I have been reading some of the why-I-am-an-atheist stories over on Pharyngula, and it has led to thoughts about the various moments in my younger days which might have led me down that path. I wouldn’t say that any of these stories could really constitute an adequate answer to the question of why I am an atheist. Taken together, I’m not sure they do add up to such an answer either; instead they form a record of the impressions made by various skeptical thoughts in my youth. Some of these were my thoughts; some came from others, but each of them has made a lasting impression on me.
As to others, well we shall see…
A CARTOON BIBLE AND AN EAGER YOUNG MIND: No sooner had I learned to read than I decided to tackle the cartoon Bible sitting beside the bed. In fact, I think the ability to read that bible had been one of the major selling points for learning to read to begin with. Cartoons or not, this was a thick volume and it took a lot of time to work through it, just a little reading every night for God knows how long!
…well, no he doesn’t, but you get my point.
Now my choice of early reading material ought to tell you something about my youthful priorities, but please let me assure you that I was every bit as boring and straight-laced as you might have gathered from this fact. Anyway, I loved that book, and I loved it for the right reasons, as some might say; I wanted to learn about God.
So, you can imagine my surprise when my father told me he didn’t believe in the story of Noah and the flood. I was shocked. The mere possibility that any detail of that sacred cartoon filled bundle of Godly goodness could be wrong was beyond me. So, I did what any properly annoying first grader would do. I asked why? Dad told me that the very notion God would need a flood to clear away so many bad people would mean that God made a mistake in the first place, and that seemed unlikely. This is where I must admit I failed in my childhood duties and let Dad off with a single ‘why’. Seriously, I should have pestered him for hours after that. Instead, I just sat there dumb-damned and trying to soak up this new possibility. The Bible could be wrong about something.
A CHICK IN THE BOY’S BATHROOM: I remember the first time I ever saw a Chick tract. For those of you blessed with ignorance about these things, let me sully your mind with a brief explanation. A chick tract is a cartoon sermon produced by Jack Chick publications. Back in the mid-seventies, it would have been Chick himself who did the one I saw that day. Chick Tracts typically follow the life of some character engaged in a sinful activity such as believing in Evolution, Practicing Paganism, Celebrating Halloween, Playing D&D, or Going to a Catholic Church, for example. The tract will normally include graphic threats of hellfire and damnation before introducing the good news that all of this can be averted by embracing Jesus Christ. It’s a pretty standard script from which neither Chick himself nor those who have filled his shoes deviate by much.
I was in 4th or 5th grade, and I found one of these in the school bathroom. I don’t remember a lot of details, but it definitely followed the familiar script. I don’t think the positive Jesus-loves-you theme made much of an impression on me at the time; I was still tingling in horror at the thought of Hellfire and damnation, and at the thought that someone could be perverse enough to believe in such things. For a kid raised in a Spiritualist household (just think New Age, but not quite as marketable, at least not on the cusp on the 80s) this was quite a shocker. I had heard of people that believed in Hell, but I hadn’t to my knowledge met any of them. And I didn’t know which scared me more; the fantastic thought of actual hellfire, or the very real prospect that someone who embraced the concept had been at my school.
It was shortly after this that I began talking about my ‘beliefs’ (and those of my family) with some classmates. I quickly discovered that my parents were not comfortable with this. I also discovered that I actually knew quite a few people who believed in Hell; I might even have known the person responsible for putting the tract in the school bathroom. And thus I grew to understand my parents’ reluctance to engage in open discussion of the topic.
…and before moving on, let me just say that I think it very fitting that my first encounter with a chick tract would be finding one of them in a bathroom. I could only wish it had been properly disposed of.
SASQUATCH, WHERE FOR ART THOU: The highlight of my 6th grade year was the big field trip to somewhere with cabins (I want to say Big Bear). Yes, that’s right; it was that sort of field trip. In the days and weeks leading up to the trip, I heard talk of bunk-beds, long hikes, campfires, and roasted marsh-mellows. …and something else.
Bigfoot! …of course.
Now, you have to remember this was Southern California, and it was the 1970s. Bigfoot was big (pun intended), as was the Devil’s Triangle, and UFOs were everywhere. I even remember a popular movie about reincarnation, and another one about the discovery of Noah’s Ark somewhere in the Himalayas. All of this seemed much more plausible to me as a 6th grader, but more than that, I think it seemed much more plausible to people in the 70s.
I blame it on disco!
The trip would include all the things we talked about, including at least one encounter with Bigfoot, or at least one of our teachers dressed up like him in the dark. It didn’t really fool anyone, …well not after word got out about the zipper.
But the next day…
I don’t remember exactly what we were all supposed to be doing on that day, but apparently it amounted to a stretch of free time. I was near the edge of the campground when some of my classmates began to point out into the trees, just up the mountainside a little. I can still hear them talking; “What is that?” “It’s moving!” “Holy crap!” and “That thing is big!” There weren’t any teachers around this particular spot in the campground, but more and more children (myself included) made our way to the edge of the trees to see what the others were looking at.
I couldn’t see a damned thing!
Like a lot of my classmates I was scared, and I was curious, and those two emotions fought for control of my soul (or at least my feet) in that little spot near the edge of the forest just below the side of a hill. I really wanted to see Bigfoot, and I wanted to live through the experience. In an effort to satisfy my fear while edging closer to the unknown danger I picked up a rock, as did a few of my classmates (because of course Bigfoot would have been no match for 6th graders with rocks). I then stepped as close as I could bring myself to the forest.
When someone said it was moving towards us (whatever it was) we all took a step or three back, but we didn’t quite run. And then of course nothing happened. I grew more and more frustrated, because I still couldn’t see a damned thing. …dammit!
Several of my classmates had surpassed the what-is-that stage and begun to claim with absolute certainty that they were looking right at a Bigfoot. They pointed, and I looked, and I just didn’t see it. A couple kids pointed more and proclaimed still more loudly, and I still didn’t see a damned thing. I edged closer to the forest. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t see him, but I may well have been the kid there who most wanted to.
And I just didn’t.
I’m not entirely sure why, but a few kids began to throw rocks into the forest. When one of the rocks came bouncing back down the side of the mountain, we all took a few hurried steps back. …only most everyone else took a few more than I did, and suddenly there I was out ahead of anyone else. To fully appreciate this you have to understand that I was a pretty flighty kid. (Seriously, my sister and a few of my old classmates could tell you stories, but thankfully this isn’t their blog). For the moment, I was well out ahead of my classmates, rock in hand, ready to confront Bigfoot all by myself if need be.
And damned mad, that he wasn’t making an appearance.
He never did.
When the teachers finally broke up the whole thing and called us inside, I became completely disgusted with the matter, and especially at my classmates. I had recently become acquainted with the phrase; “mass hysteria,” and in the wake of the absentee Bigfoot incident, I made damned sure that everyone within ear-shot was became as familiar with it.
…I could be a really annoying kid.
BAD AIM: When I was 14, my Dad and I attended the Daisy International BB-Gun Championship held that year in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Seriously, I think it was mostly the states that supplied teams, but Mexico and Canada sent teams, so I guess that made it an international event. Now I was a budding young gun-nut (seriously, I was), so I hope you will understand that this event was Disneyland, Christmas, and my birthday all rolled into one as far as I was concerned. And I did reasonably well, not well enough to win anything mind you, but, …what the Hell! I was 1 point 1x off a tie for third in prone (he says beaming with pride). But, what the Hell is this story doing here, you may ask?
Well, the contest included a Sunday.
As I recall, there were three options for activities on Sunday morning. One of them was a movie, I do remember that. The third option, I don’t recall, but you’ll never guess the one I chose. I chose to go to a church (or at least a sermon held in the great ballroom that we called church that day). This was my chance to witness mainstream religion in all its glory, and to do it without much effort. For half an hour I could peer into the lives of my Christian classmates and learn what God meant to them, at least on Sundays.
It was about how sin is like missing the mark and failing to hit the bullseye. For half an hour this minister told us all about the nature of sin; it was, in his view, essentially bad aim. I couldn’t believe my ears. I don’t think I had quite mastered the word ‘patronizing’ yet, but as I sat there struggling with the icky feeling in my gut, I knew there had to be some word for the utter stupidity of this man’s sermon. And I came away wondering; is this what mainstream preachers do? …make up lame analogies based on the presumed interests of their target audience?
Suffice to say, I wasn’t dying to repeat the experience.
ABSOLUTELY! …OH, WAIT A MINUTE! The words were quite familiar, Hell I had probably said them myself a time or two; “You can’t just expect God to walk up and greet you in person.” It was High school and one of my classmates had just said this in response to another person. I remember nodding in earnest, because everyone knew you couldn’t just expect that, …and then a thought struck me like a bug in the mouth while riding a skateboard.
Was that really so unreasonable? Why couldn’t you just say; I’ll believe in God if I actually meet him. And if God failed to pass this test, would He really hold it against someone for having adopted such a standard? Or would he say; oh that’s just So&So; he wants more evidence than I feel like giving. He’ll learn when I get around to it.
I can’t say that I made this my standard just then, or really that I ever have taken such a stance (it is a bit of a caricature), but in that particular moment, I simply ceased to think of it as an unreasonable position.
Course the fact that my mind was on this while talking to a really cute girl is the rally sad part of this story.
Really, it is.
SAY IT AIN’T SO, JOE! I was a freshman in College when my friend Joe told me there were factual errors in the Bible, and I did a double-take. Joe may be surprised to know this, but that was a pretty powerful moment for me, not because I was enamored of the Bible, but because I had grown accustomed to the notion that religious beliefs were vague and fuzzy and didn’t really leave anyone with enough leverage to say; “no that’s just incorrect.” Even my Dad had been talking about moral themes back in that discussion over the cartoon Bible; that left room for disagreement. Joe on the other hand, he was suggesting the Bible could just get its facts wrong, and that blew my mind. This may well have been the first time that I heard any religious matter described as a simple factual error.
Surely, the whole thing was much more complicated than that, I thought, …unless it wasn’t.
This conversation renewed my interest in scripture; but this time it had me wondering just what would happen if you approached the text with more straight-forward expectations than I had grown accustomed to. I think that conversation might have been what led me to read The Age of Reason and to take that “Bible as Literature” class. Having been raised in a world of spirits that may or may not manifest themselves at any given time and Auras that you can see if you’re in the right mind and hold your eyes just like so, the notion that religious matters could raise clear questions of truth value was a little novel to me. …A few years and one article by Anthony Flew later, I even had a word for the problem Joe had just set me to thinking about.
It was ‘falsifiability’.