(Recite the books of the bible)
At the age of 7, I could recite all 66 books of the Bible in 19 seconds. My father insisted on this because he was frustrated at waiting as his children flipped back and forth trying to find the verses he was preaching from. Afterwards, if one of us took to long my father would stop in the middle of his preaching, cast a gimlet eye on the offender and demand that, “Somebody smack that kid!”
I would like to take a minute to thank a few people for their efforts in making this opportunity possible for me today. David Silverman for inviting me here to speak. Arlene Marie for all her effort and support in slogging through the logistics. John Lombard for his time and invaluable support in helping me get my thoughts down on paper. And finally, my fiancé Angela for her unflagging love throughout this process. And thank you all for being here today.
For me, the story of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is a very long and painful one. But the first time that the wider community became aware of them was in 1991, when my father led his church in Topeka, Kansas to stage a protest against gays at a local city park. Almost the entire membership of the church consists of 9 of my 12 siblings and members of their immediate families. The community reacted with outrage at the mean-spirited and hateful nature of the protest, and sentiments on both sides escalated quickly. However, far from discouraging my father, this incited him to much greater efforts at publicly protesting all that he decided was wrong. The church was soon staging dozens of protests every week, against local politicians, businesses, and citizens who dared to speak out against him and his church. But public protests weren’t enough. My father equipped his church with a bank of fax machines, and daily sent faxes to hundreds of machines across the city and state, filled with invective and diatribes against anyone who had offended him.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of his methods, this tiny church of 60 people, led by my father, is today known not just throughout the United States, but across the world. Over the past 17 years, their campaign has expanded to picketing funerals of American soldiers, and victims of high profile disasters from 9-11 to Hurricane Katrina and from the murder of Matthew Shepard to the slaughter of 5 young Amish children; and declaring the entire country – indeed, the entire world – doomed for embracing the notion of equality for gays. The church’s original website, godhatesfags.com, now links to companion sites, each of which is more outrageous than the last. The latest addition is godhatestheworld.com, which intends to list, for every nation, the reasons why God hates them.
Most people, coming in contact with them for the first time stare in stunned amazement. But for me, it is a natural and almost inevitable progression, from the things I was taught and experienced in the Phelps household as a child, to the circumstances we find today.
Some of my earliest memories of my childhood include children’s song lyrics about god’s might and wrath. Lyrics like, “The lord he thought he’d make a man with a little bit of mud and a little bit of sand”. Or a song about Noah’s ark with these words, “The animals come in two by two, the Rhinoceros and the Kangaroo, said the Ant to the Elephant “Quit your Shovin”, it’s rainin’, I believe.”
The message was fed to us from an early age, packaged to catch our interest. But, I also recall a storybook with a stark image of the ark setting sail as frantic, half-clothed women clawed against the side of the ship, lifting their squirming infants in supplication towards the impassive man of god on deck.
The danger inherent in these messages was not apparent to me until an event that occurred when I was about 8 years old. I recall sitting in a church pew, my father’s voice droning on in the background with yet another sermon about suffering for eternity in a lake of fire, where the worm that eats on you never dies. With an emerging obsessiveness, I’m determined to grasp the concept of eternity. As my mind struggled with this issue I’m suddenly in the midst of a panic attack. Tears come unbidden. The message was getting through.
My father is a self-styled Primitive Baptist, adhering to the teachings of John Calvin. The acronym TULIP defines the basic tenets of this branch of Protestantism.
“T” stands for “Total Depravity”
“U” stands for “Unconditional Election”
“L” stands for “Limited Atonement”
“I” stands for “Irresistible Grace
And “P” stands for “Perseverance of the Saints”
But the heart of Calvinism is the doctrine of absolute predestination, which posits that in the council halls of eternity past, an omniscient and omnipotent god preordained who would be saved, and who would be damned. Mankind would have no say or choice in this, since they are dead in their trespasses and sin. If you are selected you gain eternal life. If you lose, you suffer the most extreme physical and mental anguish forever. My father has simply refined Calvin’s doctrine to the point where the vast majority of us are going to hell. And he and his followers are among the privileged few chosen by God.
This doctrine is very important to understanding the Westboro Baptist Church. My father, and those who follow him, are not preaching to try to convince people of their truth. Unlike street evangelists, who are trying to convert people, my father has no intention of converting anyone, since conversion is impossible. You’re either chosen, or you’re not. To illustrate, in the mid 90’s my father was a guest on a radio talk show hosted by a popular Christian apologist named Rich Buehler. Mr. Buehler suggested that my father’s failure at bearing any fruit from his evangelizing efforts might point to some error in his theology. With typical aggression my father barked back at him: “That’s not the test!! The test is fidelity in preaching!”
Although Calvin’s teachings were used as a general foundation for my father’s faith, he was more than willing to make “adjustments” wherever he felt necessary. One of our earliest exposures to his personal revisions was his absolute rejection of, and intolerance towards, Christmas. The doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”, or “By Scripture Alone,” argues that any doctrine or belief not taught directly in the Bible is false.
From that my father concluded that since the Bible makes no reference to Christmas, or celebrating the birth of Christ, the real children of god would not participate in such a pagan ritual. In practice, this meant that not only did we not celebrate Christmas, but that we had to actively reject anything connected to it. So, for example, if they sang Christmas carols in class at school, we had to leave the classroom and go to the library. One of the effects of his policies – at least partially intentional -- was to isolate his children and make us feel different. As he would say, “I got Bible for that”: In First John 2 the writer admonishes: “Do not love the world or anything in the world…” My father was never one to act passively or even moderately to biblical instructions. If he was instructed not to love the world he would actively hate it! Throughout the years of my youth, he systematically expressed his hatred for each of our neighbors, and for the entire community – usually directly to their faces. For him, this had the effect of isolating us further…just as god had instructed.
We learned that every thought and deed was laced with moral implications, that every decision was a decision for or against god’s will. If a judge ruled against one of my father’s clients, his raging eventually and inevitably became a righteous rant about the judge defying god, and attacking his people. Our father explained to us over and over about how our hearts were deceitful and desperately wicked. Our education about the world was profoundly colored by this fundamental assumption. One of my earliest doubts about our faith rose from the question that if, in fact, the Adamic race is so thoroughly cursed with this moral corruption, how is it that we so willingly turn to the writings of corrupt men to find our salvation?
Many Sunday sermons were spent poring over the nuances of Old Testament stories where Yahweh had brought his people to the point of despair then delivered their enemies into their hands with some violent, miraculous intervention. While it was clear that god was unyielding toward his enemies, it was equally clear that he seemed quite willing and even eager to violently strike down his appointed ones at the slightest provocation.
This violence was a fact of life in our home, and is interwoven from my earliest memories as a child. Already facing the responsibilities of a wife and 13 children, my father made the decision to go to law school. The physical and mental demands led him to take prescription amphetamines to keep him going. Barbiturates were soon added to the mix to help him sleep at night. The combination of stress and this chemical cocktail fueling his system meant that his temper was quick, violent, and indiscriminate.
Despite these problems, my father graduated from law school near the top of his class; but getting admitted to the bar was an entirely separate challenge, as nobody in the legal community was willing to vouch for him. Within a few years of starting up his practice, he was brought up on ethics charges that led to a 2-year suspension from the State bar. Of course, this was all interpreted by him as the actions of god’s enemies trying to destroy him and his church.
Currently, images of my nieces and nephews carrying signs with hateful messages flash across the media. All of these young children deliberately placed in harm’s way, by those who are charged with their safety. It reminds me of some of the events that followed my father’s suspension.
The suspension meant the loss of our family’s primary source of income; so my father came up with the idea of having the children go out and sell candy for the church. At first, it started as an interesting challenge to see who could sell the most candy to our neighbors; but that market soon dried up, and we still needed money. Soon, we were making weekend trips through the Midwest, from Omaha to Wichita to Kansas City. During summer holidays we would spend 15 hours a day, with10 kids at a time, canvassing large territories, and generating thousands of dollars in candy sales.
It didn’t take us long to figure out that one of the easiest ways to make money was to hit the bars in the evening. Friday and Saturday night would find 10 to 12 year old children working their way through dark taverns, selling their candy while strippers performed a few feet away. More than once, the violence that is inevitable in such places resulted in direct injury to one of us. Yet in spite of this obvious danger, we were required to continue this for over seven years.
Ironically, twice on every Sunday we’d present ourselves before the lord, as our father identified and railed against the rampant evils of the world.
On the first anniversary of my father’s suspension, I returned home from school to find my mother weeping in the church vestibule. My older brother, Mark, was trying to comfort her. She turned to him, her eyes red and swollen, her voice choked with rage. She yanked the stocking cap off her head, revealing that her long dark hair has been coarsely chopped off. “He cut my hair off”, she cried. Looking closer, I could see that in some places her white scalp has been exposed.
I think everyone here can understand the trauma of such violence, the feeling of violation and abuse. But for my mother, and for our family, there was more to it than that. My father had a fascination with 1 Corinthians 11, in which Paul teaches the hierarchal authority from god, to Christ, to Man, to Woman. A sign of a woman’s submission, he argues, is her wearing her hair long. Fred took quite literally the instructions that women should have long hair; and more than that, he determined that the Greek word translated as “long” in the bible would be more properly translated as “uncut”. Thus, no woman in the church was allowed to put scissors to her hair. Nor were they allowed to present themselves in church without their heads properly covered.
In my father’s world, obscure standards and requirements that he dug out of the Bible were far more important than improving one’s character, or demonstrating kindness towards others. When he took those blades to my mother’s head, he was making a powerful assertion that he had absolute control over her very salvation. So ingrained were these beliefs that I remember fearing that, by cutting her hair, my father had condemned her to eternal damnation.
Women were second class citizens in our church and family, and my father proclaimed this adamantly, with no room for compromise. The bible was very clear on the subject. Eve was deceived by the snake in Eden, and was therefore the weaker vessel in every respect. Paul bolstered this misogynistic attitude in his letters to the early churches. Wives were to be in subjection to their husbands; and by extension, it was a husband’s responsibility to bring his wife back into submission if she strayed. Women were to keep silent in the church. Women were to have the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit. These were just truths that we took as fundamental.
Yet when my father turned his instructive fist on my mother, I instinctively felt internal conflict. For me, it was intuitively wrong that a 6 foot 2, 250 pound man be allowed to beat up a woman barely half his size. But we dared not intervene or even question his actions, because his behavior was sanctioned by god. In one instance, as my father was stalking our mother at the top of the stairs, she stumbled and started to fall. Reaching out to catch herself she ripped her arm out of the socket. My father refused to let her get medical treatment to repair the damaged muscles and tendons. In subsequent, years when he was angry with her, he would inevitably grab for that injured arm. On a few occasions he managed to get hold of it and re-injure it.
The toxic cycle of uppers and downers resulted in a deterioration of my father’s health. Finally, one day, he simply collapsed from exhaustion, and had to be rushed to the hospital. This scared him, and he came back home with a determination to regain his health. A Jack Lalanne exercise program on a box of Wheaties caught his eye, and the next thing we knew, he was buying exercise equipment and heading for the track.
His desire to get back in shape was, in and of itself, a good and even necessary thing. However, true to his character, my father took a personal desire to improve his health and turned it into an obsession that impacted the entire family. Soon, we would arrive home from selling candies, only to get back in the cars and head over to the high school to run 5 or 10 miles around the track. Charts were hung up all around the house, tracking progress and setting new distance goals. Running the marathon became my father’s Holy Grail; learning of a marathon that was coming up nearby, he stepped up our training to run 15 and then 20 miles. As grueling as this regiment was, none of the children dared complain.
On Labor Day of 1970 we traveled to Columbia, Missouri and entered the Heart of America Marathon. Our presence did not go unnoticed. The official record of that year’s race reported: “The big story was the heat and humidity - 75 degrees and 80% humidity at the 6:00 a.m. start… Another big story was that of the Phelps family - ten kids, ages seven to seventeen, plus the old man. They all finished; none of them even considered dropping out.” My youngest brother Timothy, who had just turned 7 years old, struggled to the finish line in 6 hours and 48 minutes. His sister Elizabeth, a year older, took over 7 hours.
There’s something to be said for managing through fear and intimidation.
Once committed, my father focused the same fanatical energy and devotion that he did to everything else. He devoured every book he could find on the topic of health, and subjected us to the dietary program he decided was best. After a long day of school, candy sales and running, it was typical to return home to find a steaming serving of boiled cabbage with a few raw eggs in a glass and small piles of brewers yeast, bone meal, and rose hip tablets served up for dinner. A 5 gallon stainless steel pan was filled with reconstituted powdered milk and left to ferment under the stairs. As the milk curdled, he would scrape the curds and whey off the top and offer it for the evening meal. During these years I didn’t own a pair of pants that didn’t have stains on the pockets from hiding the boiled cabbage in them.
Dissatisfied with his efforts to lose weight, he came across a book touting the benefits of fasting. It so happened that several of his favorite characters in the Old Testament had done it…so why couldn’t he? After a few false starts, he found his stride and spent 47 days living off water only. It didn’t take long before he took to his bed for the better part of each day. He acquired a big brass bell that sat on his headboard. When he rang it everyone dropped what they were doing and raced upstairs to do his bidding.
He came away from that fast with a finely tuned disdain for over weight people. Of course there was bible for his position: The passages that talk about your body being a temple. As the children entered their teen years, hormones shifted and weight started sticking. First he targeted my oldest sister Kathy, demanding that she get the weight off. My mother, whose body had suffered the effects of 16 pregnancies over 18 years found it very difficult to lose the weight that had accumulated. Unable to view the world from any perspective but his own, my father regularly beat and berated her for her weight.
Then came the day when it was my turn. He passed me on the stairs, and suddenly his hand darted under my shirt, grabbing the flesh of my stomach and twisting it painfully. Demanding to know what I could be eating to pack on the weight, he launched into a 20 minute diatribe of insulting rhetoric then announced to everyone else in the room that I was to go on a diet and get the weight off.
Without the benefit of instruction or support in my weight loss effort, the next 5 years devolved into a nightmare of binging and purging, laxatives, fasting, and eventually the discovery of amphetamines. In spite of all these efforts, the weight would creep up, and he would once again take matters into his own hands
My father was a strong believer in, “spare the rod, and spoil the child”? In the early years his weapon of choice was a barber’s strap. However, it was used so often that it eventually frayed at the business end, and his blows would wrap around like the end of a whip, opening up wounds on our hips. So one day he called a meeting of all the children, and presented his newest disciplinary tool. Presumably, the larger the rod, the less spoiled the child, so my father presented us with a mattock handle. He demonstrated its effectiveness that day by giving it a test run on my older brother, Mark. One blow and Mark’s face turned white.
In terms of knowing how to administer punishment, my father was an adept. Seven or eight blows would be enough to cause the skin to swell and bruise. However, if he administered a few blows, and then waited five to ten minutes before the next round, this gave the damaged tissue time to swell and stretch the skin tight. The new round of blows would cause that skin to split and bleed. When he was particularly angry, it wasn’t uncommon for him to take careful aim at the lower back, or just behind the knees, where the pain was excruciating.
Of course, no matter how extreme or unjust his actions might seem to others, as far as my father was concerned, he was acting according to scripture, and simply claiming his god ordained rights and responsibilities as the head of the house. When my mother tried to intervene in some of his more brutal beatings, he’d turn on her and punish her, also. Proverbs 13:24 was core to his actions: He that spareth his rod hateth his son. But there was a fundamental contradiction. He claimed that this punishment was done out of love for his children; yet as he beat us, he’d scream his hatred at us also. As extreme and violent as his physical assaults were, his verbal attacks were far more destructive. Today, his hatred for everything and everyone is proudly emblazoned on the colorful placards he and his followers wave at their demonstrations; but we were the first targets, the first to be subjected to his gospel hatred.
All of this is going on while he is presenting his version of Calvinism to the small group of people who met every Sunday at Westboro Baptist Church. When I thought about it, I couldn’t reconcile the idea that our reality, our system, was better then those he railed against. How was it possible that our beliefs could lead to or condone the kind of behavior exhibited by our father? He held such an impossibly high standard that it was easy for him to find a fatal flaw in everyone else, while remaining curiously blind to his own.
Anyone who claimed to be a believer, but didn’t subscribe to my father’s interpretation of the scriptures, was quickly declared to be excluded from god’s grace for any number of flaws in their doctrine. For example, the Lord’s Supper was to be performed with unleavened bread and wine only. If you used grape juice, you were going to hell. If the loaf wasn’t a single loaf, unleavened, broken by hand, you were guilty of desecrating the body of Christ. If you had ever divorced, had sex outside marriage, married a divorced person, felt empathy for a gay person -- or simply crossed Fred -- you were the enemy.
In the end, if he couldn’t find anything else apparently wrong with someone, the simple fact that they weren’t in attendance at his church – The Place – and subject to his authority, was adequate evidence that they were not chosen by God.
In our environment, with no tolerance for original thought or dissension, it was easy for his extreme dogma to stick.
My father made all the decisions about our future. As our father, and the pastor of the church, he concluded that he was responsible for every aspect of our lives, and had the authority to make and enforce all decisions about them. Since he had found some level of success in the legal arena, he decided that his children would attend college, and then move on to law school. When my oldest brother, Fred, Jr., announced that he wanted to be a history teacher, my father berated and bludgeoned him into submission. That set the tone for the rest of us kids.
I must admit, there are few careers more suited to my father’s temperament and abilities than the legal profession. His intellect and fiery oratorical skills compel people to stand up and take notice. Early on in his legal career he discovered an untapped gold mine in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This new federal act was basically an empty shell waiting to be filled. He was up to that challenge. Filing an unprecedented number of civil rights suits earned him a reputation in the region for championing the rights of the black man. In spite of his personal and theologically based disdain for the black community he was able to sway juries, with his passionate rhetoric, to pay large judgments and even convinced the NAACP to honor him with several awards.
I can’t begrudge his desire to see his children become lawyers. However, I did have significant problems with his assumption that he had such absolute control over our lives. Of course, as usual, he claimed his authority directly from the scriptures: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife…” This short and apparently innocuous passage led to a number of rather severe conclusions. First, children were not to leave their parents before they got married; if they did so, they were outside the will of god. Second, the Bible also says that Christians “should not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers”; so we could only marry those who had been judged by our father to be true believers. So, single or married, we stayed firmly under his thumb.
All these choices were made for us, and any defiance was not defiance against our father…it was defiance against god.
The doubts, contradictions, and fears kept building in me; and no matter how much I tried to subject myself to god’s will, as interpreted by my father, they would not go away. So on the day of my 18th birthday I left home. Following is an excerpt from a book I’ve been working on, that best explains my state of mind at that time:
The November night is chilly, winter is nearly here. I draw deeply on my cigarette, and then blow it out, not sure which part is smoke, and which part is my breath. I’m alert as I near our house. At this late hour no one should be awake. Flipping the cigarette over the fence, I slip quietly through the back door.
I’ve known for the last few years that I was going to leave. I also know the price that I will pay for this decision. But I honestly do not perceive a choice. When my older brother Mark left my father moved heaven and earth to try to force him back into his orbit of influence. I recall the day that a group of us from the church hand-delivered the ex-communication letter to Mark. I remember the sense of self-righteousness that I felt at that time.
The letter detailed, in my father’s most officious and procedural tone, the “sins” of my brother. “Forsaking the assembly…enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season.” “He went out from us, because he was not of us.” He quoted Bible passages that detailed the extent and the ramifications of my brother’s rebellion. Finally, drawing on the full power and authority of his position as the Fist of God, he announced that Mark had been “delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of the lord.”
But Mark did, ultimately, succeed in escaping; and his escape became the subject of many sermons over the following years. He used Mark as an example of the price we children would pay if we abandoned The Place.
So I know what this decision means…or at least, I think I do. Who can really understand the emotional and psychological impact of being entirely cut off from their family? At this point, with only a few minutes to go, these nebulous issues of family rejection are far in the future, while my freedom from my father’s tyranny is immediate, and within my grasp.
In these final minutes I’m struck by the apparent absurdity of the circumstances I find myself in. Who “runs away” from home? What assumptions must exist for a grown child to even use that kind of language? Well, there’s the assumption that any level of violence is acceptable if it is done in God’s name. The assumption that a child is not allowed to leave their parent’s home until they marry. The assumption that another human has absolute control over your thoughts and decisions. And finally, the assumption that my decision to leave is representative more of a spiritual rejection of god, than of a physical desire for survival and freedom.
Since these assumptions exist in my world, I am running away.
My 18th birthday is very important, even central to my planning. My brother left after he was 18, and he was successful. My oldest sister Kathy, on the other hand, tried to leave before she was 18. My father tracked her down, and I watched as he physically forced her to return home. The physical and emotional damage that he inflicted on her in those last few months took a terrible toll on her. She was never the same, her spirit was broken.
It’s 11: 55. I enter my bedroom and pace nervously across the small floor space. Counting has long been a refuge for me, a way to keep the terror at bay. Counting my father’s blows, to isolate my mind from the pain, and to remind myself that it was getting closer to the end, Counting my strides as I ran, taking my mind off the exhaustion. Now I’m counting the minutes until I’m 18.
I slip through the next bedroom, and into the dining room. Peering around the stairs that break up the room, I glance at the old red clock on the wall above the three refrigerators.
It’s 11:58 P.M.
My heart is racing and my chest is tight with nervous anxiety. One hundred and twenty seconds left. Adrenaline surges through my body.
Now it’s 11:59.
It is strange. Each second passes so slowly…yet the time rushes past in an instant. I scan the room one last time. This old wooden dining table…how many times did I back around it in retreat trying to escape my father’s furious blows? Over there in the corner…my mother crouched quivering on the floor, her wails reduced to whimpers before my father’s rage? These stairs, marked invisibly but permanently by her blood as he taught her proper submission to his will. I glance behind me, into the large family room, where several of my sisters are asleep, and recall when it was added on a few years before…I say a silent, sad farewell to them.
To the right, beyond the stairs, the door to the sanctuary stands open. I can see the pulpit my father stood behind these many years, meticulously and exhaustively defining the system of faith that justifies his abuse. Expounding upon the verses that “prove” his enemies are the enemies of God. Drilling into us the passages that have taught us to despise and distrust all those beyond our walls. It is an incubator of hate.
Only a few seconds left…the seconds hand seems to stutter and pause, unwilling to give me my final permission to go. Then, suddenly…midnight!
Excitement, fear, joy, anxiety, relief…a furious mixture of feelings floods my system. My fist pumps in the air, gesturing in defiance at the top of the stairs. A primal yell escapes, unbidden, instinctive. Then suddenly, fear dominates me again. I turn, and run…through the bedrooms, up the stairs, and out the door to freedom. A thrill of terror passes through me as I imagine my father’s hand clamping down on my neck, pulling me back. My pace quickens.
I race towards the old, green Rambler Classic, which I bought secretly for $300 several months ago. I’ve had to move it around, parking it in different places, to avoid detection from my family. The rusty door squeaks in metallic protest as I jump in. I fumble with the keys, put them in the ignition…and with a quick twist, the engine rumbles into life.
I’m on my way.
The next five years marked a struggle for a sense of who I was, while carefully avoiding anything to do with religion. In 1981 I moved to southern California to work with my brother Mark in the printing business. From time to time, at the sincere urging of friends, I would attend a church service. But it all seemed so plain and feeble. When they taught about God’s love, I’d hear my father’s voice condemning them for their namby-pamby fag-enabling beliefs. As the pastor taught that eternal life was a gift freely given to any man who exercises his free will and accepts it, my father’s disdainful voice reverberates in my head: How can a dead man accept anything?!?
In 1982 I began dating a woman named Tammi. 4 years later we were married. She had been married before, so according to my father, marrying her branded me an adulterer in god’s eyes. To my absolute amazement, we were pregnant within a month. Now, you have to understand, my father made a big deal about children. They were a gift from god, a sign of his blessing. That’s why Fred had so many children. I recall the shock I felt when I learned we were going to have a baby; I had convinced myself that because I’d rejected my father’s teachings, I’d lost god’s blessing, and would not be able to have children. My wife had a daughter from her first marriage, and I was content simply to help raise her. So in June of 1987, when my son Tyler was born, it was the closest thing to a miracle that had ever happened in my life. Two years later Tammi gave birth to twins, Hayley & Hunter, and I was instantly in over my head.
Living in a brand new community nestled at the base of Saddleback Mountain in south Orange County, California, I focused on giving my children as normal a childhood as possible. Where my father advocated isolation, I strove for immersion in the community. In my mind this included finding a church and attending it regularly. Although Tammi & I had discussed religion, neither of us were passionate about it. We picked an Evangelical Free church because it seemed the least dogmatic. I worked long hours and spent all my free time with my kids. As they reached school age, we got them involved in various activities and my priority was to be there, coaching their teams and encouraging them.
At night I worried and fretted. Sleepless, anxious hours passed as I played violent confrontations with my father over and over in my mind. In these battles I would test new ideas and beliefs against his rhetoric and doctrine, something we were unable to do as children. Exposure to mainstream Christianity was creating conflicts and raising questions that sent me in search of answers. I found a counselor with a theological as well as psychiatric degree, and spent 9 months working with him. He gave me dozens of books that explained the “right” way to understand and interpret the bible. This gave me my first real understanding of the errors within my father’s system, but I was still wary of my own motives in my search. I also found myself reading the bible with a new found skepticism.
By day, I took on a role as an outspoken apologist for Christianity; but in the quiet hours, late at night, doubts festered. But always at the back of my mind was a nagging certainty that it wasn’t a problem with Christianity…it was a problem with me. I just wasn’t smart enough to understand it. After all, all around me were intelligent people who applied reason and logic to navigate through their daily lives…and they apparently saw no problem or contradictions between the real world, and their faith. Clearly the problem was with me…I was missing something.
In the early 1990’s, a renowned scientist came to speak in Garden Grove. The Primordial Ooze theory about the origin of life on earth had gained some attention. He was there to rebut it, prove that evolution was false, and the truth of god’s existence. I was truly excited to have the chance to hear from such an intelligent man. His speech ended up a mind numbing discussion about testing he had done that disproved the Primordial Ooze hypothesis. He then launched into a testimonial about how god had worked in his heart and then casually dismissed the theory of evolution, suggesting that Scientists might as well argue that life on earth was planted here by aliens. I was stunned by his presentation. Here was a man of learning who must understand things at a different level then me. If anyone would have logical, rational explanations of biblical truth, and how they applied to the real world, it would surely be him. Yet he was reduced to unverifiable claims of personal experiences, and ad hominum attacks against the scientific community. Two thoughts dominated my mind as he ended his speech: First, that even if his scientific argument was perfect, all he did was disprove one hypothesis…he did NOT prove Christianity! And second, how could he argue that believing in aliens planting life was idiotic, while stating as undeniable fact a belief in virgin births, men made from mud and sand, and people rising from the dead?!? Which belief system defied logic more?
Meanwhile, my depression deepened, and I went back into counseling. This time, I was diagnosed with PTSD, and my counselor convinced me to check myself in to a mental health facility. After 2 weeks there, I left believing that there was no cure…only avoidance of things that would trigger it. I returned to church and bible study. One day I approached two of my closest friends from the church. I told them that I was struggling with my faith, which I wasn’t sure I believed any longer. They were stunned into silence. In the following months, I watched as they gradually pulled away from me. I would get no answers there.
Then at Christmas time in 1994, I stopped at a Pizza Hut on the way home with my 3 young children. We were sitting in the car listening to Christmas songs while we waited for our order. Tyler asked me a question about Jesus, and I decided I would explain the Gospel to them once and for all. Intensely aware of the fear it had evoked in me, I carefully told them the story. Explaining the beauty of heaven for all believers, Tyler interrupted, asking about the people who didn’t believe. Well, I blundered in explaining that the bible says they go to a place called hell which I believed meant outside the presence of god.
“How long?” His young mind wondered.
“Well…the bible says eternity”, I answered.
“How long is that?” He asked.
“Forever” I said.
My little boy burst into tears, and immediately I recalled images of myself crying in a church pew as I listened to my father preach about hell and eternity.
“I don’t want to go to hell…I want to believe in God”, he insisted.
Soon Hayley and Hunter joined in with their tears and as I drove them home I brushed away a few of my own.
At home, I told my wife that I wouldn’t subject them to any more religion. They would be exposed to religion if and when they made that decision themselves.
My duty was to teach them to think critically and that was it. From that point forward I challenged my children every time they came home spouting whatever popular rhetoric they heard at school. I played devil’s advocate, constantly forcing them to think through their arguments.
The next 10 years marked a transition for me. I became more outspoken about the issues I had with Christianity and with religion in general. I still read books by Christian authors that offered a more spiritual way of looking at faith.
Certainly there are many aspects to Christianity that are good and desirable. But I began to think in terms of those aspects existing outside the framework of god. Why can’t the mosaic code exist outside the notion of a god? Why can’t ideas like love and kindness just be a part of who we are? I was reading books about how our brains work, how genetic coding explains so much human behavior, and about the foundation of all these new discoveries…evolution.
I was struck by the outcry against these ideas from the religious community. The impossible standard of proof that they were demanding of science while refusing to subject their own belief to ANY standard of proof. I came to realize that faith, by definition, cannot be proven.
In 2004, as my personal and professional life was imploding, I happened upon Michael Shermer’s book, The Science of Good & Evil. For the first time, as I read the book, I had this powerful sense that I had finally found someone who thought the way I did. As I raved about the arguments in his book, my wife scowled, my mother-in-law fretted, and my best friend assured me that embracing his arguments was just a reaction to my childhood experiences. I got that argument a lot as I pulled away from Christianity…that the only reason I was questioning it was because of the tortured notion of God I was raised with.
I do not accept that argument.
Certainly my childhood experiences could be said to have provided strong motivation for me to seek answers, but ultimately any theory or idea must stand on its own, exclusive of who presents it. In my searching, I have arrived at the opinion that Christianity has an unblemished record of utterly failing every legitimate scientific challenge to its claims since Galileo peered into the night sky.
2005 was a pivotal year in my life. I realized that I had spent my entire adult life trying to find the right set of behaviors and beliefs that would bring me back to grace. The belief systems that I had brought with me from childhood were failing me completely. In July of that year I met a young lady named Angela. She had the nerve to question my assumptions. Even worse, she had the audacity to insist that I question my own. She had an intoxicating mixture of intelligence and independent thought. She challenged me at every turn, and refused to accept an argument without a logical defense. Most important, she forced me to communicate.
In December of 2005, a failed marriage behind me, I moved to Canada to be with Angela. The first day there, sitting in a chair in her kitchen as she scurried about adding ingredients to some dish she was making, I plunged once more into a dungeon of dark despair. Glancing up, she saw the pain on my face. She dropped what she was doing and came to me. She placed her hands on my face and said “Don’t do that…don’t go to that place of fear and guilt. Talk to me!”
It was a simple idea, a novel idea, and a profound moment for me. Until then I had never considered the idea that I might have the option to forgive myself and let go of the past.
We talked. We argued. We fought. I learned that I could speak my mind without some horrible consequence befalling me, and another false assumption fell at the wayside.
It would take nearly 2 years for me to gain permission to work in Canada. Meanwhile, Angela suggested that I try writing my story to help me gain new perspective. As I dove into that project, she came home one day with a book entitled The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Reading it I was struck once again by how these arguments resonated in me. For years, all these thoughts and ideas had been floating around in my head, battling with the demons of my past, but they were disorganized and incomplete, locked in a stalemate between my past and my present. In Dawkins’ book, these thoughts and ideas finally coalesced and took form, and I was able to move forward. The End of Faith by Sam Harris & God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens soon followed. I couldn’t get enough. Combined with the supportive atmosphere provided in my new surroundings, I was making progress.
Back in California, in the death throws of my faith I would attend a church from time to time with my friend Maria. I liked the pastor there. He was as much a philosopher as he was a preacher. As the congregation sang praise, their bodies swaying with hands raised to their god, I found myself time and again weeping uncontrollably. At the time my feelings puzzled me. By then, I knew that I no longer believed, so why the strong emotion? Well…I understood the emotional impact such a belief system provided. Those unknowable elements of life, such as what will happen in the future, what will happen when we die? This provided answers, security, and comfort. But I had reached a point where I could no longer pretend. I knew too much. Giving up on a faith based system, I also had to let go of the security it provided.
Looking back on it now, I think I was saying goodbye to it all, and there was a strong element of sadness in that farewell. My journey continues. Each day I get better at silencing the condemning voice, and each day I dare to confront the truth that there are many things that we just don’t know…and that it’s okay to say that we don’t know. It’s okay to keep looking for answers in the world of reason and logic…that’s a very human thing.
Perhaps the words of the Apostle Paul best summarize my attitude about Christianity at this point in my life. In his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul wrote: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.