 12 voted 15-2 to appeal the case, at a meeting crammed with religious pickets, singing gospel songs.
Mayor John Medinger vetoed the decision on Aug. 13, deeming the court order "constitutionally correct." He warned of the expense: "there is no free lunch or free attorneys either." Medinger called the vote "a step in the wrong direction."
He was hastily overridden by another 15-2 vote the following day. Voting both times against the appeal were Larry Lebiecki and Marilyn Wigdahl.
Thirty-four area attorneys and one judge had submitted a letter advising the city to drop the case, saying it has scant chance of success in the appeal.
"There hasn't been a lawyer who has read the decision that thinks it would succeed on appeal, and when is the last time lawyers ever agreed on anything?" asked signer Keith A. Belzer at a press conference.
Additionally, 36 religious and community leaders signed their own letter urging the common council not to appeal. Leading the signators were the Administration of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration; Bishop April Ulring Larson of the La Crosse Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, two priests with the Diocese of La Crosse, and the pastor of a First Congregational United Church of Christ.
"We not only have a legal victory in La Crosse," said Foundation president Anne Gaylor, "but a moral victory. We are very grateful not only to our 22 brave local plaintiffs, but to the mayor, and for the groundswell of support for the ruling and the separation of church and state by so many thoughtful and diverse residents."
A member of the La Crosse County Republican Party handed out brochures promoting an appeal, while the La Crosse Democratic Party officially supported removal.
The strong 41-page ruling by Federal Judge Barbara Crabb has dominated headlines and letters to the editor in the La Crosse Tribune since being handed down on July 14.
In July 2002, 22 local plaintiffs and the Foundation challenged city support of the tombstone-like Ten Commandments monument, donated in 1965 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. After the lawsuit was filed, the city sold a tiny bite of the small park to the Eagles, which merely fenced the monument.
Judge Crabb called the sale unconstitutional because its only purpose was to promote religion.
After the decision, Christ Episcopal Church on Main Street had offered to provide a permanent home to the monument. The minister also offered to invite the Foundation plaintiffs to participate in a formal procession moving the monument from the park to the church. Trinity Luthern Church also offered to take the monument.
The Foundation is contesting a motion by the American Center for Law and Justice, evangelist Pat Robertson's legal arm, asking to intervene in the ongoing lawsuit.
A few years ago I decided to read the bible from cover to cover. I'd like to claim intellectual curiosity, but in truth my primary motive was sheer annoyance. I had begun listening to Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio program and she kept flatly insisting that religious precepts were essential to morality. It had always seemed to me that "sacred" guidelines like the Ten Commandments fell into one of two categories. They were either purely religious but morally irrelevant, or morally useful but not intrinsically religious at all.
So I resolved to learn first-hand what the bible actually says. What I found will be no surprise to readers of Freethought Today. The Old Testament is crammed with gratuitous violence and moral nonsequiturs, often perpetrated or instigated by Jehovah himself. The New Testament has a much gentler tone overall, but a careful reading shows that Jesus is not quite the paragon of virtue legend holds him to be. For instance, he repeatedly advocates total allegiance to the Old Testament regime and all its injustices.
One small but telling incident stands out in my mind as epitomizing the confused view of right and wrong that permeates the bible. It occurs while King David is returning the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:6,7). The Ark has been taken from the home of Abinadab and placed on an ox-drawn cart which Abinadab's sons, Ahio and Uzzah, are responsible for guiding. When the party arrives at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen momentarily stumble and Uzzah instinctively reaches out to steady the cart. As his hand approaches the Ark, Jehovah instantly strikes him dead.
The reaction of many people to this would be, "So what? It was common knowledge that the Ark was dangerous and never to be touched, so Uzzah should have known better." To me the message is very different. Here is a chance for Jehovah to demonstrate some understanding in a one-on-one interaction with a faithful follower. After all, he is supposed to have designed and created every detail of the human brain, so he knows perfectly well that Uzzah's reaction was reflexive and aimed only at protecting the Ark. Yet Jehovah chooses cruelty rather than compassion.
Actions like the murder of Uzzah are frequently defended with the supreme authority argument. The gist of this rationalization is that Jehovah has a master plan and knows more than we could possibly comprehend about human destiny, so it is arrogant of us to question him in any way.
But a more thoughtful approach supports almost the opposite conclusion. If Jehovah is as wise as advertised, he is not less accountable for his behavior than ordinary mortals, but more so. Both the original no-touch rule and the wanton destruction of Uzzah (who only wanted to help) are characteristic of the kind of small-mindedness we ordinarily hold in contempt. I see no reason to make an exception for someone who, above all, should know better.
The terminally abusive treatment of Uzzah is just one of many instances enabling a perceptive reader to see that Jehovah's conduct falls far short of justifying the stream of uncritical praise constantly heaped on him. On a more general level, the sum of such failures damages his moral credibility beyond repair and adds to a much larger body of evidence which tends to reveal him, in the end, as nothing more than a rather unpleasant fictional character.
At a time when the religious right has acquired so much influence in our secular government, and servility is praised as the best trait in a patriot by many public officials, Americans ought to turn to the writings of James Madison.
Maybe it's because Madison isn't featured in effigy on our nation's currency that he has slipped away from the public eye and into obscurity. After all, Lincoln has his memorial, Washington has his monument, and Jefferson his own architectural evidence of greatness. Then again, even the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, a staunch advocate of separating church and state, have eluded the American public while his face and name has been preserved.
Madison, reputed as the primary author and parent of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, is arguably the most important figure in our history. Fundamentalist religious sects will find no footing in Madison's words for preposterous claims of a national religion, or for justifying allocations of federal money to religious institutions.
James Madison's grand public debasement of religious assessments and public support for religious institutions is found in his speech, "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" (June 20, 1785):
"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Inquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest luster; those of every sect, point to ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy."
He encouraged a government separated from any religious convictions but also implores the intellect to be freed of superstition:
"What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers, who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure and perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another."
Madison expressed disdain for closed-eyed followers ("Who Are the Best Keepers of the People's Liberties," National Gazette, Dec. 22, 1792): " 'People ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united, that after establishing a government they should watch over it, as well as obey it . . . Liberty disdains to persecute.' "
Especially in the post-September 11 climate, we hide behind shields of rhetoric against terrorism to justify infringing liberty to achieve national security. Not only Madison but our other founders expressly warned that that sort of behavior would warrant the fall of liberty. Thus far, as reported by the Justice Department, more than 1,200 people have been detained on suspicion alone, that they might be involved in a terrorist organization. Of those only one person has been charged with involvement in the attacks on September 11, 2001.
If we desire to maintain the prestige and authenticy of our nation's great birth and ideals, we need to look no further than the libertarian-minded founders of our nation. James Madison would be a good start.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my mother began to get worried that I had not yet been confirmed. Most of the other kids from my Catholic high school were already taking confirmation classes at their local parishes, and I was not. So she began trying to convince me that it was time to "commit myself to God," and I began trying to convince her that there was no way that I was going to stand up in front of a church full of people and profess to believe in something that I did not. Once she realized that the "do it for your mother" line was not going to work, she offered me a deal: I had to attend the confirmation classes, but afterward, if I still felt the same way, I did not have to go through with the ceremony. I took the deal.
As expected, the confirmation classes were just a rehash of all the religion classes I had ever taken in Catholic school since kindergarten, and the textbook we were provided was written on the intelligence level of your average third-grader. I tried to ask questions like "Do heaven and hell really exist?" and "What happens to people who are not Catholic?" but all I got were dismayed looks and no answers.
Needless to say, I was never confirmed. After high school I moved away to college, stopped going to church, and have been trying to recover from my Catholic upbringing ever since. Yet my decision to reject Catholicism in particular and all organized religion in general was not a sudden one; on the contrary, it was the culmination of a lifetime of experience surrounded by religious conflicts and inconsistencies that led me to question the religion into which I was born.
Religion first became a problem in my life when I realized it made me different. I was the only girl in my Catholic elementary school who had divorced parents and no siblings, not to mention being the only child in my extended family to have this distinction as well. I was pitied, but with the kind of pity that is tainted by disapproval. To make matters worse, my father was Protestant. My mother and her family were all extremely devout Catholics who considered those who were not Catholic to be inferior heathens. As a child it was very difficult for me to understand why they looked down upon my father, someone I loved, as someone unworthy of all the divine rewards to which they believed they were ultimately entitled. In addition, they considered him to be the cause of my parents' divorce, another unforgivable sin and reason for shame, and this only created further problems between the two halves of my family.
When I would go visit my father, my mother insisted that he take me to Mass on Sunday despite the fact that my father wanted me to attend church with him. All this conflict soured my views towards religion at a very early age, because I simply was not willing to accept that the god I was told to believe in would condone such open hostility on his behalf. My exposure to different religious perspectives outside of what I was being taught in school and at Mass, and my inability to accept that there was only one "right" religion, started me on the journey of questioning religious doctrine and affiliations.
High school continued to be a time of religious awakening. I attended a Catholic high school where everyone was required to take religion classes, but the students came from many different religious backgrounds including Protestantism, Mormonism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam. This clash of varying viewpoints, though often repressed, continued to fuel my doubts about the validity of any particular human-created explanation for the meaning of life and the possibility of an afterlife. The final straw for me occurred when a born-again Christian classmate informed one of my dear friends, a Hindu, that she would not be going to heaven because she did not believe in Jesus Christ. I could not reconcile the idea that I lived within a community that would condemn a good person like my Hindu friend, and yet offered guarantees of an eternal afterlife to anyone who claimed to believe in a particular deity but was an otherwise selfish and unkind person. I have refused to be a part of any kind of religious "members-only club" ever since. Simply believing that it means more to be a kind person than a righteous one has brought me a greater sense of peace.
It has been a long and tough road to de-Catholicize myself, so I have created a twelve-step process (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) to help me to remember what I truly value and how I got here in the first place.
The Twelve Steps of Catholics Anonymous
1) I admit that guilt, shame, and self-denial are not virtues; that they make life less joyous.
2) I came to believe that the power for goodness within myself could restore me to reason.
3) I made the decision to decide for myself what is moral and right, and not to simply adhere to what I have been told.
4) I made a searching and fearless moral inventory to help me understand what was right and wrong for my life.
5) I admitted to myself that I might not have all the answers, but the conclusions I had come to were enough for me at this time.
6) I was entirely ready to stop judging myself and others based on an arcane and often hypocritical religious doctrine.
7) I humbly admitted that I am a mere human being and therefore not arrogant enough to claim that I know all about this supposed god and what it really wants.
8) I made a commitment to be kind, accepting, understanding and altruistic in all that I do, and to admit when I may have done wrong.
9) I made amends with others and myself for all the conflict that religion had caused in my life.
10) I continue to question the validity of religion in my life and the lives of others all over the world.
11) I sought out others who shared my beliefs of tolerance and acceptance and learned from them.
12) I try to be a freethinker in all aspects of my life, and to always be open to new people and new ideas.
It has been a long journey, but I am happy with who I am and the decisions that I have made. I still have very religious parents, but they have realized that my lack of religion does not necessarily make me a bad person. I look forward to going through life with an open mind and an accepting heart, and I look forward to all that it will bring.
If I were asked to identify my religion, I would reply that I am a Jewish atheist. While this may seem to be a contradiction in terms, it makes perfect sense to me. My family is Jewish, and to ignore this fact would be to disavow my heritage and ancestry, along with a good share of my personal values. Yet I am an atheist, because I have never believed in the existence of a god. Granted, I went to Sunday School and celebrated my bat mitzvah, but then I decided not to attend confirmation class or any more Shabbat services. I realized that the prayers I had muttered automatically on Friday nights held no meaning for me. Religion had been a sort of mechanical reflex that I simulated because it was comfortable and familiar. Once I recognized that I did not find any meaning in the prayers or the chants of the Jewish faith, I could not continue to be a practicing Jew without feeling dishonest.
Even though I do not accept the beliefs of Judaism, I will always be Jewish. My religious background is an indelible component of my identity. That is why, on the few occasions when people have made anti-Semitic remarks to me, their slurs have stung acutely. I have now learned to appreciate my Jewish heritage for the unique perspective it lends me. Although I do not believe in the religious tenets of Judaism, the secular Jewish values have unquestionably flavored my personality. If I had been born into a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist family, I would have grown up to be a very different person than I am today. Not better or worse, but different. Being culturally Jewish is something entirely separate from believing in Judaism--something that will always be a part of me, like the color of my eyes or the timbre of my voice.
In short, I still feel a powerful connection with Jewish history and the Jewish community, despite the fact that most devout Jews would probably refute my claim to the label of "Jewish." I have not entered a synagogue in years, and I have had very few Jewish friends or classmates over the course of my life. All the schools I have attended have been predominantly or officially Christian: in elementary school, my uniform actually included a little badge embroidered with a red Cross of St. Michael. I did not mind wearing the cross, because it allowed me to fit in with my peers. Actually, what bothered me was having to remain seated during the morning chapel services, according to my parents' wishes, while everyone else kneeled. At that tender age, I simply wanted to be like all the other kids.
At my high school outside of Philadelphia, I was one of just a handful of Jewish students. My parents wanted me to go to another private school in my area that had a larger Jewish population, but I insisted on enrolling at the Agnes Irwin School. I was adamant on this point because I was accustomed to having Christian friends and peers, and I never regretted my decision. If every Jewish girl in my neighborhood chose to go to the "Jewish" school, and every Christian girl attended the "Christian" school, then our suburban community would become self-segregated and narrow-minded. It is imperative that students of all different backgrounds intermingle and learn from each other, thus helping to prevent prejudice from taking root in their young, impressionable minds.
The majority of my friends at Rice are agnostics, raised in the Southern Baptist Church but too smart and intellectually curious to mindlessly accept as truth the propaganda they were fed there. At some point, they all came to realize that people of other faiths or sexual orientations do not, in fact, deserve to go to hell. My friends and I have engaged in many an animated late-night conversation on the topic of religion, and we have shared countless laughs over the Landover Baptist website (a parody of the type of church to which my friends once belonged). My experiences and relationships at Rice have allowed me to flesh out my thoughts on religion with a more nuanced understanding of the world and of myself.
Furthermore, I now have enough confidence in my religious convictions--or lack thereof--to publicly defend them. No longer am I a timid little first-grader, sporting the red cross and anxious to conform. This past February, a guest column entitled "Recent woes do not discredit all religions" appeared in the Rice University newspaper. The author, attempting to defend the Catholic faith, had the audacity to downplay such tragic historical events as the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. She went on to blame the deaths that occurred in the U.S.S.R. on Communists' lack of religion as opposed to their faulty political practices. Finally, adding insult to injury, she claimed that "Christianity led to the great majority of humanitarian causes." Her assertions were not only untrue and unsubstantiated but also extremely offensive, and I wrote a letter to the editor saying as much.
In the following weeks, I was commended by dozens of my peers for taking the guest columnist to task. By implying that all atheists are hard-hearted, amoral, and even murderous, this writer had outraged not only the atheist students but many religious ones as well. My rebuttal caught the attention of the host of "What's Your Point," a talk show that airs on Rice Broadcast Television. The host invited me to appear on her show to discuss Christianity on campus (particularly the points I made in my letter to the editor) with three other student panelists. Two of these students were staunchly Christian, and the third was a Conservative Jew. While my fellow panelists squabbled over various interpretations of the bible, I managed to successfully propose a defense of atheism and argue the impropriety of proselytizing on campus.
Not everyone is readily accepting of my atheist views. My grandmother frequently assures me that as soon as I have a child, I will gaze at the tiny, perfectly formed human being in my arms and exclaim, "This is a miracle. There must be a God!" But I am certain that I will have no such reaction. The birth and development of a human being is indeed amazing, but it must be accredited to the wonders of nature, not the powers of God. There is a scientific raison d'etre for every aspect of this universe, from babies and galaxies to languages and the feeling of love. People may find it difficult to wrap their minds around such awesome concepts, but that is no reason to deny the legitimacy of rational explanations.
I am very privileged to have been born to parents who, unlike my grandmother, are supportive and understanding of my ideas on religion. Part of their tolerance can be attributed to the fact that neither of them has chosen to be an actively practicing Jew. But in my estimation, their intelligence is an equally important factor. I associate piety with close-mindedness, self-importance, a lack of intellectual inquisitiveness, and a certain amount of cowardice. Many people are afraid to admit that we do not have any special purpose on this Earth, and therefore they delude themselves into believing that a god created the human race to fulfill his mission. They disregard scientific evidence of evolution and abandon any inclination they might have had to "question the answers." For the life of me, I cannot comprehend how any well-educated person can blindly believe in God. Fortunately, my mother and father were among those parents who are enlightened enough to refrain from imposing religion on their children.
I have been taught that it is impolite to bring up my opinions on religion, for fear of offending other people. This impulse to be tactful and courteous often compels me to keep quiet when my classmates are espousing their belief in God. But then I ask myself why I go to such lengths to resist attacking their views when they are attacking mine. Why is it that I must be respectful of their values when they claim that people with my values will be eternally damned? We are told that religion is not an appropriate topic of conversation, that we should not make an issue out of it, but how can we not fight back when violations of the separation of church and state are overt and omnipresent? I have the right to be offended when every coin I use declares "In God We Trust." I have the right to be disturbed that almost every person who testifies in court is forced to swear, "So help me God." Those who advocate silent prayer in school argue that the children can pray to the god of their choice, but what if those children do not wish to pray to any god at all? Although we Americans consider ourselves to be the most free-thinking citizens of any nation in the world, it is clear that we have a long way to go before freedom of religion (including the freedom to refuse religion) is fully granted.
Happily, it seems to me that more and more Americans of my generation are privately rejecting religion and releasing their minds from its shackles. The next step is to channel our potential as a political force and as a voting bloc. Many of today's politicians are infecting our government with religious drivel and drowning out the voices of all who oppose them; perhaps we would be able to make ourselves heard if we spoke out in unison. It is time for Americans to recognize that the idea of a society stunted by ignorance and self-delusion is much more frightening than the acknowledgment that there is no god watching over us.
The youth pastor stood with his lies and with rage in his eyes and his lips moved--but nothing came out. The sermon that night was on the evils of abortion and the Church's stance on the issue. We were regaled with horror stories about greedy doctors salivating over the chance to rip apart a young woman's womb. We were shown pictures of mangled fetuses and bloody placentas. Yet I heard nothing, and I saw nothing. I could not believe the enraptured faces surrounding me; most of them were my age--thirteen--yet were nothing like me. Everything was a silent blur. I retreated to the bathroom. This was the church I had grown up in, the church my family had attended off-and-on for as long as I could remember; and as long as I could remember this church, this building had been my center of strength, the rock on which the destructive waves of daily life would crash and fizzle into impotency. It was perfect: brightly-colored, stained-glass windows, rows of well-vacuumed carpet, neat lines of floodlights lining the hallways, illuminating children's drawings of Jesus and Jonah and today's Daily Devotional.
Yet as I stood in the bathroom that night, lost in a haze of epiphany, I remember for the first time noticing the flaws in the church. In some places, the carpet didn't quite make it to the wall. Too many circulars misspelled "Babtist." In the bathroom, tiles were missing in the corners of the walls. The underside of the faucets held a thick growth of mildew. The chemicals used to weekly swathe the filth were not enough to cover up the stink. It was in one of these particular moments of my youth that I remember thinking the unthinkable thought, the one that had slept just below the surface of my developing reason, the one that had torn apart my conscience and disarranged my emotions: the thought that God does not exist. Religion is fraud. Nothing can hide the cracked walls and flawed laws of organized religion. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to think for myself.
The involuntary detachment from my peers, however, did not begin at that time. I was always the curious young child, more annoying than precocious. I was always asking questions: "Where did Cain's wife come from?'" "If Goliath was a giant, where are all the giants now?" "Did Noah bring two of each animal into the ark or seven of each clean animal?"
The basic teachings of biology and scientific reasoning that were making their way into my public school curriculum were also trickling down into my Sunday School lessons. The instructor would usually smile patiently, answer me with a "because the Bible says . . ." and shove crayons in my hand so I could make yet another drawing of the sinners of Sodom or the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. In retrospect, these Sunday School sessions were well planned. They drew unsuspecting kids into the fold of religion with the fantastic stories of the Old Testament, usually sticking to the high-profile, morally obvious myths like Jonah and the Whale, while leaving out the parts about, say, Onan spilling his seed, or the invading Hebrews slaying helpless women and children. These things I wouldn't find out about until much later, when I actually read the Bible.
Like most people, I grew up Christian simply by osmosis. My parents were Christian, therefore so was I. Organized religion, like television, was there from the beginning, and I had no reason to refute its inherent value and infinite preexistence. Religion was simply what my brother and I were dragged to on Sunday mornings. God was simply the third parent who saw everything I did. He listened to me when I prayed for a new toy or for my parents to stop fighting. He judged me when I did what I knew was wrong. He promised immense rewards at an excruciatingly distant point in the future. He was Santa Claus.
I wanted to like religion and love Jesus, just as I wanted to make good grades, be nice to my brother, do my chores, and take the dog out so he wouldn't pee inside. I was different from my schoolmates yet I desperately wanted to be one of them. They all seemed to grasp this God thing--I wanted to as well. I even remember at age eight vowing to read the entire Bible cover to cover. Once I got past Noah and the Ark, everything became a blur. I had read maybe twenty pages before I gave up, but for the love of God, I tried.
Shortly after I turned eleven, my father died of a heart attack. He was never a good father: he drank and smoked and never paid his child support. I was even a bit afraid of him. His death left a certain numbness in me--at a time when I should have been reaching out to God for support, I could only reach in myself for strength. I did not feel comforted by the presence of a higher power. The church that had always been there offered little in the way of condolences. My fifth-grade classmates had been instructed to not mention it around me--yet I could tell they knew. This harshness of reality, the shifting priorities of my friends, and the shattering of my religious conceptions left me cold inside. The ideas I had been taught about the afterlife never quite came to fruition in my mind--the only thing I was concerned about was whether or not my father's ghost could hear me when I lied and how long sympathy would get me free toys. These, sadly, were my baby steps toward free thought.
Like all emotionally-driven forward movements in thought, there can be a violent internal backlash when the weakness of insecurity creeps in. For me, the first of these reversals in thought came in the summer after my father's death. That summer my brother and I spent a lot of time with his agrarian extended family spread among the simple small towns of North Alabama. Tradition dictated that this group attend the local Church of Christ, a bastion of fundamentalism rooted deeply in the fabric of daily life for many North Alabamians. Simple politeness dictated my brother and I attend with them during visits.
There was politeness and guilt. Those who think the Catholics hold a monopoly on guilt have never experienced the whirlwind of kinetic culpability weekly thrust upon the smiling denizens of the local Church of Christ. There were at least three services a week all were expected to attend, save those in poor health: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. God forbid if anyone was too sick to attend services; that person would receive a lengthy write-up in that week's Church Bulletin. There was even a spot in the Bulletin reserved for absentees without good reason, entitled, "Also Not Able to Attend Services This Week."
I saw through this guilt trap, but had no other place to go when visiting this family and no gumption to tell them I simply didn't want to go. So I went. And I laughed inside. I laughed at the stuffy, unremarkable building which housed the church. I laughed at the stuffy, pretentious Sunday School classes. I asked why the Church of Christ did not allow musical instruments in the worship service. The reply I always received was, "the Bible doesn't tell us to have musical instruments, so we don't." I secretly wondered whether or not the Bible allowed for the church's bathrooms and parking lots, and if not, why were they there?
I questioned and I laughed, but after a couple weeks of attendance I began to feel I actually belonged somewhere. I was an out-of-towner, a Big Man, there. I was popular with the other fledgling adolescents. Popular. The social ramifications of being popular for the first time seemed not so distant and dead but were tangible and alive. The organized religion that had begun to amuse me now amazed me with its power. It was no longer the Sunday morning ritual and God ceased to be the Third Parent. Now Jesus was the leader of the gang of spiritual and social giants who had it all figured out--who got along, shared ideas with hamburgers, shook hands and joined hands for horrendous off-key a capella hymn-singing. Christianity was my door into the world of happiness that I associated with popularity.
I returned home brimming with religious zeal. I read my daily devotional, began wearing a cross necklace, and joined my local youth group. Inspired by an electric Church of Christ sermon, I began arguing with whomever would listen the essential facts that, yes: the universe was created in seven literal days, the Great Flood was what formed the Grand Canyon, dinosaurs once sat down to lunch with men, and when the rapture comes, I'll be the first to go! I was intensely sure of these facts and justified by what then seemed to be overwhelming Biblical evidence. I went to church camp. I wrote religious poetry. I even played Jesus Christ himself in a youth group skit about abstinence before marriage. The pinnacle of popularity, I thought, is being mock-crucified before an audience of one's peers.
So why was I so unhappy?
The beginning of the disintegration of the zealous religious regime that ruled my life for three years can be traced back to simple experience and knowledge. The more of this life I experienced, the more I began to see the frivolity of popularity. The more knowledge I gained about them, the more I realized how inherently ridiculous and contradictory Christian teachings could be. I grew distant--detached. I was disinterested in my schoolwork and depressed. My disillusionment with religion manifested in a kind of self-inflicted sensory deprivation. I began to not see the faces around me, to not hear their voices. Those other people were all just mask-wearing puppets manipulated by marionettes.
They didn't know what I knew.
The idea that came to light that night of the abortion sermon at youth group was unspeakable to me: God does not exist. I had heard the word "Atheist" before, but I did not know what it meant. Surely I was not an Atheist. Surely I was not one of those shaky-eyed madmen who fed off the brains of children, hoarded pornography, and kept secret torture devices in their basements. That wasn't me. I was therefore alone; I was the only person in the entire world who did not believe in God. I was a revolutionary! I had reached the anti-spiritual nirvana, the negative gnosis--I was a mental giant among intellectual dwarves. In this aura of clarity I formulated a breakthrough philosophical principle I called the Four-S Theory. This stated that all human behavior is motivated by the desires for Sex, Security, and Superiority. These three desires boil down to a central instinct that rules the natural world, the fourth "S": Survival.
I was thirteen years old.
And nobody knew about any of this because I told no one. It was my secret.
And I had a lot to learn. By secluding myself in a bubble of dogmatic atheistic thought, I became the opposite and equal to my former Christian self--I was not open to new ideas, and was certain that I had attained absolute knowledge. It once again took experience and further learning to snap me out of this zealot mindset. As I grew I realized that I was an atheist not because I knew there was no god, but because the idea of god is unknowable. Where others find comfort and security in their faith in God, I find comfort and security in the infinite Unknown. I do not fear death so much because I do not know what happens when we die. I desire to learn new things because knowledge brings me closer to the universe; the Unknown excites me in that it allows for infinite new things to learn. Many freethinkers would call me an agnostic. Very well. I like to use the word "atheist" because that word still excites that revolutionary frenzy in me.
It took me a while before I was comfortable telling people I was an atheist. I eventually told my mother, who was and is very supportive, and then anyone who asked. I refuse to lie about my beliefs, even though the social stigma attached to the A-word still provides a basis for discrimination against freethinkers from all spectrums of life--social, political, economic. Those of us who choose to think for ourselves instead of accepting the beliefs and blind faiths of previous generations belong to one of the last truly persecuted minorities in the world. I still feel detached from humanity--l always have--yet I still feel compelled to contribute to it in my own way. I act morally not for fear of punishment in hell or for brownie points in heaven but because I want to get along with the rest of my species.
Many people can look back on their childhood as a series of vague, happy memories--like looking at an old picture whose edges have been faded by the sunlight. I don't have this luxury. My childhood memories are tinged with lucidity. I remember the bad moments, the good ones, the sweet and the bitter. I can remember how and when the Rock that was organized religion became my Rock of Sisyphus, the burden of faith that tied me to a singular mindset. I remember when I tossed that boulder aside and began climbing the mountain of life with the freedom to explore any new idea that comes my way. I will always be hungry for knowledge. I love being able to completely change my opinion on a subject given new information. I have a long way to go, many mountains to climb, and countless changes of mind to undergo. That is the wonderful freedom of growing up a freethinker.