I had a happy childhood during which I was taken by my mother to the local Southern Baptist Church for Sunday School, Morning Church Service, Training Union (that’s extra night-time Sunday School for you non-Baptists out there) and Evening Church Service. As I got older, she added Youth Choir practice, Wednesday night prayer service, and Tuesday Visitation (during which we got addresses of folks who hadn’t been to church in a while, and also addresses of folks who had moved from another town and hadn’t come by to see us yet, and went out to see how they were doing.)
I remember that the message to the young folk in my small-town church was very positive. God loves you, Jesus saves, bring your cares to Him, rejoice in God’s love and love your neighbor as yourself. As I got up to about seventh grade questions started to surface about how old the world was. The message we got was that we didn’t need to worry about this. Probably, we were told, God’s days must have been pretty long back during the making of the world. Everybody had to read the Bible on their own, and nobody, not even the minister, could tell you exactly what to believe.
But shortly after that my Dad had to move for his job, (in 1966) and we were in the great huge city of Memphis. I started to hear a very different message. You could read the Bible all you wanted, but if you thought anything much different from what the preacher said, you must be in rebellion against God. And that faith stuff we’ve been telling you about? It’s great that you have faith, but guess what, we have proof too! The Bible is the literally inerrant word of God, after all!
I was a fairly well-read young Southerner and I found this to be a bit hard to swallow. It all came to a head a couple of years later during a revival. (That’s where a visiting pastor comes and preaches every single night for a week or two.) The man stood up and said that archeologists had found the ruins of Jericho, and the collapsed walls exactly proved the Biblical account. And the very next night the same pastor told the old story about how NASA computers were missing a day in the history of the universe, but it was explained in the Bible. (Believe it or not, people are still spreading this story, see: http://www.presentruth.com/2009/03/nasa-finds-the-missing-day/ )
The second story had so many holes in it that it defied credibility altogether. Um, let me think, there is a story of an eclipse in Egyptian records about 1200 BC but how could you possibly date the historical account accurately to check against your orbital calculations for eclipses during that time? Back that far, I think you would be lucky to date any event within 10 years plus or minus in Gregorian calendar terms, right? And any further than that, well, there’s enough orbital chaos you probably couldn’t really say when eclipses occurred. And besides, why in the world would NASA be worried about exact orbits three thousand years ago?
So I did make it to the library, found that sure enough, the NASA story was bunkum, as was the Jericho thing. (Yeah, there were some archeologists, and there were some old walls of Jericho, but the collapse of the walls was dated to a fire so long ago it was impossible to correlate it with any plausible date for the Exodus.)
I could go on and give more examples of crazy pulpit-talk. And of course I owe a tip of the hat to some children’s and juvenile books by the esteemed Henrick Willem van Loon (Story of Mankind, Lives, Tolerance) that prepared me for this day. Suffice it to say that from this point on, I began to accept a purely historical, non-supernatural view of the Bible and of the Church. No there is no resurrection, how in the world would Jesus’ sacrifice atone for my sins, etc etc. OTOH I had a very hard evening sitting there one day reading a book called “The Uses of the Past” by Herbert Muller that helped bring it all into focus to me- albeit in a way that seemed very hard to take, it was as if I was watching my favorite football team lose to a hated rival, it was a feeling of deep disappointment and disillusionment. I suppose I was about 15 years old.
However, I hate to disappoint the hardcore outspoken atheists here, but the fact of the matter is that I live in a part of the world where “coming out” as an atheist seems to be more trouble than it is worth. One sees the coming of a post-Christian England, one supposes that natural trends are heading the same way here without any of my feeble assistance, why should I subject myself to the inconvenience of making myself publicly heard? So I never told my parents or indeed any other member of my family.
But when I went to college, and later when I got married and had kids, I found it necessary to have a “flag of convenience.” Well, there are in fact some wonderful churches that treat people very kindly, where the preachers do not shout and scream, and you might even have a string quartet to play along with the choir, where you might go and sing some Thomas Tallis or some William Byrd or some Johann Sebastian Bach, and they tend to have very nice pipe organs. Since this is actually the sort of music I really like, I hung out there for decades, at least until my children were grown and gone.
But I have to say, living in the part of the world where I live, I still dread the sort of backlash and harassment that I imagine would ensue were I to make myself publicly known, and though I may invite the ridicule of this forum, at my age I am content to continue as I am. If I may offer one small point of argumentation in favor of staying in the closet, perhaps I could say that I think there are more pressing things than evangelizing for the cause of not believing in God. For example, science education, evolution, and climate change are burning issues where I think we should stand up against the forces of ignorance. But where I live, being identified as an out-and-out atheist is actually going to eliminate any credibility I might have and reduce any chance I have for being taken seriously or effecting any change whatsoever.
Lucretius of Mississippi