I have to admit that I feel a bit embarrassed when it comes to my atheism. No, it’s not due to my heresy. After all, the Washington Post called me, “Funny, profane and adamantly atheist.” I want that on my tombstone. The reason for my abashment is that most atheists arrive at their godlessness through years of wrenching struggle. They’ve wrestled with the philosophical implications and moral arguments, reading countless books along the way. They often risk estrangement with religious loved ones in their lonely quest for truth.
I went through none of that. Oh, I thought about many of those issues. But I was raised an agnostic, and for me atheism was but a philosophical baby step. I didn’t have religious loved ones, so I wasn’t imperiling any relationships, either.
Though I wasn’t raised with religion, I actually went through a period in my early adolescence when I would say this silent prayer before going to bed:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I had probably heard it on TV or in movies. To me, it wasn’t a prayer, but a protection against the boogey man who would kill me in my sleep if I didn’t pray to him. (Would you put it past the God of the Old Testament? This is the schmuck who told Abraham to kill his son, then said, “Just messing with you!” Who killed Job’s family to win a bet with the devil. Which was the evil one again?)
I eventually convinced myself that this was silly. I didn’t really believe in God, but I was praying to him just in case he existed and became pissed enough to snuff me in my sleep.
God had become the monster under my bed.
I imagine that a believer would say that my childish fears distorted the prayer and the nature of God himself. But did it really? This is the God who demanded Jephthah burn his daughter alive as a burnt offering, as he had pledged to do to the first person he met when he returned home if he won his battle. Hey, a promise is a promise, right? Yes, I suppose that snippet of prayer wasn’t intended to be a threat. But doesn’t Christianity, from which the prayer emanates, trade in fear of the Devil?
I had another irrational fear of the earth opening up and swallowing me into Hell. Or through the toilet when I passed the bathroom. Everyone knows that sewage pipes run straight through the pits of hell (at least anyone who has ever had a major sewage backup while sitting on the toilet.)
Okay, so maybe I wasn’t the most normal of children….
I can only imagine the nightmares these terrifying concepts could provoke in children who grow up steeped in them. As neurotic as I was, I was able to put aside these childish ideas because they came from outside my secular environment.
When I was about 14, as I daydreamed one day, I referred to myself as an agnostic to my imaginary conversationalist. Suddenly, I thought, “You go from day to day assuming there’s no God.” Was I really an agnostic anymore?
And—Boom!—I became an atheist. Actually, it was more like…piff.
Though I’m probably not a paragon of secular-raised atheists, I have observed a few common differences between those who were raised without religion and the deconverted.
For one thing, it seems to me that the secular-raised tend to feel less angry against religion than people who had faith “shoved down their throats.” Indeed, I can certainly understand that attitude among people who were emotionally or physically mistreated by religious authorities. This is especially true for those who were sexually abused.I wish there were a hell, so there could be a special place in it for their abusers.
For me, however, religion provokes more incredulity than ire. My natural instinct is to mock the absurdities of religion, which are legion.
Born secularists often feel no strong evangelical impulse to convert believers into atheists, as well. To me, leaving faith behind is a deeply personal decision that everyone has to make for themselves. That said, many people raised in religious traditions harbor doubts that they can scarcely acknowledge even to themselves. They are the ones who need to be encouraged and educated about atheism. I think too many people are turned off by the popular image of angry atheists.
That’s why I usually mock the religion, not the religious. (Unless they’re young earth creationists. I mean, come on, does Ken Ham truly believe the Garden of Eden was a real-life Bedrock, with Adam and Eve living side-by-side with dinosaurs? Here, Dino, have an apple. Chomp! No, just the fruit!)
Frankly, for the rest, I don’t care what they believe as long as they don’t try to push their beliefs, deny women health choices, or teach mythology as science.
Another major difference is that the deconverted generally understand religious thought and beliefs a great deal better than I do. In their struggle with their faith, they’ve read far more about religion than I can stomach. In fact, reading the “good book” is often the first step to losing that very faith. That’s what did it for my boyfriend Keith, who has two Episcopal priests in his family. His deconversion inspired him to become a Religious Studies major.
As for me, I’ve never been able to make myself read the bible. If you filmed the Old Testament exactly as written, it would draw an X-rating. Rife with incest, rape, slavery, and even cannibalism, it contains enough bloodletting to fuel a gorefest.
It’s no wonder retellings of the story of Lot always ends with his wife being turned into a pillar of salt. For some reason, those books of bible stories for children leave out the part when Lot’s daughters get him drunk and have sex with him. (Could you really blame them, after their dear father offered them up to be gang raped because they were virgins? You really owe it to yourselves to read Neil Carter’s dissection of this abhorrent story.)
The point is, I only know this because I’ve read about the story of Lot from articles, essays, and blog posts. That’s about as close as I want to get to the bible. As I like to say, to me, religion has cooties.
Now, I’m interested in the history of religion, but when it comes down to reading about religion itself, something inside me recoils.
Eww, I don’t want to touch that!
This means that I can’t always counter fine-grained theistic arguments in a serious, non-satirical manner. But as long as I can avoid wading through all those begats and the snuff-film slaughter and rapine, I’m okay with leaving these debates to others.
In the end, I feel comfortable using that impulse to satirize religion instead of arguing theological points. The idea of God is, after all, absurd on its face. A great big genie in the sky, who made the earth and the heavens before he decided to turn on the light, is inherently funny. Where did I put that moon again? Satire skewers ridiculous ideas in ways dry argument simply can’t.
And maybe, as readers laugh, those people on the fence will pause to think. Some of them will eventually come over to our side, raising future generations of secular children of their own.
One day, their children too will mock the supposed “family values” of the bible.
Image: Dan Etherington via Wikipedia Commons