Updated: Mar 22
I have been an atheist as long as I can remember. My parents took me to a Unitarian church when I was very little. Later, when we were living in a small town in upstate New York I attended an Episcopal church, due almost entirely, I suspect, to the efforts of my stepmother. When I was in sixth grade my brother who was two years older than I, got baptized. I was not sufficiently impressed to want to follow suit. I went to a high school where we had to go to a church of our choice on Sundays. I chose the Catholic Church because the Masses were only half an hour long. However, even that perfunctory association with the Catholic Church made me somewhat more aware of nuns and priests. It seemed to me that the priests were very corpulent and not particularly friendly. Incidentally, it was also during high school that I began to wonder about the silly ways people manifest their belief. As I stood on one side of the wrestling mat I saw my opponent across the mat on his knees genuflecting. I remained undefeated for two years despite God’s intercession.
A few years later, when my older brother was killed everybody said silly things like, “God wanted him in heaven” or that this tragedy was “God’s will.” I was inconsolably crushed by the death of my brother. We had become very close as college roommates and skiing and climbing partners. Why would God, (our father in heaven) kill a man in the prime of his life?
My two daughters are in their mid-thirties now but they still remember the “Evolution Story” I used to tell them when they were very little. As children are wont, they made me repeat my rather lame Darwinian saga over and over. I cannot remember the details but it began with a big bang followed by an earth covered with water and then cooling, shrinking and land masses rising while two atoms eventually came together to make a cell and then more cells and pretty soon there were amoebas and then fishes and then (the exciting part) the fishes crawled out of the water! Somehow I wove a ten or fifteen minute story out of the crudest tidbits of evolution until we got to monkeys and Homo Sapiens. Much to my embarrassment, they loved it. For the most part, my girls were raised on Indian reservations and cattle towns in the Rocky Mountain West with a few years on an island in the Puget Sound. They grew up close to nature. I believe in Nature and I wanted my children to believe in a sort of “Mother Nature.”
I worked as a backcountry ranger for a few years in southern Utah. Part of my job was to patrol the wilderness canyons on foot. I would often be out alone for a week at a time. Back then one rarely saw other backpackers. I pared my backcountry needs down to the barest essentials, drinking right out of the river, building my own fires and sleeping under the stars. In a canyon the sky is framed and at night one can almost see the constellations move. If you gaze up at the stars and see the Big Dipper at ten and then again at midnight, it has moved a great deal. Occasionally I caught fish and had I carried a rifle or even a bow and arrow, I could have brought down an unsuspecting deer now and then. I learned to feel pretty comfortable with everything, including the rattlesnakes and scorpions which sometimes ventured across my campsite. I knew how to read the weather and follow landmarks for directions. It is no exaggeration to say that in those years I was totally comfortable with my self, my being, my sexuality and my environment.
This is the crux of my conviction. Always alone, always thinking, always wondering, I came to realize and understand the foundations of all religions. For a week at a time I was in exactly the same place, experiencing exactly the same phenomena and wondering (retrospectively of course) about exactly the same things as people hundreds and thousands of years ago in all primitive places on earth. What is that great bright orb in the sky? Why is it warm sometimes and cold other times? What are those lights up in the sky at night? Where does the water come from? What made this canyon with its sweet springs and cozy alcoves with soft sand? What is the meaning of hunger, pain, sorrow and death, the greatest mystery of all? Clearly, these questions all demanded answers by children and adults of all ages in all places. As egocentric beings it is only natural that the ancient shamans and story-tellers would ascribe the manufacture of such things to a human-like deity, or as in the case of the Greeks and Romans, a pantheon of deities.
Creation stories and myths are wonderful and make for pleasurable reading but I cannot understand why people in the twenty-first century would want to pattern their lives after what some very uninformed people said two thousand years ago? If one could put aside all political correctness and religious insecurities one would not hesitate to call most of the Biblical stories no more credible than the Greek god myths or the Native American animal spirit-being stories. Golden tablets, parting seas and water into wine? Come on! And who, in their right mind, would want anything to do with that jealous, vengeful, hurtful god of the Old Testament? Poor Jacob and Job!
According to most scholars, Jesus was a pretty decent fellow, albeit just one among hundreds, if not thousands of itinerant moralizers, I might add, wandering around ancient Jerusalem preaching a gospel. He was young, unmarried, unschooled, unemployed and inexperienced. Sometimes he said nice things and at other times he said rather uncharitable things. People keep telling me that he preached a gospel of love. How do I reconcile that with his remarks to the effect that relegate my eternal afterlife to an inhospitable place should I refuse to embrace his particular philosophical outlook? Personally, I love my own children no matter what (even the one who has not spoken to me in eight years), and no matter what, I will try to always be available to succor them. My love is totally unconditional! It is beyond me why people choose to believe in a “father in heaven” who thinks they are aberrant (sinners) to begin with and who is constantly punishing, abusing and coercing them to repent and beg for forgiveness. My children do not have to beg for forgiveness for anything! A priori of anything they might say or do I accept and forgive them because I love them!
Religion has supplanted philosophy as a moral compass in current society here in America, at least. Religion, or religiousness, in the minds of most people, has come to be synonymous with spirituality. This curious phenomenon leaves me dumbfounded when but a cursory glance at the Middle East or Northern Ireland suggests nothing but horrific selfishness on all sides. But then again, with a longer view of religion, what good were the Crusades or The Inquisition? Protestantism seems to be a slight improvement on the old corrupt Catholic dogmas but it too has spawned a host of fantastically bizarre spiritual cults replete with “saints and witnesses” and a pantheon of cultish brothers and sisters all claiming to have the inside track on the one true belief. I never cease to be amazed at the glaucomic world view of all these miniature religions with a few hundred thousand or perhaps a million or two members all making claims of private ownership of god’s attention while the Catholics and Mohammedans, each with a billion members might seem to be better suited to such bragging rights.
In any event, I am sick of religions and their internecine quarrels. It is not an exaggeration to say that I loath every single one of them.