The testimonial of an atheist geek...

(Via Rocky Oliver)

I have been an "out of the closet", publicly avowed atheist for many years. But I didn't start that way. Being Southern I was raised, as most people are down here, as an evangelical Christian - my particular flavor was Southern Baptist. I even attended a Christian school for 2.5 years (middle of 5th grade through 7th grade). One of the important tenets of Southern Baptists, and Christians in general, is the concept of a "testimonial" - an explanation of your faith and how you came to be a Christian. You are encouraged to share your testimonial as a part of "witnessing" to others in order to tell them about Jesus and (hopefully) "save" them.

I began to think about this, and realized that everyone - all of us - have a "testimonial". We all have a story of how we have come to believe the way we do. Some of us are still on the journey, and our testimonial isn't complete yet; while others amongst us are strong in our beliefs and convictions and, with the exception of some minor revisions along the way, our testimonials are pretty much complete.

Now I don't know about you, but I love to hear the testimonials of others - how, and more importantly why, people believe the way they do. I find these stories fascinating, and I have also found that often our stories are more alike than dissimilar, and the most fascinating part is how we can have common stories that wind up in such different places.

This blog has been a place of open, civil discourse even about the most controversial of topics - and this is something I have come to love. I thought it would be an interesting topic to provide a place for others to share their testimonials - their stories of the journeys to their current state of belief - without the fear of persecution. I would love to read your stories, and I think others would be interested as well. The only rules are that the discourse must remain civil, and while I encourage the asking of questions I will shut down any personal attacks immediately (I don't think it will happen, but I want to state that up front just in case). So, let me begin, and then you can share.

As I stated earlier I was raised as a Christian, a Southern Baptist. My mom is actually pretty accepting of other beliefs, but I was more influenced early on by the family of my step mom. She's the one that paid for me and my step sisters (at the time) to attend Forrest Hills Christian Academy. At that time I really "got into" being a part of this school and church. I manned a "prayer line" at times, I attended mission trips, I went to visitation, prayer service, and Sunday services. I was a model young Southern Baptist.

But during this time I began to have a nagging questioning voice in the back of my head. The more I got into my activities the more I began to question why we did what we did. I kept suppressing this inner doubt, and talked to ministers about it, but I still had doubts.

In 8th grade I began a search on my own for my own answers. I spent hours in the library (remember, this was in the 1970s, the internet really wasn't available as a tool back then) researching the history of Christianity, and reading the beliefs and histories of other religions. The more I read, the more enlightened I became. Then when I was 15 I decided to give religion and faith one more chance. My friends and I would go each weekend to a different church/temple/synagogue to explore the rituals and services of others, experience first-hand the people in the church, and try to discover, first-hand, which place - if any - felt "right".

I continued my reading and studying, and my discussions with my friends, and around 16 I finally realized the truth - I am an atheist. I was still enthralled with the histories of religions, but I realized that I was more interested in those histories - the "why" people came to their beliefs - than I was in the religion itself as a path to enlightenment. The moment I finally admitted to myself that I was an atheist I felt that this was the "right" answer for me - I felt I was being honest with myself, and that this was who I was.

Some of my friends became more, shall we say, "aggressive" in their atheism - the lashed out at other faiths, specifically Christianity, and I felt that wasn't right either. I told them that just because we don't believe doesn't mean that others shouldn't believe - and that everyone had to find their own answers to what makes sense for them, and what makes them feel complete. I must admit though that I did feel some animosity towards some specific churches - there was one called Chapel Hill Harvester that was very aggressive in their recruitment of teens at my school, and they (I believe) brainwashed the teens into blindly following them in lockstep. They convinced a couple of my friends into burning their rock-n-roll records and Dungeons & Dragons books (one of my friends finally realized this was silly, and is now an atheist as well), and I felt that this place was a harmful place that taught hatred and not thinking for yourself over an exploration of faith. Incidentally the leaders of this church have been brought up on charges for various things over the years (Bishop Earl Paulk and his brother, to name a couple).

So, I spent my late teen and early adulthood as an atheist. I continued to read up on religious history, mainly Christianity, but I didn't attend any services or anything like that. Years later after I was married and had kids my wife and I realized that we needed to find someplace for us to attend. Why? Because we're still in the Deep South, and down here the second question you're asked is "what church do you attend?" after "What's your name?" Those who answer "I don't attend church" are often subjected to witnessing, aggressive questioning, etc. During our search for a church we could attend without feeling like hypocrites we found Unitarian Universalism. UU is a place where we can be whom we are, without feeling like hypocrites. UU is a place where our kids can learn about other religions objectively, and can have a sense of community as well.

So now I am a Unitarian Universalist, and an atheist. I even taught Sunday school as an open atheist, because that's acceptable as a UU. I am comfortable with who I am, and I feel that we are teaching our kids to respect other religions, to explore and learn on their own, and to find answers for themselves - and that their answers may be different than mine, and that's ok too. My kids have a healthy respect for other religions, and they understand what most of the other religions believe - so when they are exposed to it in school or with friends, it isn't "new" to them.

I also defend my Christian friends, quite aggressively, against others who attack them. Why? Because as a UU and a human being I believe that we all have the inherent right to explore our own path, find out own answers, and be able to believe as is right for us without fear of being attacked. And to this day the only time I have a problem with anyone is when they try to force their beliefs upon me and my family - and luckily the Christians I know agree with me that this is NOT the right way to do things.

And before you ask, yes I associate with many Christians (almost impossible not to in the US, ya know?) - and they all know I am an atheist. What I find is that all of the Christians I count as close friends have one thing in common - they hold a deep respect for the beliefs of others, and they all "live their faith" - they are all living testimonials to their faith, and their lives are good examples of what their beliefs are - they live their beliefs. Devin "Spanky" Olson is an example of this that you may know. Also one of my closest friends that I hang with locally is a devout Christian who listens only to Christian radio, is very involved in his church, and who really does live his faith. We have great discussions, and we have learned a lot from each other - and I believe he has a newfound respect for me as an atheist because I have shown him that you can be a "good", "just", and "moral" person without having a belief in a deity. I believe we are each better people because of our personal friendship, and the friendship of our families.

No comments: