Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Never Quite Grasping God - Part 1

I've been putting some thoughts down over the last couple of years. It is now a 5 page document and a bit too long to post here all at once so I'm going to break it up into segments. Part 1 is basically a personal history of how I reached the current point in my (anti-) religious philosophy.

Never Quite Grasping God

Julia Sweeney has a one-woman show called Letting Go of God in which she describes an anguishing journey from devout Catholic to complete atheist. My own personal journey was not like that. I didn’t have to “let go” as I never quite had a solid grip to begin with. Or maybe I should say that God, in the form of Christian religion, never quite had a good grip on me. There never was a letting go nor any sort of sudden epiphany, just a gradual realization that I didn’t believe and never really had.
My introduction to religion came at about age 4 or 5 when a neighbor invited me to go to Sunday School with their child. Until that time I had not been indoctrinated with any religion. The time frame was the early 1950s so I may have had some cultural awareness of God, Jesus and churches but it was nothing imparted by my parents who never showed any religiosity at home. I began going with the neighbors (whom I’ve completely forgotten) and learning all of the standard children’s biblical stories: Adam & Eve, Jonah & the Whale, Moses in the Bullrushes, Moses & the Ten Commandments, Noah, etc. Like any child, I believed these stories just as I believed the Santa Claus and Easter Bunny stories. But in hindsight I can’t really call that belief. Not reasoned belief anyway, just childish acceptance of what I was taught by adults.
Soon my parents began going to church also and eventually became very active in church affairs. I’m not sure which brand of church those early neighbors took me to but our family began attending Presbyterian churches. My father was in the military and we moved several times, picking a new Presbyterian church at each location. Despite my parents’ involvement in church activities, there were still no religious observances at home. We didn’t read the Bible, didn’t say grace or any other prayers, didn’t have crosses or pictures of Jesus, none of the things that might have made me think my parents were serious about God. We did however attend Sunday services religiously. When I was younger, it was strictly Sunday School for me but as I got older I started attending the regular worship services. When I became a teenager, there were weekly youth group meetings and in the summer there was church camp. Much of my life revolved around the youth group activities and the other teens in my church.
That’s a bit of the background. I was steeped in religious attendance, church activities, and biblical knowledge. I mention the latter with a bit of irony and sarcasm. As I have discovered, the church does not really teach you much about the Bible. They pick and choose specific passages and quietly ignore the less savory ones. That, I think, may have been one of the triggers in my awakening.
Somewhere along the way as I got older I began to realize that I didn’t really believe that there was an invisible being who watched and guided everything. At the time, I kind of wondered if there was something wrong with me for not believing but I couldn’t convince myself to believe. I still went to church services on Sunday because my parents and society more or less insisted on it and I still attended youth fellowship meetings because my friends did. More importantly, my girlfriend went to the meetings and it was an extra chance to be with her and maybe make out a little bit when I gave her a ride home. Church was good for one thing, but the God part had become meaningless to me. I can’t put a date to it but it was probably around age 16 when I came to that realization about my not really believing. That was a long time ago (44 years ago as I write this) and I can only make some conjectures about my real thinking processes at the time but I remember a few things. One that comes to mind is sitting in church during a prayer and looking around at all of the adults with their heads bowed and wondering if they really believed or if they were just going through the motions like me. I never did figure that out. In looking back I can only remember a general unease about believing in God. I now have some specific reasons and arguments but if any of those played a part in my original decision, it was pretty much subconscious.
By age 18 I had broken up with the girlfriend from church and I was in junior college. My parents no longer insisted that I go to church with them and since I didn’t see any reason to go, I drifted away. Nowhere was there any anguish, anger, or any other emotion except maybe a sense of relief. I didn’t have to pretend anymore. Still, I didn’t exactly advertise myself as an atheist. By now the year was 1967 and I was living in Northwest Florida. We were still in the middle of the Cold War and to say that you were an atheist was tantamount to claiming to be a Rooski-loving, pinko commie. The McCarthy era was over but many of the sentiments still prevailed. The only atheist I had ever heard of was Madalyn Murray O’Hair and she didn’t have a very good reputation. I was unaware of people like Bertrand Russell and Ambrose Bierce or even the anti-religion side of Samuel Clemens. At the time it didn’t mean anything to me to find other non-believers or find supportive literature. I was quite happy with my own decision and with keeping it to myself.
I’m still happy with the decision and over the years I have discovered rational reasons that support the decision.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A religious country

Bing, bing, bing... whooooosh... Wow! I've just returned from a black hole. A place whose gravity sucked me in. A place called Pharyngula. I know I haven't escaped completely. I will probably yo-yo back and forth until I'm either sucked in completely or reach some point of equilibrium. PZ Myers finds some of the best stuff to post about and I really enjoy his writing style but some of the items can generate hundreds, and even thousands, of responses from the Pharyngulite Horde. Reading it all can take hours out of your day. The only sour note is from some of the regulars there who are so liberal that they've forgotten about liberty. It's a hot-bed of libertarian bashing which of course puts me off a bit. What I have noticed is that those individuals who are the most strident of the libertarian bashers fall victim to one of the logical fallacies that they usually accuse religious fundamentalists and creationists of. That being the "strawman". They conjure up really awful ideas out of thin air and then claim that's what libertarianism is about and easily go about bashing it. Well sure, if the things they claimed were true about libertarianism then it would deserve bashing. But they seem to have gotten it all wrong. So I'm not sure if they are really anti-liberty or if they just have this mistaken notion about libertarian ideals. Ah well, I'm not into proselytizing. I hate it when people do it to me so I try to avoid doing it to others (my own version of the Golden Rule). Since I read Pharyngula for the science and the anti-religion I just sort of ignore the politics.

Well, that wasn't what I started to talk about anyway. Here in the U.S.A. the Christian majority generally like to claim that this is a Christian country. Even those of us who are non-religious have to admit, like it or not, that there is a huge Christian influence in our government and that a majority of our neighbors are Christian affiliated. But, I am pleased to note that we are not as bad as some other places. What brought this on was an e-mail I received from my brother-in-law. He works in Israel and sent some photographs of the streets and shopping areas on yesterday's Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The streets and highways were empty and only one or two pedestrians could be seen down long avenues of closed shops. He said that "if anyone drives a car people throw rocks at it" and that the only vehicles he saw were ambulances. Now that's a country that takes its religious holidays seriously. As much as I am concerned about the overt religiosity in our country, at least it's not THAT bad. My neighbors may avoid me, knowing that I'm one of those awful atheists, but at least they don't pelt my car with rocks if I drive on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday or something.

Enough for today. Let's see if I can get in a few more posts before getting sucked back into Pharyngulaaaaaaaaa...........