On Testimony: The Realization of Reason- Part 2
Part 2 of my post on testimony will be a my attempt to give a step-by-step progression from religion to atheism. I mentioned in my previous post that I find Christian testimony formulaic and/or dishonest, yet I still find the hyperbole enthralling. This will be far less enthralling, I think. For one, it is 2000+ words. I think that it would be great if we could all tell these stories. Maybe I’ll start something by writing this post. Likely not. So if you have too much time on your hands and want to get to know me, put your ass in a comfy chair, get a hot cup of joe, and lets get started….
I grew up in a family that was kind of ambivalent about religion. My father came from a mysterious Calvanist church, one that he never really spent a lot of time talking about. I heard stories that he had won church awards, that he taught sunday school classes in his teens; he was a model for every young man in his Church. His father died when he was 17 years old leaving him the “man of the house” to his mother, and younger brother and sister. He never really talks about these years, but if I were to guess at a moment that informed the man he is today this is it. After this moment every story about my Dad seems to involve less and less religion.
My Mom came from an Anglican (Episcopalian) family. Her childhood also had its adversities, her mother was absent for most of it and when she was there it was worse. I have stories about my mother’s childhood that would make your head spin. She eventually went to live with her Aunt and Uncle who’s house was across the street; for all intents and purposes my Great-Aunt is my Grandmother. My mother would not be someone I would call deeply religious either, but when my parents got married they assumed her religious affiliation. I grew up in the Anglican Church, where I attended Sunday School and Sunday Service.
I was enthralled with bible stories, I loved Sunday School and would look forward to going and listening to the young 20-something teacher tell us stories about Jonah, Noah, Ruth and Jesus. I remember asking a lot of questions. I loved books as a child and saw the yarn of childhood fantasy being woven into a beautiful reality full of heroes and villains, miracles and meaning. The bible being true was, to me, a justification that anything might be possible; if giants and demons were real-if a man might be swallowed by a whale- then the dragons and wizards of my fantasies were equally plausible. The bible was magic. It didn’t hurt that it brought hundreds of people together into a community of voices that spoke together and enchanted me with choruses of “Holy, Holy, Holy”.
God was magic. To a youthful me, all was possible; I was unlocking the infinite. Then we moved…..
My parents packed us up when I was eleven years old and moved us 4 hours north so that my Dad could get out from behind an office desk and do what he loved. He bought a tourist camp, a job that required that we be home on week-ends so that customers leaving and arriving could be seen off and thanked, welcomed and settled in. Sunday service would be out of the question for me until I was old enough to get there myself.
I continued to read the bible from time to time but the stories that were spun in my youth seemed inaccessible and dreary in the old King James Version Bible I tried to reference from. I took the next few years to find beauty in the Psalms, discovered my love of the Book of Job and The Song of Solomon, and started a journal where I would write down a Bible verse that I loved and talk about what it meant to me. This was the religion of my middle youth: introspective, personal and lonely.
In the summers, I would go to visit my paternal Grandmother who lived not far from us. With her support I went to a twice weekly youth group at the Presbyterian Church in her town, surrounded by a cast of kids that would have made for a great sit-com. The stringbean nerd who seemed clueless around the girls. His attractive brother who used to play Richard Marx on the piano while every girl swooned. The girls were led by a beautiful young girl who had a voice like an angel and bossed everyone around. The pastors daughter was cute and quiet, she used to touch my hand when noone was looking. I could ruminate for hours on those days, when my private and personal God became real and shared. About my geeky green cardigan, singing “Amazing Grace” in harmony as we walked home, my heart pounding as I touched her hand.
Each time I was forced to retreat back to my KJV Bible, to come back to the “real world”. I would be 15 before that really changed. In high school I met a kid who lived just down the road from me who attended the Missionary Church in town. His parents were the first real “born again” people I had ever met and they offered to have me tag along to their church. Each Sunday and Wednesday, they would pick me up and take me to church with their son and the two foster children they cared for. I listened intently as the charismatic pastor would mesmerize us with his weekly sermons, charging each of us to really listen to the message of Christ and think along with him. His sermon “Going Against The Goads” remains to this day the most inspiring bit of rhetoric I have ever personally witnessed. I joined the church band, became lead singer of the youth rock group “Praise Be…” which played Harp and Bowl on Wednesdays. I had found a home.
During all this time my parents really said nothing. My dad told me the stories of his life in the Church of his youth, he bought me books if I asked for them, he never complained when I skipped out on work Sunday mornings. My mom let me say Grace at the table, something that we had never done before. They resolved to support me in whatever I wanted to do. My parents are wonderful people; very private, reserved, cerebral people. Our family pictures look like nineteenth century sepia photos. No one smiles, no one touches, everyone seemingly at attention to the imaginary drill sergeant just out of frame. Let me make this perfectly clear though: never in my childhood did I ever feel alone, or unloved, or lacking in any real way. My parents gave me the two greatest gifts any child could ask for, unconditional love and security. I always knew that my parents would love me: Jew, atheist, Mormon, or Christian. Gay or straight, left-wing or right-wing. My parents always found a way to make it abundantly clear to me, my brother and sister that their love had no limits. My parents did this in a way that still seems foreign to my wife of six years, we have few family photos, we rarely get mushy with one another, we almost never hug or kiss; if you ask her though, she will tell you that our house is bursting with love-more than she ever thought possible. She’ll tell you that it explains everything you ever need to know about me.
In my last year of high school I met a girl. Her Dad was the pastor of a new Church that was just opening in my town. This was decidedly not a mainstream church, I won’t get into too many specifics, but you’ll see what I mean soon. I began attending the church and again got in with both feet. At the urging of the pastor I wrote guest sermons that I read at service, I published some of my poetry in the church periodical, I joined the youth ministry. His daughter and I talked about going to seminary school together, I wanted to become a pastor. Over the next year several things began to grate on me in my new Church. Testimonies began to be peppered with things that I knew were untrue, church membership seemed to consist primarily of very lonely people aching to be accepted, there were talks of prophesy and speaking in tongues; I felt increasingly uncomfortable. When I was asked to give testimony, I admit, I made the whole thing up. I was following the lead of every other person whom I knew had exaggerated their testimony in church. I had made my first “lie for Jesus”. The weird thing is that I almost started to believe it. Other things followed: grumblings in some inner circles that the “speaking in tongues” was staged and that the “prophesy” was contrived. I had gotten far enough along that I got to be in on the joke. I was not pleased.
So I took a break from organized religion for awhile. I did eventually end up flirting with the “evils” of the material world. I spent three years of my life living “apart”. I did the drugs, drank the booze, explored the world that I had imagined in that contrived testimony I gave in church. The funny thing is that for all the drunkenness, for all the ecstasy and cocaine fueled partying, for all the stupid decisions and meaningless sex; I met better and more authentic people. I was just as happy and just as fulfilled as those days in that summer youth group. I maintained my Christianity through all of this, I even went to a Harp and Bowl once high as a kite and ducked into the church bathroom to blow some more coke. I was a horrible Christian, but I was still a Christian.
Then I met my wife. She was how I see the average Catholic; like an agnostic who speaks in “Godspeak”. Religious, but not really. Defending the faith but willing to discard it’s nasty bits. Wearing her religion like a warm sweater. We got married in Florida, at Walt Disney World, by a black baptist preacher who reminded me of the charisma I loved so much in my Missionary Church days. He was a fantastic guy. I was one of those Christians now. I went to service, paid my dues, and went home to the real world till the next Sunday service. For me the fire was gone; I was going through the motions.
During most of this time I had maintained a friendship with one of my friends from my church days. Not the crazy church, but the Missionary one I went to in high school. I would regularly go for coffee with him and we would talk about anything and everything. Then something changed. He went from being kind of religious to being an obsessed Young Earth Creationist, and our talks continually descended into my pleading for his sanity. One day he said to me “George, evolution is a lie. At some point you have to chose between the bible and science, because you can’t have your cake and eat it too” . He handed me a series of perpetually photocopied pamphlets and told me to read them. I read, for the first time, about the “icons of evolution”, about the vast conspiracy in the scientific community to prop up a lie and undermine the word of God. Was I just part of a big gigantic self-perpetuating lie that I bought into in biology class and just accepted as fact? What he had done, without necessarily knowing it, is snap me out of being a Sunday Morning Christian.
I was never a “science nerd” in high school. I never had a science teacher who lit that fire inside me the way my English teachers had. I had been a humanities student, I studied Economics and Poli-Sci, I was not really up on biology. So I bought “The Origin Of The Species”, I looked up arguments on both sides, I spent months meticulously combing the web to learn the specifics and the theories. At this point in the story, I imagine that most of you see where this is going. I was thrust back into a world of smokescreens and charlatans, where Christians would argue for both intelligent design and YEC in the same sentence. Quotes were presented entirely out of context for the sake of propping up an argument. Personal attacks and lies became integral to an argument; whole conversations rested on incredulity. I found myself reliving everything that made me leave. I tried. I tried so hard. I looked for Christians who could speak to my heart about this. I found a great site from a Christian Physicist who really made sense. Then a comment on that blog led me to Camels with Hammers. Then Camels led me to Redheaded Skeptic, then a comment there made me follow an annoying little troll to Lousy Canuck and Cafe Witteveen. Each person led me further to the conclusion that I was an atheist. That I had left those clothes behind me somewhere in my travels, that I kept calling myself something out of habit rather than meaning.
I don’t know that I could go back now. I don’t know that I would want to. I have nothing against the message of Jesus. I really have nothing against most Christians. My journey just led me to value certain things above faith and credulity. It would be like asking someone who was myopic from birth if they would be willing to give up the glasses they just got so that they didn’t have to see the kids begging on street corners. It may have it’s tempting moments, but it really only avoids one problem by causing others.