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.

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