I've been on AN for something like a year, and have told parts of the following story on other threads. It finally occurred that the polite thing to do would be to offer the whole thing as a proper introduction. I like it here, and many of you are starting to feel like friends. Anyway,,,
Setting: Fountain Valley, Colorado, late December, 1957. I was a couple of weeks from turning 4 and had, by surreptitious closet snooping, confirmed my suspicion that Santa Clause was a scam. That rocked my world! I couldn't believe that the adults I'd counted on to define reality had been lying all along. Cripes! If Santa isn't real, what is? Christmas doings were in high gear at the Baptist Church, and I told Mom that I didn't want to go. When she asked why, I equivocated (not yet sure whether to give up the possibly useful Santa info). But I old her the truth -- that at church it seemed that adults were acting sort of crazy, and that scared me.
There was probably more discussion, but what I remember is the deal that Mom and I made. I didn't have to go to church If I would read the Bible every day until I got all the way through old testament & new, and be prepared to discuss it with her at any time. She justified this with the most reasonable thing anyone has yet said to me, "You needn't be pious, but you shouldn't be ignorant".
She handed me her copy of the King James version (KJ was one of my direct ancestors, and founder of our surname on the Scottish side) and told me to have at it. The Bible is a tough read for a little kid, and some of y'all are probably saying, "Oh come on -- a 4 year old reading that"? Mom used to joke that when her kids were born the doctor had to reach into her womb and switch off the reading light. She gave herself too little credit. From the time we were tiny things she'd hold us to see her finger underlining each word she read. And no, she didn't read us the Bible. Dickens, Twain & Vonnegut comprised our bedtime stories.
It took over two years of struggling through and talking about that damn book, but by 6 & change I realized that I was an atheist, even if I didn't yet know the term. Not only did the whole thing still stink of the Santa scam, but I couldn't see how anyone claiming to be decent could follow it. Oh there were some good parts, but they were mostly just common sense. Don't kill, don't steal, don't be an asshole. I didn't need some imaginary bearded guy who knew when I was sleeping and knew when I was awake to tell me that, for goodness sake! Moreover, I was suspicious of anyone who felt that they did need someone to tell them that.
Nine or ten years later I thought that I wanted to be a Zen monk. Since virtually everyone around me in North Carolina equated that with Devil worship, I decided to re-read the whole goddamn Bible from "In the beginning" to "Amen" to see if my childish mind had missed something important. It was far worse the second time, and by then I knew what 'atheist' meant. I decided to distance myself from any spiritual tradition and continue to go with what made real sense.
I credit my beloved hillbilly parents for exposing but not forcing any doctrine on me. For one thing, they got me the hell out of the South when I was an infant, and so cultural indoctrination pressures were absent. Mom was religious in the sense of understanding it as social structure. Dad was completely irreligious and got into trouble with the Ku Klux Klan because of it. We had a cross burned on our lawn, our store vandalized and our well poisoned. Mom & Dad both put greatest value on independent critical thinking, and that was our indoctrination.
That's the gist. Thanks for listening!
Le Ku Klux Klan sont des salauds. Quelle est l'importance d'avoir brûlé une croix sur votre pelouse? Est-ce que cela signifie bonne chance ou de malchance? Ont été la police a informé quand ils vandalisés votre magasin et empoisonnés votre bien?
Thanks for the reply Napoleon. The KKK were the police there, and the mayor, and the minister, and the school principal...
The southeast US in those days (and in some pockets still) was what I imagine Iraq under Saddam's Baath Party must have been like -- the corridors of power were closed to non-members. My parents were prominent businesspeople in that tiny town, and the KKK was furious that they gave business credit to our black neighbors, and that my father refused to join the Church.
The cross burning and vandalism were acts of terror to try to intimidate us into leaving. We lost our first home in that area when Town Council condemned the nice little house, evicted us and sold it to the Grand Dragon of the KKK for use as a 'parsonage', though his church was a mile away. That caused even my religious mother to quit the church, which made us all the more heathen in their eyes.
Ted, your Mom was awesome and your family courageous. You give me hope for the future, in all places.
Thanks for sharing your story. Amazing. My god, reading the BIble at 4! And coming out of it as atheist! Awesone!
It took me untilI was 17 do do the same, and slowly at that. My hat is off to you!
Thanks Mindy & SB:
Yeah, I think that my parents were pretty great, especially considering that they were essentially hillbillies. Dad wasn't at all warm & fuzzy -- he just flat didn't care who he pissed off. But he was brilliant (8th grade education until getting his engineering degree at 55) and highly personally moral. Mom was probably the smartest person I've known, and was almost entirely non-confrontational. She was religious not because she believed in magic or couldn't overcome early indoctrination, but because she appreciated the social value of traditions and was willing to engage them to engage society. At least up to a point. She finally gave up on church membership when we moved to a place where the church was an extension of the KKK.
On my first day of first grade I was sent home with a note for refusing to chant the Pledge of Allegiance. I had no great philosophical stance, but just didn't want to promise something before hearing what it was. Once I heard what it was I was sure that I wasn't going to pledge. I was shaking in my little boots when I presented the note to Dad. He was, after all, a WWII vet who had served under Patton and said that he admired the 'miserable bastard'. He got on the phone to the school Principal, and the last part of the conversation I heard was Dad saying, "I'm damn proud of the boy".
He said that the Principal had hung up on him, so he didn't know what I'd face at school from then on. He told me not to give in to the bastards, but I'd probably better learn to fight. Mom (also a WWII vet -- nurse in the Pacific) suggested that I make up my own Pledge to say while the others were saying theirs. As long as I didn't make a point of it, it's likely that no one would notice.
I've lived my life as a balance of those two disparate views. I keep a low profile, but don't apologize for my views unless I'm shown that they were wrong. If my position and actions hurt someone and I'm still convinced that they're correct, I'll apologize for the hurt but not the position. This happens a lot, as almost everyone I know here in the Carolinas is deeply religious. About any conversation about anything includes praises to the Lord, and looks around for signals of assent. Even if you say nothing and just don't offer the expected signal, it's taken as an arrogant, aggressive affront. The usual response is social shunning, but now and then someone will pick up on the implied dissent and challenge me to comment. My comments are never met with pleasure, at least after the recipients have thought about them for a while.
This reminds me that Dear Li'l Brother, the doctor of philosophy, is at this moment giving a speech about Iran to a Jewish group who paid him a lot for the privilege (he's a globally recognized authority who has won the Foreign Policy Medal). As I was driving him to the car rental place he said, "Those people are going to be very unhappy with me". So he also shares Mom & Dads combination of diplomacy & confrontation. He's a lot better at parsing it than I am.
It has been an interesting and fairly hilarious life. I think that my life's defining moment was opposition to the Vietnam War. The draft had not yet completely ended when I came of age. I thought that it was an immoral and unnecessary war, and wasn't about to go kill anyone for it or get injured or seriously killed myself for something I didn't believe in. I marched and yelled and held posters and heated conversations.
But unlike many of my contemporaries, I didn't burn my draft card. That was because, following Mom's low profile advice, I just never signed up with Selective Service (an euphemism for 'draft poor kids'). Since anonymity was not security, I headed for the hills and lived like a bear on a mountain in Colorado until the world was safe from Nixon.
I then came down and joined the Army and taught winter mountain survival to Army Rangers using skills I'd learned while dodging the draft. As I said, fairly hilarious.
My maternal Grandfather went to school one day in his whole life. He was approximately 1/4 Cherokee -- about the same proportion as me in our shallow gene pool, but was born in 1888 with the profound social disadvantage of looking full-blood. The Cherokee were supposed to have been pushed off onto the Trail of Tears 50 years earlier (I still get a sour feeling when I look at a $20 bill), but our little bunch of inbred hillbillies wasn't easy to slice apart. I look for all the world like a hairy Scotsman, while Grandpa and my older sister looked like Tecumseh.
The sheriff brought Grandpa home on that first school day of 1904 and told his father that he wouldn't allow that 'colored boy' in class with good Christians. Great Grandpa, the racist bastard, wouldn't let his son attend the 'niggra' school. Grandpa's records in the county office still list him as 'colored'. He inadvertently taught me how to be Indian by living the example of how to try to pass for white. He gave me the name 'Four Eagles', which is not what's on my passport.
I didn't know what to say about the additional story you tell. Except that I feel the utmost respect and admiration, even awe, of you and your family. Thank you so much for telling the story. We are all better for it.
I think that we're all better for hearing one another's stories. Y'know, it seems to me that we as a culture went through a period when 'our' stories were largely manufactured . My Dear Ex Wife could never get over the notion that I should be Ward Cleaver. With the rise of the Internet we may finally be creeping back toward something like informal campfire stories, even if the fire itself is manufactured.
PS: Thanks for your many insightful posts here on AN -- I'm a fan.