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Everyone says that talking to yourself isn't a problem, but answering yourself is. What do they know?
So, what’s it like being an atheist in a country that prides itself on its Christian religiosity?
Some people don’t take me seriously, and they say things like, “You’re too nice to be a REAL atheist.” They mean it as a compliment, like when a racist tells a black person that he’s too smart to be all black. When people do take me seriously, that’s not usually so good either because they look at me as if my hobby was strangling puppies. A majority of Americans say that, if one presidential candidate was eminently qualified but was an atheist, whereas the other was appallingly unqualified but was a Christian, they would vote for the Christian.
If another pollster were to ask people who they hated more: atheists, child molesters, or serial killers; I’m not sure I would fare better than the other two. Ironically, atheists are typically (note that I'm emphasizing this word) better educated and have higher IQs than theists. They are also more likely to oppose war and torture, support universal healthcare, favor stem cell research, and work to defend civil liberties. The same holds true for religious liberals compared to religious conservatives. I surmise from this that the prejudice against atheists comes partly from America’s hatred of intellectuals. A country that elevates the common man is just naturally suspicious of uncommon people. Sarah Palin isn’t popular because she’s brilliant and learned.
What do you think made you an atheist?
When I was a boy in the South, I went to church three to four times a week and listened to preachers bash atheists, Communists, liberals, secular humanists, and godless professors, all to congregations in which most people left school after the eighth grade to work on the family farm. Such denouncements left me exceedingly intrigued by the ungodly, the moreso since I had never laid eyes on one or even knew where to look—preachers said they mostly lived up North. Preachers also opposed sending kids to “godless universities” (state run schools) because they might be converted to atheism. “Better to remain ignorant and save your soul than to become learned and be sent to the lake of fire that burns forever and ever.”
I thought that such statements contradicted the concept of a wise and loving God, but what really set me on the sliding board to hell occurred when I was eleven. Women weren’t allowed to teach Sunday school, and none of the men wanted to because they considered it unmanly, so the preacher taught Saturday school instead. On this particular Saturday, we were reading a section of the Old Testament in which God ordered the Jews to take away another people’s land. He told them to kill every man, woman, child, and animal who lived on that land, except for the virgins whom they could keep for themselves. I was devastated, and I asked the preacher how God could do such a thing. He seemed perturbed by my question, and suggested that I ask God when I got to heaven.
I thought this was an unconscionable copout, and I spent most of the following two decades trying desperately to find answers to an ever-growing list of questions that first led me to doubt God’s goodness and then his very existence. Sometimes, I would go into the woods and absolutely rail against God for ignoring my search for answers. Other times, I would try to make it easy for him by opening my Bible and pointing to a verse with my eyes closed in the hope that he would guide me that way. When the verse was so far off that there was no possibility of it being a message (something like, “Samson smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter…”), I would try again. Even after becoming an atheist, I still wanted desperately to believe because I had been told from my earliest childhood that the life of a man who didn’t believe in God is miserable and pointless. It’s hard to get beyond that kind of indoctrination.
Did you ever?
I still feel a great deal of what you might call existential angst. I mean, life is scary. It comes, and, after a few short decades, it goes. I have trouble accepting the fact that all I am and all I love will soon perish. I want there to be more. Compared to the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood, atheism is bleak. Yet, I simply can’t believe, and even if I could, the God of the Bible would still seem every bit as evil to me as Satan himself. I don’t think anyone really loves that God. What they do is to pick out verses that make him look far better than the Bible as a whole makes him look, and they cling to those verses and ignore the rest. Either that or they simply pretend to love him because they’re afraid of hell. As a small child, I would literally come home from church and hide under the bed for fear of the “righteous wrath of God.” One Sunday, my father and I stayed home and played checkers during a rainstorm, and I was scared out of my mind that God was going to drown us because we missed church.
Could it be then that it’s not really God you don’t believe in, but the fundamentalist version of God?
After age eleven, I just wanted to believe in God, period. At age fifteen, I started studying other religions with the hope they had information that would justify a belief in a benevolent deity. I literally visited every Christian denomination and every non-Christian worship service I could find, whether near home or sixty miles away in Jackson.
How does Peggy feel about you being an atheist?
Peggy doesn’t care what I am short of becoming a Moslem and trying to make her wear a burka. She grew up in a devout Southern Baptist household, but the day she left home at age 18 was the day she left church (she literally flunked chapel at the Baptist college her parents sent her too because she failed to show up once a week). Whereas I have been obsessed with religion in one way or another for my entire life, I can’t even get Peggy to talk about it. If I do bring it up, her eyes glaze over. I just know she doesn’t believe in the supernatural, yet she doesn’t consider herself an atheist. I think she might qualify as a pantheist, but she refuses to be labeled.
I don’t understand people like Peggy, but I’ll tell you something that might surprise you if you think nonbelievers are unethical. Peggy might very well be the most ethical person I’ve ever known. For example, after years of being shorted on her paycheck almost every single pay period, she was overpaid $1,400. I would have pocketed that money in a heartbeat to make up for the hours I had spent fighting for what was rightfully mine, but she returned it.
Have you ever felt personally persecuted for your atheism?
I lost the friendship of everyone I went to church with for my first eighteen years, and the way I was treated by religious people in general was a major reason that I left a home in Mississippi that I built and loved and moved to Oregon. I was also dismissed from jury duty once, but I can’t say whether it was because I told the judge I was unwilling to say, “So help me God,” when I took the juror’s oath, or because I told him I was unwilling to follow his instructions in reaching a verdict if they violated my conscience. Another time when I had jury duty, the woman behind me struck me on the back of the head because I refused to stand while the district attorney led the jury in prayer.
What did you do when the woman hit you?
I stayed in my seat until the same woman said, “You had BETTER stand up!” I stood up. I still lived in rural Mississippi at the time, and fear and paranoia had become such a big part of my life that I didn’t have the guts to remain true to my convictions. I would now. The more hostility I’ve experienced over the years, the more courage I’ve gained.
When someone wrote in response to my last post that’s it’s important to act in a godly manner even though I don’t believe in god, I remembered the woman who struck me. The person who wrote no doubt equates godly behavior with ethical behavior, whereas I think of godly people as arrogant, intolerant, hypocritical, and often downright mean.
That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?
I speak the truth as I see it based upon how I have been treated as a nonbeliever. If you are a person of faith, your experience will be very different—as was mine. It’s like the difference between how blacks were treated by whites in the South of my boyhood versus how whites were treated by whites. When I see a religious person being loving, generous, compassionate, and so forth, I assume it’s despite their religion rather than because of it. Religious people are mostly clueless about how they appear to other people because they’re accustomed to thinking of themselves as the good guys and everyone else as the bad guys. If dividing people into sheep and goats—the way Christ did—isn’t the whole point of religion, it’s certainly a major point.
I mean, think about it. For most of its 2,000-year history Christians—Catholics and Protestants—tortured and murdered everyone they could get their hands on who disagreed with them. The pope didn’t decide that torturing people was wrong until the 1800’s, and even in the 1900’s at least one pope sent gifts to those who murdered his enemies. Of course, Christians today don’t seem the least bit bothered by all that. They’re like Moslems who see no irony in calling Islam “The Religion of Peace” despite the fact that people are murdered in the name of Allah everyday of the week. What religious people say they believe is often the exact opposite of how they behave.
How did your life change when you decided you really were an atheist?
I started looking around for like-minded people, and this led me to join American Atheists in 1982. I was thrilled to learn that there was both a North Mississippi Chapter and a South Mississippi Chapter until I discovered that Madalyn Murray O’Hair had padded the books somewhat, and that each of these chapters only contained one person. Paul Tirmenstein was a fit looking man in his eighties, and John Marthaler was obese and in his fifties (see photo). They were forever writing letters to their local newspapers slamming Christians about one thing or the other, and they both had pro-atheist bumper stickers all over the backs of their cars. People occasionally vandalized their cars—and John was even assaulted on a few occasions—but that just inspired them to add more stickers. It also inspired John to carry a cane with a brass handle.
I soon started writing my own letters to the newspaper, and was often amused by the responses. For example, I had people tell me that they supported my stand on school prayer. This surprised the hell out of me since I was totally opposed to it. I finally realized that they had completely misinterpreted my letter because they just naturally assumed I was in favor of school prayer like everyone else they knew.
I attended a couple of atheist conventions with John and Paul. The first one was held in Lexington, Kentucky, and we drove up in John’s old Toyota that leaned toward the driver’s side from the strain of carrying him around for 200,000 miles. I was sick with a cold during the trip, so I spent most of the drive trying to sleep in the back seat. I say trying because people were forever leaning out their windows and screaming profanities at us. This scared me pretty good, but it just made John and Paul laugh.
Kentucky was also a part of the Bible Belt, so we were stared at and cursed even inside the hotel where the convention was held. I couldn’t even enjoy my food because I didn’t trust the staff to not put filth in it. I still had a great time though because there were atheists there from all over the country, and this enabled me to regain a little of the fellowship that I lost when I stopped going to church.
I was warmly received by Madalyn O’Hair (see photo) because she was fond of something I had written for her magazine (I was later made a non-resident editor). In fact, she asked me to call her Grandma, and I got a real kick out of that, what with her being the “Most Hated Woman in America.” I was very sad when Madalyn, her son, Jon, and her granddaughter, Robin, were murdered. I had asked Robin at one point how she was able to handle being hated and even threatened by thousands of people, and she said she tried to not take it personally.
Paul and I drove to the next convention—in Austin, Texas—without John because John had gone early for some reason. It was after that convention that Paul killed himself. He had told me he was going to do it because (a) he was nearing the point that he could no longer live independently, and (b) he wanted his money to go to American Atheists instead of being spent on healthcare. He ended up using carbon monoxide because he didn’t have anything else. He had asked me to get pills for him, and I could have, but he had asked for them over the telephone, and I worried that my line was tapped. I later realized that this was unlikely, but it’s easy to become paranoid when you’re convinced that everyone hates you. Never one to waste anything, Paul donated his body to a medical school.
I came to have the deepest respect for the “evil atheists” that I had been warned against all my life. It’s easy to be true to your Christian beliefs when everyone around you validates them, but it takes real courage to uphold your values when you’re a reviled and isolated atheist who doesn’t imagine himself to be under divine protection or have heaven as his reward. When Christ said “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction,” he sure wasn’t talking about atheists. In fact, the only people whom Christ consistently reviled were religious people, and the only people he consistently befriended were sinners. Of course, most of the religious people I know don’t appear to read too much into that.
Posted by Snowbrush