A while ago a friend commented on the books in my margins and asked what had gotten me interested in the whole God debate to begin with, and what led me toward Atheism specifically. This week has pretty much been a big build up to this – they story of how an Atheist came to be.
I was raised in a spiritually open house, for lack of better language. My dad had been raised in a very loosely Christian house. If they went to church it was only because the neighbors did and his mother cared very much what they neighbors thought. It was the 50’s after all and appearances mattered. By the time I came into being my fraternal grandmother no longer attended church and my dad was pretty into Zen Buddhism, but he was far from dogmatic. My mom had been raised Lutheran and I was baptised Lutheran when I was an infant to please all my grandparents. Though by the time I was born my mom was Agnostic leaning towards full-blown Atheism. It had actually been a bit of a debate whether or not to baptise me and my sister. In the end they decided that a little water on the head wasn’t going to hurt us and it would make their parents happy. God had nothing to do with it.
When I was very little I don’t remember much talk of God happening in the house. I did go to church with my Lutheran grandparents when we were in Michigan to visit them. And I remember my grandmother was neurotic about washing my feet before we went even though they were just going to be stuffed into frilly socks and shoes anyway. It never made sense to me.
I really became interested in God once I started school. It started with the Greek myths. I LOVED the Greek gods, indeed, I have a degree in classical studies because it’s a love that never fully abated. I loved how human and petty and fallible they were, they were just like us, only BIGGER.
Then, I met my BFF, or at least my BF for elementary school, Kim. She was a Christian. She talked about and worried about God a lot. When I went to her house for dinner or sleepovers the whole family would pray for my soul. My parents, ever the fans of letting their children learn from other people, let me go to church with Kim’s family a number of times. And always, when I left their house, her dad would ask if I had found Jesus yet, as if he was something I might have lost in my messy bedroom or under the bed. I was an honest kid, so I always said, “Nope, not yet.” The next time I saw Kim she would cry because her father had told her that I was still headed for Hell, which was a terrible place where I burn in fires and be tortured and picked on for all eternity and once I was there I would be unable to redeem myself. I’d be stuck.
So, on the one hand she was terrified for me, on the other hand she kept trying to tell me that her God was a kind, loving and just God. I kept asking her how a kind, loving, just God could possibly send a kid to a place like Hell just because I was born into a different house than she was. Heck, I’d even been baptised. She asked her dad and he said being baptised wasn’t enough, we had to read the Bible. I went home and told my parents about Kim and her fears for me and that it might help her feel better if we read the Bible. My mom’s response was “Honey, I’ve already read the Bible. It has some good stories in it, but it’s not something I want to read to you at night. It’s a long book and I don’t think it’s fair to the rest of the family. They want to finish the Bunnicula series. But, if this is really important to you I’ll get you a Bible and you can read it.” I was thrilled.
So she got me a Bible and I sat down and started to read. A few things struck me – first, the God of the Old Testament is very clearly NOT the same as the God of the new testament. To this day I can spot the difference between Old Testament Christians (think hell-fire, brimstone, anti-gay, anti-sex, anti-“others”, anti-feminism, pro-patriarchy, etc.) and New Testament Christians (Think love, acceptance, turning the other cheek, judging not lest they be judged…) in about half a heart-beat. The Old Testament God was wrathful and angry, he was, in fact, very Zeus like; jealous, demanding, controlling. And if you threw a little bloodthirsty Ares into the mix – boom, Old Testament God. In fact so many of the Old Testament stories correlated with the Greek, Roman and even Egyptian myths that I had been reading for the past three years that I wondered if Christianity had anything original to offer at all. Then I got to the New Testament.
The first book, the Book of Matthew, was a revelation. Here was a kind, wise man, trying to make the world a better, calmer place. Cool. Then I got to the Book of Mark, and it was the same story all over again with just a few differences. And then Luke told his version and then John… I admit, it got a little tedious.
Around that time I started listening closer when Kim’s father would read from the Bible at dinner. I found it interesting which passages he would choose and which ones he ignored. I started calling him out on it. I bet he regretted telling me to read the Bible. Even as a child I had nearly perfect recall of anything I read and so the debates began. You say God’s Wrath, I say Jesus Loves… I didn’t care one way or another, I just wanted him to stop torturing my BFF and making her cry because I was going to Hell.
The last straw for all of us happened when they took me to a special Christmas Mass. A miracle had been promised and he was sure that it would be the tipping point for my soul.
A bunch of candles were lit on the front alter, one was left conspicuously unlit. Lots of prayers were said, readings done, hymns sung. Then, the moment was upon us, the minister called on God to bless the congregation. An expectant hush fell over the church. One second passed, another, another and then… the unlit candle flared and the crowd gasped and cheered because God had entered their house of worship and blessed them all!
On our way out Kim’s dad turned to me, triumphant, “See”, he said, “God is real, and tonight he blessed you.” It was the wrong thing to say to a fearless little girl who had done everything he asked, I’d read the Bible, I’d gone to church with them, but I was also an award-winning science fair scientist. “But that candle was placed lower than the others and you could see that when the other candles around it melted down their flames were nearly touching it. Of course it lit, all that radiant heat…” I really thought he might slap me. I stayed the night, in the morning I thanked them for taking me to their special Mass and apologized for remaining unconvinced. Kim’s dad said something about me choosing Hell over eternal Love, Kim cried again and I was heartbroken. I hadn’t been able to save my friend.
I told my parents about the Mass and the candle and my theory. They said it was plausible that the other candles around had lit the candle, they also said I shouldn’t discount a miracle. But I knew better, there was no way the minister of that church was going to gamble the faith of his entire congregation on the attention of a very busy God. The Cold War was ramping down but people were still on edge, people all over the world were starving, homeless people in my very own town were freezing to death ON CHRISTMAS, God had more important things to attend to than lighting a candle in one church in Colorado.
However, I wanted to be fair. I had access to candles and matches and had been taught basic fire safety. I reset the scene of the miracle. I lit all the candles except the center one, positioned just slightly lower than the rest and waited. Sure enough when the other candles all melted down to just the right level, the center candle lit, as if by magic!
When 5th grade ended I went to one middle school and Kim went to another. We drifted apart as happens with kids. Every now and then we’d try to hang out, but I just couldn’t stomach her pain or her father’s rhetoric. Then the true last straw came. Kim and I were hanging out, I had just found out that her mom was pregnant again. It wasn’t an oops, Kim’s dad had been working with the founder of the Promise Keepers and in an effort to prove his loyalty to the cause he and his wife had to stop using and birth control and put their trust in God. And God doesn’t make mistakes.
Then I asked her where her big brother Nate was. She told me he was in a psych ward receiving electro-shock therapy because he had drifted away from God. “WHAT?” I gasped. “Oh my god, Kim, I am so sorry, are you OK, do you need to run away? My parents can keep you safe…” She looked at me like I was crazy. “I’m fine, this is the best thing, we’re saving his soul.” I knew right then my friend was lost, forever. If she could calmly watch her brother get tortured for Jesus and think that it was the right thing to do, it was time to walk away.
After that I became even more interested in religion. By then my dad had started me on Buddhist philosophy and I had read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and Illusions and Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. It seemed like a calmer, kinder faith than Christianity. Again, just to be sure though I re-read the Bible. By then I had gotten rid of my first one so the next time I was in a hotel I stole one that the Gideon’s had left behind. If I remember right that copy had only the New Testament. It was just about the love. It was confusing to try to reconcile the love of Jesus with the anger, fear and hatred that I felt emanating from most evangelical Christians. Then the Jehovah’s Witnesses came by to tell me the world was ending and we should all be excited to be meeting God. They gave me their version of the Bible as well as their magazine and some books for kids. I was astounded. It was like each sect of Christianity was working from a slightly different copy of the same book, and all claiming that theirs was the infallible Word of God.
The King James version was different from the J.W. version which was different from the version I found in the hotel which was different from the version my mom had first bought for me… and then there’s the Catholics and the Latin Bible and the incense and the selling of penitence and confession and purgatory (you know, for the people God just can’t make up His mind about…)
Then to complicate things more there’s the matter of the Muslims and the Jews and the Mormons. Technically they all worshipped the same God. But the Muslims and Jews didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Muslims had their own messiah, Muhammad, who wrote his book, The Koran, to fit with their cultural expectations and needs. The Jews didn’t recognize any messiah’s, they were still waiting. The Mormon’s believed Jesus was the messiah, sort of, except that he had magically appeared in the Americas after his crucifixion and millenia later their founder, Joseph Smith, had been led to some Golden Tablets by the angel Moroni and THOSE had the REAL word of God. (And why are they called Mormons instead of Morons if the angels name was Moroni?)
Mormon’s LOVE handing out their book. I highly suggest next time they offer you a copy, take it. It’s very interesting reading and they are the fastest growing faith on the planet! Despite the fact that no one other than Joseph Smith has ever seen the Golden Tablets or the angel Moroni. Now, you’d think if an angel came to you and led you to Golden Tablets with the True Word of God on them, you’d be careful not to lose them. Not so. They disappeared just as quickly as they arrived so no one could ever question the text found on them. Well, no one but me, and I question everything. Personally, I think he melted them down to buy his second and third wives…
So we’ve got all these faiths worshipping the same God, fighting wars over what His true name is, who the messiah is, what style of church to worship in, what language to say prayers in… and God is what? Sitting back letting His chosen people duke it out, waiting to lay claim to the victors? Some loving God.
“But it’s free will!” comes the rallying cry of the religious. God wants your love to be true and real so he has set up the world to resemble a giant faith-based obstacle course and if you lose you go to Hell forever! Ta-da! Isn’t that great of Him!?!
Now we get REALLY complicated, what about all the people who have never been exposed to the word of the Western God in any of his incarnations? What about the tribes of Africa, South America, what about the Asians, Indians, Native Americans? Before there were missionaries on every continent, before TV and Internet, what about these people who had never heard about God? Were they going to Hell too? Because, really, it seems pretty messed up to send people to Hell just for being born in the wrong place.
Here you’ll find the difference between New Testament Christians, and Old Testament Christians. Old Testament Christians will tell you that those people were born in sin and refer you back to the tower of Babel and God’s wrath – these are the lost and unloved tribes who were cast out of God’s sight, so yeah, they’re all burning in Hell until the missionaries get around to saving them. New Testament Christians are more loving and say, of course God wouldn’t send them to Hell, that’s not fair. To which I always answered – so why send missionaries? You know the first generation isn’t going to buy your B.S. so you’re effectively condemning them to Hell. That’s just mean. “But we’re bringing them God’s love.” Yeah, and an eternity in Hell if they don’t buy it.
The Jews, of course, believe that they’re the chosen ones. They also believe that it’s a racial thing as much as it is a faith thing, so they don’t worry about converting the world, we’re all lost causes anyway. They focus on their own. I can respect that.
The Muslims, I have to admit, I’m not as familiar with all their sects, but they’re about as splintered as the Christians. You have the infamous Jihadists at one extreme, trying to kill all the infidels and re-build the population in their own image. Then you have the moderates who still want to wear burqas and worship in mosques and not buy into the whole Western/American consumerist, freewheeling, morally bankrupt thing, but who also take the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” seriously. Then there are the newer, liberal Muslims. Their women get to go to school, they read the Koran, but they just want to be good people and live good lives and they think their faith helps them do that. As to who they are sending to Hell – I’d refer you to the Christians, I’m sure some Muslims are sending EVERYONE else to Hell. Some are probably only sending people who were given the choice and chose poorly. Others might be good enough to only send the “bad people” to Hell.
So, when I look out at the world and I see all this chaos and confusion over God, and I see that the original paganism and animism that the first humans practiced has all but been wiped from the planet, I question it. I wonder about it. To me, if there was One True God, that whole pagan thing never would have happened.
Surely if Adam and Eve were the first people, made from dust (and a borrowed rib) and breathed to life by God Himself, human beings as a whole would have started right out believing in a single deity. Instead all across the planet groups of people believed in multiple gods, spirits, the life-blood of the earth itself. Monotheism did not take root until much later in the human experience. And then it took root only among a small desert tribe in the Middle East. Sure it has spread, in various twisted forms, from there, but… I still think that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God with a plan would have, well, planned it better.