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Jun 15 2012

Why I am an atheist – Kevin Ross

I was raised in the American Bible Belt by strict Catholic parents who were unquestioning in their support of Catholic Doctrine. I had two uncles who were Franciscan brothers and who spend their entire adult lives as missionaries in Africa. I went to Catholic schools throughout the week and to Mass on Sunday and Holy Days. Devoting your life in service to God and church was held up as the most worthy goal I could pursue. The only religious debate I was exposed to as a child was between Catholicism and Protestantism.

When I was 12 or 13, I began reading Robert Heinlien. His was the first voice I was exposed to that not only openly dismissed religion but mocked it. It was eye opening stuff to my young inquisitive mind. That alone wasn’t enough to turn me against religion, but it did get me to question the authority of what I had been taught to believe. I did someing that was heresy in my household. I started listening to Protestants. Unlike Catholics, they always had a Bible at hand and were quick to quote scripture to support their belief. I decided I needed to read the Bible. In 8th grade, I read the Bible from cover to cover. Over the next half a dozen years I explored other Religious beliefs and discussed and debated christianity with the hordes of evangelists that populate the bible belt. Reading the bible made it clear that everything I had been taught was a lie. As Heinlien had made pointed out, God was not omnipotent, omniscient, or loving. Debating, discussing and exploring religion from other points of view only strengthened my rejection of religion as a source of truth.

I am in my 50′s and no longer have any fire to debate creationists and fundies. They have nothing new to say and I don’t get any enjoyment from arguing with the clueless and the close minded. I am, however, happy to see gnu atheists gaining ground and public support. It saddens me to see, that in the 21st century, backward thinking fundies still hold sway over most of the political and public debate. I have little doubt, though, that freethought blogs will do for many what Heinlein did for me–provide a voice that challenges the prevailing orthodoxy and hopefully prompt more than a few people to think for themselves.

Kevin Ross
United States

21 comments

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  1. 1
    jonnyscaramanga

    Great stuff Kevin. I’m exhausted talking to Creationists too. As soon as they start I’m like, “Not THIS again.” Debate is fine, but with Creationists it’s like arguing with one of those dolls where you pull a string and it repeats one of three pre-programmed phrases.

  2. 2
    irisvanderpluym

    Nice work, Kevin. I’m going to link to your piece every time some supposed ally says we all need to respect religious ideas, and that ridiculing them is counterproductive:

    When I was 12 or 13, I began reading Robert Heinlien. His was the first voice I was exposed to that not only openly dismissed religion but mocked it. It was eye opening stuff to my young inquisitive mind.

    And I hear you: it can be exhausting arguing with creationists (and really, right-wing conservatives of every stripe). Invariably, they do not argue in good faith, and hold to their ignorance and demonstrably false views of reality with a death grip. But perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves that while such debates will probably never change the views of the creationist, they can still be a tremendous influence on other people who are exposed to them. For that reason, I never argue with a creationist — unless there’s an audience.

  3. 3
    marcus

    I am also in my 50s and I also started reading Heinlein when I was 13-14. I think this is what helped put the “libertarian” streak in my socialist-libertarian views. I was also encouraged to start thinking critically by Heinlein (and Arthur C Clarke, who probably saved my sanity, if not my life).
    I also agree with your conclusion that life is too short to argue with religious idiots (fight them on every front yes, argue, not so much).
    Thanks for sharing, grok on.

  4. 4
    saguhh00

    Hey, Kevin, what was the first Robert Heinlein you have ever read?

  5. 5
    generallerong

    In recent years we’ve all been expected, it seems, to “learn the facts,” debate calmly, try to change minds.

    This isn’t working, is it? Now that we have some experience of epistemic closure, rationalizing unquestioned beliefs, and clutching to prejudices as part of one’s identity, maybe it’s time to go back to the good ol’

    You’re Full of Horshit, Do Humanity a Favor and Throw Yourself Under a Truck. Now Fuck Off.

    response.

    It’s certainly simpler and more emotionally satisfying.

  6. 6
    crljenak1

    Robert Heinlein, age 13 – 14 , Stranger in a Strange Land, did it for me.

  7. 7
    saguhh00

    @crljenak1

    Thanks. I’ll buy that.

  8. 8
    Draken

    I could wager a guess he read Revolt in 2100, in which the USA has become a christian theocracy.

  9. 9
    davidgentile

    Please help me out here – I read SIASL as a teen, but the only thing I recall relevant to this discussion was that Michael and other characters went to an afterlife. Even though I don’t believe, I’ve always been fascinated by afterlives in literature and movies. I was never a big RAH fan, thought his writing was dry. How was Michael’s Heaven relevant to Heinlein’s views on religion?

  10. 10
    stonyground

    I notice that yet another unbeliever has been helped on his way by reading the whole of the Bible. Surely the next billboard campaign needs to be an admonishment for believers to read the Bible all the way through. If they take up the challenge, surely more atheists will be the result. Also, how the hell can they take offence at being encouraged to read their own holy book? What possible argument can they raise against the evil atheists wanting them to read the whole Bible?

  11. 11
    cyberCMDR

    Heinlein was great because he didn’t just mock religion, he explored it and took it apart. For example, in “Job: A Comedy of Justice” he explored the old God and the Devil make a bet meme. It turns out the Devil is the good guy by the end of the story.

    Heinlein allowed for a multiverse in which some universes do fit the model of different religions (including one where Valkyries exist). The heaven of SIASL was the human heaven. Other species had their own. Each being was an aspect of God (e.g. “Thou art God” greeting), only most did not realize it.

    I think that because religion is such an intrinsic facet of human societies, Heinlein considered it a rich source of material. Not that he didn’t mock it at places, or write stories that played to and twisted those beliefs, but he didn’t genuflect to it. It was part of the human condition, and fair game.

  12. 12
    cag

    stonyground #10, they can’t allow common people to read the bible. It requires sophistication to interpret the killing of all the creatures on earth except for a boatload as the greatest act of love ever. It takes sophisticated theology to explain the love expressed in sending 2 bears to kill children. It takes years of theological pursuit to understand the perfect love needed to

    1 Samuel 15:3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

    There are many more examples of love in the bible which the hoi polloi may mistakenly interpret as abominable, detestable and monstrous instead of the perfect love of a perfect being. Surely it must be worth 10% of one’s gross income (plus special offerings) to have all this perfect love properly explained.

  13. 13
    Owlmirror

    I was never a big RAH fan, thought his writing was dry.

    Heh. I’ve seen Heinlein accused of various sins, some of them literary, but being “dry” is a new one to me.

    How was Michael’s Heaven relevant to Heinlein’s views on religion?

    I don’t think there’s any reason to think that it was. In the story, VMS’s religion is true, and the afterlife is part of portraying its reality in that context.

    Perhaps more important for the deconstruction of religion is the section where stories from the bible are criticized: Elisha and the bears, and the description of Lot as being “righteous”, despite the point that he offered his daughters to be gang-raped by a mob as an incentive to make said mob leave.

    Oh, and the portrayal of the Fosterites — I suspect that anyone who was familiar with either Mormonism or charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity felt a little twinge of unease on reading some of the scenes describing them.

  14. 14
    John Morales

    [OT]

    RAH was hardly subtle about his digs at religion:

    “Any priest or shaman must be presumed guilty until proved innocent.”

    “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.”

    “The most preposterous notion that H. Sapiens has ever dreamed up is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of all the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of His creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and becomes petulant if He does not receive this flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy, without a shred of evidence to bolster it, pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all of history.”

  15. 15
    Cephas Borg

    Thanks so much for your story, Kevin. Bob Heinlein is greater than god, for sure!

    On the subject of reading the bible… If I had the money, I’d print an exactly, literal translation from the original Hebrew (old testament) and greek (nt), and send a copy to every christian household in every electorate, with the request to read it, cover to cover, and ask their pastor/priest/chaplain/shaman to explain the inconsistencies for them in writing.

    In the US, I understand most evangelical pastors are introduced to biblical exegesis as part and parcel of their indoctrination, but they seem to be unable to take their book larnin’ and explain what they discovered about their book to their flocks. At least, none have done so that I know of. (Not that I’m any great judge of how these people act specifically, but I figure if it happened, one of my many atheist research sources would have picked it up quicker than a chunk of cheddar at a mouse convention).

  16. 16
    tbp1

    Count me among those who Heinlein helped down the road towards rejecting religion. There were many other influences, of course, including Twain, Vonnegut, and the Bible itself (as Asimov famously put it, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived”), but he was a biggie. Stranger in a Strange Land, naturally; “If This Goes On—,” the centerpiece of Revolt in 2100; and bits of Lazarus Long’s notebooks in Time Enough for Love, all things I read and reread as a teenager and young adult in the 60s and 70s.

    Many aspects of Heinlein’s writing and philosophy haven’t aged all that well, but he was spot on in his critiques of the dangers of theocracy and religious brainwashing.

  17. 17
    jakc

    @davidgentile
    Heinlein was well-versed in fundamentalism, and deals with it far more than most SF writers. In Stranger (and the title is actually a biblical reference), Heinlein use the Fosterites both to poke fun at the hucksterism of some gunfire but to point out one of the absurdities of modern fundamentalists -the lack of real faith in Heaven as shown by the desire for power on Earth & the fear of dying. The Fosterites want earthly power, but at least they view dying and going to Heaven as a good thing. Needless to say, their opponents assume that the motives of the leadership is greed and that followers are being murdered rather than called to Heaven. The religion created by Michael has the advantage of actually knowing that an afterlife exists. As fiction, Heinlein can create a real afterlife, but I think the larger part of his points are that even religious people don’t have much faith in their own doctrines and how silly those doctrines sound to outsiders.

    As for debating creationists: it’s like that old saying, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

  18. 18
    Azuma Hazuki

    With regard to burning out debating creationists, apologists, etc, I think this image…

    http://i85.photobucket.com/albums/k55/Obexpe/I%20LIEK%20FISHIES/auunp3.jpg?t=1242246227

    …says it rather well.

  19. 19
    The Swordfish, Ambulatory Memory Leak

    jakc @ 17

    As for debating creationists: it’s like that old saying, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

    Sir and/or madam, how dare you! Pigs? Really? What have pigs ever done to warrant such an unflattering comparison? I will not stand idly by while our porcine cousins are so viciously insulted!

  20. 20
    stonyground

    @#15
    I believe that a literal and accurate translation of the Bible was produced by a guy named William Harwood.

  21. 21
    magistramarla

    Count me in as another who was influenced by Heinlein.
    Back in the ’70s, my future husband introduced me to his beloved Science Fiction by handing me Time Enough for Love and then Stranger in a Strange Land. After we were married, I read my way through his entire Heinlein collection and then branched off into Asimov and other SciFi authors.

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