I wanted to become a veterinarian, a horse doctor, but it didn’t pan out. Instead, I ended up working as a carpenter, driving a dump truck and then a soda delivery truck, being foreman of a roofing company, and a lot of other stuff in that same vein.
I moved away to the mountains in the west when I was about 21 and got a job at a pack station (a ranch, sort of) on the edge of the wilderness, where I worked with horses and mules. I was also a teamster for eight years, a real one, driving hitches of huge Belgian and Percheron draft horses on hay rides and sleigh rides in a little resort town.
Somewhere along in there, I thought I might make a good bull rider. I landed in the arena dirt eight times, and got freight-trained by a Brangus bull once, before I changed my mind – but I did ride four of them to the buzzer.
Older now, I do a lot of my work indoors – but I can still saddle a horse and find my way in the wilderness. I can hitch up a team and get a wagon safely there and back. I can work cattle in the chute, wrestle a calf, trim a hoof and nail on a shoe, sling bales of hay to a corral full of cows. I can sharpen a knife or hit the bull’s-eye with a rifle. I can hook up a horse trailer and pull it safely down the highway. Given time to refresh my memory on the diamond hitch, I could probably still do a fair job of tossing a load onto a pack mule and trekking off into the wilds. I know what it feels like to be bucked off, stepped on, kicked and even bitten by horses.
My neck isn’t exactly red these days, but I do carry deep, permanent wrinkles on the back of it from long years spent in the sun – a legacy handed down to me along an ancestral back-trail of farmers and homesteaders, pioneers and pikers, and likely generations of poor white trash scrabbling to survive. One of the stories I got from my granny was that a not-too-distant ancestor was an actual Indian – but since just about every native-born Texan hears that same story, I’m not sure how much credit to give it.
Right this minute, I don’t know of a single blood relative who got a college degree. Neither of my parents even finished high school. Daddy drove a dump truck and a city bus, worked as a welder and mechanic, and did a lot of other things to make ends meet. Momma spent most of her time as a housewife and mother, but also held a job in a dress factory for a while and later worked the cash register in a gas station. At the age of 13, I got an Everclear-drinking stepdaddy who was a union painter all his adult life, a man proud of the fact that he dropped out of school after the third grade to go to work.
I have a high school diploma, myself, and even a bit of college, but I too had to drop out and work, and never finished. I am anything but a card-carrying philosopher, a scientist, or an expert in logic. I’m probably not even all that civilized.
But like a lot of cowboys and commoners, I’m also not stupid.
In those years of working hard, I had a lot of time to think. Wrestling a dump truck through traffic, I wrestled with ideas. Sweltering on a roof in the hot Texas sun, I sweated out questions and concepts, jotting things down on torn-off bits of roof-shingle wrapping. Horsing cases of soda pop around on a dolly, I worked things out in my head and marked them in memory to write down later. Over hundreds of tedious days pounding nails as a carpenter, I tried to nail down firm conclusions about the things I’d heard in church and elsewhere. Riding horseback along the dusty trails of California’s John Muir Wilderness, looking around me in appreciation at the wildlands and wildlife, I corralled the wild stories running through my head and broke them to saddle.
All on my own, I tried to figure out how things fit together in the real world. In the privacy of my own mind – which is where some things have to stay when you grow up where I did – I started having doubts about religion by the time I was 13. It took me a good 20 years to carefully consider everything I’d heard – the beliefs of my Southern Baptist mom, my Jehovah’s Witness dad, and my born-again fundamentalist Christian stepdad, plus those of all the other people I met or read about who had various religious or mystical beliefs – and compare them with what I knew and all I learned.
Some things began to make solid sense to me. Other things came to sound just plain silly. Considering the state the world is in, some of it even turned out to be a little bit scary.
My goal here is not to lay an exhaustive, reasoned groundwork for why there can’t be fragments of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, or why Adam and Eve never existed, or why there is no bearded giant sitting on a 50-ton throne of gold up in the sky.
My experience has been that people who are receptive to questioning the family religion have already pretty much figured out that stuff on their own, and are more interested in hearing a friendly voice to help them decide where to go next. The others either can’t seem to understand the idea of unbelief or are too busy thinking up triumphant, simplistic arguments for why unbelievers have to be wrong.
Well-accredited authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and others have written more fully and carefully than I could about the WHY of living without gods. This book is more a subjective, one-man’s look at the HOW.
Rather than a college course in atheism, this is the equivalent of a grammar school reader, and an incomplete one, and I don’t mean it to be anything more. Putting it simply, here are some of the things an atheist might think, and the way he or she might think them, written down from my own experience.
I try to give answers to some of the common questions you might ask yourself – and that others will ask you, such as “If there’s no God, what keeps you from killing and raping people when the mood strikes you?” – as you go about riding the trail of a freethinker.
The idea of gods is, at base, a bit of groundless mystical nonsense, but we live in a society so permeated by goddiness that the idea that there might not be a God or gods seems perversely even more mystical. Whereas no evidence is needed to claim existence for various magical superbeings, the claim that they might not exist is invariably met with fierce demands for proof.
Yet anybody can be a non-believer. You don’t have to be a scientist or a highly educated intellectual to understand certain things about the real world. You can be a truck driver, cowboy or carpenter, as I have been, or a cashier, plumber, farmer, auto mechanic, motel maid, laborer, or any of the other countless blue collar professions, and still get there. You can break away from the religious herd and come to your own conclusions about life.
Some of what you figure out will go against the grain of your upbringing. But it seems to me you have to give your deepest allegiance to your own independent mind. Nothing less will allow you to become your own unique self, nothing less will allow you to most completely develop your own unique gifts. And nothing less will honor those who raised you – hopefully to be the best you could be – even if you eventually find yourself disagreeing with some of what they taught you.
The skeptic’s journey is a lonely one, and there’s no handbook for it. Most atheists I’ve spoken to are convinced, sometimes fiercely so, that atheism has to be a solitary trip. You have to work things out in your own mind, over a long period of time, to build up to where you start to really understand what religion is, what it does to you, and how little you really need it.
From my own experience, I sort of agree. But darned if there weren’t times I wished I could just talk to somebody about it. It bugs me that the trip took me 20 years when, looking back on it, with a friend to help, I might have breezed through it in a couple of years and then had the decades since then to enjoy the pleasures and power of a clear mind.
Here, maybe, I can be that friend for others.
Hopefully, I can also share some of what lies beyond atheism. Because I don’t think of atheism as a goal in itself – it’s more of an escape hatch from the cage of religiosity, out into a larger world that has nothing at all to do with faith.
I will proudly call myself an atheist all my life – but that’s partly because it’s all some people will understand. Just as my lack of belief in leprechauns or garden fairies would be overwhelmingly important to leprechaun/fairy believers, so my lack of belief in gods is a crucial point to god-believers. They can’t help but see this as the only important thing about me.
But “atheism” is really only shorthand for something much bigger. It’s a reminder that you can jump the fence of mysticism and go off to find the greener, broader pastures of the real world.
For me, atheism has only a little to do with the negative, the rejection of gods and devils, heavens and hells. Instead, it’s more about the positive: freedom. Once you free your own mind from the dead weight of ancient “wise” men, you can finally begin to see the world as it is, and yourself – larger, happier, more compassionate, more centered – as you should be.
There is a saner, more reasonable future awaiting us, a time and place where a majority of people aspire to see things for what they are and then choose to deal with them realistically. It will replace what we have now, where too many of us can’t get over believing that some eternity-spanning fantasy makes our own lives cosmically important and everything else – distant stars, a broad universe, and even the civil rights of our neighbors – totally insignificant.
More than anything, I’d like to live in that sane future. Failing that, I’d like to think I can help make it happen.
I’m a guy who once drove a truck, rode a horse, pounded nails for a living. This is how I see the world.
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