there and back again

(Via George Evans)

I was raised in the middle part of the last century in a small town in remote rural Missouri. I wanted to be part of the community, so I joined the church when I was eight or nine. (We had attended services faithfully for my whole life). As I grew older, things didn't add up, though. How come there were all these different brands of faith, all claiming to be the one true faith? How come things were such a piece of shit at home? I grew outspokenly skeptical, and soon I was labeled as the village atheist; as a teenager squadrons of churchgoers would appear at my door to convert me whenever a roving evangelist hit town. It seemed funny at the time.

About the time I finished high school, though, my life went through a period of crisis. My girl dumped me, I was into a lot of sixties stuff, and the Jesus freaks were in town. The Jesus freaks included some people who I had thought of as cool, and joining them seemed like a way to shut down mentally and let someone else do my thinking for a while. So I did. Not wanting to do anything for halfhearted or insincere motives, I brought myself to be the most sincere, committed, heartfelt, Jesus freak that I could be. I moved into a commune, started prayer groups (that, sadly, continue to this day) and evangelized on the streets, converting many of my friends. Years went by, and my fervor (i.e., fanaticism) only increased. Then, my family physician persuaded me to go to medical school. He had known me as a bright young man, and he thought I would make a good physician.

At his suggestion, I went back to college to take an undergraduate degree, but soon I found things that were deeply disturbing to my faith. The first of these was when I took zoology, and we dissected the fetal pig. During the examination of the surface anatomy, I was stunned to see that our (female) fetal pig had a clitoris! I knew that the only function of the clitoris was to give sexual pleasure- but only humans needed a clitoris, since we were the only animals who had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so only humans had free will. Animals had sex out of instinct, not by choice; yet the undeniable presence of the porcine clitoris suggested that animals acted from motives like our own.

As I continued my studies I encountered over and over evidence that challenged what I had been taught about my faith. In physical chemistry and cell physiology I learned that living things weren't anything but bags of chemicals that obeyed the same laws as non-living systems. Comparative anatomy showed how much more likely it was that widely different creatures had evolved from common creatures over time, since they were so similar (and would work so much better with a few design changes; e.g., the human sinus system). Studies of the laws of thermodynamics showed that it was inevitable that complex systems would arise from simple systems, just as eddies flow upstream in a river's overall downstream movement, entropy increasing in the total system. I don't remember any sudden moment when I realized that I had been transformed from a religious zealot into an atheist, but gradually my faith evaporated. What remained has been a source of confidence and peace. Life has only the meaning we give to it. There is no permanence. We are grass. I've found this enormously liberating, but also somewhat isolating, since there are so few that share this outlook.

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