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Why I am an atheist – Michael

Why am I an atheist? Such a question would have seemed ludicrous to me just a few short years ago. And if you told me that it was the deepening of a religious belief that led me to such a position, I would have been completely baffled. But that is, in fact, what happened. Allow me to explain.

My earliest memories of religion were quite weird. My parents were not initially religious, and I was left to form ideas on my own. The occasional religious pamphlet, ranging from tattered old Jack Chick comics to slick copies of the Watchtower, was about all I had to formulate an idea of the supernatural. I can remember my father answering a question about god by talking about the energy inherent in all matter. The practical upshot was that I was basically an honest agnostic at a young age. The question didn’t seem relevant or soluble.

That all started to change around the time I was eleven or twelve. My father would occasionally take us to this strange ceremony being held at a local Catholic church called a Mass. I didn’t understand a bit of it, and found it completely boring. I was even signed up for an odd event called a “lock-in,” where I was literally locked into an apartment with a group of children I didn’t know. All very strange, but I wasn’t yet tutored in Catholicism or required to participate in their rituals.

That all changed when we moved across states and into my grandmother’s house. Immediately, I was enrolled in catechism classes, and the indoctrination began in earnest. I discovered that I had been baptised as a baby. I was forced to pray the Rosary with my family in front of the Marian shrine my grandmother had built. Attendance at Mass became mandatory. I was brought to Confession, and forced to tell these strange men what I thought I had done wrong that week. I argued with my father that I didn’t believe in a god, so I shouldn’t be forced to do this. His only reply was that until I could disprove the existence of god, I was going to go. During this time, my otherwise moderate mother, raised a Baptist, became a Catholic. My younger sister was also baptised and forced to participate.

This went on for several years. As I left home and entered college, my father racheted up the pressure. He began telling me about how I was going to be damned for all eternity. In addition, I felt an increased desire to connect with my father as I entered adulthood, but given his focus on religion, this was increasingly difficult. The two pressures seemed intolerable, and it was at that time that I enrolled in an introduction to philosophy class. The teacher of this class was pushing C.S. Lewis’ arguments, and I fell for it. Within a short time, I succumbed to the pressure and started acting more religious. I embraced the idea of apologetics, and quickly became one of those obnoxious evangelizers with whom we are all so familiar. By this time, I was married, and I inflicted these arguments on my wife until she, too, converted.

This went on for several years. My faith was only deepening, and I was beginning to think that I was being called to a life of ministry. I watched 9/11 happen, and my faith was unshaken. I was proud of the fact that MY beliefs were grounded in rational thought, not like those other religious people. I integrated myself into the local Catholic church, and was on my way to a typical unthinking lifelong acceptance of Catholic dogma. Ironically enough, the thing that made me reevaluate my beliefs was my father’s deepening religious feelings.

He began to think that the Catholic church was wrong, and that the Eastern Orthodox religion was correct. And he and I began to fight in earnest. I arrayed every argument I could think of against this apostacy, and I thought that I was winning him back to the True Faith. But, he kept going back, and eventually declared that he was leaving the Catholic church.

At this point, I realized that I was deeply offended by this, and that realization struck a nerve. I thought that I was a Catholic for logical reasons, not simply because I felt that it was right. Maybe I was the wrong party here. I had not given either side a chance to stand on its own, having always argued from the premise that the Catholic church was correct. So, I took a step back. I consciously tried to ignore my bias, and to evaluate the claims of those competing religions from a neutral standpoint.

The problem was that neither side stood up to the scutiny. When I subjected both to the same level of proof that I demanded of other truth claims, and especially other religious claims, they both withered. I was devastated. I spent many hours wrestling with this problem alone. Then, I told my wife of my doubts. Finally, I admitted to my father that I was no longer a believer. This has been a constant source of discord between us, but it can’t be helped. My wife and children were all too happy to shed their religious personas, and we quickly became a happy little secular household.

If my sojourn in the Catholic faith had any positive effect, it would be that I was immersed in various religious arguments, and it makes it a lot easier to recognize and undermine the various tactics that religious evangelists like to use.

Michael
Midwest, United States

(I put out a simple call for your explanations for why you’re an atheist, and I’m still inundated with submissions. This will be a daily feature on Pharyngula.)

Comments

  1. John Morales says

    Why am I an atheist? Such a question would have seemed ludicrous to me just a few short years ago. And if you told me that it was the deepening of a religious belief that led me to such a position, I would have been completely baffled.
    [...]
    When I subjected both [Orthodox and Catholic] to the same level of proof that I demanded of other truth claims, and especially other religious claims, they both withered.

    Michael, I beg to differ.

    From your (excellent and moving) adumbration, it seems to me the real reason is that you became intellectually-honest and brave enough to critically examine the basis for those beliefs.

    (Kudos)

  2. says

    Maybe I was the wrong party here. I had not given either side a chance to stand on its own, having always argued from the premise that the Catholic church was correct.

    Actually the Catholic church is correct. My ugly nun teachers repeatedly told us “Catholicism is the one true religion”. They wouldn’t have said that if it wasn’t true.

    8 posts about Catholic scum

  3. Heather Dalgleish says

    Thanks for that, Michael – I can relate to some of that as someone whose household growing up was non-religious, but who took a brief soujourn through a thankfully mild brand of Christian fundamentalism in my teens, which I didn’t bother detailing in my own letter.

    I say thankfully mild, since though most of the church (including myself) considered themselves good solid believers in the truth of the Bible – the minister never told the women to shut up in church, or to cover their heads, or submit completely to their husbands – indeed he never ventured near those verses, and when I did in private, they quietly rankled me.

    Actually, I hate to have to say it here, but circumcision actually came to be one of the niggling things that troubled me about the Bible, about the idea of a loving god…

    You have to understand things from my perspective. In Scotland, in my parents’ generation, in my generation and younger, they just don’t do that. I had no concept of what a circumcised penis might be like until I saw one when I was about 17 (and only because I’m a damn hussy), and did a sort of double-take. I didn’t even realise it was as widespread as it is in America until I was about 18/19, and was genuinely stunned. But someone had posted this video of a baby being circumcised (the reason for which I wasn’t aware at the time), and it honestly troubled me for some time, with regards to God condoning this sort of thing. (FGM, which I was vaguely aware of, and horrified by, hadn’t entered the picture in the same way for me at the time, since that wasn’t MY god – that was rotten hoomans…)

    Anyway – long tangent towards the point where I reached the same point you detail – just analysing it all rationally, and watching it fall apart, not quite like a house of cards, but like a sandcastle in the rising tide – slowly crumbling and flowing away, and eventually thoroughly flattened and submerged by the marching tide. And it was good. Yeah.

    PS. Sorry if this thread becomes massively derailed by people discussing circumcision now.

  4. sailor says

    “My wife and children were all too happy to shed their religious personas, and we quickly became a happy little secular household.”

    Since they seem very devoted to you maybe you should pay more attention to what they really think and feel.

  5. electrabotanical says

    Luckily I was raised secular presbyterian. We went to a church that promoted a symbolic interpretation of the bible and weren’t told that we had to beleive any of it. It was more of a cultural experience – learn the stories, know the history, get some music training, meet some people. I toyed with beleiving in Jesus, but it never lasted long.

    Casual brainwashing in jesusland probably has a very low percent of effectiveness. The magnitude of the jesus farce demands much greater pressure. It just didn’t make it past my BS detector.

  6. Cerus says

    @(4.)sailor

    By the only account available, they “really think and feel” to be perfectly happy with the turn of events, you appear to be projecting something on to them.

  7. says

    I’m glad your “wife and children were all too happy to shed their religious personas.” As I was reading, I was concerned that you’d created new monsters. Not so in this case — wonderful.

    I also know that it is more difficult to leave something once you’ve dragged others down that road. Good job on having the courage to do so.

  8. ManOutOfTime says

    The church has gotten really good at churning out non-believers. I was surprised you don’t mention the priest pedophilia scandals, but then I guess those really peaked well before you found the church – glad you found your way back out!

  9. frustum says

    I voluntarily attempted to read “Mere Christianity” after an old college friend, one whom I respect immensely, told me that I really need to read it. We had been discussing why he is an ardent Catholic who returned to the faith, and he said that book had done it.

    Well, all I can say is I tried. From the get-go Lewis’ reasoning is broken. Even if I did believe in absolute right and wrong, Lewis immediately falls off the rails of logic in attempting to deduce things from this axiom.

    This is no slight to Michael, as he sounds like a very thoughtful guy, but I’m amazed that people think Lewis is on to something. I’d be curious to hear, in retrospect, what Michael thinks of Lewis now. Do his arguments still hold water, or was it just at the time you desired to make your father happy and Lewis offered you a route to it so you glossed over all the unjustified leaps of reasoning?

  10. says

    Great journey.

    I’m not making assumptions, but this is the second longest letter and, like the first longest, Catholicism-related. I’m sure it’s a coincidence.

  11. Anteprepro says

    “The teacher of this class was pushing C.S. Lewis’ arguments…”

    What. The. Fuck. How does this even happen? How does a teacher get away with pushing such bilge and how does a teacher that is able to be convinced into presenting C.S. Lewis as good philosophy even get a job? I think you should be outraged, Michael. The only reason you “fell you for it” was because your philosophy teacher was dim enough to fall for it as well and tried their damnedest to sucker the students into accepting the same nonsense using a position of authority. That is NOT the job of a philosophy teacher, and the kind of teacher that would choose C.S. Lewis, of all people, as an example of irrefutable logic is a philosophy teacher that should have failed the very introduction to philosophy course they were teaching.

  12. tushcloots says

    I was immersed in various religious arguments, and it makes it a lot easier to recognize and undermine the various tactics that religious evangelists like to use.

    I live in a in a fundamentalist community and I see how, on many levels, their religion keeps them inoculated to grasping rational and empirical fact. They are convinced that what they believe makes perfect sense and seem incapable of the honest insight and appraisal you ‘discovered’ in yourself.
    I am awed that you were able to look at your beliefs in such a manner, Michael.

    I, too, have really learned a staggering amount of refutation to their rationalizations and justifications here, but it’s on this site, Pharyngula, that the brilliant arguments others make, open my eyes fully.

    It seems virtually impossible to reason with, and get serious answers from, these people in spite of respectful and engaging discussions. It’s one of the weirdest feelings talking intelligently with someone and suddenly receiving badly illogical and childish views being espoused within seconds of a critical question or statement by me, no matter how innocently, or unwaringly, presented.

    Thanks for your story, it gives me hope, for some reason!

  13. says

    You just weren’t enough of a Platonist. I really think that Lewis must have learned a reflexive Platonic worldview in his education, then was amazed at how closely Christianity, with its heavy Platonic background and imports, agreed with the Platonic claims that he’d always accepted as the truth.

    Why, if you can believe the Republic, you can believe anything. Just convince yourself that your acid trip was a journey into a higher realm, then judge everything by it. The equivalent is practically all that any religion is actually doing.

    Glen Davidson

  14. Randomfactor says

    I’d always heard CS Lewis pushed as the epitome of apologetics until I read some of his work. (I later realized that they were correct–but “apologetics” is the field which studies just what logical fallacies may best be used to prop up an unfounded argument.)

    Had his book on grief pushed at me after my wife died. Meh.

  15. the gamekeeper says

    I was raised in the UK with no particular religion except for morning assembly at school. I only began to think of myself as atheist when I emigrated to the mid west about 20 years ago and encountered the mind boggling bullshit of the bible belt. I realized then that in fact I had been atheist always.

  16. MikeLatiolais says

    frustum,
    You hit the nail on the head. I had let my emotions cloud my perception of Lewis’ poor logic. It was really just the case that I did not subject my own favored beliefs and arguments to the same level of scrutiny as I did opposing beliefs. One of the stunning moments of self-revelation was how “miracles” I accepted blindly, simply on the authority of the Catholic church. I realized that if a Mormon, for instance, came to me and said that his faith was justified by the existence of the incorruptible bodies of Mormon saints, I would not simply accept it at face value. I would demand proof of the miraculous nature of such events. But when the church recognized such oddities as legitimate miracles, I simply accepted it as true.
    Once those emotional issues were cleared away, I was able to see Lewis’ arguments for the junk they are. They only have any real power to persuade if you are already in agreement with him. He was simply a way to wallpaper over my doubts and give me a veneer of intellectual honesty. I am quite embarrassed by it now.

    Anteprepro,
    It is sad, but to put it in perspective, I started my academic career at a small two year college in rural Kansas. The intellectual rigor of the philosophy class(I don’t remember there being more than PHIL101, so it may well have been the sole philosophy class taught at that college) would have been very low on their list, far removed from such concerns as maintaining the support of the local community and keeping their athletic program in the spotlight.

    tushcloots,
    Thank you!

  17. tushcloots says

    A couple of people ask about C.S. Lewis. Here, he is presented as a very respected philosopher and writer, and who is anyone to question this if they haven’t heard about him or read critiques?
    Me, I know he is full of bullshit without even knowing who he was the first time he is presented just because I know that all people that say they converted to Christianity for logical reasons are badly mistaken and so is their so called reasoning.
    It’s nice to be able to say to anyone here that when they pull out some book, e.g. Darwin on Trial, or Answers in Genesis, or C.S. Lewis, I bet I can rip that apart in minutes even though I’ve never seen it before!
    This is also bad, though, because it merely reinforces their belief that I have an anti-Christian agenda and will make shit up no matter what. It’s how they think so project this onto critics.
    Ha, I pointed out in one class on ‘the importance of critically analysing the Resurrection’ that one of the gospels reports and earthquake but none of the others, and I was told it is a matter of different interpretations of the same event!
    The I was explained the source of these conflict using a fucking very pathetic strawman. An intelligent pastor sais, “It’s like one writer saying a rooster crowed three three times once, and another reporting that a rooster crowed once – three times.”
    Really?! Can you f*cking believe it??
    At this point I have to shake my head walk away and say, `this is insane, it really fucking is.`
    Getting back to C.S. Lewis, it is argument from authority all the way, and nothing is more powerful for these freaks, nothing. Merely being told that someone is held in esteem is enough to render what ever they`ve said as `gospel.`

    P.S. These bastards use Einstein, quoting `God does not play dice.` I cringe and say `WITH THE UNIVERSE!` And he also says religion is childish!, you forgot that part, too!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I have to go settle down, FFS ;>

  18. MikeLatiolais says

    megazuesthor,
    My wife really came at it from another route. While I was reviewing and attacking the underpinnings of my beliefs, she was becoming disgusted with the blatant racism that was being fostered at our church. Despite probably being more than half of the parishioners, the Latino members were always treated as second class. When we were assigned a bi-lingual Mexican priest, the local bigots went into overtime, complaining to the bishop, raising objections to normal expenditures(which they happily approved when it was a white man as the priest), making anonymous complaints to the government to force a review of his visa and in general being complete asses. And it worked. The bishop got tired of the complaints and replaced him. My wife was disgusted, and that was the crack that caused her to leave the church. It was just a nice coincidence that it happened at the same time that I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t believe any of it anymore.
    My kids, on the other hand, were young enough that it was all just a weird social club to them. A boring weekly Mass followed by a Wednesday night filled with cheap arts and crafts projects centered on Jesus. They were never keen on dressing up and marching into church anyway, so when I explained that I wouldn’t be taking them anymore, and then explained why I no longer believed, their reaction was a sigh of relief. This reminds me of an amusing anecdote. During one particularly long service, my middle son waited until one of the silent parts during the “Consecration” and said, in a loud voice, “I don’t love Jesus!” I was mortified then, but I just want to go back and cheer him on now :)

  19. Loreo says

    Whoa.

    I was a devout Catholic myself for ~20 years and followed a similar path. I even remember being told in high school by a philosophy teacher that no one had ever knocked down all five of St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous arguments for the existence of god.

    Having such familiarity with the inner workings of Catholic apologetics makes it so, so easy to remain uncowed by them now – there’s no mystery there which is greater than feeble human understanding, just a lot of handwaving and gross assumptions.

  20. Anteprepro says

    “I started my academic career at a small two year college in rural Kansas. The intellectual rigor of the philosophy class(I don’t remember there being more than PHIL101, so it may well have been the sole philosophy class taught at that college) would have been very low on their list,”

    Sad, but I guess you have a point.

  21. bromion says

    Thanks for sharing! I’m curious… did you ever figure out why your father underwent such a shift in religiosity when you were 11 or 12?

  22. Crudely Wrott says

    More thanks to you, Michael.

    If I read you correctly, you are basically saying that thinking trumps believing.

    That is a notion that I heartily endorse and practice daily.

    Your story is more compelling evidence for the value of our minds as well as the proper hygiene required for the maintainence of same.

    Happy trails to you.

  23. says

    I’m not going to enter the competition because a) I wouldn’t be a winner and b) it doesn’t really make sense to me to apply an affirmative label to myself based on what I don’t believe. True, I’m not religious but I don’t believe in Santa Claus either, and neither fact constitutes my identity or serves to explain or describe me.

    What I do believe is not simple to explain. To begin with, there are various senses of “belief.” I could say that I believe Shakespeare was a great writer, for example. One true fact about me is that I am an admirer of Shakespeare. Some people are either unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work, or don’t care for it as much as I do. Our lack of shared belief in this case does not entail any contradiction. You can feel any way you want about Shakespeare as a writer, including having no opinion at all, without in any way calling into question my feelings about the Bard.

    I also believe that the plays were written by the son of a local official and glove maker from Stratford-upon-Avon. Some people don’t believe that. Therein does indeed lie a contradiction. We cannot both be right. This is what is called a truth claim as opposed to a personal preference or taste. However, we might have these opposing beliefs while sharing pretty similar criteria for evaluating truth claims. Perhaps we have not seen all of the same evidence, or make different judgments about probabilities. We might argue passionately but the fundamental nature of reality is not at stake.

    Next, I believe that Shakespeare was the descendant of creatures that lived in Africa around 6 million years ago whose descendants also include chimpanzees. You might believe that he is the descendant of people created magically from dust by a supernatural being less than 10,000 years ago. These opposing claims cannot possibly be based on similar criteria for judging truth, because the kinds of evidence that exist for them are completely different. The evidence for my conclusion consists of an overwhelming body of observations about the remains of ancient creatures preserved in rock; the biology of chimpanzees, humans, and other creatures including their DNA and everything having to do with genes and gene expression; geology; cosmology; and observations about the distribution of all sorts of creatures around the planet and their interactions with their environments and in many cases, their observable evolutionary change over time. And more. It’s based on a broad, complex picture of reality built up painstakingly, piece by piece, from evidence.

    The supernatural being making the man from dust, however, is based entirely on the contents of an ancient book written by people who had no evidence whatsoever for the story they told. They were just imagining it. And it is full of both internal contradictions and contradictions with observable reality. Believing such a story is just silly. We know more than they did because we have been studying the world, and writing down our observations, and passing them on to the next generation, so each knows more than the last.

    So the question is not why am I an atheist. I’m an atheist because there is no meaningful evidence whatsoever for the existence of God; and because the concept of God is both internally contradictory and contrary to readily observable reality. That isn’t really even worth an essay. I find it trivially obvious. The question is why so many people cling fiercely to silly stories. That requires an essay.

  24. MikeLatiolais says

    bromion,
    I’m not sure what triggered it, unless perhaps he was also under pressure from his mother. Most of his blood relatives are Catholic(it’s dominant in the Cajun culture), and we were moving back to that area, so I can see why it would become a concern after that much time away.

  25. Anteprepro says

    Cervantes:

    So the question is not why am I an atheist. I’m an atheist because there is no meaningful evidence whatsoever for the existence of God; and because the concept of God is both internally contradictory and contrary to readily observable reality. That isn’t really even worth an essay. I find it trivially obvious. The question is why so many people cling fiercely to silly stories. That requires an essay.

    *Applause*

    Honestly, in my opinion, that would’ve made a perfectly good submission and answer to “why I am an atheist”. Because, ultimately, the real answer that any of us can offer is “Why would anyone be anything else?”.

  26. says

    Very cool story. Glad to hear that the rest of the family (wife and children, I mean) was quick to be part of a “secular household” and didn’t cause distress there.

  27. Lion IRC says

    Why am I an atheist?

    The notion that there might be more than one way to answer such a question “…would have seemed ludicrous to me just a few short years ago.”

    Atheists used to offer just one single, simple explanation –
    “show me the evidence”

    Now we have… “I’m still inundated with submissions.”

    and

    “This will be a daily feature on Pharyngula.”

    Now we have…”Atheist Perspectives” and “Atheist Worldviews” and – wait for it…that amazingly accurate word used by Michel Onfray – ATHEOLOGY.

  28. Jim Mauch says

    I grew up in a household that was not religious. Under pressure my father labeled himself a polite secularist. The kind of secularist that would not be so impolite as to offend the the believers around him by calling himself an atheist. Though he felt that he could not believe in something without evidence he had to concede he could not show believers any absolute proof that their gods did not exist. Anyway he told me that ones sex life and belief or nonbelief, is just not something talked about in polite society. Though he meekly answered my questions on faith I could tell that he felt equally uncomfortable on talking about this subject with his children. Maybe he felt that like sex this is something the children should learn about on their own by reading dirty books.
    Of course because I was not indoctrinated into belief in faith at an early age it became inevitable that I to would also become a nonbeliever. Perhaps I am just blindly being influenced be my fathers nonbelief. If so, I can only thank my father. Thank goodness he allowed himself to influence me enough to be able to find the understanding to be able to have a skeptical inquiry of religious belief and be able to find the strength to call myself an atheist.

  29. says

    These submissions (and comments) are just incredible. It completely destroys the theist’s interpretation that atheists believe in nothing (then why do we have so much to write about?), or that being an atheist is like being a non-astrologer (thanks, but no thanks, Sam Harris!).

    What we are seeing here is both individualism (“I took THIS path”) and cohesion (“that’s just like MY path!”). It is simply heartening and enlightening. But no hugs, please.

    Keep ‘em coming, PZ!

  30. says

    Thank you for a great story, Michael.

    Amazingly, I find myself in agreement with our troll here – to a point. All you really need is “show me the evidence”. What makes these stories so interesting is actually the disenchantment with religion. How do people overcome the early brainwashing, the on-going social pressures? What factors matter to get people to start challenging it? To have the strength to continue the challenge? The real question of interest is “why I am not religious”.

    And that’s why I haven’t sent one in. Because my attachment to religion was so marginal to begin with that escaping it was no drama. Atheist parents, lukewarm Anglican school. Even for me, though, the first step wasn’t intellectual. Seeing how disgustingly unethical it was – that gave me the impetus to look closer.

  31. Hazuki says

    @30

    How did you get out of the playpen? Go back to Undernet #apologetics and stay there. Mama Zilche will be very upset that you toddled out and into the big wide world without your leash on.

  32. echidna says

    Seeing how disgustingly unethical it was – that gave me the impetus to look closer.

    And that’s where your story gets interesting, although you give it short shrift here. What unethical part of religion came to your attention? What did you see when you looked closer? What made you leave a relatively comfortable, unchallenging religion?

  33. says

    Those initial feelings of doubt of something that’s such an integral part of who you are must be terrifying, I’m so happy it eventually worked out for you.

  34. says

    I don’t mean to spam here but I have a blog for former Christians I just started. http://www.atheistsplayground.wordpress.com long name but short and interesting posts. I hope to be direct in them . Anybody want to talk about William Lane Craig? I think he is the new C.S. Lewis. BTW—-the best critique of CS LEWIS I have ever read was not from Sam Harris or Hitchens but actually John Loftus in the book, Why I Became and Atheist and also Dan Barker’s “Godless” which may be my favorite atheist book. I graduated from Liberty University 2 times so I know my fundie references. My book comes out soon… it’s called Preacher Boy and I hope y’all like it. Great post mike. wish i lived in the midwest so your wife could talk to mine. she is conflicted about my turn to the dark side, of course.

  35. says

    cont’d for those who haven’t read Loftus or Barker, basically C.S. Lewis still gets some major play from apologetic preachers. Lewis had the “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” trilemma, if you will. One has to decide if Jesus is God, full of shit, or crazy. Someone like Penn Jillette wouldn’t have a hard time choosing the right answer! Loftus, however posited the FOURTH L–which is LEGEND. If it was Barker, I apologize…I confuse them at times which I shouldn’t. They are similar in their backgrounds and style.

  36. says

    echidna, I wasn’t IN a religion, so I didn’t have to leave. Unless you count a very brief flirtation with SDAs when I was 11. They lured me in with archeology, did a bait and switch into prophesy, and my parents rolled their eyes and humoured me until I found that they had horrible gender role ideas.

    The horribly unethical stuff I remember most was evangelists at uni, telling me that good people would burn in hellfire or all eternity unless they accepted Jeeeezusss. And this was supposed to be good? Well, obviously not. Duh.