The Road Not Taken

It was one day several months ago, while I was still in graduate school in New York City, I went to Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary to check out some books from their library to review for Ebon Musings. As I passed through the doors, I felt the momentary flash of irrational anxiety that I sometimes feel when entering such places – will they realize who I am? what will they say if they do? – but of course no such thing happened; the woman on duty at the front desk glanced at my ID and waved me through with a smile.

On the way to the library, in an otherwise empty hallway, my eye was caught by a bulletin board displaying job listings: openings for pastors, for preachers, for ministers, for professors of theology at churches and schools across the nation. I paused there to read those postings, and as I did, I had an odd insight: I could do this.

I do not mean that I could do it as I presently am, of course. I could not effectively argue for a position that I myself did not believe, and I rather doubt that a church seeking a pastor would be glad to hire an atheist. But in some alternative history, some possible world of the imagination where events had taken a different course and I had somehow become a Christian, I could have been a pastor. More, though modesty would ordinarily forbid me to say it, I strongly believe that I could have been an excellent pastor.

I do not mean that I would be an astounding public speaker – I know I am not one, though that could be improved with practice. Nor could I envision myself as a missionary. But I consider myself a deeply spiritual person, passionate about the things I believe in, fascinated by history and the intricate imaginings of human theology, and always eager for the opportunity to share my thoughts about religion, belief, and how we should treat each other. Unfortunately, almost all of the job openings fitting that description are on the other side.

It was not always this way. There was a time in America, in the late nineteenth century, when a rousing spirit of freethought swept the nation, when great men like Robert Green Ingersoll could travel the nation speaking on the evils of religion and the virtues of secularism, and be received by enthusiastic audiences and packed lecture halls everywhere they went. But even at its height, during this golden age of freethought, the demand for atheist orators was never as great as the demand for preachers. Even when there was a freethought society in every city, there was a church on every street corner. And we have never had the opulence, the luxury, the self-abasing respect and deference from society, enjoyed by the power-brokers of organized religion. True, not every minister or evangelist possesses those privileges, but as far as I am aware, no atheist movement has yet attained them.

There can be no doubt that religion’s grip on society is still extremely powerful. Looking up at a cathedral, or watching a worship service in a megachurch, is a reminder of how much money and influence has been poured into building up these massive social structures, and what we atheists are up against when we oppose them. It is easy to work in an existing system, to join the crowd, to go with the flow – which is why most people do. On the other hand, it is always difficult to be the maverick, the rebel, the freethinker, boldly living outside the system, challenging the system, and tempting the wrath of the powerful and entrenched interests who have risen to power atop it. The flames of the martyr’s stake and the graves of patriotic rebels throughout history testify to the peril in confronting the established order. (Even in the so-called civilized countries of the West, there can be very real danger in stepping forward to declare oneself an atheist.) Small wonder, then, if we occasionally hear the tempting whisper of conformity.

But no matter how easy joining the system of organized religion would be, it would not be true to the facts, and what is more, it would be a betrayal of ourselves. And as the Bard said, above all else, to thine own self be true. If the choice is between joining a system where I might enjoy acceptance, achievement, even success, but where I cannot feel that I am living in the truth, or standing on the outside and hurling barbs against that high wall, I choose the latter without hesitation. I cannot say what might have been or how far I could have gone, had I taken the other road, but I can say that I do not regret that choice, not for one moment.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://renegade.omega.googlepages.com/ Evan Taylor

    I feel your pain. I am an “out” atheist and so far I haven’t seen any anger or hatred from churchgoers save for the very first time I told my friends. But then again, I’ve only been to the Bible Belt twice and don’t plan to go there anytime soon.

  • Kirk

    I really relate to this topic – hell, I feel I could have written it myself! I have been riding the fence on this matter for way too long. Deep down in the quiet of my heart I know I am inclined towards what is called atheism. I simply do not understand how organized religion has had the success it has had over the centuries. I find The Bible quite bizarre, and I wonder how this collection of ancient writings have led to the HUGE multi-zillion dollar industry Christianity is today. I recently lost my best friend to a born-again megachurch; it is as if he had a lobotomy. I understand people in our increasingly atomized “society” are turning to anything that will give them a sense of Tribe and Communty. Meaninglessness is a major drag, I know, I know. That’s why I have tried a few churches over the years. It’s like, I go into these places with sincere Big Questions, and, bless them , they do try to answer them. But their answers are, well, always scripted. Insincere. And if I stick around long enough to ask more troubling questions these people can become hostile. And then out the door I go. Somebody said ( was it Walt Whitman?) “dismiss whatever insults your intelligence”. I can’t get around that bit of truth. There are times I am sick of being a lone wolf, but this old wolf cannot enter those places anymore. I hope that, by being true to myself, and by being honest and as kind as I can be, and by being a pretty decent father and husband, why, when it is my time to “go” I will okay wherever I “go” after all this ( if anywhere!).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Welcome, Kirk! It seems to me you’ve been searching for something, and if I may be so bold, I think you’ve come to the right place. I hope you’ll choose to stay around and maybe participate in some discussions.

    I simply do not understand how organized religion has had the success it has had over the centuries. I find The Bible quite bizarre, and I wonder how this collection of ancient writings have led to the HUGE multi-zillion dollar industry Christianity is today.

    It truly is incredible when you look at it from the outside, isn’t it? Organized religion postulates the most outlandish things imaginable. What, for example, makes any sense at all about a god who is simultaneously three gods and one god at the same time and who could only forgive humanity’s sins by sacrificing one part of himself to another part of himself? (What does it even mean for a god to be a “he”?) The only reason these things are viewed as any less bizarre than, say, a B-movie alien overlord sending millions of extraterrestrial ghosts to Earth where they cling to human beings, or a flying ball of spaghetti that created the universe, is that they’re believed more widely, and their believers will vociferously attack anyone who points out the inherent absurdity of them. In the eyes of society, popularity is assumed to be the same thing as rationality, but nothing could be further from the truth.

    That’s why I have tried a few churches over the years. It’s like, I go into these places with sincere Big Questions, and, bless them , they do try to answer them. But their answers are, well, always scripted. Insincere. And if I stick around long enough to ask more troubling questions these people can become hostile. And then out the door I go.

    I know exactly what you mean. Organized religion is like fast food for the soul – all the answers to life’s important questions manufactured, pre-packaged, and presented to you in a shrink-wrapped box. You don’t need to worry about a thing; just take it on faith, say your prayers twice a day, and you’ll go to Heaven in the end. For many people, that’s the chief attraction, of course. It gives them easy answers to all their existential dilemmas without the troubling necessity of thinking too hard. But if you’re one of those rare people who can’t believe it all so blithely and feels the need to ask how they know any of that, you’ll soon be shown the door. Asing too many questions tends to upset the people in church hierarchies, since the very existence of those hierarchies depends on people accepting what they’re told without a fuss. Fortunately, for those of us who refuse to conform, there is a better way, and more profound answers to the questions that religion wallpapers over so easily. It’s not as easy a trail to walk, but in the end, I think the results make the effort more than worthwhile.

    I hope that, by being true to myself, and by being honest and as kind as I can be, and by being a pretty decent father and husband, why, when it is my time to “go” I will okay wherever I “go” after all this ( if anywhere!).

    Well said, sir. My philosophy has always been to live this life as best as I can, since I don’t know if there will ever be another. If there isn’t, then I’ll know that my time here has not been wasted, and if there is another life, I’ll deal with it when I get there.

  • Azkyroth

    nothing could be further from the truth.

    I notice you use this phrase a lot. Is there a story behind that?

    As for me, I’m fortunately not exposed to open hostility very often, but I find I’m frequently under pressure from family members to keep quiet, even when those around me are voicing their religious opinions loudly and at length. I never could abide double standards…

  • Kirk

    Upon further reflection on the success of outrageous and outlandish salvationist religions…I think the common denominator is people’s overwhelming sense that Reality just plain sucks. Randomness, meaninglessness, mere existence, maintaining bodily functions, death coming whenever it chooses…all this adds up to a pretty shitty feeling about being alive, about being here at all.
    So: along comes a Great Story that tells of Purpose, Meaning, Eternity, etc., and this really motivates people. What story is that? Look around! It doesn’t matter. The Christian/Jesus story is only one that seems to do the trick. ( As for me one great story that helps me cope is Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang.)
    We seem to need some Great Story to live by. So what kind of Big Picture Great Story can the atheist worldview create? This would have to be a story that includes characters to whom the reader can relate, of course. Not just a book of ideas and theories. Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael worked for me for a number of years, but by now it seems to fall short of what is needed. It now seems naive and hopelessly romantic. What is needed is a narrative that speaks to people’s most basic (spiritual?) needs. The Bible and the whole Christian thing may be pure bullshit, but it is packaged as The Answer to people’s pressing existential ( and beyond!) desires. To be brainwashed into a closed-loop worldview might feel like Bliss. There is a bumper sticker that says “God Said it; I Believe It; That Settles It”. The people who sport these stickers have found their peace by editing out everything in the world except their fundmentalist belief system. They seem to be happy; they don’t suffer existential dilemnas anymore. They seem to be decisive and active in the world. Once upon a time I was a 100% Pure Eco-Guy working for Greenpeace, and boy was THAT a great time in my life. Things were all very black and white, good and bad, viewed through my Eco-lenses. I was also in my early 20s then. I was very happy, had a Tribe to be a part of, and my life had Big Picture Meaning. Sigh…sorry to say I can’t buy that worldview anymore. Things are much more existentially complicated for any kind of Fundamentalist mindset to appreciate. I still care about whales, it’s just that Save The Whales no longer does It for me.
    Wow, this short comment has morphed into I don’t know what. All I know is that I still care about things and I can’t stand religious fundamentalism and how it threatens to ruin everything. It seems dishonest. Maybe honesty is what really motivates me. Let’s just be fucking honest with each other. Okay?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    How true, how true! Trawling through your archives, there have been many times when I could have commented but didn’t bother because the story was so old. On this one, though, I have to speak up. You would have been a good preacher. Many of your writings read like utterly superb sermons for atheists. But at least a lot of us get to read you here, right?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Welcome, Lynet, and thank you! Yes, I’ll admit it, this site is definitely my pulpit. (Or perhaps soapbox would be more appropriately secular?) I’m glad just for the chance to speak out, in whatever forum. And if there’s some religion out there that wants me, they can have me – if they can provide evidence, of course!

  • anti-nonsense

    I have to agree that ebonmuse would have made an excellent preacher. Have you ever thought of giving speeches to atheist organizations? A lot of your essays would make great speeches.

    And I have to agree with other people, that accepting the easy answers of religion would be so much nicer, but I seem to be one of those rare people that is constitutionally unable to swallow that stuff. Believe me, I’ve given it an honest try, but I am naturally intellectually honest and unable to ignore evidence it seems. Which does wonders for my intellectual fulfillment but little for my emotional fulfillment at times. I need to find me a local secular organization to join, I think.


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