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How did you become non-religious?

Aug 14 2005
How I became non-religious

For me, becoming an atheist was a slow process. I guess it took about 5 years once it started. I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic High School. We went to mass every week and holy days, but I was raised politically liberal and already did not believe that everything the Pope said was right. At church I liked the music, but I figured other people must feel more than me when it came to God, because I never felt the presence of God in church or elsewhere. Praying felt like talking to myself. I never did it except when led by someone else. Still, I did not question the core dogma and I took the rituals seriously. I felt very bad once when I dropped the host at communion, and if I missed mass, which was hardly ever.

The first events that led me toward atheism, or should have, were in college. I took Old Testament as one of my humanities courses. I don't remember any real discussions that we had. We did not read any Bible criticism for sure (this was a private liberal arts school, but the course was taught by a minister). Basically we read the entire old testament - standard revised edition I think - cover to cover, which is rarely done by most people I would guess. Anyway, I couldn't help but notice that many, many stories are repeated twice with versions a few pages from each other that conflict: Genesis 1 and 2, the circumcision of Abraham's family, the story of David and Goliath, etc. I didn't have the guts to ask about it, but I didn't forget it.

In another class, I had to debate capital punishment and I was to argue for it, which was fine with me, since I was. But as I researched my arguments, I changed my mind. I still won the debate, arguing for continuing capital punishment, but I was no longer for it. It was the first time I had changed my own mind on a moral issue I had felt very strongly about. Perhaps it was the first time I started to question WHY I believed things, and to realize that moral stances should be defensible by a rational argument, not a gut feeling. It SHOULD have started me thinking about why I held all of my fundamental assumptions and beliefs. But no. I think I probably turned on the t.v. and forgot about it. I pretty much went on as before - not thinking very hard about anything.

So I did not start becoming an atheist until graduate school, and I can remember three pivotal events along the way. The first was on a bus. It was a bus I took every school day from Harvard Square to Harvard Medical School in Boston, and at this time in my life I had finally stopped going to mass on Sundays. I stopped because I was really busy and also didn't like the parish. At first it felt really strange not to go, but after a couple months it felt completely normal. So I was riding the bus down Bow street past the church and we passed the crucifix - a big stone one- and for the first time in my life I actually saw it for what it was instead of a normal part of my environment like houses and trees. It was what I call an "alien moment" because I was able to see it as an alien would see it. It is simply a statue of a man being tortured to death. And I thought, what a macabre decoration that is! And for the first time I wondered, if Jesus was said to have been hanged, would we decorate churches with gallows and wear little nooses around our necks? Or if beheaded - would we put models of chopping blocks with an axe sunk in it in kids rooms or on our dashboards to bring us luck?

The second was when I was debating to myself what I thought about abortion, and in particular when did the soul enter the body? It had at that time recently been proven by scientists that at least 1 in 5 conceptions ended in natural death before pregnancy was even noticed. Therefore, if the soul entered at conception as Catholics and others would have it, that seemed very unjust to me. I couldn't reconcile a loving God with the idea that 1 in 5 souls would be sent to the afterlife with no meaningful life at all. However, if the soul entered at birth, say at first breath, then there should be no problem with abortion right up to the day before birth. But that also seemed unworkable because by this time there was plenty of video of late term fetuses shielding their eyes from bright light in utero, responding to sounds, and sucking their thumbs well before birth. They were clearly able to respond as well as a new born given the limitations of their environment. I didn't think anyone with objectivity could dismiss them as merely part of the mother's body rather than an individual. And even dying shortly after birth seemed like very unjust treatment for a soul, so I realized with a bit of a shock that I could not reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of souls in the Christian sense. So I stopped believing in souls.

The third incident was during preparation for marriage in the Catholic church (to someone I did not wind up marrying). We were discussing readings for the service with the priest and I mentioned that I had always like the story of Jesus at the wedding at Cana, since it made Jesus more real somehow to think of him going to parties sometimes. And the priest said an interesting thing about that story is that it seems to be a retelling of an Egyptian myth in which the sun god, Ra, turns water into wine at a wedding. Now I had not been brought up as a fundamentalist, and yet the idea that part of the gospel of Jesus was in fact an Egyptian myth with the names changed was shocking to me. At that moment I stopped being a believer in Jesus and I started to seek out books on Bible origins and criticism. With time I started to read Bertrand Russell and other Freethinkers. I still do, and continually wonder (and am somewhat embarrassed) that I couldn't see the obvious inconsistencies they point out for myself. Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason", written in 1783 is a brilliant deconstruction of the Bible- even though it is Deist not atheist. It took a long time for me to entirely lose my knee-jerk defense reaction to anything anti-Catholic, but that faded with time too.

Anyway, it was about a five year journey from unquestioning Catholic to atheist/freethinker. Contrary to what many people seem to think about such "conversions", nothing bad happened to me to make me "turn away from God". No loss of a loved one or betrayal. I just got there by questioning and thinking. I have been an atheist now for over 10 years and am much happier and optimistic.

Oct 9 2005
putting religion and McCarthyism to the test

I rid myself of religion as a child due to the incongruities of McCarthyism & competing bigotries that stared me in the face during my earliest recollections.....My beloved great aunt Mable was a Jehovah Witness, I could not understand how such a sweet little woman who made me her bread recipes with jams made from her garden could somehow be a deficiient person due to a disapproved faith, after all, who has not rejected JW's at the door, handing out tracts in public places, etc? I could not reconcile the basic message of alleged Christian morality and piety and goodness with the examples of my peers who were choosing to be baptized and mumble out the phraseology of faith while demonstraing cruel behaviours in school. I could not ignore the differences in faith of my father's Pentacostalism and my mother's liberal protestantism.

My uncle, dad's brother married a Catholic and having attended wedding masses and funeral wakes, I could not pretend that my mothers church was the one true church while my father would not attend and he'd regale stories of nuns & priests & wine & orgies. My mother told Jewish "jokes" that did not jive with television land and the civil rights movements of the fifties and sixties.

I read Sunday school lessons no differently than I did my public sFchool lessons. I sprang to my feet the fastest in searching out called texts for recitation. After being first so often, I was given more bibles to read and read them I did. I found countless conflicting passages. I began to see a pattern in hypocrisy and the front of holiness.

I cherished Saturday Science & Disney educational films & by 5th grade I was refusing to attend my mother's worshipful pew. The last time I yielded to her nagging & reminders that I should not wind up in hell for lack of faith was the promise of a teen bible instructor who was a ravishing

red head nursing mom of two babies! And that same first class she began

by the ignorant incompetent claim that "when sin entered the world, it made the earth tilt 23 and one half degrees off it's axis" which forced me to see an embodiement of beauty merged with stupidity. As Ingersoll said, the Mistakes of Moses are not the perfect poems of ultimate truth.

Lastly, I was a Boy Scout Tenderfoot comparing my brother's 1949 Handbook with my 1962 version which printed the McCarthyistic version of the Flag Pledge while the earlier version made no mention of an alleged deity named god.

From that point onward, I knew I could not "believe" in what merely was printed for public consumption. I became non-religious by applying religious tenets to reality checks. I embraced Atheism when I read Walt Disney's Front Page Obituary as a newspaper boy. "No funeral is planned, Walt Disney was an atheist." And I wondered why Catholicism got capial letters but Science did not? I read dictionaries and encyclopaedia and found bias when ever I contrasted one publisher with another. I became non-religious by the same sort of winnowing as one decides to become a bowler instead of a golfer, I felt more at home with achievable results instead of a long expensive road to promised elitism.

I wanted to be a true American, a descendant of Lord Baltimore. I remembered my 7th & 8th grade Latin & paid attention to the roots of words while rejecting false claims of wordsmiths. I did the hard work of overcoming censorship & actually read the words of the most hated and villified woman in America. I demanded DR Madalyn Murray O'Hair's books & her magazines from libraries and bookstores, not some priest or preachers scam against her. I learned the stories of Ethan Allen and Margaret Sanger and Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, Paine & Jefferson, their non-religious words.

And I found in high school and college that canards like "dogmatic atheism" were insults of sophmoric philosophy students who were afraid of

simple Greek Materialism. I winnowed out egalitarianism from objectivism, I learned that Ayn Rand could be human and fallible.

I resolved to teach my children honestly and accurately instead of pretending that religion was some sort of source for goodness and heavenly rewards. My first marriage was a compromise with a "spiritualist." My second marriage was to a Lutheran who pretended to be my American Atheist Chapter Secretary to keep me in her bed. My last marriage was to hope and growth in liberal religion, a Unitarian Universalist Church Secretary, herself a missionary kid born in Africa. We named our child Darrow and honeymooned in Dayton, TN.

Because ultimately, religion victimizes all of its adherents as it did her, her healing needs rose to the surface from past trauma.. And healing does not occur quickly and completely with mixed loyalties. I can not be loyal or silent to institutional evil.

I remain non-religious because I am not tied or restrained by any shred of delusion that some supreme being is out there somewhere deciding who gets into a heaven and who will be put into a hell. I hold such alleged beings to the same standard as I do any neglectful abusive parent and insist that the young and defenseless be protected instead of dependent upon their "creator."

I will protect the rights of believers to exercise their non-violent practices and draw the line at violence, abuse and interference

with science, medicine and schooling. I fight for the civil rights of my peers to be made whole in discriminations from fair housing, fair employment and equal treatment before the law. I feel that our continuing

American Revolution is a non-religious growth process. That is why I am an American Atheist, free from religion; fighting theocracy with ideals of justice and inclusivity. My Atheism is no mere disbelief as Webster falsely defined, my Atheism is free of theism. I demand proof for religious claims, any spiritual claim any astrology or pseudo science claim.

I think that non-religious people are open minded people learning rather than believing. We are better citizens and patriots without faith. I like non-religious people as free thinkers and truth seekers. It is much more fun to learn from them than regurgitate beliefs without evidence or logic.

May 26 2007

Laura K, I enjoyed reading your article in the newsletter and your discussion posting re. your evolution into non-belief. I was fortunate enough to have liberal parents and questioned everything. My parents were both raised in small communities and protestant churches. My exposure to church was not positive and not convincing. I went mostly with my maternal grandmother who was a colorful, interesting and often gullible member. She adored the minister at her community church. I seemed to be born with a built in bullshit meter and smelled a rat. this little country church was advertised as a "nondenominational church." He preached a somewhat watered down version of good ole fire and brimstone baptist bafflement. I remember being puzzled and and disturbed by how the guy seemed to preach love and peace out of one side of his face and hell and damnation out of the other. I have a very vivid memory of being tucked into bed at night when I must have been 5 or 6 yrs old and asking my father if he really believed there was a devil and a hell. He heaved a big sigh and sat down and basically said he guessed people who didn't do right made their own hell on earth-- and basically gave me permission to believe what I chose to believe. I appreciate that to this day. One day when my husband, oldest son and I were eating lunch in a restaurant, our son asked us "Do bad people go to hell?" While I sat with mouth hanging open, trying to formulate some kind of response, my husband said, "There are no BAD people; just people who make bad choices." Ahh. And so it seems...

I don't know that I ever believed. And I think you and I touched on how it seems that religion was created by people as a security blanket in a frightening world where the only certainty is eventual death.

You were at the Greek restaurant after the Imam spoke? Do you mind if I ask you what you do for a living? I've enjoyed this. Jennifer Gump.

May 29 2007

Hi Jennifer - Thank you for reading my post. I continue to be amazed at people like yourself who were able to "smell a rat" at such a young age. I was such a gullible person! And now I am in a profession where skepticism is essential - I do medical research for a living. I have a PhD. in Virology. Here is my webpage

I didn't go to the Greek restaurant after the Imam spoke as it happens, but I was at the meeting and my husband and I do attend most SHL meetings. I think we'll be out of town for the July potluck, but perhaps we can meet in the fall.

Your comments about raising your kids as freethinkers were interesting. Do you generally find you can ignore religion at your house unless your kids bring it up? That sounds nice. Our significant involvement with the SHL means that religion is a common topic at our house. Lately we have been thinking that we want our daughter to know the bible stories just because not knowing the basic Noah or Abraham or Moses stories is likely to make you look uneducated in our society. Or maybe not....plenty of my colleagues don't know them.

Did you learn the bible stories growing up? Did it matter?

May 30 2007
biblical education

Laura K, re. your response to my response...

I have worried about the same thing as a mother. That the lack of education/ exposure to biblical stories will leave my kids at a disadvantage in our society. My oldest came home with a story about how something had gone over his head in his Lit class and one of his friends said "oh, nevermind-- it's just the atheist not getting biblical references again." He laughed about it and seemed none the worse for wear. I have a hunch that he still is far, far better off, not having listened to much of the crap his parents heard and any disadvantage that may have insued, he will be able to overcome or compensate for in different ways.

I did get most of those stories as a kid that you mentioned. Weren't Aesop's fables better? Even Pinocchio did more for me. Is my cynicism showing? Wasn't it Larry's post that mentioned Walt Disney's orientation? How was I not aware of that? Geez, I still miss out on good cultural nuggets like that one. See how much I need the SHL?

Anyway, back to the beginning... What I am lacking is the sense of community that many people get at church. That is what I worry about my kids not having, also. I just think it is so important to have a group of like-minded people as touchstones. My parents are deceased, I am an only child and what little extended family I have are church-goers and some of them, fundamentalists. Helllp. I am a freak amongst my own kind. So, now you know why I'm no longer living near them in Ohio. I wanted the hell out of there at 9 and never changed my mind. And as a matter of fact, the ones who are still there are all still making each other crazy. Ahhh. Really. Life is pretty good here. Jennifer G.

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