Growing Up Pushing the Rock (September 2003)

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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation