When I was a young man I lived with my biological father. He was a very vocally religious person and was the son of a back woods Kentucky Baptist. As I was growing up in North East Ohio I was raised in small town of about 13,000 people. At one point we had 47 churches just with in the city limits of that small town, and I’m pretty sure I was forced to visit nearly all of them as a child. We had (and probably still do have) the grand distinction of having more churches per 10 people then any other city in Ohio.
My biological father and his family were drinkers, and they did it daily. It was not unusual for me at the age of 4 or 5 to be at my Uncles with the family gathered around a large dinning room table playing poker, drinking, smoking, and of course discussing religion. This is one of my earliest memories of religion in full force and it didn’t take long for me, even at that young age, to draw a direct correlation between just how fiercely religious the discussion would become and how much beer had been consumed. I would lie under the dining room table and listen to the debates of the Number of the Beast, morals, creation, original sin and every bible story they could remember. When we were not getting our religious fulfillment there I was pulled, usually at the last moment on a Wednesday Night, to any church that was starting its service at the time my father, usually well intoxicated, decided it was time for us to go.
One of my first memories of such an event was being told we were going to a church (that today is a law office) that happened to already be 20 minutes into the service. I remember the people all turning to look as we came in and of course the preacher coming to shake our hands and welcome us at the end. That was the only time we attend that Church to my memory, though I must confess I’ve spent many years trying to forget most of my childhood. Another instance I remember clearly was being pulled to a more lively church where people were testifying and being filled with the Holy Spirit. My stepmother at the time, finding her self full of the Holy Spirit (and probably a six pack) ran down to the alter/pulpit area where the preacher did a laying of hands on her and she flopped around on the floor crying and wailing. I remember that I was pretty impressed with the showman ship of the entire event and remember being amazed that people all around me were being moved to tears by the sermon, however I was a bit scared at the same time with all the wailing and yelling that was occurring all around me. My fathers take on the evening was different, he was insulted that she embarrassed him in such a manner by running down the isle and the scene that followed, a huge fight ensued on the way home. “Its great how religion brings family together,” I remember thinking in the car on the way home. During all of this religious education I was receiving on Wednesday nights and any night we went to my uncles, my father had also decided to send me to church on Saturday Mornings with an older lady who was a Seventh Day Adventist and I was eventually baptized into their church. That was at least 2 or 3 years of my life, probably more, but again my memory is a bit fuzzy. I remember listening to the Sunday school stories and having tons of questions to which no good answer could be given. I know that I asked allot of questions to which I received the standard “god loves you” and “You just have to have faith in the lord” answers. That went on for several years and I garnered a good amount of my confusion about organized religion over those years. It was also during those years that my father invited Jehovah’s witnesses to the house on Thursday nights at 8pm to preach to us. I remember that one so clearly because my bed time was 9pm and I had to miss what prime time television I could see between 8pm and 9pm that night to be educated by the Jehovah’s witnesses. That went on for several months until my father tired of it and rather than ask them not to come back we had to hide behind the couch when they showed up.
So I guess from the beginning I had very little chance of buying into any one faith as I was bombarded with any denomination on Wednesday nights, Jehovah’s Witness on Thursdays spent my Saturdays with the Seventh day Adventist, and any other nights of the families drunken get together some people might say my fate was sealed, all before the age of 10. When I was in 5th grade I moved out of my fathers house and in with my mother and Step father who later adopted me, both were much more grounded people. While I’ve always known my mother has her own beliefs she always kept them to her self and never imposed any of it on me as I grew up, my step father never discussed any religion that I can recall and it wasn’t until just before both of us found out that we were reading "God is Not Great" at the same time that we discussed religion for the first time and found that we were pretty much of the same mind set.
So from 5th grade on I forgot about religion, knowing only I thought it was odd, confusing, and contradictory. The only religious oriented discussion I can remember from that time in my life was having an argument in 5th or 6th grade about if God was indeed ‘Perfect’. My argument was if he is perfect, then who is he perfect to, you or I? I think I was quite ahead of my time in figuring that one out at such a young age. Trying to rationalized my argument to people that if god was perfect then he’d understand my doubts and have quite a sense of humor about it all, because that’s what I would consider perfect. I also remember discussing the famous question of “Could God make a boulder so big he him self couldn’t lift it?”
It was quite awhile before I was forced to fight a real battle of ideologies. I was a Junior in high school when the shit hit the preverbal fan. There was a local Presbyterian church that most of my friends’ families were members of and most of them were members of the “Youth Group” at that church. I didn’t give the group much thought, as it seemed mostly to be a group getting together for basketball tournaments, and bowling against other local churches. I had even on a few different occasions been invited to join the youth group and had it not been for the church going memories of my past I might have done it, however I always declined. That is of course until the summer before my junior year. I had just turned 16 and I spent my summer being 16, getting my new car ready chasing girls and aggravating my parents. My friends on the other hand were off to something a bit more sinister. (Insert dramatic music here) They went to a church camp put on by their Presbyterian church called Chrysalis. You may be failure with the concept, their symbol being a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. The entire outing meant to be a spiritual rebirth for those who visit the camp where they shed away their old lifestyle and rededicate themselves to God. When my friends returned it was like a scene from invasion of the body snatchers, they looked like my friends, but slightly different. Some were very changed like my friend Neil. Neil and I were for the most part cut from the same cloth as kids, we had much in common and both enjoyed being class clowns and making others laugh. After that summer he returned a changed man. He had a much more serious disposition, was never seen with out his pocket bible and was often preaching to anyone who would listen. He gave away his porn collection, which I to this day I think was the oddest thing for a 16-year-old boy to do. I began to notice they were all wearing these beaded bracelets, each bead was supposed to represent something to do with Christ, the Resurrection, and more that I’ve forgotten. I admit I never asked fully because I didn’t want to open the door to a full explanation. As much as I tried to avoid confrontation and arguments it became difficult as I heard them preaching in study halls, and at lunch. Then a large group of them began to recruit for a daily bible study in the library before school. I saw more and more people fall victim to this and their entire personalities change, which led me on a campaign to argue against the logic in many of the bible verses they preached. This spurred my first reading of the New Testament, and then the Old Testament so that I knew facts and not just what I felt in my gut was a load of bunk. It was, though a campaign of well though out arguments, able to slow and eventually halt the recruiting of what like-minded people and I referred to as the Christian Cult. I did during that era in my life receive several letters from Neil’s Church friends, including one with one of those beaded bracelets in it. I remember that one because it was an invitation to their church with a promise of acceptance and redemption for my eternal soul and me. I quickly threw the letter and bracelet in the trash. That was all nearly fifteen years ago. Neil went on to do very little with his life, at last I saw him he was married and working by day in a furniture shop. He was living on the campus of OSU and ministering to a group of students. I heard recently he moved with his wife to Florida where this church for whom he preached was started, at one of the Schools down there and was going to continue to minister to College kids.
The next year I was dating a girl in College, who asked me to attend her family church on Mothers Day. After the previous year of reading and research I has become rather well read and had taken the time to read Thomas Paine for an oral report I had to give in an English class, and even had attempted to read different translations of the Koran. I also tried to familiarize my self with the histories of some of the Eastern Religions. So my mind was full of information and what I felt were justifiable arguments against pretty much anything that could be said. However wanting to be a supportive boyfriend I attended the Methodist Church and listened to a sermon about Good and Evil. The Preacher rather simply stated that all the bad things that have happened in my life were because I had let Satan into my heart and all the Good things had happened because I had let God in and God let them happen. Which seemed to me to pretty much negate the idea of free will and I was ready to ask the preacher about that and argue my point. The Preacher told me that I did have free will to choose, to choose to let God or Satan into my heart, which seemed more like sly double talk rather than a straight answer. When I told him I didn’t think I could buy that, it just didn’t make sense to me, he said “ You need to find a church that does make sense to you”, one that I “could believe in 100% with out question.” I said I didn’t think there was anything that I could believe in 100% with out some rock solid proof to which he replied, “I’ll pray for you”. I could tell this was just a nice way of saying “Go away kid your bugging me” and left it at that, still a bit hot under the collar and some what insulted that he kept referring to me as a lamb or god during the sermon. Lamb will run off the side of cliff if stampeded and I like to think I’d be smart enough to stop running when I saw the cliff coming. I did catch an ear full from my girlfriend but her parents were much more understanding.
Several years later I joined the Marine Corps. I remember a Chaplin telling us that by the time we were finished with the Marine Corp we’d be sure of one of two things. “You’ll be positive that God Exists, or you’ll be positive he doesn’t.” I got hurt a few months after that and was as close to death as someone can get with out actually being dead. I remember receiving several visits from Chaplains of different denominations and hearing that I was subject of prayers circles back at home. I admit knowing that people were pulling for me was nice, but I was pretty sure I was pulling though it with out there help. I remember telling people that I too much I had yet to accomplish in life. Until that point I had pretty much wasted my time and life and simply existed with out making much of an impact on the world. Upon coming home I met a woman, got married, and now have a beautiful son who is about to turn 5.
I wanted to share these stories just because they are what shaped my opinion on organized religion. I say organized because even after reading every book I don’t see a problem in people being spiritual having ideas and while most of the spiritual people have only ideas it’s the organized people that have beliefs. Ideas are fluid and open to change while people live and die for beliefs. I know that’s a fine line and most people can’t walk that line between ideas and beliefs.
In closing I just want to say I was surprised when I discovered Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennet. I really for the longest time thought I was alone out here. Even my not so religious friends shy from the word atheist- "why don't you just call your self agnostic" one said to me a few months ago. "Because I think everything works just fine with out that assumption." I told her. So when I discovered the Chariots of Iron / Atheist News Podcasts and heard reference to this site I just felt compelled to check it out. It actually makes me a bit nervous, I've gotten quite use to being the only atheist in town, I hardly know how to act.
Like Mark Twain said “Heaven for the Climate, Hell for the Company.” If were wrong, at least I know I’ll be in good company.
People are divided into two groups, the righteous and the unrighteous. And the righteouses do the dividing. -Unknown