From Altar boy to Atheist

(Via Vince, Part I)

Before I begin, a quick disclaimer. No, my religious world views were not shaped by Father Friendly Fingers touching me in my naughty spot, nor was I the victim of insufferable corporal punishment in Catholic school. The title of this post reflects that I was indeed an actual altar boy. Believe it or not, I actually had quite a positive experience in parochial school and I credit them with planting the seeds of my skeptical nature and logical reasoning abilities.

Now onto the story of my fall from grace.

I suppose to some extent I have always had serious misgivings about god. I was born into a catholic family and attended catholic school, but whenever I thought about god, it didn't make sense from the beginning. I was taught that god is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving entity. He created the heavens and earth and all its life just for us and gave us dominion over it all. Wow, so far so good right? Here is where it gets a little weird. This wonderful god has only one caveat for us to heed and then we will enjoy all the wonderful benefits of heaven for all eternity. We have to praise him .

I always thought it awfully silly that this omnipotent, omniscient god would: A) give a flying shit what we do, B) punish us for eternity for not giving him praise, and C) have some sort of insecure need to receive our undying praise in the first place. In my freshman year of college I wrote an essay about my views on god and characterized him as reminding me of Stuart Smalley, a character with serious self-esteem issues from Saturday Night Live. I wrote that I could picture him in heaven looking at himself in an ethereal mirror and giving himself daily affirmations, "I'm benevolent enough, I'm omniscient enough, and doggone it those sheep-like bipeds down there really like me!"

I vividly remember being in 7th grade religion class when one of my classmates raised the question about other religions that believe in god but not in being catholic. I would be lying if I told you I could remember her exact response, but to paraphrase : "We believe that our doctrine is correct and not believing in this in its entirety is to deny god and the truth". My teacher's answer started a chain reaction of thoughts in my head. Denying god seems like a pretty big one up there on the list of sins. Would all non-catholics go to hell? Dosen't seem right that you could be a devout Jew, Muslim, or Protestant, live a pure and chaste life, and not make into heaven on a 'technicality'.Shouldn't somebody tell those other religions they are wrong and save their souls? These thoughts rattled around but were soon overpowered by other thoughts that frequently pervade the mind of 13 year old boys. The groundwork for my atheism however, was laid.

During 8th grade, religion was taught by Sister Geraldine. She was a particularly gregarious and thought provoking teacher. The latter trait she exhibited too well it seems in my case. Suddenly I found myself, almost on a daily basis, asking the "hard" questions during religion class. Looking back it seems I was destined to be a White House staff reporter. Many of my questions had to do with biblical stories and the seemingly inconsistencies a big one was reconciling the whole thou shalt not kill thing with say,... anything in the old testament. Try as she might to satisfy my inquisitiveness (read: pain in the ass-edness) She never quite answered my questions. She tried the old "Many of the stories are symbolic and should not be scrutinized literally" defense. I wasn't buying it. This raised more questions than it answered. If not all the stories in the bible are true then who is to say any of it is an actual account of anything? Who gets to decide which bits are what we should believe in and which are just allegorical? On what authority? If we are picking and choosing then how could this be the word of god?

My Doubting Thomas routine continued throughout the year and culminated (not surprisingly- looking back) on my being sent to meet with the monsignor of our parish-one rather physically imposing Father Craven. I supposed I deserved it, I mean I was rather disruptive in her class with my litany of questions she really couldn't answer. In addition to this I had a particularly bad habit of being "talkative" during class and the combination landed me in the most undesirable position of having to "go see the monsignor". I was rather intimidated by his large presence. As I recall he was about 6'6 280lbs (I'm sure in reality he was much smaller but I was in trouble and as everyone knows, disciplinarians always grow in proportion to the trouble you are in) His size, combined with his booming baritone voice, had me fearing for not only my eternal soul, but my hide as well.

Thankfully, after reprimanding me for constantly interrupting Sister Gerri's class, he relaxed his stern demeanor and became rather friendly and easygoing in an avuncular sort of way. I started to tell him of some of my difficulties understanding things in religion class and he listened patiently. He initially offered some of the same explanations that my teacher had but I wasn't going to be assuaged that easily; since I no longer feared for my life, I was free to be the inquisitive pain in the ass again. He tried to answer some of my questions about the veracity of some of the bibles stories I wondered about. He did most of the talking (occupational hazard I guess) but each point he made just led to more questions on my part. As I recall I was only in his office in the rectory for about an hour, but the good father taught me a lot. Not so much about religion, but the wonderful rhetorical tool of the Circular Argument. Or in logical reasoning it is known as the fallacy of petitio principii, or more commonly, begging the question. Here is how it basically went:

Me: "How do we know anything in the bible is true?"

Msgr: "You have to have faith my son."

Me: "Why should we have faith, Father?"

Msgr: "Because the bible tells us so."

Oh, well, since you put it that way, it is as clear as mud! We went around and around in this Abbot and Costello manner for a bit until finally he advised me to go home and pray and things would become clearer as I got a little older. To this day I am not exactly sure what I was supposed to be praying for- Faith? seems like the old circular bit again!

I left there feeling confused and uneasy. Had I just beaten a professional member of the clergy in a religious debate? Surely that couldn't have happened. I must have missed something; maybe I am just not smart enough. I mean so many, many people for thousands of years have believed in god I can't be smarter than all of them.* God has to exist. I am definitely going to hell! Just great.

The good father was right about one thing; it all became much clearer as I got older.

*For the record, I don't think that people who believe in god are all morons. I do think however, that religion incubates, in some people, a particular kind of stupidity of the most dangerous type.

(Via Vince, Part II)
So there I was, 14 years old and rapidly arriving at the conclusion that religion was pure bunk. How did I come to this conclusion? At the very core of my reasoning there were a few facts:

  1. Just about every group of people that ever lived had their own version of religion. Each had its own god, gods, or goddesses. There were hundreds of religions out there and they all had different beliefs.
  2. Each one of these religions believed that it was the correct and true view to have- most preached dire consequences for not believing. This never sat well with me. What about all those people who live isolated in deserts or jungles that, through no fault of their own, never were exposed to the "right religion". It didn't seem fair.
  3. I was raised in, and indoctrinated into, the catholic faith; I was told that this is the one true path to salvation. Furthermore not adhering to the prescribed rules would end me up in a place called hell.
I suppose I should have felt pretty fortunate that, through sheer dumb luck, I was going to be among the few chosen for salvation. (provided I lived by the rules, that is) But I didn't feel so lucky. I had a pretty good grasp of math, even then, and understood basic probability fairly well. Chances were, that the religion I was taught, and followed up to this point, would be turn out to be WRONG! Statistically speaking, most people were going to go to hell for believing the "wrong religion"; and god- at any one point, only had a small fraction of the people following his 'true' laid out path. This was a big red flag for me.

The fact that each religion can point to another and dismiss it so quickly as wrong but still hold onto their particular beliefs is a bit of a non sequitur to me. Each religion explains the divergence between its beliefs and the beliefs of other religions as either: the other guy was primitive, got it wrong, made it up, or is just plain crazy. Ask any Christian, for instance about the existence of Ra, the Egyptian sun god, and they will quickly dismiss it as the superstitious invention of an ignorant populous.(I would wholeheartedly agree) What I found hypocritical was I was taught that Hercules, Apollo, Mars, and Zeus et al. were just mythological "false gods" and rather silly, primitive ones at that. It is nonsense to believe that a god sat in the heavens and hurled lightning bolts to mortals he was displeased with, or that his son was a mutated winged horse. But isn't it also nonsense to believe any of the following:

  • We are all born with the burden of original sin because a talking snake talked a woman into eating a piece of fruit from a magical tree.
  • A man invoked god and an entire sea parted and allowed him and his people to simply walk across the ocean floor and then allowed the waters to destroy their pursuers.
  • The son of god was born to a virgin, was executed, rose from the dead, talked to some people while dead, ascended into heaven, and because of this we can now all enjoy an eternity of bliss in an invisible paradise.
  • An angel appeared to an Arab merchant and through a series of conversations dictated the Koran upon which Islam is based.
  • An angel appeared to a convicted criminal and instructed him to dig up a set of magical artifacts in New York including golden plates that had Egyptian inscribed on it. He then used these magical artifacts to translate the plates and produced the Book of Mormon.
Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black! If each religion is considered false by most every other, then it seems to follow that all of them are false; to say nothing of the incredible claims that lay at the heart of their faiths. Why are there are so many religions then if none are true? The answer is pretty obvious.

(Via Vince, Part III)
So why are there so many religions if they are all wrong?

Every culture known to man, at one point or another, invents (or steals from another culture and modifies) its own mythology/religion for several reasons. Not least among these is to 'explain' the things that they did not know. When those needs went away, as in the case of gaining scientific knowledge that explain natural phenomena, or a more fashionable belief came along, that religion died out. Everyone has heard of Zeus, Odin, Jupiter etc., but I'm sure there are hundreds that you haven't heard of precisely because they became obsolete. It is not hard to see that these gods and religions were invented by man. It isn't such a huge leap in logic to see that ALL religions were thusly invented.

This was the beginning of my "descent into atheism". Did I go on a killing spree or start robbing banks? No. I still have the same basic values I did before. Am I unhappy, hopeless, or afraid now since I can't rely on my invisible god to watch over me, grant me wishes, or reunite me with all my lost loved ones in heaven? No, I am a pretty happy guy. What then do I think will happen when I die? I have no proof about what happens when we die (neither does anyone else) but I have no good reason to think anything will happen. I suppose I will just cease to be. This is not a bad thing. It kinda makes you try to 'get it right the first time' and focuses your energy into living life. Plus, I have the added bonus of not wasting any of my time constantly praising or worshiping anything. It is actually quite liberating when you look at it that way.

There are tons of other interesting topics to discuss such as morality, whether religion is a positive or negative thing today, politics and religion, science and religion, etc. etc. but I just wanted to write this as an introduction of how I began to arrive at my views. Hopefully some of you will have comments and opinions to share or debate...stay tuned.

The In-Law Chapter

(Via Emily)

When I first met the man that would later be my husband, I sat him down and told him that if he really wanted to be with me then he needed to understand something. I am an atheist. I have thought long and hard about this and this is not something that I can change about myself. I have brown hair and hazel eyes. I was born in New Mexico. I am an atheist.

I suppose that since I was so frank with him, he thought that he could be equally frank with his family about who I am. I can see that from his perspective, that would seem like the right thing to do.

Ah, but he was wrong.

You see, people don’t like atheists. We are strange and perhaps frightening to them. I got kicked out of an apartment I was living in once because I am an atheist. I don’t really know why people don’t like us. We don’t live our lives any differently than anyone else. We get up and eat frosted mini-wheat’s and feed the dog, just like the neighbors. But they do.

It all started when I met my future brother-in-law for the fist time. This guy clearly did not like me. I was less of a conversation than an interrogation. He actually asked me what kind of gas mileage my beater Subaru gets. It all finished up with a challenge about why I do not believe in god. He clearly saw me coming. I thought I politely ended to conversation enough. We were at a family dinner, there were children present and I told him that we should end the discussion.

Ah, but I was wrong.

Flash forward about 6 months. My future brother-in-law met someone that he believed was better suited for his baby brother. Her major advantage over me was that she is Christian and goes to bible study regularly.

Ah, but big brother was wrong.

Baby brother did not take the bait and married me instead. So his family had to accept the fact that he married an atheist. At first it was confusion. My sister-in-law had told everyone that I had disrespected her family at that fist meeting. My father-in-law believed that was “going through a phase.” My mother-in-law didn’t participate in the planning of the wedding. My mother was petrified that the wedding would turn into chaos because I refused to have prayers said. My dad just opened a bottle of wine. Things died down and I thought, maybe we could all get along.

Ah, but I was wrong.

My mother-in-law started sending me e-mails with religious overtones. Pray to Jesus, Jesus pray for the troops, send and angel to a friend, friends of angels, friends of Jesus, Jesus is friends with the troops who are angels. You get the idea.

Years ago an old friend of mine from college “found Jesus” as she puts it. Eventually, she started sending me religious e-mail. I told her to stop because I just was not interested. She responded by saying that she knew I am an atheist and sent those messages because she wanted to save me from hell, and that she was praying for my soul, blah, blah, blah. Well, that was the end of that friendship. So with that story in my mind, I wrote my mother-in-law, explained to her my past experiences with these things and asked her to stop. I didn’t believe that I had been disrespectful. I hoped that I was just being honest. I am an atheist. You don’t serve steak to a vegetarian. You don’t sent prayer chains to an atheist.

Ah, but I was wrong.

I received no response to the letter. Ever. This is what I did receive. At my mother-in-law’s birthday dinner, my brother-in-law put his arm around his mother before dinner and stated that since it was Mom’s birthday that we would need to pray. All the while looking at me.

There was a news program recently that discussed faith. One of the stories was about a teenage atheist in the rural west. She played basketball for her high school team. They all said prayer before the game. She refused. And instead of just standing in the group quietly, she chose to walk away. The video of the game opening shows the team in a tight huddle praying with the young atheist standing far away to the side. In those 15 seconds that my brother-in-law said a prayer and I watched my chile rellenos get cold, I understood what that girl felt like. I understood for the first time why it hurts to be an atheist. It is lonely.

We are the outsiders in this very Christian country. We are the misunderstood. I was at a “family” dinner and it was made very clear to me that I was not “family.” When I first came out as an atheist I was not worried about it so much. My parents are atheists, my brother is an atheist, and I have friends who are atheists. If someone did not get it, I blew them off. I never imagined being in this position. That I would have a family and I would have a “family.” That I would have people who understand me and people who will never understand me.

The Nicest Girl Comes Out Godless

(Via Nicest Girl and Destroyer of Planets)

I was raised Roman Catholic by both of my parents. I suppose they did the best they could in that regard. We went to church fairly regularly (I remember church related stuff only from about age 6 or 7 on) and even attended midnight mass on Christmas and Easter sometimes. I vividly remember many church masses and some of the priests. Our church was called Saint Mary's (eh... there are only so many saints to choose from I guess... and Mary is a popular one) and it was just up the road/within walking distance.

I don't exactly remember the age when I started not believing but I calculate it to be around the age of 9. It had to have been around this time (maybe earlier but I doubt it) because my parents were still married and they did not get divorced until I was about 11 years old. I remember that a lot of my doubt came from mass itself as well as CCD. CCD is a kind of Sunday school that Roman Catholics send their kids to. My mother tried to get us to mass every Sunday at 9:00 AM so, as I said, we did attend church fairly regularly.

My early memories of church include: choir (and wanting to be a part of it), three different priests (including a younger, rude one who came along a little later), excitedly putting money into the basket every week (something I later didn't want any part of and actually remember getting angry about when told we didn't have money for this, that, or the other while we gave away our money to the church every weekend), and the kneeling, standing, kneeling, standing.. over and over (again... something that I started refusing to do. I began to feel that standing up to show respect for a god that I didn't believe in was just as degrading and stupid as kneeling.. but it was harder to not stand up in church than to not kneel).

My early memories of CCD include: hating it, monthly or bimonthly confessionals to the priest, stupid quizzes on certain books in the bible (but I was an over-achiever and often ended up with a gold star on my forehead anyway), videos and harder tests as I got older... oh.. and skipping out on classes to play Nintendo with my best friend, Brooke, who lived next door to the church.

In my opinion, actually, when I think about it... church and CCD were the two things that most likely helped to facilitate my disbelief in the Christian God. Whenever I asked a question in my CCD classes pertaining to, simply, unexplainable subjects, I got those typical bullshit answers. Some of the parents of the other kids in CCD were the teachers (which would explain the typical bullshit answers) so they really had extremely limited knowledge of what they were teaching anyway. The main nun was really mean and nasty and the priests seemed sneaky. They never did anything overtly sneaky.. I just felt that way about them. I hated being forced to have confession with them which was held in a separate room away from everyone else because they didn't have confession booths at the church and I always told them the same stupid things every time. "I hit my brother." "I yelled at my mother." "I didn't listen to my parents." etc.etc. I had it down to a science by the time I was done though I think confession eventually became voluntary (but I could be making that up.. I can't remember). I remember some kids would come out crying after confession and I seem to remember doing it myself as well.. but it was only because I thought that was what you were supposed to do. A little glimpse into how religion has a tendency to brainwash children.

As for CCD itself...ugh... it was so annoying to have to go. The whole thing made me feel uncomfortable and maybe my father (who apparently reads this blog) remembers a time when I was excited to go but I don't (as opposed to church which I do remember being excited to go early on). I remember hating it with a passion. At first we had CCD in the basement of the building next to the church that the priests and nuns lived in. After that we moved to the finished basement of the church itself. At about that point I made friends with a girl named Brooke, from school. We became best buds and ocassionaly got away with skipping out on CCD class. One time I remember Brooke and I came up with this plan where we told the nun and priest that I had my period and since her house was right next door I had to go get pads from her house. It worked. We didn't show up again until the end of the class. Go us! High five to periods! The rest of the time we were in class we would spend a lot of time laughing at the "informational" videos that they showed us (there was one that was some nun talking to a bunch of teenagers about something or other and the camera kept focusing on this one girl who looked like Medusa with a gap in her teeth... we came up with some kind of crazy story while we were watching where the girl would turn into a snake and spit poison.. it was one of those "had to be there" moments because we had a head movement and everything.. everyone watching the movie kept looking at us and totally wanted in on the fun.. but..... nyahnyah!) and intentionally messing up quizzes and whatnot. We couldn't really fail quizzes cuz our parents would have gotten angry but we had a lot of fun coming up with slogans for the ridiculous pictures of Jesus with sheep or whatever.

Anyway, I got on a tangent.. remembering the good ol' days.

Eventually I "came out" to my parents around the age of 13 or 14 or something. My family was not happy about it at all. I didn't want to get confirmed but my mother insisted. After talking to my father and eventually my atheist uncle, I was talked into going through with the confirmation for the sake of my parents (moreso my mother). This was 10th grade so I was 15 at the time. I will say that up until the last minute.. right before the bishop came over to me and asked me the "yes" or "no" question.. I had intended on saying "no" and humiliating my entire family in that church. But I changed my mind. Angrily said "yes" and was finally done with it. I took a picture with the bishop for my mother to look at or whatever (am I smiling in the picture? I should find out...) and.. from that point on... I was no longer required to go to church. I think my mom twisted my arm and made me go to mass with her a couple of times afterwards as a kind of "No! You don't win!" kind of statement but I did win in the end.

My family didn't go nuts over the "atheist thing". I heard the usual "it's just a phase" or "at least she's confirmed so she can get married in a church" and whatever but I was never ostracized or hated by any of them. In fact I got more of a reaming for getting my tongue pierced at 18 than I did for announcing my atheism. But, for me, the whole process seemed to take forever (the getting to confirmation so I didn't have to go to church anymore bit) and was extremely annoying.

I have been godless for over ten years now (hard for me to say an exact age to start at....). Quite proud of it although I won't say that I haven't looked into various religions to see if I haven't just been missing something. I generally dislike the Abrahamic religions. I have a little place in my heart for Buddhism as a philosophy but once you start throwing"heaven" or "gods" or whatever in there.. you lose me. I don't speak of religion with my family (sometimes with my dad, never with my mom, and only when it comes up with non-immediate family members) and it's probably best that way. Religion isn't for me and, in a way, I am glad that I came into my atheism the way that I did. Roman Catholicism totally put me off but ..... "the sweet just ain't as sweet without the bitter, baby."

Does that even fit here? I don't know.