Ponderings on Beliefs Past


I’ve actually been working on this one for a while; a rather different process than my usual throw-something-snarky-out-there-in-5-minutes style. Jason shamed me into posting it ;-)

Many times during the debate between atheists and christians, the christians often throw out the trope that we atheists just haven’t read the bible enough or been taught the “right” thing about Jesus, despite the fact that a large number of atheists are converts from religions that otherwise produce “true believers”. Our religious education is lacking, they claim. When their claims are proved false, for example by the atheist being an evangelical christian for 30 years before leaving that belief, then the No True Scotsman fallacy is drug out. They weren’t “real christians” or “true believers”. Here’s a peek into my own religious upbringing so you know where I’m coming from.  For me, religion wasn’t so much about belief as it was just a part of life. Lemme ‘splain.

I grew up with a solid German Lutheran background: the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod, for those in the know). My grandfather, a second generation German-American with a wonderful gravelly voice, was a pastor in said church. Since we lived in a different city so he wasn’t my pastor. My family went to church every Sunday; I attended sunday school and then confirmation classes when I reached junior high. I participated in the Youth Group, went on retreats, was a member of the adult choir while still in high school (on account of me singing so good) and I was even an acolyte, which meant I got to light the candles before service and collect the empty little glasses after communion (though when I hear the word “acolyte” I think of D&D).  My family said prayers before dinner and bed (“Come Lord Jesus” and “Now I Lay Me”, respectively, though not the creepy version of “Now I Lay Me” with the line in it about dying before waking up).

Up until probably the end of high school I would have identified myself as a christian. Mostly due to apathy, I think. It’s not like I was really into it. Sometimes the debate about theological minutia was interesting, in a sort of pseudo-philosophical way, but outside of required activities I gave little thought to what I “believed”. Towards the end of high school I was calling myself an agnostic privately (when I bothered to give it any thought at all) and as soon as I moved away from home at 20 or so I stopped going to church.

When I was a small child I was classified as “hyperactive”, now more clinically called ADHD. This meant that sitting through an hour of mind-numbing talk on uncomfortable benches was rather difficult, to say the least. Many times I was removed from church for the obligatory spanking from my father for not sitting still, not paying attention, not being quiet, etc. (nothing severe, no switches or belts involved, just your old-fashioned butt paddling). As much as I dreaded the spanking,  getting out of that dark and oppressive place was refreshing. The absolute best part of church was leaving it, seeing that bright sunshine and fresh air after suffering through the stifling boredom of the past hour.

Church was not a place of fire and brimstone, but rather boredom and monotony, from my point of view anyway. Hell was a rather nebulous concept not so much defined as a literal place but rather as a state of being separated from god’s grace. Whatever the hell that means. Most of the sermons seemed to be about interpreting the bible as to how it applied to our own lives and our own behaviours. There was no excoriation of other groups, no condemnation of the gays or the blacks. Very little of the focus was on evangelizing beyond the whole “This little light of mine” kind of thing. We were encouraged to spread the word, but only if people came asking about it. No standing on street corners handing out fliers for us.

One thing that I always appreciated was that my two pastors growing up were open, honest decent people. Our youth pastor during those tumultuous teen years was especially good at working with kids and talking honestly with us about those sexual feelings we were discovering and dealing with cliques and other teenage torments. We were never made to feel like we were dirty for getting excited at the opposite sex (no one I knew was gay, so that topic didn’t really come up) and we were flat out told that there was nothing wrong with masturbation. Sex was a gift from god, we were taught, that was to be appropriately shared by married people. But we should use a condom if we weren’t going to wait.

During confirmation classes (aka catechism) we followed Luther’s Small Catechism, which basically meant memorizing the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and the Lord’s Prayer, along with Luther’s explanation of  their meaning. We also covered the history of the religion along with a basic overview of the beliefs of other major christian religions and the various minor differences between them. A catholic was just as much a christian as a baptist as a lutheran, even though they did weird things in their services. Mormons were out, however, as were JW’s. Jews for Jesus were probably allright.

So, what was I taught about evolution? Nada. Zip. Zilch. At least, not from the church. It never came up. When I asked my mom about it one time (I was probably in elementary school) she said that she thought that Genesis was metaphorical, at least as far as the whole creating everything in six days business, and that god probably guided evolution to create us. The flood story kinda fell into the same category, at least in my mind. Even as a child I had a very difficult time swallowing the concept that all life was bottlenecked through that ark. Does not compute. Since I was, even then, fairly non-confrontational (not to mention lazy), I never pushed the issue. Those kinds of conversations always ended up with something to the effect of “we’ll have to ask god when we get to heaven to explain that.”

My parents were very active in the church too. They were youth group leaders, served on several committees and my dad was even the President of the congregation for a while. This introduced me to the nastiness that is church politics. I should just say politics, because there is very little different with the church kind. Backroom deals, backstabbing, double-crossing, self-serving; they were all just as much a part of church politics as they are of the more secular kind. I also had another somewhat unique perspective in that my grandfather was a pastor. Hearing my mother bitch about her parents definitely allowed me to realize early on that pastors were just as fallibly human as the rest of us. There was nothing that was more special or divine about them that gave them any more authority. They went to a special college and got a degree, that’s all.

I got married in the same church I grew up in, not out of any particular religious significance, but because when I was a child I had attended a wedding there and had told myself that I would be married there as well. So basically for sentimental and nostalgic reasons. My grandfather performed the ceremony, as he had done for all his children and their children. It wouldn’t have felt right to not have him perform it. Now, as an atheist, I still might have done that way. My Papa and I had a special relationship. We shared a birthday, albeit 50 years apart.

Anyway, to end this rambling, fast forward to today. I came out as an atheist almost a year ago, due in no small part to PZ Myers and Pharyngula and the rest of the bunch over at ScienceBlogs.com that opened my eyes and jumpstarted me into shucking my apathy and standing proud for what I (don’t) believe in.

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  1. #1 by Jason Thibeault on August 21, 2009 - 4:26 pm

    Your shame threshold is apparently much lower than you claim.

    Excellent post, sir. Well done. Very honest and raw. I have a post I've been drafting for almost a week now (still nowhere near ready — been a busy week) about coming out as an atheist, and you've just earned yourself a significant rewrite on my part specifically to include this.

  2. #2 by tuibguy on August 22, 2009 - 2:20 am

    I had a series of posts at Tangled up in Blue Guy on my ascent to atheism, too. It was more of a gradual thing for me, too. There was never a shocking awareness of no God, it was just a weariness of always trying to reach out only to repeatedly find nothing. There was never a big deal for me "coming out" as an atheist, but I figured I had better do it as publicly as possible for all of those who feel entrapped.

  3. #3 by tall penguin on September 2, 2009 - 2:42 am

    Great post. And now I know more about you.

    • #4 by CyberLizard on September 4, 2009 - 5:11 am

      But not the really juicy nasty stuff; that comes later ;-)

  4. #5 by john_poson26 on September 6, 2009 - 12:23 am

    Aside from those I grew up around, most people I’ve met in life have a hard time understanding, or believing me when I say; I’ve never believed in god, or Jesus. At some point in all of our lives; I believe we all start pondering these same questions; whether or not some kind of a god might exists. My main question was: has it any relevance, to me.

    Good job on coming to terms with reality!

    John

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