By Martin Boyd, M.D.
I'm the eldest of five children born in Albuquerque, N.M., to a Seventh-day Adventist couple. My father, Edward, was fairly well-educated. He graduated with a Bachelor's degree in business administration during my childhood. He was a devout Seventh-day Adventist, but had problems with the racial climate of the church we were attending. For a while, we were brought up with the teachings of that church, but our "services" were held in our home, with my father acting in place of a pastor.
My mother, Mattie Belle, on the other hand, did not graduate from high school, which had a major impact on our family when my father divorced her when I was about 12 years old--leaving her alone with five children, one of whom was an infant.
It has been said that poor is an attitude, broke is your economic status. After my father left, we were seriously broke for a long time but we were never poor. My parents always told us that if we got a good education, we could be whatever we wanted to be. My father was not particularly generous with child support, so my mother cleaned houses while she got a GED, and then went to school to become a licensed practical nurse.
My mother was also a devout Adventist. After my father left, we attended a small, predominately Black church. At age 12, like most Adventists, I was baptized into the church. I pretty much bought the religious beliefs hook, line and sinker. I wasn't all that excited about missionary work, but that was mainly because I was painfully shy. That "tithe" thing really bothered me because of our economic status, but when I had money, I faithfully put my 10% in the offering plate.
Like most fundamentalist Christian churches, the Adventists firmly believe in a parochial education. I suspect I'm a prime example of why they think a parochial education is important. I attended public school, as did all of my three brothers. My one surviving brother is an atheist. But my sister, who went to a series of Adventist parochial schools, is now a devout Latter-Day Saint.
By the time I was 16 years old, I was pretty disillusioned with the Adventist faith. There were several factors that led me gradually to reject first the Adventist faith, then Christianity and, eventually, deism. Most important was my interest in the sciences (especially biology). Adventists believe that the entire bible is literal truth. Thus, they are taught that the Earth is about 6,000 years old. On the other hand, in biology class, they were teaching me about an Earth several million years old--and they had facts to back up those claims. It didn't take a math major to figure out that even if carbon-dating wasn't perfect, that's a huge time difference. Even ignoring the fact that the bible doesn't talk about dinosaurs (a pretty big omission, if you ask me), I still couldn't ignore the fact that the dinosaurs had been around for millions of years before they disappeared!
That pretty much destroys the idea of a 6,000-year-old Earth, but I took the idea even further. It seemed to me that there were only two possibilities: 1) God had placed evidence of evolution on Earth (or allowed it to be placed, presumably by the Devil) and now expects us to believe that evidence to be false, or 2) Creation is a myth. Personally, I have trouble with the concept of a god who is so capricious as to create intelligent beings, then expect them to disbelieve facts.
If the church was wrong about creation and the age of the Earth, what else were they wrong about?
Which brings us to the concept of the Devil. I had not come across Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible at that time, so I didn't know that the Devil didn't even enter the Hebrew theology 'til they came up against the Persians. It just seemed pretty strange that an omnipotent, omniscient God would create a being destined not only to rebel, but to take one-third of the other angels with him when God kicked him out! It also seemed pretty cruel to exile him to a populated planet to cause all sorts of mischief!
I gradually came to the realization that the very existence of the Devil is a huge weak point in the theology of the Abrahamic religions. Think about it. How could one possibly pull off a rebellion against an omnipotent, omniscient God? Conclusion: If the Devil exists, God can't be omnipotent or omniscient! In the end, I decided that both were myths.
I would love to say that I figured out all this stuff at age 16, but it was a bit more complex. I graduated from high school, then started attending the University of New Mexico with the intent of becoming an electrical engineer. Isaac Asimov's writings had given me an interest in robotics, and electrical engineering seemed a good route to that interest. Unfortunately, it turned out that I wasn't destined for engineering--not because of any grand design of the universe, but because I have trouble drawing a straight line (even with a ruler) and have no talent for freehand drawing. Worse, I have no talent for higher math (integral calculus ate me alive)!
So, in the winter of 1967-68, I was about to drop out of college at the height of the Vietnam War. This was before the lottery-style draft and it was pretty much guaranteed that I'd be going into the military. A few of us had just finished reading The Green Berets. That unit was reminiscent of the Mobile Infantry described by Robert Heinlein in Starship Troopers (still one of my favorite books). I figured I'd join the Army, get the best possible training and survive whatever was to come in Vietnam. As it turned out, my brother Paul (who is about one year younger than I) and a mutual friend, Leonard, were thinking along the same lines. So we signed up together. This provoked the first (and worst) major argument between me and my parents. In the Adventist church, it's okay to serve your country in the military but only as a noncombatant ("conscientious objector").
We did basic training together at Ft. Bliss, Texas, then Paul went to communications school while I went to infantry training at Ft. Gordon, Ga. At Ft. Gordon, I learned why the military believes that "there are no atheists in foxholes"--they ignore nonbelievers! I hadn't been to church since I left home. On Easter morning we were told that we could either attend Easter sunrise services or go on K.P. (guess which I chose). Worse, the Army had declared that it was officially summer so we had to attend in khaki uniforms with no jacket; as you might guess, we froze our tails off! As you might also guess, I have no idea what the sermon was about (other than in the sense of the old joke about the guy sleeping in church who, on being challenged by his wife, insisted that the sermon had been about sin; when forced to recount what the preacher had said about sin, replied, "He's against it").
Next was airborne training ("jump school") at Ft. Benning, Ga., then finally on to Ft. Bragg, N.C., for Special Forces training. This is the point at which I should confess my last lapse of "faith."
In jump school, you make five parachute jumps to win your wings. Shortly after arriving at Ft. Bragg, I made my sixth jump (a night jump). To say I was scared is an understatement. I was looking out the back of a C-47 and all I could see was black. Next time you're at an air museum, take a good look at a C-47; run your eyes from the wings to the horizontal stabilizer and you'll realize that the line intersects the door! To top it off, I had seen a movie in which a guy's parachute winds up hooked over that horizontal stabilizer!
The jump master assured us that we would fall fast enough to clear that horizontal stabilizer (our static lines had an extension to ensure that fact). I can't say I had a lot of faith in his statement and, worse yet, I was sure I wasn't going to be able to see the ground. We were standing with our static lines hooked and my knees were shaking. Falling back on childhood superstition, I said a prayer and felt better.
Later, I realized that I had been almost as scared during every previous jump (and every subsequent jump) and always felt better when the green light went on. I realized then what I have since read in self-help books--action cures fear! I've never prayed since ('though I've had several occasions to be scared). Just for the record, when I jumped, I saw the horizontal stabilizer clear me with plenty of room to spare and I had no trouble seeing the ground. Physics beats faith every time!
I had intended to become a demolitions expert, but on arriving at Ft. Bragg, was informed there were plenty. The options at that point were communications (I almost fell asleep trying to learn Morse code) and medics (Special Forces medics are combatants, just like medics and chaplains in Heinlein's Mobile Infantry; everybody drops, everybody fights).
It was pretty much a no-brainer, but also turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. Paul eventually joined us at Ft. Bragg and we finished Special Forces training together. We were both initially assigned to 7th Group at Ft. Bragg, then, by luck of the draw, Paul got sent to Vietnam. Since they were short of medics at Ft. Bragg, I spent the rest of my tour there, and had the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time in the base hospital emergency room. Working closely with doctors, and doing a lot of the same things they did, made me realize that I could actually become a doctor.
A third factor in my journey away from religion was discovering science fiction when I was about 12 years old. Although science fiction is often equated with bug-eyed monsters attacking the Earth, the best science fiction makes you think about the greater questions. My favorites were Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (all freethinkers).
Heinlein, in particular, frequently questioned the value of organized religion and preachers. Anyone who is not worried about people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell needs to read Revolt in 2100. Anyone who is not troubled by the implications of a star over Bethlehem should read Arthur C. Clark's short story, "The Star." As an adult, I re-read Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and realized it is designed to challenge the entire concept of a messiah.
Later, I ran into Harlan Ellison's anthology, Dangerous Visions, which deliberately collects controversial works. If the religious right ever discovers it, it will probably go right to the top of the book-burning list. Some of the stories challenge the popular concepts regarding the nature of gods and demons.
Since I've been kind of a loner most of my life, I had a lot of time to read. By the time I left the Army, I considered myself an agnostic.
I guess that brings us to the final chapter in my "conversion." After I started college, I ran into an acquaintance. Wess had been reading a lot of Ayn Rand's work and introduced me to Atlas Shrugged. After reading The Fountainhead, I started reading some of her nonfiction (in which she clearly stated that she was an atheist and explained her reasons for being one). One day, Wess and I were discussing her work and he asked me about my own religious beliefs. He pointed out that, as far as he was concerned, "agnostic" implied that you couldn't make up your mind.
Now, I freely admit that you can't disprove the existence of a god, any more than you can prove that he-she exists, but I'm one of those people who likes things in neat boxes. The more I thought about the whole idea, the less I liked any concept of god. If you exclude the concepts of deities pictured as more powerful, older siblings of the human race (like the Greek gods), or as aliens portraying themselves as gods (a common theme in science fiction), you're left with the monotheistic, omnipotent, omniscient versions of a god.
Robert Heinlein pointed out that the greatest conceit of the human race is that an omnipotent, omniscient god would need, or even want, the worship of his creations. I decided there was a greater conceit--that such a god could be affected by the prayers of his creations. To me, the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient god implies predestination. If God knows what's going to happen, then there is no free will (que sera, sera; what will be will be).
Many religionists tell us that god "allows us" free choice. Nonsense! If he knows what your choice will be, you don't really have a choice (knowing probability doesn't count). If he really doesn't know, he's not omniscient! Personally, I prefer to think that I can control my destiny. Hence, I'm required to reject the existence of god.
I have now been a full-time emergency physician for more than 23 years. I don't hope for divine help with tough cases. I look to my own education and training, and to the education and training of whatever specialist I can recruit to help me. When someone says the word "miracle" to me, it tells me they don't understand the concept of probability. When people in critical condition get better, they (and/or their families) say, "Thank God." If they die, the question becomes, "Isn't there anything else you can do?"
About 30 years ago, I finally "came out" to my mother. She knew that I wasn't attending church and asked if I still believed in god. I told her that I didn't. She asked a question that I suspect many of you have heard: "Don't you want to go to heaven?" I told her that I didn't believe in heaven (or hell) but if such a place exists, and if I can't get in living in the way I consider right, I probably wouldn't want to be there. The heaven that is described in the bible would bore me to tears!
I can tell she still is troubled by the idea of her son, "the atheist," but I consider myself lucky, in that my mother is open-minded enough (despite her continued weekly attendance at church) to accept me for what I have become.
Martin Boyd, M.D., is a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation from New Mexico.