I Did Not Understand

by Shelby Sherman

Overview: I will relate some life experiences that helped shape my conclusions about religion and the natural world around me. All personal anecdotes are factual to the best of my knowledge, taking into consideration that some events occurred nearly 50 years ago. My parents are still living and are fundamentalist Christians to this day. I love and respect them very much and understand that they raised me under a belief system that they sincerely thought to be true. There are all sorts of people in this world, good and bad, Christian and Atheist, and no one should be judged solely by their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

Introduction: Hello, I am 55 years old and an atheist. I was married to the same woman for over 33 years, lived in the same house for 12 years and my taxes are paid. My wife and I raised two sons who are both college graduates and doing well. The last 37 months of her life I was a full-time caregiver for a wife who was unfortunately diagnosed with an incurable, anaplastic astrocytoma (malignant brain tumor). After a three-year struggle, she passed away on May 5th, 2003 and I will miss her terribly. Taking my marriage vows seriously, I gave up my career and I considered it an honor to care for my wife. In the past three years I have lost virtually everything, my wife[1], my career, most of my net worth, my medical insurance, my freedom and most of my friends. When I die, according to the Christian belief system, I will head straight to HELL without any hope of intervention[2]. I will face an eternity of unspeakable pain and torture for simply not believing in a concept that is not backed by a single shred of evidence. Jeff Dahmer, who was convicted in Wisconsin of twelve 1st degree murders and was sentenced to fifteen consecutive life terms for these murders[3], accepted Jesus Christ as his savior and was baptized in prison. Jeff was subsequently murdered in prison and will go to HEAVEN for simply believing in these concepts. The fact that Jeff brutally murdered who knows how many young men, tortured them, slept with some of the corpses before chopping them up and either freezing or eating them, does not matter to the Christian cult. According to the doctrine of Christianity, Jeff goes to heaven, to be greeted with open arms by God, Jesus and all the heavenly hosts, a child of God. Can anyone else see anything wrong with this picture?

The Early Years

I was born into a lower middle class family in the Southeastern United States. My father was involved in church work and worked as an Assistant Pastor and Educational Director at a Southern Baptist Church. Many of my earliest memories were of the church and church activities; these were an integral part of our lives. Like most youngsters, I depended on my parents for almost everything and, of course, completely believed their teachings and instruction regarding God, Jesus, Salvation and Heaven and Hell. Having virtually no exposure to any other line of thinking, this belief system became deeply ingrained and I never even considered the possibility that these beliefs might be in error. With this background it is needless to say that I was extremely concerned about avoiding going to Hell. Even at the tender age of 8 or 9, I clearly understood the Christian doctrine and knew that I needed to publicly profess my faith and acceptance of Jesus as my personal savior[4] and be baptized. My fear and trepidation was fueled by fire and brimstone sermons like Pay Day Someday[5] and the grim possibility that I might somehow die before making this profession. My parents did not pressure me at all to accept Jesus, but I kept waiting and waiting to hear the voice of Jesus telling me to let him into my heart. Without ever hearing the voice, I did it all on my own one emotional Sunday morning in 1957 and was subsequently baptized and my name written in the Book of the Lamb in Heaven[6]. I was now a Christian and no longer in danger of Hell. My profession of faith and acceptance of Jesus Christ was genuine and no one can say that it was not. Needless to say, my parents were elated and very proud of me. I was happy that I was saved and sincerely believed with all my being that Jesus was the Son of God and that he did die on the cross for my sins. It was my firm belief that because of this sacrifice, I would now never have to worry about Hell and that I would, as a born again and baptized Christian, now hear the voice of God and Jesus. I never did hear from God or Jesus. I did not understand.

Catholics in the neighborhood

In my pre-adolescent years I was quite sheltered and na├»ve. I was of course aware that there were individuals who were not Christian and those who were members of different religions, but I had little interaction with those who did not believe as our family did. One exception was the two Catholic families on our street and each family had at least one boy, so there was interaction as playmates. My parents were quite modest and humble people and unlike some fundamentalist Christians, they did not condemn Catholics or their actions or beliefs. I have great respect for my parents as they were not hypocrites and sincere in their beliefs. Their position on Catholics or anyone else was that if you believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that he died on the cross for your sins, you were a Christian and you were bound for heaven, regardless of your denomination. This position is Biblically consistent and I also believed this way. Catholics were somewhat of an enigma to me because their views on what was acceptable behavior were different from the views of fundamentalist Southern Baptists. To put everything in a nutshell, they seemed to have a lot more fun than we Baptists did! It was perfectly acceptable for Catholic ADULTS to drink and smoke and I even observed my friend’s father having a beer with one of the priests! You must realize that this was in the 1950s and I was a very sheltered child. My nine or ten year old brain was having a lot of trouble rationalizing the concept of drinking a beer being a pretty serious sin on one side of the street and quite OK on the other, being that we were both Christians. This was not a huge issue at the time and I did not realize the significance of such issues until much later. Still, I did not understand.


One Friday evening I was playing over at the other Catholic neighbor’s house with my friend who was a year younger than I. We were quite poor[7] at that time as father had been out of work for nearly two years at age 50. The Catholic family was our next-door neighbor and it was obvious that they were much better financially off than we were, even WITH my father working. Hanging around a neighbor’s house at mealtime was a no-no, but for some reason I was still around when the plates hit the table. Knowing a little about the Catholics I knew that they were not allowed to eat meat on Friday as a demonstration of personal sacrifice. My eyes bulged as I saw a huge platter of scrambled eggs, three or four varieties of cheese, giant biscuits with real butter and honey, and a few other NON MEAT “sacrifices” and I thought about my own meager supper. I did not understand.

Jesus did not appreciate or understand BASEBALL

In the middle and late 1950s the American entertainment landscape was much more parsimonious than it is today. Needless to say, there were no computers with Internet connections, Nintendo or other gaming platforms, or FM radio. Hanging around inside the house meant boredom and/or chores so entertainment was outside activity and that meant BASEBALL! We had a celebrity in the neighborhood that was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, so baseball was not merely a popular activity; it was virtually the only activity for the boys. I don’t remember what the girls did, I know that we had not even discovered them yet, but we ate, drank and slept BASEBALL! Our cheeks bulged with Topps bubblegum, assuring cavities and root canals down the road, but we did not care about that. Those of us who were talented enough played on real teams with real uniforms in real leagues and at real baseball diamonds. I believed in a spiritual Heaven, but participating in this endeavor was the closest thing to Heaven I could imagine. I was required, of course, to play for the church team in the church league.


My Catholic friend sometimes attended my games and I often went with him when he watched his older brother play before he went to the Cardinals. After one of many victories we stopped at my Baptist Church for refreshments. My friend would not leave the car in spite of all my efforts to get him to join us. He instead chose to lie on the floorboard of the car so that he would be as invisible as possible. I did not know until later but his priests had instilled in him the fear of going to Hell if he dared darken the doors of a non-Catholic church. Thinking of this now makes me furious, but at the time I did not understand.

At the end of every regular season there was a city tournament in which the best of all leagues would participate for the city championship. As a general rule the church teams were more or less cannon fodder for the secular teams who were not restricted to church members for their roster. One magical year things were not status quo. Our church league team just happened to have the right combination of talent and a tremendous, dedicated coach who guided us to levels unheard of for a church team. I was at the peak of my game and led my team and the league in batting average and home runs.


At the end of every season, the church leagues had an honors banquet where the best of the best were honored. Our team was expected to sweep both team and individual honors as we finished undefeated against our fellow Baptist teams. Since I led the league in most individual hitting categories, I expected to pick up the M.V.P. award for the league. When this award was announced, the name of another player on my team was called, the son of a prominent Deacon in our church. There was no foul play, the Church League Officials had obviously copied his name instead of mine since he played behind me, i.e. he was my substitute, and rarely played. When he heard his name called, he was shocked and looked at me, not knowing what to do and knowing that the award was not meant for him. Big Daddy Deacon settled the matter. He told his son to go up and get HIS award. Everyone in our group realized what had happened and I did not say anything, not wanting to make a scene and it would have been improper for a 10 year old to speak out against an important elder in the Church. I prayed that Jesus would correct this injustice. The Bible stated that God knew the number of hairs on every head, so surely God could help me. Nothing was ever done to correct this mistake. I did not understand.

Some of my fondest memories are of this team, our coach and my teammates. We breezed through our league and were ready to take on the “big boys” in the city tournament. We were happy and confident. We were happy to be playing and at the same time serving as witnesses for Jesus Christ and our church. We were confident that for the first time in anyone’s memory, a church team had a shot at the city title. We did not win the city title. We were not defeated by a better team, but instead were forced to suffer a defeat because of a forfeit. It just happened that our next game in the tournament was scheduled on a Wednesday night. If you are a Baptist, Wednesday nights were reserved for the weekly prayer meeting service. Long story short, our pastor would not allow the team to play and the game went down in the record books as a defeat, 9-0, and our season was over.


We were crushed when we found out that we were not going to be allowed to play. I prayed as hard as I could for Jesus and God to intervene and soften the pastor’s heart so that we could play. I tried to explain to God that our playing would be a great way to witness to individuals who were not Christians and I promised God that I would never miss another Wednesday night prayer service. I did not pray for us to win the game, just that we would have a chance. I was very disappointed that we were not allowed to play, but I was confident that God knew what was best. I just knew that for some reason God was not allowing us to play the game because of some important event that would take place at the prayer meeting, some spectacular miracle of important conversion. Most of the team attended the service and it was dry and uneventful. No miracles occurred and no one was saved. That night I prayed to God to give me understanding of why it was so important that we not play the game and what purpose our forfeit served. I tried to understand and to think like an adult, but in the end I behaved like a 10-year-old boy with a broken heart and cried myself to sleep. I did not understand.

Apathy and lowered expectations

During the next several years, our family was less involved in church matters and more involved in the material aspects of life. Some of the things that were so elusive during our years when my father was in church work were more available now. We still attended church on a regular basis, but our horizons broadened considerably and I was now seriously contemplating some of the “truths” that had been just automatically accepted during my younger years. I was then and still am today a very analytical-minded person and loved science, and at one time had considered being an atmospheric scientist. Even though quite a bit of the science that I learned conflicted with Biblical claims and “truths”, I never entertained the idea that God might not exist or that my religious beliefs might be wrong. After some of the disappointments during my earlier years, I had reached somewhat of a truce with my religious beliefs and my expectations were more realistic. I more or less took the stance that there had to be a good, valid explanation for the conflicts between the Bible and science; I just did not know what all these explanations were. Being familiar with some Biblical apologetics and a more liberal view of Biblical inerrancy was sufficient for me to maintain my core religious beliefs through my college years and into my early years of marriage.

My wife and I were both believers but did not attend church on a regular basis until we were raising a family. I was what many would refer to as a lukewarm Christian at best. While my wife and I were raising a family and pursuing material things (my wife was a stay-at-home-mom), my father got back into church work again. At this point in my life, I had become quite uncomfortable with some of the religious beliefs that I had been raised to accept. Twentieth-century science was making great strides and the Biblical accounts and stories that I had so readily accepted in my youth were now taking on a surreal quality in my mind. One Nova special that I really enjoyed was one regarding the discovery and naming of the sub-atomic particles. The Hubble telescope opened up a universe that was vast and ancient almost beyond perception, but neither the quantum nor the cosmic revealed any signature of a god. My religious beliefs, however, were deeply entrenched and I still did not consider the possibility of God not existing or the story of salvation not being true. As scientific discoveries and works became more and more intriguing, I just shoved my questions and doubts to the back of my mind and refused to deal with them. Pressure was increasing from my parents and from my wife to start attending church again. My wife was not devoutly religious at all, but she was devoted to her family and there was the pressure to raise our children in a Christian atmosphere and with religious training. This meant becoming active in a Christian church. Naturally, we were always being invited by my parents to attend functions at their church. I was becoming more and more torn between my responsibilities to my family in bringing up my children in a church, and my deepening and troubling personal doubt that I was having about many religious issues. In the end, the church won out as I yielded to pressure and felt responsible to bring up my children the “right way” as I had been. We joined my parents’ church.


GUILT plays a tremendous role in fundamentalist Christianity. I felt guilty and somewhat ashamed that I had turned out to be a rather poor Christian after being brought up as such a devout believer. I always felt that there was something wrong with ME for my doubts and misgivings about Christianity. I had always been told that you have to “walk with God”, i.e. daily prayer, Bible reading, church attendance, etc. in order to be a REAL TRUE CHRISTIAN[8]. Well, I genuinely tried to be a better Christian and to become more informed about my beliefs and religion. I undertook what I suspect that few Christians undertake, I actually read the Bible with an open mind and did research on the origins of Christianity. I had a few misgivings when I started this “enlightenment”, but I was in no way prepared for the absolute devastation to my long-held belief system that would ensue.

The emergence of personal computers, modems, and the proliferation of the Internet opened up a whole new world to me. I purchased my first PC in 1987 and immediately used it as a tool in my honest quest for the truth. Not only did I broaden my knowledge in science, specifically biology, cosmology and physics, I began to frequent Fidonet and Internet newsgroups where there was always a lively and educational debate ongoing between theists and atheists. A curious kibitzer at first and an active participant later, I was absolutely flabbergasted at ignorant, weak and downright intellectually dishonest arguments that were promoted by the theists. At this time, I still believed in the existence of God, but with each subsequent day my long-standing and firmly entrenched beliefs were melting like a late spring snow in the brilliant sunshine. I cannot pinpoint an exact time when the realization hit me, but for the first time I seriously considered the possibility that all of my religious beliefs were a huge lie, a sham, a worldwide hoax of enormous proportions. “How could so many people be so very wrong?” I constantly thought to myself. The evidence against, or more correctly, the lack of evidence to support belief in supernatural beings, continued to mount in favor of atheism. How could God be real, any more than a concept, when the message was so riddled with errancy and the messengers so feeble and weak? Shouldn’t an omniscient and omnipotent God stand up to the harshest scrutiny? I did not understand.

The Final Realization

THERE IS NO “HEAVENLY FATHER”. Human beings must protect the orphans and foundlings, or they will not be protected.[9]

I buried my wife of 33 years on May 7 of this year [2003]. My last three years were spent as a caregiver for her, as the surgery that saved her life left her a hopeless invalid. During these awful three years, the question of the non-existence of a god, a creator, became crystal clear. When faced with catastrophic events, people help other people. The saying of “Trust in Allah, but tie thy camel thyself” is practiced by most thinking and caring individuals. Except for the most extreme religious cults, theists and non-theists alike rely on their fellow man for help when catastrophe hits. Medical catastrophe can be particularly cruel and opens the door for what I found to be absolutely despicable behavior by some individuals under the guise of extending condolences.


Right after my wife’s brain tumor was diagnosed, I had to call a fellow professional whom I had never met to cancel an appointment. I mentioned briefly why the cancellation was necessary and his immediate reply was “Where do you go to church?” I wasn’t expecting this, but nonplussed, I told him that I did not attend church. His next reply was, “Well, maybe that is God’s way of getting your attention”. Furious, I told him that his remark was inappropriate and ended the phone call. He did get a nice letter from me a few days later.

The day before my wife came home from her devastating surgery, medical equipment was arriving for her convalescence. The man who was setting up the hospital bed and other equipment was a pleasant enough fellow but when he was finishing up, here it came again. “Where do you go to church?” he asked. I was furious, told him that it was none of his business and showed him the door. The next day I called the Medical Equipment House and asked to speak to the supervisor. I voiced my complaint to the supervisor and his reply was “Oh, but you have to understand, he’s a Deacon in his church”. I swallowed my fury, paused for a second and then asked the man for his name and address. He was quite surprised with the request and asked me why I needed that information. I then proceeded to tell him that I was a High Priestess in the Church of Satan and wanted to come over and talk to his wife and children about Satanism. There was only a slight pause and Mr. Supervisor assured me that Mr. Deacon would not be talking to me again about religion.

These opportunistic and/or extremely hateful remarks came from perfect strangers in the name of their religion. What sort of God that gave people incurable brain tumors to “get their attention” would be worthy of worship? Is it anyone else’s business whether or not a perfect stranger goes to church? These sorts of incidents just personify the arrogance and narrow-minded attitude of fundamentalists. Some religious cultists use the misfortune of others to spew hatred, judgment and also to recruit.


THERE IS NO GOD TO ANSWER PRAYER. Human beings must hear and help human beings.

I found out through my ordeal that some individuals use the cop-out of “I will pray for you” in lieu of actual help[10]. “God will not give you a burden greater than you can bear” was another religious incantation that was uttered and is the epitome of absurdity. Does God have nothing better to do than to smite his creations with just enough to keep them from going over the edge? Why would anyone want to worship a god like this, not to mention the invalidity of the premise. It has been my observation that people jump off bridges and stick guns into their mouths every day. “Hands that help are better far than lips that pray”[11] is something that is readily evident if you are taking care of another individual who is helpless. “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” in Ebon Musings is a timely essay and echoes the words of America’s most famous atheist.


THERE IS NO BENEFICENT OR MALEVOLENT INTENT IN NATURE. Life is a struggle against preventable and unpreventable evils. The cooperation of human beings is the only hope of the world[12].

Finally, there is always the question of “Why?” when tragedy strikes. Why is the life of a beautiful, intelligent woman wrecked and snuffed out in the prime of her life? This issue has been one of the most difficult for theists and has never been adequately addressed within the framework of theism. There are many attempts, but they all fail miserably when examined in context and without interjecting concepts that make the argument completely circular. I won’t go into all of them here, but most revolve around some sort of Master Plan that God has and the inability of mere mortal man to understand the road map that God has drawn up. Again, why would anyone choose to worship a God that has such a bizarre and cruel plan? The concept that there is some wonderful plan and that there is a purpose for everything does not quite measure up for this non-believer. Atheists, of course, have no trouble at all with the nuances of the world and nature. The world can be a cruel place and bad things can happen without a cause, without an agenda or a purpose. People die before their time, tornadoes hit Baptist churches, children are molested and savagely murdered, and sometimes drunk drivers walk away without a scratch after killing a family. To assign a plan, a purpose or a higher meaning to tragic events is to look at them only through the narrow view of religious blinders, and with hindsight.

Clearly, for any objectively thinking person, things do not always work out for the best and there is not always a silver lining to every dark cloud. Platitudes of “she’s in a better place now” are no comfort to me; even though my wife was a Christian, I know better. The only consolation to the fact that my wife is now in the ground is her not being able to know or care about anything. Oblivion follows death, there is evidence of nothing else, and there is plenty of evidence of the brain not responding well to even slight injury, not to mention the ultimate insult, death. Predictably, I have been categorized by some as hating God or blaming God because of my misfortune. Well, first things first, how does an atheist hate/blame something that does not exist? I have also been asked how I could possibly go through such an ordeal without relying on religious faith and gods. An atheist does not need crutches nor embrace unnecessary baggage. I knew that there would be no miracle cure, no supernatural intervention and conducted myself accordingly.

Throughout much of my life I looked to gods and religion to provide answers. When I was young and inexperienced, religion provided the answer to almost everything. As I grew in knowledge and life experience, gods provided fewer answers and more questions. Ultimately, the gods, the saviors and the religion that I once held so dear, have all been exposed for what they are, cruel hoaxes and illusions. Religion explains absolutely nothing at all; it is merely a belief system created by humans who could not come to grips with their own mortality and perpetuated by fear. I have thrown off the shackles of religious tyranny and hope that one day mankind will be able to do the same.

There are no gods,
no devils, no angels,
no heaven or hell.
There is only
our natural world.
Religion is but
myth and superstition
that hardens hearts
and enslaves minds[13].

…Now I understand.

Footnotes

[1] My wife was still alive when I started this essay this February, but a totally different person from the one before the surgery. I loved her deeply, but in a completely different way. The wife that I knew before the tragedy was gone.
[2] John 3:18-20
[3] It was actually at least 17 victims that Jeffrey killed and hacked up. We will never know the extent of his depravity.
[4] It is interesting to not that the term “personal savior” is not in the Bible ANYWHERE.
[5] Pay Day Someday was a famous sermon written and preached by Robert Greene Lee who was a long time pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. The sermon is the very embodiment of hellfire and brimstone with people dying in fiery auto accidents (unsaved, of course), etc., with maximum use of pulpit pounding and voice inflection to illicit an emotional response and a conversion based on fear and intimidation.
[6] “Once saved, always saved” is a hotly debated topic among Christians and those who have subsequently rejected Christianity after once being saved. As with virtually every issue, the fundamentalist Christians twist and bend this thorny problem in order to maintain their claim of Biblical inerrancy. Technically, according to Christian doctrine, no one or nothing can separate a saved individual from God, because that would then make an individual or ideology more powerful than God. To get around this problem, the fundamentalists insist that if a person who is once saved subsequently rejects Christianity, then that person was never really saved in the first place. This, of course, is ridiculous, but these sort of bizarre mental gymnastics are used out of necessity or their religious doctrine would fall apart and become meaningless.
[7] I won’t elaborate on why we were “poor” but my father resigned his position at the Baptist church after he was made a scapegoat over an incident involving the pastor and some other individuals. Things were not merely “tight” for us, we were poor. I vividly remember one Christmas when we had no tree, no gifts, nothing, but we never did without food.
[8] REAL TRUE CHRISTIAN is just another fundie wriggle and obfuscation when confronted with a televangelist or another prominent “Christian” who is caught lying, stealing, in a sexually embarrassing or even sexually criminal situation. These people automatically become “Not Real True Christians” because of their behavior, when in fact there is absolutely nothing Biblical about such a designation, made obviously at the whim of other “Real True Christians” who also might become “Not Real True Christians” if they themselves are caught lying, cheating, stealing, raping, etc.,etc. This fallacy is modeled after the “No True Scotsman” fallacy of logic.
[9] Statement by M. O’Hair.
[10] There were two wonderful Catholic women who helped me when they could. I cannot say that this is because they were Catholic, but there was not the pious attitude that I encountered from others who tried to use our misfortune for their own religious recruitment.
[11] Robert G. Ingersoll.
[12] op.cit., M. O’Hair.
[13] Anne Nicol Gaylor, President, Freedom From Religion Foundation.