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.