Monday, December 12, 2011

Why I Am a None

Meta: I've been reading the "Why I Am an Atheist" testimonials on Pharyngula's freethought blog with growing interest over the last few weeks. At first, I felt a twinge of discomfort at the idea of sharing conversion stories - for reasons you'll understand soon - but the more of them I read, the more I recognized bits of my own story. It made me want to share, too. I dislike labels, which is why I prefer "none" to"atheist" and I have noted that PZ disapproves of this, so whether he decides to host this tale on his blog or not is an open question. Either way, here is my story.

You know my dad was a nun. ... Cause whenever he was up in court and the judge asked "occupation", he'd say "none".      - Private Baldrick, Blackadder Goes Forth; "Captain Cook"
At age 11 I went up to the front of the congregation at the end of a Sunday Evening sermon and accepted Jesus Christ as my own, true personal savior. Everyone was singing "Just As I Am," and at the end, when everyone files up to greet new members and converts - a surprisingly frequent event in small churches - everyone hugged me, some cheerfully, some tearfully.

My conversion was not much of a surprise to anyone. My parents had hosted our church in our home when it started, and I had always been an eager and active participant in our services. I loved to sing in the choir, and I devoured the stories and lessons in Sunday School. It probably didn't hurt that I was one of the few kids in our little Southern Baptist church, and that our neighborhood was out in the sticks, so there was little or no "outside" influence on me besides my family and church. I knew that being Saved at 11 was kind of unusual, but it seemed like a natural enough thing to do.

It would be fair to say that I wanted to belong and be accepted. And I was. Everyone was proud of me, and I felt welcomed more and more into the adult circles around me.

My memories of my childhood are "normal" to me, which isn't surprising I guess. I never felt pressured to "join" the church, because it was always just there. My family was pretty low-key about the philosophical underpinnings of faith and the deep thinking necessary to question things; for us, being Christian was about behaving yourself and treating others kindly. It was straightforward.

Then there was my grandfather.

Grandpa Russ was the classic itinerant preacher, always on the move, going from church to church to bring the word to flocks who needed to hear the tough lessons he had to teach. (Those were the words we used for it in our family; the sad fact is that everywhere he went, he told people what was wrong with them until they drove him out.)

It hurts to criticize him, because I loved him, and I don't want my family to read this and feel hurt. I never thought of him as cruel or crazy, and don't want to sound like I'm tearing him down; but if I describe him honestly, what you will see is the photo-realistic portrait of a Christian conservative. Part Archie Bunker, part Billy Graham, and a little bit of white Al Sharpton for style. (And even though he passed in 2002, I still feel mean, traitorous and guilty describing him that way - he hated Al Sharpton.)

In Grandpa's mind, the reason he had to move a lot was because people couldn't handle the truth. I know now that no one can - not on Grandpa's terms. He had an odd relationship with truth, in the way that anyone who has dealt with this kind of person would recognize. But to me, he was Grandpa. He was an amazing friend to hang out with, he loved me, and he had Stories.

Grandpa's stories were always amusing. He could spin tall tales with the best of them, and my favorite stories had to do with him, as a boy in Depression-era Kentucky. The older I got, though, the more they tended to contain some admonishment about boys with long hair - and you know that means The Gay - or backsliders suffering through drugs until they find Jesus.

When mom, dad, or Grandma caught him pulling me to one side and filling my head with his tales, they would try to intervene. They were rational enough to recognize the ugliness of some of his ideas and they wanted to protect me from them, but I loved hearing him talk. I was a pretty lonely kid, and he kept me rapt as he told tall tales of his adventure in the war - getting lost in the fog at sea and ending up in Murmansk; being hired by Glenn Miller to sing in his orchestra, just before Maj. Miller's plane disappeared. No matter how outlandish or unlikely, I loved Grandpa's stories.

But I've always loved ALL kinds of stories.

I recognized early on how stories tell us hidden things about ourselves. They're puzzles with secret messages and lessons about how we tick. Old stories pick up details and layers like the sedimentary rocks that form fossils. If you know how to decipher them, all stories are true. I like to think I learned this from Grandpa, thanks to the inventive ways he would have to twist facts or events around to fit whatever he was trying to teach me. I recognized the dishonesty in what he was doing, but I was enthralled by his skill for spin, and the psychology behind it. From all of this, I learned at a tender age how to tolerate a great deal of cognitive dissonance - though it would be a dozen years before I would learn that term.

Of course, the Bible stories were literally true, as far as I was concerned. There was no question of that. I knew "real" from "pretend" - there was the Bible, and then there was "Star Wars." I was also an avid listener to Family Life Radio - the local Christian broadcaster that carried Dr. Dobson's "Focus on the Family", among others. Dr. Dobson's program was where I learned a lot of pop psychology - how people fooled themselves into thinking right was wrong. He also warned me about cults (ie, other religions), the occult and Satanism. These programs reinforced what I was learning in church, helping keep me focused on what was True.

Our pastor held an annual seminar on cults and the occult, so the he could explain to us why those false churches were wrong, and we were right. And of course, atheists, communists, and other godless people were mentioned along with backsliders and sinners of all stripes. So it was that I began my teen years a righteous, fiercely faithful soldier of Christ. I was accepted by my church and my family, and I knew what was right and what was wrong. I wasn't perfect, but I was Good. And I thought I was ready for the world.

Then things stopped making sense. It was no single thing.

It wasn't just that when I told Grandpa that I wanted to be a paleontologist he told me that fossils were put in the ground by Satan to test our faith - and meant it. It wasn't that I fell in love with a Catholic girl, and watched her turn on me bitterly after the passive-aggressive treatment she endured from my church family. It wasn't just that I began exploring music, and getting into strange things that my country-and-gospel family didn't understand. It wasn't that I wanted to fuck more than anything in the world, and couldn't figure out a way to do that within the strictures of our moral code.

And it wasn't that I began to recognize that I became a cruel and vicious asshole when "debating" any or all of these issues with my peers.

In the end, it was the stories that made me see it.

Everyone has a conversion story; a point where they go from believing one thing to believing the opposite - or at least something new that pushes out the old belief. One day, while arguing with a Mormon friend, something crucial dawned on me. He had used the same lines and logic to try to convince me he was right that I used on atheists all the time - not that it ever convinced them. He said the voice of God told him to believe, and he did. I told him he was ridiculous. After all, there is documented evidence that Mormonism was fabricated by Joseph Smith in the 1860s, and there is NO evidence that the Golden Tablet of Moroni or the Lost Tribe of Israel ever existed in North America (if at all).

As I blisteringly mocked his faith in a poorly written re-imagining of history published by a con man from New York, I realized that as ridiculous as it was to believe a hoax dreamed up in 1865, it was even more ridiculous to believe a hoax from 2000 years ago. They're all just stories, after all. If millions of people could buy into Mormonism after only 150 years, what did that say about Christianity? How could I trust the old game of Telephone as it played out across two millenia?

After I asked myself that question, I thought about Grandpa. A Man of God - who lied, and exaggerated  and sometimes just "got things wrong." Not because he was evil, but because he was dying from plaque forming in the arteries of his brain. If he was wrong about the fossils, the way Joseph Smith was wrong about the Golden Tablets... and the way George Lucas was wrong about that galaxy far, far away... how could I ever really know how to tell which stories were factually true, and which were just poetry and social memory? I suspected it would be a long and difficult road if I decided to take it.

I was 17.

I held on for a long time. I still don't want to appear to simply "convert" - I didn't know where to go from where I had been, and it's hard for me to describe to people where I am now. This is why I dislike labels; as soon as someone hears "atheist" they think they know what you're all about. Even if being atheist was the only justifiable position to take, I have always hated the pat feeling of the conversion story: "I once was blind, but now I see." I did not want to go from being the asshole defender of Christ to being an asshole defender of ... nothing.

The key was to stop being an asshole, and just be honest. I don't know if I'm "there" yet.

But I'm not struggling, any more, and that's something. I did not give up struggling until I was 34. At that point I had spent half my life as a devout believer, and then half as nothing, I decided to stop calling myself agnostic, and just admit that it was that I didn't know: I really didn't care. Since then I've realized that I don't have to "accept" anything to replace my faith. I don't have to have a conversion story, mainly because it's my story I'm telling, and it's okay if this part is all internal monologue.

All anyone else needs to know is that I don't simply accept things as "true" just because it makes a good story for them.

I am still interested in stories. The older I get, the more I appreciate the poetry and art in teasing meaning out of the universe. I'm interested in watching how people think, and seeing how they deal with life according to their different ways of looking at the world. I still feel somewhat sanctimonious about the common mistakes people make in their lives, but I am less interested in judging them and more interested in learning from their mistakes. If they ask, I will tell them what I know.

I write about faith sometimes - about others who have it, and how it impacts me. I want to figure out how to relate to people who are like I was. But mostly, I just want to enjoy the stories, and try to keep straight which are true, and which are just for fun.

Lucky for me, I find truth to be fun.

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