Of initiation and indoctrination.
Alself me to introlow my body.
My name is Jeff. I am a staunch antitheist, of German Jewish descent on my father’s side, and Scots-Irish on my mother’s. What I write here will often be offensive to those of spiritual bent. Allow me to be absolutely forthright about this: I will not offer appeasement, nor will I compromise my own beliefs or position for the sake of others’ feelings. If you are looking for a “moderate” atheist, one who favors coexistence and compromise, then you are at the wrong site entirely.
I am, at the time of this writing, a 38-year-old man. I have devoted a great deal of my life to theological study in some form of another, and even more toward the sciences. I will share with you, at this time, my own story of how I came to become an atheist (a word I do not capitalize, save for when it is at the beginning of a sentence).
I was born in a relatively small city in South Carolina, in the United States. Being born to an ethnically Jewish father (though he nominally converted upon marrying my mother), the fate of my genitalia was never in doubt. Yes, like so many before me, I was to be scarred and my sex life diminished by religion, well before I even understood the concept of guilt.
Regardless, my childhood was mostly “normal.” Nuclear family, older sister (by almost exactly three years… more on her later), nice Southern Baptist upbringing. I was never a particularly sociable child. Although I could get along with others well enough, I was generally content to keep my own company. In those early years, we went to church weekly, replete with fancy Sunday clothes. I attended Sunday school and learned all the standard children’s hymns. Jesus loves me, this I know, etc.
The problem was, none of it really sat right with me. I was the kid who was suspicious that Santa’s handwriting looked awfully similar to my mother’s. I was far more interested in learning about science and reading than anything else that was on offer. When I saw a map of the world, my immediate impression was that South America should fit right into Africa, like a jigsaw puzzle piece. At the age of nine, I heard about continental drift, and that some people thought that the continents used to all be connected. I felt vindicated, though I hadn’t the vocabulary to express it at the time. It didn’t take long to find out that, according to our church, this simply did not happen. The continents had always been right where they are now. Since I was leaning more toward science anyway, I pretty much stopped paying attention to what the pastor said. The World Book Encyclopedia made much more sense to me.
I was fascinated with the Apollo moon missions. I wanted to know what was out there. I was fascinated by dinosaurs and fossils. Not just the usual little boy fascination, but how one era had led to another, what had happened to them, etc. It always seemed to me like there was so incredibly much out there that I could learn, but no one seemed interested in teaching me.
I was, even at this age, probably an atheist… but it was more a matter of simple discarding of Baptist teachings than anything else. My mother was, however, always insistent on the weekly ritual, so I went along. With each passing week, it chafed more and more. Expressing any desire not to go meant a certain lecture, and it was easier to just deal with the hour of tedium. I gradually came to the realization that, plain and simple, I did not believe in any of it. It sounded like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy all over again.
There were plenty of domestic issues going on with my parents (very much of the White People Problem variety), but they resulted in a divorce when I was ten… way back in 1984. This caused me to seek further comfort in my own company, more than anything else. My older sister was driven batty from being stuck in the middle of the messy divorce, while I discovered that I was safest just staying down in the trenches.
As one might expect, my mother turned to her faith in an attempt to find strength in this trying time in her life. Much of this particular period of time is unclear on details, but I do recall when I actually told my mother of my disbelief (I didn’t know the word, “atheism”).
I was all of about thirteen, I guess. I was over at my father’s, on the phone with her. She hung up on me, and a few moments later, the phone rang. Rather than being my mother, it was her boyfriend at the time. He decided to lecture me because my mother was going on about how she was going to kill herself and repeating, “Where did I go wrong?” I got accused of deliberately trying to upset her, and I told her boyfriend that if all he had to say was abuse, then take it elsewhere, and I’d call my mother later when she’d calmed down.
Fast forward a few weeks. I returned to my mother’s place, since I’d been living there. I tried to bring up the topic of religion, but she’d never let me discuss it. She tried to pretend it was never said, and determined a few weeks later that I was going shopping for some new church clothes. I reasserted that I didn’t believe in God. She glared at me and snapped, “You’ll learn.”
In that instant, I saw naked horror and hatred. I’ve never seen anything like it from anyone, anywhere… and I don’t know if it’s solely because I refused to give in to what she wanted, because what I was saying was really that alien to her, or because of her disgust that something so “vile” should be said by the fruit of her own loins, so to speak. In that moment, I honestly didn’t think she loved me. By the same token, however, it also taught me one of the most important lessons I would ever learn: when in the grips of religious fervor, anyone can be an enemy.
I hadn’t set out to upset her. I just wanted her to accept that I didn’t agree with her, and let that be that. As many of us know, however, that can never simply “be that.”
Such was the beginning of my life as an atheist in America.