I’ve had a long road from being a Christian Fundamentalist teenager to an out-and-proud Atheist and Secular Activist. I get asked from time to time what my story is, and so I thought I might write it down.
I grew up in a fairly fundamentalist home. My mother frequently took us to church (for awhile), but by the time she stopped going I still was very involved in the church. I attended the Glenvale Church of God in Rye Township, Pennsylvania. It was small-town church, part of the Churches of God General Conference.
I wasn’t a very popular kid growing up, and for me the church offered a way to make friends and get along with people. When I say I was a fundamentalist, I mean that I lived in fear that if I didn’t do enough to be “right in the eyes of God”, I was certainly afraid of going to hell. But, I will say that church did have it’s benefits – I did make quite a few friends there. I still keep in touch, occasionally with some of those childhood friends.
I was 13 years old when I first started to question my Christian upbringing. That year my grandmother passed away. To put this into the proper context, my father (her son) died when I was 4 years old. After he died, it was my grandmother I would say I was closest to. Shortly after that, I attended a “Jesus Camp” in central Pennsylvania, called Camp Yolijwa (A shortening of “Youth Living Jesus’ Way”, made to sound vaguely American Indian).
I had attended this camp for several years – always had a good time with my friends. But the year in question, they called all of the students in for an assembly. These assemblies were typical, one of many sermons on how we all need to accept Jesus into our hearts and ask him for forgiveness for our many sins. However, this year, the counselors and staff decided to put a rather aggressive point on their sermon.
As the assembly started, they rolled a coffin out on the stage. I can’t quite explain the emotions I felt when this happened, but in short, at first I was profoundly upset. I couldn’t understand why I was this upset, and only in hindsight do I recognize that it was my grandmother’s recent death that had captured my emotions. But that sadness soon gave way to confusion, then anger – I was deeply angry that my emotions had been manipulated so easily.
I didn’t go up and look in the coffin – I vaguely realized that they had offered an invitation to the gathering for everyone to do so. Inside the coffin, I was told, was a full length mirror. It was an attempt to get these young teenagers to get a glimpse of their own mortality – And perhaps use it to get (keep, of course – How many times did one child need to commit to Christ, after all?) more converts to Christ.
I remember telling the kids, counselors, everyone around me that I was upset – upset at being manipulated, upset that they would do this to kids. I was counseled that they recognize that the message might not have been appropriate, but that it was all OK because it was in God’s name and they should be forgiven.
After this incident, I didn’t just throw out my faith. I wish I could say that I did – But what I did do is start questioning that my teachers had all of the answers. I was repeatedly advised as a child that if you had questions, the best thing you could do to get answers was to read the bible. And so I did exactly that.
Once you start reading the bible without someone telling you exactly what it means, it takes on a whole new dimension. I remember reading from Genesis to Revelations, and I can’t count the number of times I said to myself “THIS doesn’t make sense”. I remember comparing the genealogies of Christ, and noticing the gaps and other errors. I remember questioning the wisdom of worshipping a God who would punish all of humanity and their children for the actions of a few.
As I came to the close of my teenage years, I had decided that Jehovah either did not exist – Or if he did, he was a monster and not worthy of worship. I wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of a god, or many gods. The universe to me was far too complex to comprehend a mechanistic method of creation, one without purpose.
So, my next foray was into paganism. I met a woman who called herself a high priestess of Wicca. She “taught” me ways of envisioning energies, and “magick” – Which should be able to when properly applied help you make your way in a complex and confusing world. It was explained to me that spells were like prayer – That sometimes they worked, and sometimes they didn’t – And the outcome was simply based on either karma, or whether you worked them with the proper desires.
I found it interesting that none of the spells I ever “cast” had ever actually worked – Not in any objective way. Not only that, but I noticed the people around me who had done the same thing only really ever succeeded in life if they worked hard – I noticed very many who didn’t succeed at all, even though they cast spell after spell to improve their lives.
After awhile, I had to admit to myself that paganism was rather silly. Probably harmless, for the most part – Except for the people actively swindling other people out of their money. I started calling myself an “agnostic pagan” – Then shortening it to “agnostic”.
Right around this time, I divorced my first wife. I married my second, and I took notice of some rather egregious violations of the separation of church and state. One in particular was the Kitzmiller V. Dover trial in central Pennsylvania. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, but my children were living in PA – And by that time I had a rather strong grasp of science and biology and religious ignorance. I followed the case rather closely – And I started teaching myself a little about evolution.
I read Richard Dawkins’ book “The Blind Watchmaker”, and was fascinated by how evolution worked. When “The God Delusion” came out, I read it too – And it made me question my stance on God. I realized that I wasn’t living my life as if any God existed – And that really did define me as an Atheist. I started using that word – And moved back to Pennsylvania to be more involved with raising my children.
I felt that for me it was time to start getting involved. I found a local group, PA Nonbelievers, and volunteered my time to redesign their website. Shortly thereafter I joined the board of directors. I love the time I put in – And the community of atheists and nonbelievers I’ve found and now call my family.