I was a teenager. I sang in the choir for the Protestant church services on Air Force bases. Most services were non-denominational, and a few were Lutheran. I was there mostly for the singing and for social reasons but I was a Christian. My mother was a generic Christian, a sort of non-denominational granddaughter of two Methodist ministers. My father was an atheist, though I did not know that at the time. I never got any sense that he opposed the Sunday schools when I was young or the choir in my teens. I think he expected me to figure it out for myself.
George Carlin once said about religion “I tried, folks. I really did.” So did I. I wanted it. I wanted what all those people around me had, that sense of the presence of God, a real relationship with God. I prayed frequently for God to fill me with what the others described as the Holy Ghost. It never happened.
It was the weekly attendance at church with the choir, which went on for about 2 years, that put the first crack in my belief. One day I realized, after reading the Sermon on the Mount, that I rarely heard a preacher quote Jesus. We got a lot of Paul, and sometimes a bit of the other letters. We got the Old Testament. At Christmas and Easter we got a lot of stories about Jesus. But we very rarely got what Jesus actually said. As a joke I told a friend that they weren’t Christians, they were Paulists. But I couldn’t figure out why they spent so little time quoting Jesus.
We had a great Youth Pastor. I think he really was a nice guy, though of course, these days we have a tendency to look askance at them because of how many of them end up molesting children. He honestly tried to answer my questions, which were becoming more and more frequent. But he really couldn’t. It all came down to “You have to have faith,” a very unsatisfactory answer.
Then I re-read Stranger in a Strange Land. I’d read it shortly after it was published when I was 11 and approximately 70 percent of it went right over my head (my parents had no idea at the time what the book was like, as Heinlein’s previous books were aimed at children), but this time I was old enough to actually understand most of it. I was just barely 16. Heinlein’s cynicism, his contempt for religious leaders, and his failure to accept the norms I had been taught were a revelation. But the most important thing in the book, at least as far as my religious faith was concerned, was a passage in which he described what happened to Lot’s daughters. His character then said, “That’s not the only surprise in store for any one who actually reads the Bible.”
I took him up on his implied challenge. I read the Bible, starting at Genesis 1:1 and continuing all the way through, page by page. I admit I skimmed over the begats and I just never could quite finish Revelations. It was just too weird to me. It made no sense at all to a 16 year old in the mid-1960s, before everything got all psychedelic. But I read everything else.
Then I thought about it. I thought about all the Bible stories that I’d never heard of, and with damned good reason. I thought about God the Father who will send his children to hell. He will do this even to those who had never really hurt anyone in their entire lives, while murderers and rapists went to heaven if they just confessed their sins and repented. I knew my Daddy could never send me to hell, no matter what I did. I thought about the injustice of God punishing us for being who he made us to be. I thought about the genocide of peoples whose only real crime was being on the wrong land at the wrong time and all the other crimes authorized by God.
After about 3 weeks, I told my mother. “I don’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense.”
She just shrugged and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out eventually.” Actually she figured it out. She is an atheist today.
My reasons for being an atheist have become more sophisticated over time, but it began as an overpowering sense of the unfairness inherent in the Christian doctrine. A measure of my lack of sophistication at the time is that it never occurred to me that maybe another religion was the right one, which is fortunate in way, as it saved me a lot of time searching through other beliefs.
These days I tend to concentrate on the lack of evidence for a supernatural being, and the utter lack of evidence that becoming a “good” Christian, or indeed, any other religion, makes you a more moral person. But my atheism is still grounded on that sense of unfairness.