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Why I am an atheist – The Atheist Firefighter

It’s been difficult to be an open atheist in my society. I went into a profession dominated by religious men, and while it doesn’t interfere with the work we do, I’m often faced with smug Christians trying to prove their superiority. I am an atheist firefighter, the only one I know. And here’s why.

I started out as a Christian. Some evangelical branch, I’m not really sure which. Private school for eight years, which indoctrinated me but good. Went to church from time to time, but not as if my immortal soul depended on it. I was devout, just not…that devout.

I liked science and reading from the beginning, and luckily, my school provided good outlets for both those desires. My science was a little weak, which with the six thousand year time constraint for all of history, but I learned that the books on the forbidden list were the best to read, and my parents never let me want for reading material. It expanded my vocabulary, my grammar skills, and my mind.

High school was a public school for me, but I still called myself a Christian. I had a contempt already for the preachy kids, but I also had pity for the atheists. I thought of them as whiners, cry babies, or attention-seekers. I was content to believe my soul saved, and not really put in much work into improving my own character.

In college I was exposed to my first real atheist resources. In the form of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit, a show on Showtime. From there, I springboarded into Youtube, stumbling across Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, James Randi, and a whole cadre of atheist voices. Some were great to hear, some were painful, some were annoying, but each one chipped away at a shell of ossified belief. When it finally shattered, and I stood up to declare myself boldly atheist, it was amazing.

When I realized that there was nothing out there to redeem me, or tell me how to live, or that I needed to obey, I began to take true responsibility for myself. I sought to examine my thoughts and actions more carefully, and established a morality based on reason and humanity.

I wrestled (and still do to this day to some degree) with my sexual desires and shame, and took my first step on the long road to working through them. All that dogma had taught me that sex was sinful, shameful, and even if I was the “right” sexual orientation, I still needed to feel bad about what I wanted. It seems strange to me that I can reject the existence of a god, but the guilt of sex is still rooted deep in me.

After college, I went into emergency medicine, and then into firefighting. Firefighting is a culture steeped deeply in Christianity, and that wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t for those who see my skepticism as a slap in their face. I’ve been told that I can’t be moral, that I shouldn’t be working in this field, that I can’t be trusted to have somebody’s back, all because I don’t believe in a magic man looking down on us. I’ve been told that I must believe, deep down, that I just want attention, or that I’m just an idiot. Been told to keep my opinions to myself, shut up, don’t rock the boat. If there are other atheists in my field, I haven’t met them. But that’s okay.

I am a moral man without a god because I do the best I can, with all of my strength, to help as many people as I possibly can. The fact that people don’t understand that I can do this without religion makes me shake my head. The fact that they get angry that I live happily with something they can’t imagine a life without makes me sad. But understand something: my brothers and sisters may scream and shout at me about beliefs, about lifestyles, about politics, about anything. In a firehouse, nothing is sacred. And no matter how angry or riled up we all get around the kitchen table, when the alarm goes off and somebody’s calling for help, we leave our beliefs behind and go to work. I know they have my back, and I hope they know I have theirs. In time, I hope to show them that you can be damned good without god.

The Atheist Firefighter
United States

Comments

  1. otrame says

    Excellent. Show them they are wrong, that an atheist is no freak, no monster. Every out atheist who lives a moral, hard working, compassionate life calls those who want to scapegoat us liars.

  2. says

    I just read another fire fighter’s atheist story in FFRF’s Free Thought Today September issue. Casimir had a similar story of deep Christian roots in fire fighting, but finally earned their respect by being the best fire fighter he could be.
    Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. says

    This poor chap needs to let his colleagues know that the UK fire service is a very different place.

    So, if his colleagues really do think he “can’t be moral, that I shouldn’t be working in this field, that I can’t be trusted to have somebody’s back” then they should know that they are not only insulting him but insulting a good half of the British fire service.

    I am on duty tonight (for a 15 hour shift) and I know the response their attitude would get if I read it out to my fellow watch members – it would be ‘robust’ in the extreme!

    If this chap needs any support from a fellow firefighter point him this way.

    Jim (np99)

  4. infidel57 says

    I was a smokejumper in the 1960s and an atheist since I was 17 years old, so I guess this qualifies me to comment.

    I have found that “non believer” is a better description than “atheist” when beginning a conversation with theists.

    “I am a non believer.”

    “Really, what is it that you don’t believe in.”

    “99.9 per cent of the same things in which you don’t believe such as Hinduism, Islam, Scientology, Mormonism, Moonieism (?), belief that you can influence deities by ripping out the still beating hearts of people and so on. I can name 1000 things I don’t believe in, and we would be in agreement on 999 of them. I could be converted to your belief if you can offer evidence that will stand up to scrutiny. I have examined the evidence accumulated over the 2000 years of your religion and have found that it doesn’t hold up. If you have something new, I am willing to listen.”

  5. gardengnome says

    Fascinating account, but can anyone explain why this fire service is apparently dominated by xtians? Does the same hold true for the police service (for instance)?

  6. darwinharmless says

    I’ve come to believe that religious people know at some level that they believe a lot of nonsense. The effort to believe something that is contradicted by common sense causes intense cognitive dissonance, and the surest sign of cognitive dissonance is anger. Being told that somebody doesn’t believe what they believe is the same as calling them stupid. So far I haven’t found any way around this reaction, other than to suggest that the religious person should examine their anger, and ask themselves why me not believing something they believe should make them angry.

  7. antoinepeoples says

    I’m with you brother. I’ve been a Medic for 5+ years and the experience is pretty similar on this side. To answer one of the gardengnome’s question: I believe this industry is dominated by christian’s because they have been long thought of as “trustworthy”, “honorable” and “respectful.” An analogy to that would be the fact that it’s also male dominated because men are thought of to be as more brave and strong. There are more women coming into the FF/EMS profession now but historically it has been a straight, (white) male, Christian dominated culture. As a black atheist it’s been doubly lonely sometimes but at the end of the day we’re all in it to help others so it brings us together.

    You’re not alone atheist firefighter. There are others of us out there with you.

  8. Janine: Hallucinating Liar says

    Atheist Firefighter, you might be interested in Kurt Vonnegut. He was volunteer fire fighter in his younger days. Firefighting played a part in many of his works. And he contributed to the cause of fire fighting through out his life.

    And he was also well known for his atheism and humanistic philosophy.

  9. tbp1 says

    First of all, thanks for doing what you do, even though it’s virtually certain you don’t serve where I live. I’ve never had the need to call the fire department to my home, and of course I hope I never do, but I’m incredibly glad you and your brother and sister firefighters are there in case of need. (Until the son of friends of ours became a firefighter, I had no idea how difficult a job it is to get. There are dozens, sometimes hundreds of applicants for every slot, at least in any place you might actually want to live. Considering that it’s a highly stressful, sometimes dangerous, and not particularly well-paid profession, I found this kind of surprising.)

    Second, thanks for writing this, and I hope it becomes easier to just be yourself and express your opinions around your colleagues over time.

  10. Ogvorbis: broken and cynical says

    I’ve been involved in wildland firefighting for 13 years (as well as the occasional hurricane and one terrorist attack) and, at the federal incidents, the godbotting has decreased remarkably. I no longer see ICs ending their morning brief with ‘God bless.’ I no longer see SOs telling people to trust in god. I do, however, still see a lot of ‘input’ from local churches thanking god for the actions of the firefighters.

  11. tbp1 says

    From #11:

    “I do, however, still see a lot of ‘input’ from local churches thanking god for the actions of the firefighters.”

    I’ve always been both puzzled and appalled by this sort of thing. When people have literally risked dying in a pretty horrible way for the sake of others, it is the height of disrespect to give the credit elsewhere. I’ve always said that if I had just risked my life for someone else, and the first thing they did was thank God, I would be very tempted to throw them back into whatever I had just rescued them from (a fire, the ocean…) and let God save them this time around.

    I am glad to read your report that the Godbotting has declined, though.

    And as I said to the author, thanks for doing what you do.

  12. Ogvorbis: broken and cynical says

    I’ve always been both puzzled and appalled by this sort of thing.

    Back in 2000, I was at a wildland fire in Idaho. The IC brought in some heavy logging equipment, created a fire line, and ordered (at high risk (more risk that the backfire might get away, very little physical risk (though one member of a hand crew did die — from a yellowjacket sting))) a burnout of about 13,000 acres. This was to protect the local city’s water supply. When it worked, the local paper’s headline? “Thank God!”

    There were a lot of pissed off people.

  13. didgen says

    @#5
    In my experience as an RN working in the ER at a state prison as well as frequent contact with police in community ER’s they tend very strongly toward Christianity.

  14. peterfran says

    What’s funny is I was raised atheist around a bunch of the most ethically confused, stuck-up socialistic pigs you’d ever care to meet. When, after losing my biological mother, my deadbeat bastardly sire and his dried up crack-hoe wife took me in because I carried his name. Yet as not to paint their parenting kettle totally black, they didn’t lock me in a room, rape, beat and let me sleep in my own feces no, their abuse was much more subtle; much more sophisticated.
    Their philosophy was straight up Darwinism; what doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger, survival of the fittest. And for the most part their theory was correct. As I hold no debt, obligation or affiliation to any human, organization, or institution. Truly free of sin, I cannot be bought or sold for any amount of silver, and hold myself completely responsible for everything I do.
    Nonetheless, in this dog eat dog world of hard knocks, my fortitude comes from something nonscientific. As I’ve been literally protected and guided by forces outside of Newton’s or Dimensional law. No; I don’t take drugs, sit on mushrooms, hear voices or speak in tongues.
    Anyway, until you’ve had everything taken from you; broken into pieces in front of your face, you won’t know Grace or Mercy, and Wisdom will escape you, for it can’t be found in any textbook.

  15. says

    peterfran #15

    Their philosophy was straight up Darwinism; what doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger, survival of the fittest.

    1) The first part isn’t Darwinism, it’s from Nietzsche the Barbarian. And the second part is a mis-understanding. “Fittest” doesn’t mean toughest, it means “those that best fit the current conditions”.

    Other than that, I’m sorry that you were raised by assholes, and I’m also sorry that you didn’t learn anything from it.

  16. mythbri says

    @peterfran #15

    I’m sorry that happened to you. I’m even more sorry that it seems to have made you believe that you can’t have any meaningful human relationships.

    I’m not sure why humanity’s capacity for doing terrible things proves the existence of any kind of god, though.

  17. atheistfirefighter says

    From #11:

    “I do, however, still see a lot of ‘input’ from local churches thanking god for the actions of the firefighters.”

    I have had my share of experiences directly linked to that. Worst, of course, is that when things go remarkably well (structures/lives saved), god gets thanked, but when things go poorly (for one reason or the other, either human factor or beyond anybody’s control), the men and women on scene get the brunt of the blame. Nobody ever says, “God burnt that house down!”

    On the other hand, I did hear for the first time a homeowner tell off his neighbor for thanking god for stopping an electrical fire that would have taken the entire trailer with it. When the neighbor told the homeowner he needed to thank god, the homeowner responded with something along the lines of “If god wanted to intervene, he should have sent me a better electrician to begin with.” Cracked us up.

    I appreciate all the positive comments about this. I didn’t feel comfortable saying where I worked or any personal information, since the backbite on things like this can be unpleasant. Good to hear things are better in the UK, and to hear from some wildland people.

  18. peterfran says

    Dear Myeck Waters and Mythbri, it’s good to find compassion is still alive and well. But don’t feel sorry for me. As it’s mainly through disregard and emotional turbulence; an earthquake of the mind so to speak, that we are forced to change and seek a rational outside of our comfort zones.
    I was delighted when the String Theory came of age. As it proves there are other dimensions which exist within our own; that there’s something here that ain’t us. That we are natural organisms which no longer need to be explained by superstition, but a universal truth of brotherhood overriding religious dogma. Yet let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
    The very reason we have the ability to share and discuss these ideas is largely because of religious men: Abram, Jesus, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Dr. King. The very fact that I can discourse on this page is the accumulation of industrial and electronic advancement made by generations of devoted people. Praise them, one and all.
    As shepherds of the Earth, we’re in this mess together; for good or bad. Christ told us to love one another. You do not need to be a Christian to understand this concept.

  19. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I was delighted when the String Theory came of age. As it proves there are other dimensions which exist within our own;

    Nothing is scientifically proven, only postulated. String theory is still a hypothesis. But an intriguing one.

  20. mythbri says

    All of the non-religious people who contributed to our present society would take exception to that, I think, peterfran. I sincerely doubt that the good that religion has fostered outweighs the centuries of harm that it has ALSO fostered.

    I don’t need a god to tell me to care about other people. I chose to do that on my own.

  21. pooder says

    Here’s a question: What the FUCK is it with firefighter funerals and “Amazing Grace” with Bag Pipes? And it’s spreading! It seems like funerals including AG with BPs are all over the place!! GAAAK!!!

  22. atheistfirefighter says

    Pooder: The thing with the bagpipes and Amazing Grace is essentially just a hundred years of tradition. It’s tradition for the honor guard for a fire department to play the song during the funeral procession, and many firefighters request it while they’re still alive. I know I’ll be eaten alive for saying it, but it’s something I expect and want should I fall in the line of duty. It’s not about the song or the meaning behind it. It’s about tradition. You know what they say about the fire department: 200 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress. Sometimes that’s an awful thing, and sometimes that’s something to lean on.

  23. mythbri says

    atheistfirefighter, you have the right to choose whatever kind of service you want, especially if it’s one you’re entitled to in the course of your work.

    I actually think that bagpipes make beautiful music, and if I had the choice I’d want that, too.

  24. Koshka says

    In his post, Atheist Firefighter says

    It’s been difficult to be an open atheist in my society. I went into a profession dominated by religious men, and while it doesn’t interfere with the work we do, I’m often faced with smug Christians trying to prove their superiority.

    Peterfran comes up with

    The very reason we have the ability to share and discuss these ideas is largely because of religious men

    Atheist Firefighter – On an atheist’s blog we can’t get away from smug christians. It must be very difficult in your profession.

    And does your #24 mean you are not taking requests from random strangers for your funeral? It is all me me me with you firefighters.

  25. peterfran says

    Boy; Mrthbri you’re fast. But in your expediency, let me assume that you’re a seeker, like me. Otherwise I’m wasting my time as I do have other things to do, like fixing my kitchen light. Anyway, I never suggested that you must worship a ‘God’ in order to have a moral base. I don’t. The crutch of my moral affiliation lies in the Judea Ark of the Covenant. The original Jews didn’t honor a deity, but an idea; the concept of Jealous Freedom. This was expressed in Abram’s wiliness to offer his son as sacrifice. Not just any son but one he had prayed for, for years. How could a father do this…how could any of us do this?
    Whether this event is accurate or not, it expresses a conflict of interest. Are we greater than the whole, or is the whole greater than us? It’s not ‘God’ Abram worshipped, but an idea. Furthermore, along these same lines, is the honoring of the Sabbath. It’s not about praying a prescribed way, lighting a candle or any other orthodox horseshit, it’s about acknowledging Genesis. A systematic way in which life evolved, one I cannot find fault with; that we’re all of one vital scheme.
    The second tablet inscribes not to covet things or bear false witness. I won’t harp on this and belabor the point, as it’s very old news.
    Holding the Covenant dear has made me invincible to any manmade claim. I hope it does the same for you.
    Shalom

  26. atheistfirefighter says

    To be fair, I doubt I’ll care a thing about what goes on at my funeral while it’s going on. My preferences are just a small comfort in knowing that details will have been taken care of ahead of time.

    also, Peterfran, while trying to claim you’re getting your morality from the power of belief, I wouldn’t be citing a man who was willing to murder his son for a belief. People do that in present day times and, with any form of justice, they’re put away for the rest of their lives. And saying that you’re “invincible to any manmade claim” while believing in something which is clearly manmade, well, that’s just super silly.

  27. randay says

    I have a very good recently retire atheist firefighter friend. He never spoke about having a problem, maybe because it’s a big city in California.

    In fact, all of my good friends are atheists but we never talk about it. It is just the default position. This has been the case since university. We never feel the need for reinforcement by personal discussion or going to an organization once a week.

    Only with the web did I begin consulting atheist sites, not in any way to be reinforced, but just to see what was going on. Atheist sites also have interesting information about science, politics, and the state of our society. For the last two, there is nothing surprising, things are as bad as I thought.

    I was a teacher at university and only once did I get a complaint from a student for part of my program when I showed and episode of Father Ted The Catholic student didn’t address me but went to my superior.

  28. tbp1 says

    Amazing Grace is a beautiful tune, with horrid words (I am no more perfect than anyone else, but I’m not a “wretch,” thank you very much). That puts it in a par with many of the hymns of my youth (of course some of them have bad tunes, as well). I will confess I like the way it sounds on bagpipes, although Judy Collins’ version remains my favorite.

    Still, I don’t want any religious music, not even Bach, at any memorial for me when I am gone, and have left instructions to that effect. Like the author says, I won’t know or care if my directions are followed, but still…

  29. peterfran says

    OK; OK, I’ll ignore the elephant in the room. But what I won’t ignore is the socialistic gang mentality which forces others to pay for another’s livelihood: firefighters, cops, teachers, mayors, etc. These civil servants, public employees are demanding wages, benefits, and entitlements that far exceed those of the blue collar workers which support them. Does the economic situation in Greece ring a bell?
    This tax guzzling ‘right’ of privileged workers is only a few generations old, yet if one should question this government setup, they’re going to be crucified. Because obviously they don’t care about the welfare of others and shouldn’t live in a Christian society; oops, the elephant is eating peanuts. But it’s not mere coincidence that elephants are leading the funeral parades for statesmen, policemen, servicemen, and firefighters. These people are greater than the whole and must be honored appropriately.
    Now; of course atheists can and do ‘serve’ in the public arena, but they can’t afford to ignore the twisted socialistic Christian politics which support their employment, nor can they resent it. But workers in the private sector should be outraged. Many construction jobs are very dangerous, yet when these dedicated workers are injured or killed in the line of duty, there’s no three gun salute.
    Ignore the elephant if you choose, but it won’t help you from being stepped on.

  30. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Does the economic situation in Greece ring a bell?

    Irrelevant bullshit.

    Because obviously they don’t care about the welfare of others and shouldn’t live in a Christian society;

    Society should be secular. Officially, the US society is secular. No mention of state church. More irrelevancies.

    but they can’t afford to ignore the twisted socialistic Christian politics which support their employment, nor can they resent it.

    More irrelevancy, since those societies are supposedly secular, where is these alleged delusional fool societies? Their deity doesn’t exist and their babble is book of mythology/fiction. Prove otherwise with solid evidence.

  31. truthspeaker says

    peterfran
    1 October 2012 at 12:27 pm

    OK; OK, I’ll ignore the elephant in the room. But what I won’t ignore is the socialistic gang mentality which forces others to pay for another’s livelihood: firefighters, cops, teachers, mayors, etc. These civil servants, public employees are demanding wages, benefits, and entitlements that far exceed those of the blue collar workers which support them.

    Bullshit.

  32. atheistfirefighter says

    Peterfran, your latest post is an example of what somebody sounds like when they have no idea what they’re talking about. Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t have any public services? That they should all be private organizations, brand-name fire services and schools? A McDonalds-like franchise of police stations, scattered where they’re profitable and viable? All right, I’ll play that game.

    First, you need to pay me a wage comparable to somebody who has my level of education and certifications. I hold a four year degree, tens of thousands of dollars of certifications, and years of experience. In a comparable private job (let’s say nursing, for example) I would make significantly more money, have better benefits, and hours. It’s less likely that I’ll have a guarantee of a standard of living after I’m forced to retire due to the damage my body will have taken, but that’s part of working for the private sector.

    Second, you need to make that business profitable. If it’s private, it needs to perform in the black or else it’s going to go under. Privatized ambulance services and fire departments have existed in the past, and while there are private ambulances that turn a profit working in a specific, non-emergency niche, all accounts of private fire departments show that they go under rapidly. It’s happened several times in Florida, and the city or county has always had to step back in and take it over. Why? Because your so called “socialist” system of everybody paying for fire protection is the only way to keep that protection in service. Otherwise, we’d charge thousands of dollars (minimum) to come and put out a basic fire. For even responding to false alarms, there’d have to be a charge. Any time the engines roll, money would have to flow.

    And lastly (because nobody wants to read a wall of text), the difference between a public servant and a private worker (what you refer to as “blue collar”) is that when the economy is great, that private sector is booming and they’re making bank and the public sector is being paid the same as always. After the economy tanked, and the private sector wasn’t doing so hot, they looked at the public sector (who was still being paid the same as always) and began to scream about how unfair it was. Where were the 15-20% raises in the public sector when the private sector was getting them?

  33. Rich Woods says

    @peterfran #32:

    You don’t appear to be much in favour of the vigiles.

    And please don’t go all strawman on the housebreaking and flogging. Pretty please. Troll.

  34. peterfran says

    Wow; now I’m a troll, full of bullshit. Look at the back of a sawbuck. Now turn it over and look at the religious statesman. Unfortunately, freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion. And to ignore this fact would be foolish.
    To “promote the general welfare” is very different from providing welfare. And those who question the status quo are selfish, uneducated morons. Fine; when Arabic, Spanish, or Chinese is the national language and foreigners are living in our houses, so be it. Let’s just bury our heads in the sand, and not read the writing on the wall.
    Moreover, there are thousands of young graduates chaffing at the bit to have government jobs. And if the public sector had to respond to the same work force pressures that effect the rest of us, then there would be change. Scary thought. Peace out.

  35. Ogvorbis: broken and cynical says

    And if the public sector had to respond to the same work force pressures that effect the rest of us, then there would be change. Scary thought.

    We already do. When the economy is good, we get left behind. When the economy is bad, we become scapegoats and our wages, and jobs, are on the cutting block. See the difference there? Good times = nothing; bad times = cuts.

    Peace out.

    Nice passive aggressive thing you got going there.

    By the by, wildland firefighting is not my full time job. I have to, sometimes, beg my boss to be allowed to volunteer for them. Yes, I get paid while there. While working 16 hour days, or nights, and sleeping in a tent. But, then, I’m just a useless pubic servant, so what do I know, right? I’m just a fucking leach on society, right? The root of all problems?

  36. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    peterfran you are all over the place.

    Sounds like you’ve got a nice list of christo-libertarian talking points and you just need to hit each and every one before you leave to get some sort of dumbfuckery extra credit.

  37. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Wow; now I’m a troll [and liberturd], full of bullshit.

    Nice description of yourself. A deluded unevidenced fool. No evidence for any claim. Your unevidenced word is *POOF* dismissed as utter and total fuckwittery.

  38. says

    I sympathize with your problem. I became an atheist at age 13 in the mid-50s. had to endure the pressure from my parents, the derision, threats and sometimes physical violence of my peers. I have always said, “Given undeniable evidence, I will change my position.” In over 50 years, that has never happened.

    The pleading, threats, and derision have not changed, but I have kept my integrity even if it has cost me some friends. Perhaps they were not really friends?