This post may not seem, at first, to be immediately related to my history as an atheist, but please bear with me.
As I’ve mentioned, I was always the consummate geek, favoring an interest in intellectual pursuits over the purely physical, even from a very young age. I enjoyed computers and games, and was utterly enthralled by my first sight of the Apple ][e home computer. My sister and I received an Atari 2600 one year for Christmas, and a few years later, shortly after my parents’ divorce (still in 1984), I actually got a Coleco ADAM. This was, sadly, on the tail end of the system’s life span, but it was still a neat little system, and it allowed me to indulge my programming impulse, as well as dabble in the newest “thing,” which was…
Yes, I’ve been online in some form or fashion longer than many net-goers have even been alive. Yes, I realize that I’m an old fogey. Another time, I will speak of my role in the video game industry… but that is a tale for another day.
In the years following my parents’ divorce, I was shuffled back and forth between them, and to be honest, it’s very difficult to remember which one I was living with at any specific time. It’s easier to recall a specific dwelling. CompuServe was my first exposure to the concept of a world in the computer, yet outside of my residence. I played an interesting space game, focused on resource gathering, planet colonization/conquering and the like, but I can’t recall the name. There was also Island of Kesmai, which was the very first computer role-playing game I ever played… at a mind-boggling 300 baud!
The problem with CompuServe was that it had a per-hour charge. When my father received a $360 bill, he was less than thrilled. He was, in those days, pretty easy-going when it came to us kids… but this was another story entirely.
Aside from leading me to what would later become the internet in its most basic form in the early 90s, this experience also introduced me to another concept that was, hitherto, entirely novel to me: addiction.
As it turned out, the $360 bill wasn’t the end of things. I had a very difficult time just stopping or regimenting my time spent with the games. It was, I imagine, very much like what some World of Warcraft players deal with. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about it, and feeling a tightness in the chest (what I now know to be typical of anxiety) in anticipation of getting home to get back online.
The whole ordeal got pretty nasty, but I was, all in all, a good kid. I didn’t get into trouble. I didn’t steal, cheat on tests, bully other kids, any of that kind of thing. Maybe that bought me some leniency. It probably should not have, but what’s done is done. I got cut off from modem access… which was ironic, since I was the only one who actually understood how the modem actually worked. Bear in mind, this is literally fifteen years before the internet became commonplace.
In looking back at those early days of fixation and psychological addiction, I have to wonder if there is any commonality with the mindstate of the true believer, or at least, with the fundamentalist or Evangelical believer. I only felt fulfilled and happy when engaged with this one specific activity. It consumed my thoughts when I was awake, and I’m sure that I must have had some pretty silly dreams. The moment when I could slip back from the drudgery of typical life into this activity was pretty close to ecstasy, like some great weight had been lifted from my chest. I always felt like life had suddenly stopped feeling so threatening.
If I have any theist (or more lucid ex-theist) readers, perhaps they can share their thoughts on this matter. I imagine that there must be some studies done, somewhere. MRI scans of the devout when listening to Bible passages versus normal, baseline readings, that sort of thing. I would be very interested to see which sections of the brain light up when an atheist like myself hears them, as well as when a theist hears them.
If that sensation of release from stress is what theists experience when engaging in their ceremonies, I can see why they are so reluctant to give up their beliefs. A natural endorphine rush is pleasurable, any way you slice it. For my part, however, I simply cannot bring myself to engage in such activities, solely for the sake of giving myself a natural high. They may believe; I do not. No amount of coercion or cajoling could ever force me to do so, and any profession of belief would simply be hypocrisy on my part.
I suppose, if there were some form of higher power, that I’d like to imagine that it would appreciate honest belief or disbelief over a Pascal’s Wager approach. To thine own self be true, or something like that.
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.