My Journey into Atheism
Who is God? No one knows, but everyone has an idea. Go to any congregation of any religion and poll the people—you’ll get is as many different versions of God as people taking the poll. Some days he’s my father, my loyal friend out to help and guide me. Other days he’s a vengeful deity that allows school shootings and tornados to punish his wicked children. He both created Satan and hates Satan. He hates the LGBT community but seems ok with biblical incest and the sexual exploitation of children. He’s ok with sex slaves but hates the penis foreskin. As Christopher Hitchens once said,
“All this could be part of a plan. There is no way an atheist can prove it’s not. But it’s some plan, isn’t it? With mass destruction, pitiless extermination, annihilation going on all the time. And all of this set in motion on a scale that’s absolutely beyond our imagination, in order that the Pope can tell people not to jerk off.”
I lost my faith a few years ago; actually, I hate that term, I didn’t lose anything… I left it comfortably behind. My struggle to move past organized religion has been long and emotionally challenging. This is my story.
When I was about 3 years old my parents divorced. At the time I had only one younger brother. We lived with my mom and with family in a series of subsidized housing units outside Dayton Ohio. On the weekends we’d stay with dad, first at the home they had bought together then eventually at his tiny one bedroom apartment. This was the mid to late 80s. Economically and politically the country was shifting. Simply surviving became increasingly difficult. My parents felt the stress of the new economy and struggled to make it each week.
Just before I was born, my mother’s older sister left Ohio for Los Angeles. She soon met a Mormon man ten years her senior and was smitten. She converted to his church and eventually married him in the LDS temple near UCLA. Aggressive missionary work is a hallmark of Mormonism. After discovering my parents had divorced, my aunt went to work on my mother. Times of emotional stress are ideal for religions to sell themselves. At these times people are often searching for some stability; looking for an external “life raft” to keep them afloat. My mom bit and was baptized into the LDS faith shortly after she left my father.
As young kids, my brother and I had little experience through which to evaluate our new situation. We became Mormon because mom became Mormon. My mom was fanatical about my brother and I attending church every Sunday. However, weekends belonged to dad. He obliged, first by dropping us off then eventually by coming inside church to wait.
After a few years of this routine, my father converted. Now both parents were Mormon and in the same congregation. Their zeitgeist of faith, hope, and a new found love for Jesus led them to reevaluate their divorce. They started dating again and in the early ‘90s remarried, this time in the LDS temple near Washington DC. In 1992 we added another brother.
Their conversions and eventual remarrying created the foundational miracle for the family’s collective faith. No matter how poor and dysfunctional life became (and it got very bad) we’d always symbolically look at that time and think, “God works in mysterious and miraculous ways”. That, however, was the depth of it; the family was carried forward on a shallow and unexamined faith.
Like the rights of passage in many tribal and ancient cultures, Mormons drive their youth to devote two years, isolated from their loved ones and away from home, preaching the faith. When you graduate high school, the church decides where you go—you get no choice. Mormons believe this “mission call” to be inspired by God and part of one’s destiny. The church sent me to Los Angeles in 2002 just after I turned 19.
LDS missionaries are forced to study religious/scriptural texts. Oddly, it was this deep study that eventually started my journey out of organized religion. I read the Old Testament and could not square that book’s God with the ever-evolving God of today’s church. Looking at the things the Old Testament God said and did and to whom, started the process of glass shattering my faith.
The Old Testament is the foundational book of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). It is seen as 100% factual by fundamentalists and as semi-metaphorical by more liberal believers. Adam and Eve are very real to most who believe; Noah really built a boat, and Moses for sure parted the Red Sea. It was not these tales that shook my faith (ridiculous though they are), but the copious amounts of murder, incest, slavery, and violence. Take the concept of a divinely chosen race or group, for example, Genesis 1: 26-27:
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
God made humans in his own image, every single one of us. This creation story makes no mention of race or religion. One could infer (assuming this was true) that at the time of this creation humanity transcended race, politics and religion. However, as you continue reading you’ll stumble upon Deuteronomy 7: 6-8:
“For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
Here, it’s clear that God picks favorites. The ancient Jewish people are preferred and given extra focus and attention from the very God that created all humankind in his image (most modern Jews and Christians would agree). He chose them not because of their population size or geopolitical status, but because he loved them more. A bastardization of this idea lays many of the foundational stones in the current turmoil affecting Israel and their place in the Middle East. Some scholars would argue that it’s this idea that motivated politicians post WWII to establish the country we call Israel in the first place.
I feel like I must state clearly, (because I fear being labelled anti-Semitic or something) I do not believe in the concept of race. DNA science has essentially proven that all humans are related to a common ancestor. To me, this means all men are truly created (or evolved) equal, despite what the Old Testament God says.
The idea of a divinely chosen people bothered me. The idea that a semi-interventional God would, for example, choose to rescue the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in a grandiose and miraculous way, but leave black people (not just in America) subjugated for hundreds of years, or leave thousands of young girls shackled in sex slavery in our modern day didn’t jive with the idea of who I thought God was.
After two years in LA, I went home. Changes had taken place internally. I’d been wrestling with various dichotomies for two years; some I’d moved past and others were just getting warmed up. I’d moved past my parent’s politics. I’d left the narrow, close-minded dogmas of Republican ideology comfortably in my rearview mirror. Faith, however, was still a battle.
In 2005 I met a Mormon girl at BYU and married her in the LDS temple outside Portland OR. We had a child within the first two years. She didn’t then, and has never questioned her faith. Fearing to disappoint her I continued to plug along whilst trying to bury my doubts.
In 2008 I graduated from college with a BS in Psychology and immediately entered the US Army. Economically this was one of the worst times in modern history to be a new grad looking for work. Fortunately, I was able to convince the Army to allow me to go to Officer Training School right of the street; with no previous military experience. The fact that we had two robust wars going on helped I’m sure. After about a year of training, I became a Second Lieutenant with a focus on Missile Defense.
I spent the next six years on active duty, one of those years in Iraq. My wife and I added three more children, another boy and two girls. Each new assignment and each new duty station over those years gave me additional insight into the ingrained sociopolitical and religious schemes of people from all over the US and the world. My personal opinions and beliefs were constantly questioned or challenged, explicitly and implicitly. After the birth of my youngest child I chose to leave the Army, and in the summer of 2014 my family and I moved back to where I grew up in Ohio.
After leaving the Army and starting a career in headhunting, I finally found the courage to tell my wife that I was done with our religion. I stopped going to church and threw myself into personal study. I began reading various Buddhist philosophers and Eastern mystics. The writings of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris caused me to reexamine my paradigm even further. I started feeling mentally stronger and socially healthier.
About six months after I stopped going to church my wife suddenly left me. She and our kids went to visit her family out of state while I stayed home to work and never came back. I was left shocked and confused. The new strength I’d begun building in my post-religious life was shaken.
Near the end of the summer of 2016, as my family’s house was being sold, I brought my .38 Special. I took the dog out for a canoe ride on a nearby reservoir. After paddling to a secluded cove, I jumped into the water with the dog. Reaching back inside the boat I pulled my gun out of its box, locked the hammer back and put it against the big square head of my pit bull Petey. I was going to shoot him then shoot myself. This seems odd, but at the time I was so worried about him (being the breed he is) in a shelter that, in my drunken and depressed stupor, shooting the dog made sense.
As I looked him in the eyes, fully prepared to shoot, he slipped under the water. His fat, heavy body wasn’t designed for swimming, and he couldn’t keep his head above water. His emergency seemed to snap me into help mode. I tossed the gun back into the boat and then pulled the 80 lbs dog out of the water flopping him back into the canoe. Dripping wet and out of breath, he licked my head. All he knew was that I helped him. He had no idea how close my despair had come to killing him, and myself.
I floated next to the boat for what felt like hours. I came to the early stage of what would later become a much more clearly articulated realization—that of the interconnectedness of humanity (and our cousins in nature). As individuals and societies, we go through stages of depression and despair. God cannot help us through these hard times, only the assistance of other humans (or maybe a pit bull) can. Religion and politics divide people to assert or maintain power over us.
Petey’s unconditional love and trust in me reminded me of an experience I had when I was very young. Throughout my life, my father has kept (or rescued from bad owners) exotic pets. I’ve had pet lions, tigers, snakes, alligators, lizards, etc. But no other animal was more prominent in my youth than wolves. We always seemed to have a few adult females and puppies running around. The leader of this artificial pack was a big male named Lupus. We were roughly the same age; my then married parents bought him as a pup just after I was born. Watching old home movies it’s marvelous to see the connection we had. He was like a second parent in my toddler years. He took small objects out of my hands and kept me from getting too close to the street.
After my parents divorced my father’s basement flooded. The house was very old; built in the late 1800s. Updates were made periodically, but some of them didn’t seem to agree with the property; like the septic system. My grandfather came by to help my dad assess the damage and game plan repairs. With me on his shoulders, my grandfather trudged along the filthy basement looking at the mess. Outside the tiny basement window was Lupus; he was curiously watching the two men as they worked. Like most 4ish-year-olds stuck doing boring things, I was apparently fussy. After wrestling with me for too long, my grandfather pulled me off his shoulders and gave me a spanking. I cried. My loud cries caught the attention of Lupus. He went nuts, snarling and barking. My grandfather looked up at the window and motioned for him to go away. The attention and eye contact with the man my animal friend saw as my assailant pumped Lupus up another notch. He smashed his head through a two-paned window fully intent on destroying my grandfather. Luckily for the human men in the room, the wolf was far too big to fit through the tiny window.
Looking back I don’t remember Lupus throwing on his tie and heading out to Mass every Sunday afternoon. I don’t recall him praying to Mecca 5 times a day, or even reading the Book of Mormon. So without religion, how did this animal know that what he saw and heard through that window constituted a moral or ethical wrong that needed his involvement? I’d argue the answer lies in evolution.
Wolves, like humans, have evolved into pack, or group-oriented, social societies. Unlike some sharks or snakes, they depend on a social structure for their very lives. They hunt together allowing them to take on larger and more capable prey (as did early humans). They, to some degree, share child-rearing duties within the pack (like humans). They’ve evolved to bond with loved ones and neighbors (just as humans have). Within these social groups, order exists—evolution passed rules of social conduct, if you will.
Monogamy, for example, has been demonstrated to exist in wild wolves (Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery). Wolf pups are heavily dependent on their elders for food and guidance. Without question, they follow the example of older wolves (Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother). Wolf mothers typically spend 3 weeks to a month hunkered down in their den after birthing the pups ensuring they stay fed and warm. Other adult wolves care for the mother’s needs by bringing her food and protecting her (1st John 3:17 “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”).
Without the aid of God or scripture, Lupus was able to discern suffering and pain. He has thousands of years of social evolutionary cues programed into his brain. Cues that arose from his species’ need to survive. Humans and many of our human-like cousins ancestrally recognized the need to cooperate and share the burden. One lone man couldn’t survive the trek out of Africa 50ish thousand years ago. He needed other men and women, and likewise, they needed him to hunt and gather and breed. Evolutionarily learned cooperation is as central to humanity as is walking upright and having complex language.
Our human system of cooperation has itself evolved to accommodate for other changes that affect the species, and how that cooperation is applied varies regionally and historically. One thing that has in many ways regressed the positive evolution of cooperation is religion and mysticism. Instead of a peaceful world that seeks to optimize human cooperation, we are left with one driven and molded by a mythology of fear; a mythology propagated by mortal men out to gain fame, money, and power. Cooperation seeks to unite and grow; religion seeks to divide and conquer.
Truth does exist. We can find it. It is possible to understand our conditioning and work to overcome it. Just because we’ve been raised to believe something doesn’t make it true. Just because all your peers believe something doesn’t make it true. Just because it’s “easier” to keep doing what you’re already doing doesn’t make it right.
The real hard part is humbling one’s self and humoring the views of those you oppose. It is through hearing your opposition that learning is forced to take place. Turn off the TV and read a book. Read lots of books by people with different worldviews. Read about socialism, psychology, physics, democracy, etc. Pick authors that aren’t on TV; maybe academics or dead philosophers to start.
The true challenge of life is to figure out how to unshackle oneself from the prison of temporally created and divisive mythologies. Each day we must struggle to overcome our conditioned inner dialogue and rid ourselves of the corrupting voice of organized religion. Seek deep inside your mind, the true self that is being hidden by the fear-built walls of dogma and mysticism. Only then will you truly be free.