I’ve been an atheist for many years now. I’m always curious to learn how other people have changed their minds and lost their belief in god or gods, so possibly my own story might have some resonance with others who have experienced similar things. I find it useful and meaningful to gather my recollections and write them down into a narrative form.
My mother, maternal grandmother, and brother were Lutherans. My father was an atheist but he never discussed it openly. I recall sitting on my bed as a child and listening to my mother trying to explain that I had a “soul” that survived death. I can’t recall if she mentioned Jesus at this juncture. At some point I started attending Lutheran Sunday School. I have mostly warm and fuzzy memories of this, mostly being told of New Testament stories about how Jesus was a super cool guy. I attended various church social functions, and became friends with a boy named Rex, whose parents were friends of my parents. Sometime in high school I was assigned by the pastor to attend to the electronic machinery used to transmit the main Sunday church services via telephone line to a local radio station. This involved turning volume knobs that controlled which microphones were on and off at different times during the service. It was DEADLY boring, but I said I would do it, and I did.
Sometime when I was about a freshman in high school I attended confirmation classes. This was a more advanced sort of theology than Sunday School, and involved studying Luther’s catechism. The class was run by the pastor of the church. Classes were at night, and the boys in the group would sometimes play table tennis in another room before classes. One night we saw the pastor walking across an outdoor catwalk toward us, probably to gather us for class. We ran away down a hall. We went through the church toward the meeting room. He intercepted us as we walked down the hall and was uncharacteristically angry. Later in class he physically picked up the mildest, most mellow boy of them all by the shirt and yelled in his face. It was unreal, seeing this revered pastor turn into an instant asshole. But I continued with the class, and eventually took a communion or two.
Not surprisingly, I had friends who were not Lutherans. One was a very athletic boy named Jeff. His parents were fundies, members of the local Pentecostal church I believe. I’d attend services or meetings with him sometimes. I had another friend named Greg who was a member of an organization called “Young Life” which was a youth oriented program.
One time Jeff, another friend named Steve, and I attended a “revival” meeting held in the auditorium of a local high school. Lots of sermons, of course, but the climax was speaking in tongues! Not surprisingly this sort of blew my mind. Whatever was going on required an explanation. I recall asking the assistant pastor of the Lutheran church about this. He sort of blew off the question, saying something to the effect of “we really don’t do that.” This answer did not satisfy me. If Lutherans didn’t speak in tongues, why was that? Did it have scriptural justification? If the Lutherans were right, why were the fundies wrong? How did the fundies make a mistake? What’s really going on here?
Other events began to make me question my indoctrination. I never really read comic books as a child, except for Mad Magazine. I remember discovering Jack T. Chick tracts at the Western Montana Fair. Numerous churches would have display booths, and one was giving out these tracts. This was a VASTLY more passionate version of Christianity than I’d been exposed to! I was particularly taken with the anti-evolution tract Big Daddy. Although I’d always been very much drawn to science, I was convinced by the arguments in this tract! I had something of an epiphany one day though, as I was walking home from high school with my friend John, who said something to the effect of “Matt, you’re a scientific sort of guy, I can’t believe you take this creationism stuff seriously. It’s total nonsense.” It was this bit of cognitive dissonance, this burr under the saddle, that got me thinking more seriously about the issue. I was very fortunate though, as I was a huge fan of Isaac Asimov and had read many of his popular science books. I just happened to read his account of entropy, and how creationists mistakenly asserted the earth to be closed system. This was really shocking to me, as I realized that the refutation of this trope must be know to the creationists, yet they persisted. Why wouldn’t they change their minds when shown how they were mistaken?
On another front, I became curious about faith healing. My friend Jeff had exposed me to the notion that faith alone could cure illness. One day I went over to his house, and he complained that he had a cold, or was otherwise under the weather. His mother began to explain the notion of faith healing to me, and I sat and listened. At one point she “laid on hands” on Jeff, probably much to his embarrassment, in an attempt to cure him. Again, a moment of severe cognitive dissonance occurred, as at the time I was a huge fan of Houdini. Jeff’s mother claimed that Houdini may have effected his escapes because he was in league with the Devil! I was sort of willing to roll with the faith healing stuff, but the Houdini claim was insane! How could otherwise rational people believe such nonsense?
Being long before the World Wide Web, I had no idea how to find out information that would resolve these intellectual conflicts. But I got sort of lucky, as I had read James Randi’s book The Magic of Uri Geller. I wrote to Randi, saying how I thought of him as a modern day Houdini. I asked him about faith healing. I did not hear back from him for a very long time, but eventually a type written postcard arrived in the mail. Sadly I no longer have this artifact. His postcard read something like this: “Matt, sorry for taking so long to write. People who are not cured by faith healers don’t complain, they’re dead! Read a book by Dr. Nolen on faith healing and your questions should be answered.” Who was “Dr. Nolen?” To the library! I figured out that “Dr. Nolen” was William A. Nolen, author of Healing, a Doctor in Search of a Miracle. I read the book and decided that faith healing was probably a scam. I began to think Christian fundamentalism was misguided and full of crackpot ideas.
I was also lucky to have been exposed to a high school biology class which taught evolution. Sadly the instructor had to apologize and defend the teaching of real science before he could even teach real science! We had a teacher’s assistant who patiently addressed the trope I’d read that “the eye is too complex to have evolved.” What impressed me most was simply that the science was comprehensive, rational, and based on solid evidence, whereas creationism seemed to me like simply a set of drive-by criticisms, which failed on close analysis. By this point in my life I was convinced that at least the Christian fundamentalists were completely full of shit.
A huge turning point in my final abandonment of theism came by reading Ambrose Bierce! My father had a copy of the Devil’s Dictionary which I found strange and amusing. Bierce was relentless in his witty criticism of religion. The outstanding feature that I got from his book was that our species has embraced MANY religions over time, ALL of which think they are the ONE TRUE RELIGION. Most are gone now, and thought of as “mythological.” It dawned on me, even as a high school kid, that religion was unlike science in that it had no empirical methodology to resolve disputes. That the Christians couldn’t resolve amongst themselves whether speaking on tongues or faith healing was valid or bogus was just the tip of the iceberg. Theists couldn’t even resolve amongst themselves whether God was one, three, or many. Religion has had thousands of years to resolve these schisms, yet it only gets worse with time, not better, in that it only becomes MORE schismatic.
The final blow was discovering Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian in the University of Montana library. Such an impudent and shocking title! As well as helping me shuck any final vestiges of theism, it was a great introduction to critical thinking and philosophy. It was amazing to realize that propositions could be true which don’t refer to material reality, as scientific propositions do. Statements can be true or false by logic alone.
Not surprisingly, this turn of events did not escape the attention of my mother. She already hated my veneration of rock music, and now chose to start arguing the God question more or less incessantly. My first year of college was painful, as I felt socially isolated, sexually frustrated, and was struggling academically. It became so bad that I turned to a counselor / psychiatrist at the University. In retrospect, I think his advice was worthless and all I recall was that he smoked a pipe in his office. That summer I had a job doing maintenance at a motel. The bitching from my mother became so bad that I decided to leave home. In retrospect, I think I underestimated how shocked she was that I had become an atheist. I think I still underestimate how shocking it is for most theists that some people would be openly atheistic. I’m lucky to live in a place like Washington State instead of the Bible Belt or the Middle East.
I actually did leave home. I packed up my gear, told my mother I was leaving home, and moved into a room I had rented. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would finish college, but I planed to economize on food by eating beans and rice. Later that day I came back home with my friend Dave, and my father confronted me. He forced my hand, and I had to admit to him that my mother’s bitching had become so intolerable that I had to leave home. We chose to compromise, and I moved into the dormitories on campus. So my “leaving home” lasted only a day, but it really did happen, which attests to how threatening atheism is for some people.
My brother had always been cold to me. He was a hard-core Lutheran, and now he completely shunned me in his own version of “Good Christian Love.” I think he was a closeted homosexual, and he eventually drank himself to death. Over the years he would deliver to me his perfunctory greeting to me then say nothing else.
In retrospect, I would have given my left testicle to have had access to the internet at that time. Imagine simply reading the Wikipedia entry on atheism! Imagine being able to watch Sam Harris videos on YouTube! Imagine reading blogs devoted to eviscerating creationism, or Jerry Coyne’s responses to Christian apologists! I’m firmly convinced that the growing secular belief amongst today’s youth is partly due to the ease with which one can use the internet to answer vexing questions about religion.
For years I thought of atheism as more or less a nerdish intellectual fascination, sort of like mastering a Rubik’s Cube or being into prime numbers. 9/11 changed that for me, as it obviously did for many other atheists. Certain forms of religious expression are so utterly toxic to our species that it becomes entirely rational and moral to criticize it openly.
Growing up is hard. I can’t imagine how much unnecessary pain I would have endured had I stayed religious. I recall feeling deeply ashamed when I developed sexual feelings, because I’d read the part of an interview with Jimmy Carter in which he claimed that having “lust in his heart” was sinful. I’ve heard accounts, particularly from ex-Catholics, which describe VASTLY more emotionally toxic feelings in young adulthood. Would my brother have become an alcoholic if he hadn’t taken the homophobia of Christian scripture seriously? I don’t know.