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Dec 28 2011

Why I am an atheist – Barbara Meissner

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.

Barbara Meissner
United States

32 comments

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  1. 1
    raven

    I admit I skimmed over the begats and I just never could quite finish Revelations. It was just too weird to me.

    Revelation was the first crack in xianity for me too.

    At around age 8, in church, and bored, I decided to read Revelation. I’d been told the bible was a magic book and assumed Revelation was an accurate outline of the future.

    How cool is that, a magic book with an outline of the future.

    I read a few pages and decided it was incomprehensible gibberish. So much for the magic book.

    I’ve read it since. Nowadays it is comprehensible but it is still gibberish. Nothing that is foretold in Revelation ever happened. Xians should be appalled that this book ever made it into the bible. In fact, it barely made it and Martin Luther almost tossed it when he tossed a bunch of other books.

  2. 2
    Thomas Lawson

    Great entry, Barbara.

    .

    SPOILER ALERT: I managed to finish Revelation. Turns out, Jesus wants to live with 144,000 clones of himself in a big glass box, and he’ll occasionally let in some kings (no queens) when he feels like it. Everyone else gets to hang out around the box. That is, if you managed to survive the 2 judgment days. Quite the exclusive gentleman’s club.

  3. 3
    raven

    Turns out, Jesus wants to live with 144,000 clones of himself in a big glass box, and he’ll occasionally let in some kings (no queens) when he feels like it.

    Those 144,000 have to be male Jewish virgins. These days they are going to be hard to find. I figure the average age will be 12.

    I’ve never understood why the fundies are so entranced with that story. They aren’t Jewish and aren’t going to qualify.

  4. 4
    Glen Davidson

    It all came down to “You have to have faith,” a very unsatisfactory answer.

    But then there’s the clencher, “We’ll understand when we get to heaven.”

    And there’s always “mortals can’t understand what god knows,” which gets back to “believe it, it doesn’t have to make sense.” Even if I don’t understand, well, what choice do I have but to think about it and go on my understanding?

    Glen Davidson

  5. 5
    robb

    Good post Barbara.

    You got lucky that you read Heinlein first and not L. Ron Hubbard!

    Much better to be an atheist than a scientologist! :)

  6. 6
    Bronze Dog

    I went through a sort of similar arc in my deconversion: It was the lack of fairness that initially got me into atheism, since I went through some attempts at moral reasoning to come up with an ideal way for the supernatural world to work, and an omnipotent, inhuman god simply didn’t fit into that framework.

    Nowadays, of course, I stay focused on the evidence, or at least on trying to get theists to be coherent about what they’re talking about.

    As for the Bible reading that greased the slide out of Christianity, I mostly ended up reading some of the bloodthirsty chapters in the Old Testament, along with some New Testament chapters a distant cousin recommended which had the opposite effect he intended.

    The first time I read Revelation was the excerpts in The Brick Testament, long after I was an established reason-based atheist. It ended up reminding me of some documentary I saw as a kid that featured South American native describing his drug-induced spirit journey, featuring flying up to the clouds to meet an old man smoking a pipe and exhaling fire people.

  7. 7
  8. 8
    scottportman

    Lovely, well-written story, Barbara.

    The whole story of Lot really bugged me, but so did the repeated instances of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the old testament. Maybe the most troubling and objectionable of all old testament stories for me is the Book of Job. The whole pointlessness of testing someone’s loyalty by inflicting pain just seemed, well, so immoral, even as a kid.

    I still read the King James version from time to time, because the language sparkles, and it is interesting to see recorded gradual cultural shifts in the construction of morality at different times. Read an interesting article recently taking Plantiga to task for refusing to take historical context into consideration which baffles me as I honestly don’t know any other way to read that book. Anyway, maybe it’s time to read Revelations again and try to picture it in the context of Hellenistic cults in the 1st century. What an odd time that must have been, as political transformation suddenly created conditions for hybridization of dozens of formerly separate religions. The Book of Revelations seems an artifact of confused, almost hallucinogenic 1st Century Roman mysticism, just jarringly strange. I don’t have a dog (or god) in that fight, so I actually enjoy reading it as a distant reflection of the truly bizarre soup of beliefs floating around the eastern Mediterranean at that particular point in time.

  9. 9
    Lou Jost

    Barbara, that was a very interesting and well-written story. Thanks for sharing it. It is interesting that kids have a sufficiently strong moral sense to detect the unfairness of the Bible—why do so many adults lose that sense?

  10. 10
    crocswsocks

    Wonderful story!

  11. 11
    'Tis Himself

    scottportman #8

    Maybe the most troubling and objectionable of all old testament stories for me is the Book of Job. The whole pointlessness of testing someone’s loyalty by inflicting pain just seemed, well, so immoral, even as a kid.

    There’s another part of Job that annoys me. Towards the end of the book Job and Yahweh are having a discussion. Job asks one of the more important questions of Abrahamic theology: “If Yahweh is a loving god, then why is there evil in the world?”

    Starting at Job 38:4 and continuing to the end of the chapter, Yahweh answers with a long-winded sneer: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding….” (KJV) Job went through all kinds of grief because of a bet between Yahweh and Satan. Job wins the bet for Yahweh and then asks an interesting question which had relevance to all the shit Job had to put up with. Yahweh blows him off.

    Incidentally, most Biblical scholars agree that Job is fiction.

  12. 12
    Blattafrax

    Heinlein has a lot going for him. Stranger in a Strange Land (along with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) is also one of the biggest influences on my thoughts about religion, society, politics etc. Not that I agree with half of what he says, but it provokes and places seeds of ideas in the head of anyone that reads it.

    Great story BTW.

  13. 13
    Don F

    “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.”

    That was me. That was what I did for YEARS until I finally realized it was futile and dropped out of church . . . and now have all my Sundays off.

    Thanx for your story Barbara! My mom and dad reacted about the same way as your mom did when I told them I wasn’t a believer, but they didn’t ever come around . . . .

  14. 14
    pliny

    …but I quite like the songs

  15. 15
    vmarquis

    @Barbara How do you define what is unfair? Will a few, or some, or many, or the majority of people agree with your arguments of what is fair or unfair? If their view points are different, are they wrong and you are right? How do you know you have the gold standard of what is fair and unfair? Because you are making a truth claim that you know the Bible and/or God is unfair? Why should your judgement take precedence or anyone elses judgement? Isn’t your view point simply an opinion based on feelings and nothing else?

  16. 16
    myeck waters

    vmarquis, it’s not rocket science. If any human ruler did the assortment of evil deeds the Old Testament credits to Jehovah, they’d be acclaimed as the eviellest person of all time.

  17. 17
    raven

    @Barbara How do you define what is unfair?

    We use the generally accepted standards of our society.

    The fundie god is a Sky Monster. BTW, this is something even fundie leaders acknowledge. Al Mohler, the head of the largest S. Baptist Seminary said Dawkins got it right. Dawkins explained why the OT god is a monster. WL Craig says the same thing. He just adds that god the monster is good because god is good by definition. Which makes no sense but Craig is an idiot so who cares.

    If all that is too complicated for you, anyone living an OT lifestyle today would be doing multiple life sentences in prison. Proof. Jeff Warrens of the FLDS tried it and got life + 20 years.

  18. 18
    raven

    vmarquis, it’s not rocket science.

    BTW, the generally accepted standards of our society have almost nothing to do with the bible.

    We got better not by following the bible but by ignoring it.

  19. 19
    vmarquis

    @myeck waters Your statement “eviellest person of all time” tells me you know what the object moral truths are and were they come from. Do mind listing those truths. Plus,how do you know they are the right ones?

  20. 20
    vmarquis

    @raven BTW, the generally accepted standards of our society have almost nothing to do with the bible. We got better not by following the bible but by ignoring it. Your 2 truth statements are lacking any information to prove them. Do you have any specific source materials to validate your truth statements?

  21. 21
    raven

    vmarquis:

    @myeck waters Your statement “eviellest person of all time” tells me you know what the object moral truths are and were they come from.

    They come from our common sense and evolutionary history.

    They don’t come from the bible or the evil Sky Monster god of the bible.

    Do mind listing those truths. Plus,how do you know they are the right ones?

    The golden rule is one. Found in most cultures and probably even some where in the bible.

    BTW, vmarquis, you are clearly a religous kook. Why don’t you find some courage and integrity and start god babbling. Don’t worry, we’ve heard it all a zillion times and it is so stupid even the goddists are embarassed by it. You aren’t fooling anyone with your questions.

    One of the most solid pieces of data of all that besides that atrocity known as the bible, is that xians are no better than atheists. The fundies are demonstrably statistically worse than the general population.

    You can be good with god, but it is much more difficult.

  22. 22
    raven

    vmarquis lying already:

    @raven BTW, the generally accepted standards of our society have almost nothing to do with the bible. We got better not by following the bible but by ignoring it. Your 2 truth statements are lacking any information to prove them. Do you have any specific source materials to validate your truth statements?

    Yeah I do. I already presented some. You are simply lying. It never takes too long for the fundies to start lying.

    1. Once again since you chose to ignore it. Anyone following an OT lifestyle would be doing multiple life sentences in prison. Warren Jeffs of the FLDS did that and got life + 20 years.

    2. Idiot, most of us are ex-Xians. We know the bible well. Have you even read it? In Exodus you can sell your kids as sex slaves.

    Speaking of slavery, it is all through the bible.

    Polygamy. One of the heroes of the bible, Solomon had 300 sex slaves and 400 wives.

    Genocide. The OT Sky Monster invented genocide with the Big Boat event. Much of the OT is the mythological genocide of the Canaanites, where sometimes entire tribes were slaughtered including the children.

    According to biblical law, you are supposed to stone disobedient children to death. As well as adulterers, blasphemers, atheists, false prophets, sabbath breakers, and apostates.

    Democracy isn’t mentioned at all in the bible. At one point in the NT, it is claimed that whatever authorities there are, kings, empererors and so are to be obeyed as having power from god. Our founding fathers would be sentenced to hell for getting ric of the British masters.

    According to the Ten Commandments, you aren’t supposed to worship other gods. According to the US constitution, you are free to worship whoever you want.

  23. 23
    vmarquis

    @RAVEN Now I know you have only opinions when it comes to your truth claims. Your opinions are no more valuable or right then any other person in the world. Plus, according to the majority of evolutionary scientist you have no freewill. You just have to go along with the evolutionary process as it takes you. You could become a religious person because that is were your DNA takes you. Maybe you will become a bigot or a thief thanks to your DNA changing do to evolution. All you are according to your worldview is a gene replicating life form that has no more value than any other life from on this planet. I on the other hand have been created in the image of God! I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I will spend eternity in heaven with the creator of the universe. I know the meaning of life, the objective truths, were I came from and were I am going. The cycle of life is all you have in your future. My future will contain wonders, beautiful rainbows, streets of gold, and amazing things well beyond my comprehension. Only one of our worldviews is true. Which one do you want?

  24. 24
    raven

    Vmarquis, you are an idiot.

    You didn’t address any points you were trying to make.

    Just started ranting and raving.

    You could become a religious person because that is were your DNA takes you.

    You don’t read much do you? I already stated that I’m an ex-Xian. I was religious. The search for the truth and a desire for a just society made me an atheist.

    Plus, according to the majority of evolutionary scientist you have no freewill.

    I don’t agree with them. BTW, the Calvinists (my old church FWIW) say exactly the same thing. There is no free will, everyone is predestined by god no matter what they do in this life.

    I on the other hand have been created in the image of God! My future will contain wonders, beautiful rainbows, streets of gold, and amazing things well beyond my comprehension.

    Plus a bunch of other fantasies. You have no proof for any of your claims. Just wanting something doesn’t mean it comes true. This is wishful thinking and nothing more.

  25. 25
    vmarquis

    @Raven Your knowledge of Christian doctrine and Calvinist beliefs seems to be limited. A Calvinists or someone taught those beliefs would never state that anyone is an Xian. Just knowing the basics of TULIP would teach you that. Then you write about Jeff Warrens a Mormon as an example of OT laws misuse and he is not even a Christian. Plus as someone taught in a church with Calvinist beliefs, you should know the difference between old and new covenants and how they are applied today. Calvinist firmly believe in free will. Praying that you will have a good and safe new year.

  26. 26
    TimKO,,.,,

    the utter lack of evidence that becoming a “good” Christian, or indeed, any other religion, makes you a more moral person

    Will do u one better Barbara: Xtianity makes people immoral.

  27. 27
    'Tis Himself

    Then you write about Jeff Warrens a Mormon as an example of OT laws misuse and he is not even a Christian.

    Warrens, like every other member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, considers himself a Christian. Just because you’re playing “No True Scotsman” doesn’t mean you can declare a self-described Christian as a non-Christian.

  28. 28
    TimKO,,.,,

    “Only one of our worldviews is true.”
    Then explain why you created a false dichotomy. Why did you discount, say, Buddhism or Shinto? Have you walked yet in their shoes?
    —-
    Revelation (there’s just one Revelation of John of Patmos, so you don’t pluralize) contains hallucinations that are remarkably similar (and sometimes identical)to modern manic episodes of people with bipolar disorder. There’s a book (& likely a website) that makes a convincing argument that John was simply a manic depressive. Hard to imagine how bad it would have been to have any illness 2000 years ago. Brutal. But as for mania, it hasn’t changed much. Bad call for the church (the big one that makes all the decisions for protestants too, you know, the one we call “Catholic”) to deselect jewish texts from the Hebrew testament and then keep the Revelation of John. This decision has caused human misery for centuries.

  29. 29
    'Tis Himself

    I on the other hand have been created in the image of God!

    So you’re a sadistic, bullying megalomanic with the emotional maturity of a spoiled six year old.

  30. 30
    consciousness razor

    I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

    If I were your father, I don’t think I could’ve been afraid enough for the outcome.

    Only one of our worldviews is true.

    The truth is that it’s much more likely that neither of our worldviews in its entirety is strictly true.

    Which one do you want?

    I want something as close to the truth as possible, not your grandiose nonsense.

  31. 31
    raven

    Only one of our worldviews is true.

    There aren’t two worldviews. This is a false dichotomy.

    There are thousands or millions of worldviews.

    To take just one example, most xians worldwide don’t have a problem with science and evolution. My old church says exactly that on its website.

    Your worldview is a minority even among xians. In my natal church, they would look at you as a pathetic two headed Martian and wonder why you have trouble thinking and telling the truth.

  32. 32
    vmarquis

    @Raven I didn’t create a false dichotomy. Raven your world view is there is “no God.” My world view is “there is a God.” It was either a non-personal cause for the universe or it was personal cause. Non-personal cause means you can make up the moral rules as you go along. Personal cause means the moral objective truths have been permanently established by the Creator.
    Anthony Flew figured it out before the end of his life and declared there is a designer of the universe. Unless you have a few PhD’s after your name you are not on the same intellectual level. He was the atheist champion for the longest time. But science finally convinced him there can be only one answer to the complexities of the universe and the human body. So please tell me were he went wrong instead of just basically posting ad-hominems that only indicate you aren’t able to logically argue your worldview.

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