When I First Believed and Didn’t

“What could be more foolish than to base one’s entire view of life on ideas that, however plausible at the time, now appear to be quite erroneous? And what would be more important than to find our true place in the universe by removing one by one these unfortunate vestiges of earlier beliefs?”—-Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, 1988

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”—Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892, Act III (Mr. Dumby to Cecil Graham)

I was baptized before I was two weeks old. I don’t recall much of that day. I don’t think I believed in God or any of the other religious things I later would. The religious reason for the Catholic Sacrament at that age was that if I had died, I would not go to heaven unless baptized. I would go to Limbo with all the other unbaptized, until the Church decided that Limbo did not really exist.

I went to a Catholic school taught by nuns. We didn’t go to Mass in Kindergarten, but starting with First Grade, 9:00 a.m. Mass (in Latin) was mandatory. We sat up front with our class, boys on one side, girls on the other until graduation at the end of 8th grade. I went to public high school for 9th through 12th grade.

In grade school, I was taught about God, Jesus, the Blessed Trinity, and all the religious stuff I could fit into my brain. I believed it. I had some arguments about it with my father because I stood by what the nuns and priests told us. He was old school and much stricter. He always had the option of asking the ordained and religious, but he never did.

To the extent that a boy between the ages of six and fourteen can believe what he has been told about god and all the other religious stuff, I believed. I can’t say that I had a specific Jesus is my lord and savior moment because we didn’t do that.

In my personal world, I believed two other things: everyone I knew was Catholic and everyone believed in god. Neither was correct. I can’t say exactly when I came to believe of my own volition, or even if I did.

In the summer of 1960, I turned 14. That September I began an excursion into the realities of the somewhat secular educational world. I did not escape having god and religion forced upon me. We still prayed in school and had bible readings (mandatory state law) until June of 1963. My senior year began the following September.

After that, neither prayer nor bible reading could be constitutionally mandated or school sponsored. I would not have labeled myself as a nonbeliever at that point. A serious doubter might work. During that final year of high school, I was probably a practical atheist in that while I considered myself to be Catholic, I did not practice the religion.

Thirty years later, during the 1990s my religious opinions and behaviors might be viewed as a metal ball bouncing around the playing field of a pinball machine. The flippers and bumpers would knock me into other ideas or possibilities. I’d bounce off one bumper and into another, then another.

In the mid-90s, my spiritual reading and experimenting increased. I was a nonbeliever trying to believe. I was a seeker or searcher in the spiritual sense. I became seriously interested in eastern religious thought, spirituality, and meditation, some of it New Age nonsense. During that time I read Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, and decided to give Catholicism one more try.

Merton described seeing a deeply religious woman in a church. He envied her faith. I had the same experience. I was going to do everything I could to get this god and religion thing right. I convinced myself that there was a god. I felt that I had overcome my doubts forever. For almost 12 years, I did.

It was a cannonball dive into the deep end of the Christian religion and the Catholic Church. I did everything I could: taught bible study and religious education to adults and children, belonged to as many ministries as I could make time for. Eventually, I was elected President of the Parish Council for two years in our large Parish of more than five thousand families. I even began the process of being ordained as a Deacon, something not taken lightly in the Church or by me, and second only to becoming a Priest. I withdrew late in the process.

I recall teaching an adult class on The Problem of Evil. It had gone well. At the end of the class one lady raised her hand and asked me how I reconciled everything that I had just said with what I believed as a practicing Catholic. I don’t recall my answer.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
—Leonard Cohen, lyrics from his song, Anthem

That was when my transition from Christian to Atheist began. Within two years I walked away from the Catholic Church for good. I disavowed my Catholic faith in writing. Soon thereafter I realized that I did not believe in the existence of any gods, demons, spirits, heaven or hell, or any of it.

I retired three years after leaving the Church and we moved again to yet another state. After about a year there, I was openly atheist. There are several key events and conclusions along my road to disbelief. Each conclusion was preceded by a long time of study, thought, and deciding. That continues.

Just as there was not a date and time when I believed, there was not a specific moment when I decided that I’m a convinced atheist. The metamorphosis was gradual. I simply and incrementally walked away from it all.

They Believed in the Hog Apocalypse

 

In religion, faith is trust in some belief. Believers often think faith is confidence with a perceived degree of warrant. I would have said for a reason.

I think faith is belief without evidence. If it’s not, as many believers want to claim, show me the evidence for what you believe.

My question is why do we believe what we do? Regarding religion or belief in a god, the answer is often faith. There are other answers, but as reasons change, beliefs likewise morph and twist. With most people it seems more complex, but eventually the answer appears to be either a choice or faith.

Since choice seems rational and based on some form of evidence (scripture, existence, what else could it be?), faith is usually the last argument standing, if you can call it that. It is not long before logic has been cast into the flames of the argument.

I’ve read several claims that faith is something other than belief without evidence, none of which seemed very good unless you happen to be a person of faith. Belief based on faith (or feelings or what one wants) seems rational to the believer.

I used to hike and trail-run at a wilderness area called Government Canyon, near San Antonio in the Texas Hill Country. I’ve been there often and have seen the evidence of wildlife: a coyote or two, the occasional snake, scat of all kinds, and turned soil caused by hogs. I never saw a hog or heard one. I’ve only witnessed their mess. The biggest danger for me was the mountain bikers, some of whom thought I had rearward looking radar.

I’ve read no accounts of hikers being mauled by hogs, but I’m sure it’s happened, especially in the state of Arkansas. Click here to see some dipshits hunting hogs, and being charged.

Then, I read this account of two hikers at my old stomping grounds. They heard hogs attacking, climbed a tree for safety, and called park rangers or 911 to rescue them. They waited safe and sound up the tree until the officer arrived. As they were talking, the two hikers heard the sound of the charging hogs and told the ranger they were under attack.

When he finally stopped laughing, he invited them down from the tree. The kind ranger explained that what they heard was a car driving over rumble strips on a nearby road. To be fair to the two (who maybe ought not be out alone), there are hogs there. They do get pissed if people bother them (like hunters), and paranoia strikes deep, like in the old Buffalo Springfield tune For What It’s Worth:

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the men come and take you away

At least it wasn’t the devil they were worried about. Yet, neither did they have enough evidence for such paranoid faith as to believe in the attack of the feral hogs. They transferred their faith to the police officer who had to hike in and rescue them from their own imaginary fears.

Yet, people believe much more crazy shit with far less evidence or any real likelihood. Then they expect others to believe it too, and they are mortified when one of us says, it’s really not what you think it is.

Bill

 

If you’re really into the why people (we) believe what we do, Godless in Dixie has a great piece about it. Click here to see it.

Conversation Validity

Neil Carter said he was asked, “What drives you to be so adamant in sharing your atheistic beliefs? What is the driving force behind you? To influence others to be nonbelievers??”

The first part of his response encapsulates my thoughts.

“First of all, to me this question implies that, while it’s laudable for the religious to wear their beliefs on their sleeves and talk about them in public spaces, when nonbelievers openly share about their own perspectives it’s just wrong and, gosh, why would you take it upon yourself to talk about this stuff in public? What’s wrong with you?

“My departure from the faith upset many people, but nothing bothered them more than my decision to start writing and speaking about it openly. That took people from sad to angry really quickly, and that’s because the only socially acceptable atheism is that which keeps its thoughts to itself (my emphasis). That disparity alone is reason enough for people like me to write and speak about why we left.” ~ Neil Carter, Godless in Dixie blog

Visiting Christians

We were expecting company. Friends who are devout/ardent Lutherans (when he is not angry at them and singing with the Baptists). I occasionally wore some jewelry that identified me as atheist, if anyone paid attention (which they don’t). My wife suggested I not wear the items when the two visitors were with us, so as not to upset them. I suggested that my opinion regarding any god was as valid as theirs. She agreed and withdrew her request, but I didn’t wear the items simply to avoid discussion and to prevent my atheism from causing a problem with her friends. Acceptance and tolerance are the best I could do, but that works. Do I handle such things wrong?

They were visiting over a weekend. We decided to drive past several local Lutheran churches so they could see if the right combination of letters appeared on any of the church marquee signs. If so, they would know it was safe for them to attend a Sunday service there. We offered transport, not attendance.

Since they could not identify any of the churches as suitable with the right flavor of Lutheranism, they did not go. Apparently, there are valid synod reasons for not keeping the third commandment (or fourth, depending on how you slice them). Online resources identify 40 different types of Lutheran.

Thou Shalt Not Say It

I was discussing atheism and a book by Sam Harris in an organized mens book club. A few members spent several long uninterrupted minutes explaining something about their religion. An older gentleman interrupted me to say that he was an atheist but never wrote or spoke about it. He just was and that was the end of it. His comment made me realize that many other atheists are likewise silent. They don’t believe in any god and that’s the end of it. Nobody needs to know. Nothing need be said. It might upset the theists. Is that cooperation or submissiveness?

Since then, I have had several people confess their atheism, or that of their loved ones, to me because they knew I had embraced disbelief. That makes me safe. Normally, such confessions are made in private. While I was never asked me to keep a secret, it was clear to me that they (or the loved one), while not exactly closeted, were not public or outspoken.

I Get It

While I understand the reluctance to speak up, all this is very telling. My wife and I were practicing Catholics. That was acceptable, even though several family members and some friends resented it or disapproved, especially in her case since she was a convert from Protestantism. But atheism? That’s a whole other deal. Atheists are considered the worst. For the record, my wife does not claim to disbelieve.

When people choose to keep their opinions private I don’t want a vote or a voice in what they should do, but I have an opinion. If people (atheists, agnostics, free thinkers, skeptics) go through the motions of going to church to avoid a personal conflict or crisis, I understand their actions. But I also know that living a lie for the sake of peace is not heroic, it’s personal martyrdom at the hands of religion to please the religious. I can’t imagine the weight of pretending to be religious for the sake of others. It is a form of reverse religious persecution.

Anyway, other than one friend who simply asked, are you an atheist?, no one has questioned my incredulity. It’s no secret. At least one neighbor knows, my kids all know (I think; not sure of grands), and most, if not all, of my friends know. Yet, believers who don’t know about me will try to flash their religion, church, or prayerfulness at me. I assume their motive is to impress. Do you know what a horse laugh is?

It’s Not Okay

I will not allow anyone to think that I believe in any god or that I practice any religion. That would be unfair to them, to other non-believers, to my friends and family, and to me. When faced with the conversation, I am willing to have it. I will try not to use terms like woo-woo, bullshit, do you really fucking believe that crap?, or holy shit!

I will tell anyone why I am atheist, but first they must tell me what they believe and why they think I should. It is a valid conversation to have. My views are as worthy as anyone’s.

In 21st Century USA, or anywhere in the world, no one should be imprisoned or burdened by the religions or religious views of friends, neighbors, or family. Freedom of religion must include freedom from religion or there is no freedom at all. If you think otherwise, you do not understand freedom, religion, or history.

Bill

 

 

Why I Decided to Identify as Atheist

At my first job after college graduation, I worked with two guys about my age. One was my boss. The other was a guy named Spenser. One day as we walked to the car, Spencer asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I thought it an odd question, but Spencer was an odd man. I said yes. He then asked if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I tried to explain that Catholics don’t use that phrase or see baptism in quite the same way many protestant denominations did.

Then Spenser informed me that unless I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I was not a Christian. I had been baptized at eight days of age, had the sacraments of first confession and First Holy Communion, believed that the consecrated wafer was the actual body and blood of Christ, and I took my middle name during the Sacrament of Confirmation in honor of Saint John the Evangelist. I had prayed my ass off for over 20 years to Jesus, to his mum, and (mainly) to his biological father, as well as to other long-forgotten saints. Spenser’s got saved point of view seemed shallow simple to me. However, here in the Bible Belt, it remains the trope de rigueur.

Yet this smugly self-righteous graduate of Ouachita Baptist University and ordained Southern Baptist minister, refuted my claim based on how he and his denomination defined members of the world’s largest religion (Christianity). The differences were how Spenser and I defined a Christian based upon our diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Despite our hairsplitting points of view, when someone identifies as Christian, Muslim, Jew, or as members of most religions, we generally form a somewhat accurate idea of that religious claim.

For religious purposes, I am forced to classify myself as a none. Apostate Catholic is not an option, even if true. My rejection of all religion is not the same as no preference, but I don’t make the lists. I am ok with Atheist, but it is not a religion, even though some numbskulls claim it is. Since athesit identifies me for what I’m not, I wish there was a better word. There’s not.

Thus, I identify as atheist. I also use skeptic, nonbeliever, freethinker, heathen, or whatever synonym fits the situation. Today, Spenser would be correct. I am not Christian. Some believers who came to know me before discovering my unbelief said I am was one of the good (or nice) atheists. Sometimes that aspect of me can be called cooperative. But I hold a dim view of religion, which would make me neither good nor nice in their view

I avoid the less-offensive terms like agnostic, humanist, or non-religious, even though a case can be made for each applying to me. I eschew the term spiritual because it is confusing (even among atheists) and has its own baggage. The stigma associated with embracing atheism (or any form of religious doubt) troubles me because even as a believer I never shared that negative view most others held of atheists.

I openly identify as atheist so that I can help others understand atheists and atheism. I would like to demonstrate that I am no better and no worse a person because I believe in no gods. I would also like to think that by being open and out I can encourage others to step forward and claim their truth.

Bill

Obsessed with Sex

 

“For some reason, churches have decided the most important thing about you is what you do with your genitals.” Neil Carter, Godless in Dixie

Last September, I posted a dialog piece that was sort of about sex, if that’s possible. I didn’t say it was a sexual discussion, but the dialog implied it without directly making the claim. I never gave the sex (gender) of the people in the dialog. Either person could have been male or female. Both could have been the same sex or anyone from the long list of diverse human sexualities (preferences, orientations, or whatever the correct term may be).

The discussion could have been about any experience from paragliding to spelunking. I never said that one of them had sex with someone else, especially outside of some committed relationship. However, I was not clear with my implication. Thus, anyone could infer that one of the speakers had illicit sex, or at least some sort of untoward relationship. Readers had to assume and some did.

While I made no direct claim to a difficulty with the relationship of the two, some readers made that additional assumption. That was fair enough.

One comment compared the dialog to a real discussion with his spouse who’d had sex with someone else. Apparently, a fundamentalist Christian man, he made this comment: “Sex isn’t everything.” Indeed. I agree.

However, while nothing is everything, sex is important. I’ve heard it referred to as a need or a drive. We humans are sex-obsessed in both good and bad ways. It can be rewarding and loving or many other things, including disastrous.

The human sexual nature is a strong, powerful, and wonderful aspect of our nature that can be troublesome on its own, with no help from religious dogma. But the general nature of our sexual disguise is culturally prudish and problematic. It’s certainly obsessive. And religion adds a phenomenal trail of embarrassment and disgust.

When it comes to sex, I usually avoid the topic altogether or I can talk open and plain about it. The latter occurs more in writing than verbal.

The topic is ubiquitous. The Atheist Community of Austin, Texas, (ACA) the organization that does the internet call-in show, The Atheist Experience, also now does a show and podcast called Secular Sexuality.

Over time, human prudishness seems to be wilting, depending on the culture. But not so with religion. In the US, religion will have its hooks in the private sexual lives (genitals) of everyone, not only members of those religions for a long time. However, over time reality and human nature seem to slowly bubble up like a lava lamp in super slow motion.

Sex is not a bad word. It is neither sinful nor dirty. While it can be socially and psychologically harmful, and all forms of human contact can communicate disease, the fact is that we think about it and do it a lot. Sexual hang-ups (anxieties) can be caused by many things, religion being numero uno. There are words for our attitude toward sex.

Erotophilia is our disposition to respond to sexual cues either positively or negatively, measured on a scale from erotophobia to erotophilia. Erotophobes are more authoritarian, need achievement, observe traditional sex roles, experience more sex guilt, and have more negative reactions to masturbation and homosexuality than erotophiles.

Erotophilics masturbate and fantasize more frequently, think about sex often, have sexual intercourse at an earlier age, have more past sexual experiences, and a greater number of intercourse partners than erotophobics. Erotophiles are more likely to breast or genital self-examine, have more regular gynecological visits, and to engage in preventative behaviors regarding sexually transmitted diseases (i.e., have healthier sex lives).

If anything, many religious sexual views are downright unhealthy, even leading to physical mutilation of children without their consent, not to mention unwanted pregnancies. I don’t know the level of mental damage that is done.

I agree with Neil, with the ACA, and with Hitch when he said,

If anything proves that religion is not just man-made but masculine-made, it is the incessant repetition of rules and taboos governing the sexual life.” Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist

And then there are all the other books on this topic: books and books and more books. It must be a big deal.

Bill

Does Praying Offend?

I’m not offended by people praying, but I think it’s a silly waste of time. I am also not offended by people dancing, public displays of affection (all sexual preferences/ orientations), drinking in public, religious garb, cannabis smoking, public breast feeding, most tatoos and body jewelry/hardware, the word fuck, and the list goes on. Nor do I think most of that to be wasted time. Many things that offend others may cause me to raise a brow, but I’m seldom enticed into feeling offended.

I am not offended that people practice religions, pray, dance around the fire, or believe they turn into werewolves. We all have the right to believe whatever we want, must, or were raised with, up to a point. When those beliefs impact, are forced upon, or negatively affect the rights of others, expect felt offense. And right there is the problem for religion.

I lived in a Muslim country for more than a year. Five times each day the call to prayer would echo from a too-nearby minaret loudspeaker, after a few snaps, crackles, and pops. I was annoyed, but I was not an offended infidel.

Doctors cost money, prayer is free. Prayed for children denied medical attention sometimes die. And its legal. I am supposed to be quiet to respect the prayer time of those who pray publicly, yet many believe that same prayed to god will condemn me to hell. I am not offended, yet they think I should be. They would be.

I wish people did not pray and did not believe in any god because it would be better for them and the world, but many pray to their god asking that he make me come to believe as they do. If I say prayer is useless, they are offended by my private opinion. If they offer to pray for me and I suggest they read a poem instead, they’re offended. But I am not.

If I suggest they not block the emergency exit, they say I am persecuting religious freedom. I must wait to drink my beer and eat my pizza while they pray. But I am not offended. If I watch and wait, they are offended that I do not pray. Fuck ‘em, but I’m unoffended. If they want to hold my hand as they pray, but at no other time, I am not offended. But they take offense if I decline.

I am offended by the religious beliefs of many. The privileged status of the religious combined with the hypocrisy of falsely claimed persecution is mindboggling. When Bush #1 said I was not an American citizen because I do not believe in god, I was offended. When Oprah W. said that a self-proclaimed atheist O.W. was interviewing could not be atheist, I was offended. When Falwell said freedom of religion does not also mean freedom from religion, I was offended. When Cruz said the Bible trumps the U.S. Constitution, I was offended.

When basic constitutional or human rights are denied Americans because of the religious beliefs of other Americans, I am offended. When people of religion are favored for no other reason over people who practice a different religion or none, I feel offended and ashamed by the foolishness of such favor. But I am not offended by prayer. I just think it stupid. I hope that does not offend you.

If you are, check out this offended person, religion on religion. I was not offended.

Bill

When was the last time you prayed?

About a year ago a midwestern friend asked people to pray for rain. I thought, if god exists he should make it rain there. It did! In fact, I think they’re having problems with floods now. Apparently, sometimes folks need to tell him when to stop. I also tend to pray when I’m upset. I’ve invoked deities with things like god damn it (or dad gum it), Jesus Christ (or the family version of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), Oh, God!, good god (or good grief), god help you, god only knows, bless her (or his) heart, and so on.

My last in earnest prayer was reciting part of Mark 9:24, I believe, help my unbelief, which is an alleged quote said by a father during a scene in which Jesus performed an exorcism on the man’s son. That prayer was eight or nine years ago as I was dealing with doubts about religion and god.

Roughly five years later I openly embraced my own atheism. My only prayers since might be called sarcastic blasphemy by some. I do not seriously pray. I would not pray if I ever came to believe in some god. I do not say amen after someone else prays, but I do (for now) sit or stand quietly while they pray or say some form of grace or meal blessing. I’m not sure how much longer I will cooperate with the holding of hands since I see that as me participating in the act of prayer.

What about people who believe in gods, especially the Abrahamic one, and never pray? Are they theists, deists, or practical atheists, as the Catholic church claims?

I have always thought that what people do matters most. I have never bought into the once saved, always saved; or what people believe matters more than what they do. In my mind, it fits well into what we do matters more than what we say.

I can’t recall ever being told that it is a sin to not ever pray. Is it wrong to never physically and verbally acknowledge a god, even if you do believe in one or more?

I no longer pray because I am mostly convinced (97.7%, if you need a degree) that no gods exist, and if they did, prayer would still be nonsense. When I prayed it was because it was a big part of the religion I practiced, not because I thought it was working. I prayed for dead people to be in heaven and I prayed for sick and dying people to recover. The sick got well, the dying died anyway.

Of the 80 or 90 percent of people who claim to believe in some sort of deity or woo-woo, how many never pray, never go to church, never practice a religion, and never dance naked around the fire during a full, or new moon?

Bill