My story begins at a very young age. In my earliest memories my family, and in particular my father, were very religious. I was initially raised in the Lutheran church. It seems now that the Lutheran church we attended was really quite vanilla and innocuous. However, when I was 12 the church’s new youth minister had an idea: Christian Youth Camp. Mom and Dad ponied up the nominal fee and I was sent to a christian bible camp for two weeks in the summer. All my friends went. Heck, we jumped at the opportunity. It was a chance to get out of town and be preteens away from our parents and bond as budding adults.. It was something different for kids my age stuck in a small industrial town of northern Iowa in the stagnant early 70’s . Every kid that went to Trinity Lutheran Church looked forward to this excursion. For two weeks we were sent to a rural setting that for the most part, looking back, resembled a military boot camp. Cabins, mess hall, summertime activities, a canteen (yes, they called it that) and “counselors” for each cabin of 6 attendees. Every morning there was a revelry, breakfast, bible study and then you were left to your own devices (supervised of course) until lunch. Then more bible study and then you were again left to entertain yourself with canoeing, swimming, volleyball etc. etc until dinner, followed by another hour of bible study and then were freed to explore the woods, go to the canteen for a snack, or nap if you cared to. At nightfall , however, the nefariousness began. We would all be called to a large hill next to an A-frame chapel. A massive bonfire would be constructed and the proselytizing would intensify. Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on here was a well orchestrated manipulation of young minds. The glowing fire, the singing, mass recital of prayer…… preteen and teen boys and girls, hormones…… very powerful stuff. Not to violate Godwin’s Law, but it was very much a nightly authoritarian rally. Flags flying, drums beating anon anon. Being a child, it took…….. for about two weeks. Then it was back to being a preteen and summer baseball, eating apples from the neighborhood trees and generally coming home only when I was too tired to do anything else. Very, very bucolic.
In the summer of my 14th year, after my third trip to the bible camp, I was forced to spend my Saturdays in a stuffy church school room with our youth minister and 8 or 9 of my contemporaries for Confirmation classes. I detested this. School was one thing, but spending my summer Saturdays in this class, writing out the Lord’s Prayer and deciphering it’s meaning wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time. I refused. Told my mother that I would no longer attend and that Confirmation in the Lutheran faith meant nothing to me. Typical youth rebellion. She surprisingly didn’t resist. However there was another reason for my easy escape from this tedium that was going on behind the scenes. Unknown to me, my father had decided that he disagreed with the Lutheran pastor on matters of scripture and “the word of god” and had already left the church.
Let the madness begin.
What started as an exodus from the Lutheran church by my father turned into a mad dash into the deep, deep rabbit hole of a particularly virulent strain of evangelical, charismatic christianity. Prayer meetings began in earnest at our home. People creeped into our home every tuesday and saturday to practice, what to my eyes, was a very strange array of spectacles such as the laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, and taking communion with Mogan David wine and saltine crackers. I remember one peculiar and frightening summer evening. With the thick humid Iowa air hanging low, my father went outside the house with my Aunt and “cast out her demons”. I heard a hollering wail like nothing heard before or since. It was truly bizarre. It was here when I started to look at my father with a questioning eye. At the age of 14 I literally questioned his very sanity. It was then I started to silently question the entire enterprise of religion while simultaneously still believing in a loving/loathing god. All of this and puberty too? It was terrifying and confusing.
After graduating high school, I took some community college courses and puttered around town doing what meager jobs available, but it became clear that I had to get out of there. I took up with a local rock and roll band as their front man and off we went. On the road!! I never went back.
My father continued to hold his prayer meetings until he found a church that conformed to his narrow, literal view of the bible. The Dutch Reformation Church.
Anyway, I still held on to the notion of religion while not practicing it at all. Living in fear of an eternal damnation, intellectually crippled by my upbringing, I wandered through my life with no purpose. I made music, but I wasn’t driven by anything.
Then, one night while on the road with the band, I came across a television program: Cosmos With Carl Sagan. I was enthralled. I drank it in sumptuously. The vastness of our universe, the magnitude of our natural world. What was my place in it? This was a big question. A deep philosophical debate that has been raging for millennia. The explanation of our natural world and our universe, our place in it presented to me by science was a new “truth” that I didn’t know existed. I wasn’t interested in science when I was in school. After all, I was told that god had a plan for me. Knowledge was bad. Confine your thinking to serving the lord.
I chucked the entire premise of gods and myths. I started to read Bertrand Russell, Sagan, any book that lent to a rational explanation of our world.
And do you know what happened on the way toward my enlightenment?
The realization that this is the only life I have. To make the most of it and that there are no do-overs, no afterlife, no rewards. There are only rewards here. Leave the place better than I found it.
And I believe that I became a better human being in the process.
Then came Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Prosperity Christianity. The bigotry, the racism, the greed, all of it wrapped up in shiny, tiny teevee shows. It made me sick to my stomach.
It only pushed my untethering from religion further and intensified my thirst for reason deeper.
LIfe Strikes Out.
I lost my father to prostate cancer on September 14th, 2010. On his deathbed he implored me to find Christ. I told him gently not to worry about those things. We would both be fine. And you know, with all of the certainty in his faith, all his devotion to his loving god, I saw a man that was terrified. Terrified of the judgmental, tyrant that he so devoutly worshipped. He was terrified of that which he professed to love so much. Terrified that he didn’t do everything right and wouldn’t get his reward. I had only 3 of the 5 stages of grief to wade thru. I was angry at religion and the religious for the state of my father’s mind at the end. That was my anger stage of grief. I didn’t have anything in the way of shock (we all knew what this meant for Dad when he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at the age of 88) and I had no bartering to do and no one to do it with. All that was left was acceptance and loneliness. I’ve accepted his absence, but I still miss him and think about him every day. I’m still lonely. But, he is gone.
I hope this hasn’t been too rambling, but I am an atheist because reason and thinking has made me a better person. It’s made me more accountable. It’s made me more loving.
I love human beings. I hate every one of you when I’m driving, but I love you the moment I park the car.
Thanks for reading my tale. Continue your search for knowledge. No matter what the discipline is. Drink deep. Think of each other. Leave the world a better place than you found it.