Hisss, boo


It wasn’t easy becoming a nasty wicked atheist…oh, who am I kidding. It was really, really easy. Obvious. Barely an inconvenience even. This short video premieres tonight at 6pm Central, follow the chat on YouTube. Bring rotten fruit and vegetables to pelt the ungodly.

Transcript down below, for those who like to read.

I’m suddenly getting invitations to appear on podcasts and YouTube channels, and unfortunately, they’re all CHRISTIAN shows. What have I done wrong with my life? Do they even realize what my position on religion is?
Maybe not. So I thought I’d fill in that gap by laying it out here, and explain why I’m an atheist. I also want to clear up a common accusation from the more fanatical religious nuts, that I hate God — I can’t, because he doesn’t exist — and worse, that I hate Christians, which is nonsense. I hate dishonest grifters, a category which includes the worst elements of Christianity. So let’s just clarify all that.
Let’s go way back to my religious background. I was brought up as a liberal Lutheran, attending a small church in Kent, Washington that was attended by a lot of cultural Scandinavians. That’s the old church as I remember it; it was torn down in the 1970s and replaced with a more modern brick and glass building, unfortunately. I went to church fairly regularly; I also attended Sunday School and their version of Vacation Bible School (it wasn’t called that); I was in the church choir; I started confirmation classes when I was 13, although I never finished; I served as an acolyte, which basically meant I wore fancy robes and marched down the aisle to light the candles, stood to the side as the pastor preached, and at the end, put out the candles and marched back down the aisle. My mother has some photos of me in the garb.
No, you can’t see them.
Sometimes I was unenthusiastic about the responsibility and intrusion on my time — I was a kid, after all — but in general I didn’t mind it, and even enjoyed it.
One major reason I continued in church as long as I did was because I liked the people and the social side of church. In particular, I was fond of my Sunday School, choir, and confirmation teacher, Mrs Whalen. I saw her a lot because she had a son, Fred, who was my age, and I think Mrs Whalen organized her schedule to always work with Fred, and we were all marching through the church curriculum in lockstep.
I didn’t mind! Mrs Whalen was one of those church ladies who are the backbone of a successful church. She was an organizer and volunteer for all kinds of activities — she always seemed to be there, always enthusiastic, always cheerful. I never heard an unkind word from her. I particularly remember how, in choir, even though I was never much of a singer, she was always offering support and helpful advice. Not criticism. Just encouragement.
Perhaps my only regret about leaving the church was that I lost the opportunity to sing, and while I did not aspire to being much good at it, I might have at least become competent, in an amateur sort of way, and also more comfortable with public performance.
Also, I would rather not have disappointed Mrs Whalen.
I had to leave, though. But to be clear and counter a common Christian claim, it wasn’t because I was hurt in some way, or because I was angry at the church or god.
I’ve written before about the key event that made me doubt what little faith I had, and was entirely because I was a nerdy science kid.
It was Christmas Eve, 1968, and I, and my whole family, were at my maternal grandparents’ place, where we’d have the traditional Christmas feast of lefse — the best part of the meal — and lutefisk — the worst — and turkey or ham and mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and corn and krumkake and divinity for desert. Then we’d wind up the evening by having me put on a show. As the oldest grandkid, they’d sit me on a chair in the living room, hand me a Bible, and make me read Luke 2. You know the bit. It was the stuff recited by Linus in a Charlie Brown Christmas.

I’d been doing that routine for years. I wasn’t very comfortable with it, because it made me feel like a performing seal, and it really was entirely performative. My parents weren’t at all religious, my grandparents only nominally so (I rarely saw them at church, it just made them happy that we kids were going), and I think it might have been more for my great-grandparents, who were religious enough that they had a house full of crosses and bible verses in needlepoint and a big plaque with the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian. I dutifully did my act, did so for many years before (since I learned to read!) and for a few years after. It was an entirely symbolic act for a holiday otherwise empty of religiosity.
You may remember, though, that Christmas Eve 1968 was also the time when Apollo 8 orbited the moon, and that was more on my mind than the Bible, that’s for sure. I did my Clever Hans trick of reading Luke as if I meant it, and then eagerly sat down in front of my grandparent’s TV for the real highlight of the evening — a special broadcast from the Apollo capsule, from the Moon. Wow.
Unfortunately, this was the broadcast.

I sat through it with my jaw hanging open. I wasn’t transported by the fervor of the faith, or in awe at the beauty of the words, I was disgusted. I’d memorized many Bible verses, but this was perhaps the first time that I thought about the content — and it was WRONG. That wasn’t how the world was created, that had nothing to do with the science of the Moon, the astronauts weren’t even particularly good spoken word performers. Was this just like what I had done for my family, reciting words without meaning? It was incredibly disappointing. I knew in that moment that if I wanted to learn about the universe, and I definitely did, the Bible was just a pantomime show, something that obscured the truth rather than revealing it.
I did not become an atheist at that moment. It just became apparent that god was not a particularly useful idea. The exit door had opened a crack, and I’d eventually step through and leave foolish, childish religion behind me, although the final stroke wouldn’t be delivered until I was in college.
It wasn’t college that killed faith for me, though. There was one more event that I haven’t talked about before, because it involved other people. In particular, it involved Mrs Whalen.
Remember Mrs Whalen? That good person I found so warm and welcoming in church, who had a son my own age, Fred? She was a paragon. Even now, as a firm anti-theist, when I envision a good religious person, she’s the example that always comes to mind. I wished her the best even as I left the church, and I appreciated all that she had done and was doing for that Lutheran community.
I graduated from Kent-Meridian High School in 1975. Here’s my yearbook photo. I know. What a nerd.
That same year, the prettiest and smartest girl also graduated. That’s Mary. By some miracle, she ended up being my wife several years later.
Here’s Fred’s yearbook photo. Mary and I went off to college, Fred was, I believe, training to be a dental hygienist.
One day in 1977, Fred was driving on I5 when a truck careered through the guard rail on an overpass and fell directly on Fred, killing him instantly.
If there were a god, he’s cruel and capricious. I’d known Fred since our ages were in the single digits, and he was always a good kid — he took after his mother in that way. I hadn’t been in close contact with him since I left the church, but as an acquaintance, I knew him to be a friendly and gentle soul.
I attended his funeral and saw Mrs Whalen for the first time in a few years. She looked like a woman who hadn’t stopped crying for a week, wan and broken-hearted. She still greeted me warmly and was happy to see me, at least as happy as someone in her state could be.
I was done with the idea of god. That was my atheist confirmation.
I did not rage against god at that funeral, though. I could tell that the only things holding Mrs Whalen together were her family and the church, and I could see that there was a virtue to that community, even if I could no longer be part of it. I also have to point out that if, somehow, her faith were broken, what next could she do? Godlessness did not and still does not provide that supportive community that would help her cope.
So here I am, no gods, but still able to appreciate the value some people get from their faith and their church. I just wish there weren’t so many churches that are built on greed and corruption, that betray and exploit their congregations, that lied to them about reality.
So thank you Mrs Whalen. You could not ever persuade me of the truth of your religion, but you did leave me with the charity you exemplified so well.
All the grifters and frauds, the quacks, the liars for Jesus, the exploiters, the mega-church capitalists, all the right-wing suck-ups, the creationists…you can go f__k yourselves.

Comments

  1. birgerjohansson says

    I don’t know if I am evil but I find Jack Nicholson in The Shining a more fun character than the good ones.
    Also, I love Alucard (Hellsing Ultimate Abridged).

  2. VolcanoMan says

    I remember exactly how you became an atheist. You did a back flip, snapped the communion wafer’s neck, and saved the day. Or something like that, I don’t know!

  3. nomdeplume says

    Everybody is born atheist. Some of us remain in or return to that happy neonatal state.

  4. woozy says

    I always figured it could and probably would be a hard change for a true believer and often wondered about how people honestly felt about it. It took me a long time to realize that most people, not even true believers actually think about it very much and few people (atheists or theists) are “hard” believers.

  5. fishy says

    I never really cared for the music at church. I couldn’t wait for the hymn to end. I may have said, “Thank you god,” once or twice when it did.

  6. JoeBuddha says

    I’ve always been an atheist. Was sent to church and Sunday school, which was more boring than anything else. Never thought about religion until I became a Buddhist. It helped give me a moral foundation and a community. I’m pretty much lapsed, but still consider myself a Buddhist.

  7. christoph says

    “If there were a god, he’s cruel and capricious.”
    I can relate-I also went through a maltheistic (dystheistic?) phase.

  8. says

    Thank you Prof. Myers for the honest, thoughtful presentation. I, too, was indoctrinated into the lutheran church as a child. It was probably a lesser of the organized religious evils. I was quick to become sentient (self-aware) but very slow to develop intellectual and critical thinking skills and become more sapient (wise). The discarding of the fantasy of religion was a slow process. What hastened it was applying logic to the cult-like behavior and trappings (magical catholic cannibalism: eating a persons flesh and drinking their blood each week) and being a victim of numerous acts of harm by ‘my best xtian friends’ and seeing their bigotry at work. In accordance with my principles, appreciate all those who live honest, caring lives without being addicted to the destructive opiate of religion.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    christoph @ # 12: I also went through a maltheistic (dystheistic?) phase.

    What on earth could even tentatively invalidate such a conclusion?

  10. billseymour says

    I was raised Episcopalian, and until young adulthood, I had every intention of becoming a priest.  It was only after I became sufficiently introspective that I realized that what I really liked about it was the theater of the high-church mass.  Then only slowly, mostly from reading popular science books, I decided that I just couldn’t believe in anything supernatural.  I was a Unitarian for a while, but I’m not even that anymore.

    So what about morality?  As a practical matter, I do need to get through the day without being a jerk.

    Almost certainly because of the way I was raised, there are two principles that I treat as if they were axiomatic:

        1.  People are more important than things.
        2.  It’s not all about me or my tribe.

    I hope that’s a pretty good start.  It does seem to get me to agree with FtBloggers almost all the time.

  11. PaulBC says

    billseymour@15

    I realized that what I really liked about it was the theater of the high-church mass

    This seems to be pretty common, but the pomp is what I always like least about the Roman Catholic Church. Like, I was willing to believe there was some deep truth behind it all, but waving around censers of frankincense is obviously just a lot of silliness.

    And the rest, yeah, well I feel like I gave it a fair hearing. I have a simple rule that applies: truth may be counterintuitive. However, some counterintuitive things make more sense the more you work to understand them (complex numbers for instance). Others make less sense the more you work to understand them. The latter encompasses most of the big ideas of my religion.

  12. Alt-X says

    That was a great read, thanks for sharing PZ. Mrs Whalen sounds like a wonderful person. It’s interesting no matter how much you worship a god, misfortune and death are still inevitable. I guess that’s why prosperity preachers show off their wealth so much, to try and prove their gods have any actual effect on reality (asking for money then showing off they have money seems to be lost on their followers).

    It’s also interesting most Xtians seem to think atheists are “angry at god”. Being from the UK, my family hasn’t been religious for generations- I only discovered about Christianity when I was in my mid 20’s. Easter was eggs and chocolate with some myth about some jesus guy getting killed by Romans a thousand years ago, and Xmas was family and presents, with a myth about the same guy getting born (that was my total knowledge of Christianity). I actually read up and learnt about other religions first, the Abrahamic ones last. And what a load of silly nonsense it was. Without cultural reasons, I see no reason to force yourself to think the nonsense was real. No anger at all, just bemusement.

  13. Alt-X says

    Should be clear, the myths about Xmas and Easter where 3rd hand snippets told by other unreligious kids at school in my teens. I had no idea when I was a kid. It seems to be drilled into American kids.

  14. kingoftown says

    @17 Alt-X
    I’m pretty surprised by this, you really weren’t taught about christianity in school? I’m from NI and religion was a mandatory subject up to the age of 16, I thought Britain was the same. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend the religious indoctrination I recieved, I do think religion is an important subject for schools to teach.

  15. cjcolucci says

    kingoftown:

    Religion is an important subject to teach, but there are legal and political difficulties here in the colonies that make it next to impossible to teach religion in an academically sound way in K-12 public education. It is unlawful (though it happens all too often) to teach a religious doctrine as true in public schools. (Private and sectarian schools are another matter.) Despite what many people think, there is no legal obstacle to teaching about religion in public schools or colleges. (Much of what I know on these topics I learned from faculty at state-funded universities.) It is perfectly legal, and would be educationally valuable, to teach what, for example, Catholics or Protestants or Jews or Muslims or Hindus believe and practice and explore such topics as why they believe and practice it or what functions or purposes such beliefs and practices serve. It is likewise perfectly legal and educationally valuable to teach what effect religious beliefs had on historical events and trends.
    But almost nobody wants that. The people who do most of the pushing to get, say, Bible classes in public schools, would riot in the streets if someone implemented an academically honest and sound Bible course. (What do you mean Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch? Or that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John didn’t write the Gospels and the actual authors weren’t contemporaries, let alone eyewitnesses?) People who would like to see such courses in the public schools know this and know that whatever is actually implemented would be indoctrination rather than academic instruction. So our education is impoverished by our inability to deal in an academically honest and sound way with religion.

  16. PaulBC says

    cjcolucci@20 My kids’ public school district here in the Bay Area covered world religions, and while it wasn’t exhaustive (nor could be), they probably learned more than I did at least at the time, about Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

    And (unsurprisingly) I never even heard of the “Great Awakening” during the whole of my Catholic education, though I guess I did learn a little about religious and utopian movements in US history. Also, we read John Osborne’s Luther in English class. I kind of wonder what Catholic schools are like today. Outside of religion class, I don’t think it was particularly dogmatic, but that might have varied by region even at the time.

  17. blf says

    I was mostly-educated in the States (pre-University, in state-funded (public, in States parlance)) schools, and have no recollection of any religious classes — and almost nothing about religion. Early-on, there was some cults (plural) “sunday schools”, but I refused to attend fairly young — from (very faint) memory, that was due to a mixture of boredom, Their™ blithering about things totally at odds with what I was reading (I could read at a very young age (thanks, parents!)) especially astronomy & dinosaurs (two early passionate interests), etc., and the authoritarian-nature of the “lessons” (albeit at the time I wouldn’t have articulated that objection as such).

    By the time I was fairly-conscious of cults’ indoctrination, I’d attempted to read the babilegook (and like a lot of people, gave up in mists interminable lists of X-begot-Y-who-begot-his(always!?)-own-father-X, then read Asimov’s Guide …, which, for me, firmly slammed shut “the door” on non-academic lessons (and YES, I do realise Asimov’s books were not a scholarly study, nor were they intended to be).

  18. Alt-X says

    @kingoftown The first time I remember someone trying to explain Jesus to me was when I was at school swimming lessons at a local church (I don’t know why the church had a swimming pool or why a public school was going there) we were waiting for pickup and we went had a nosy around inside, we were playing around the alter and I asked my friend what all this was, he explained a man from a foreign country in ancient times died and came back alive and so people worshiped him. It was very strange. I remember thinking people die and come back alive all the time, that’s what hospitals and doctors do. And being very bemused that it was all over some foreigner from the other side of the planet, in ancient times, and still being a thing today in the UK. All very weird.

  19. Alt-X says

    I think most Christian’s just assume everyone else is a Christian or knows all about it. I remember asking family friends what the fish symbol is on peoples cars and being told they think it’s some sort of cult sign. Stay clear of those people! I had no idea all the different types of groups, Catholics, baptists, calvinists etc were all Christians, I thought they were all different religions. Haha. Religion is such a obviously hangover from the old times. Like the sun revolving about the earth, ghosts and dragons. Such a foreign and old way to want to look at life.

Leave a Reply