I didn’t want my father to die (1994), but when he did, it freed me from a lot of worry and aggravation, so I felt more relief than grief and had no idea that I would end up thinking about him more often than anyone else who ever passed through my life. Next to him, I probably think most about my two best friends from boyhood, Grady* and Don.** Grady was my best friend in elementary school and junior high, and Don through high school, after which I lost touch with them. We all grew-up religious (fundamentalist Church of Christ), and Don and I both preached when we were in high school. After high school, he went to a Church of Christ college in Searcy, Arkansas, and became a full-time preacher, and I stopped going to church altogether. Grady married a Southern Baptist and joined her church (a sin that our boyhood church says he will go to hell for).
Don wrote to me about 20 years ago, and I told him right away that I had become an atheist. He suggested that he and I correspond about my atheism with the thought that he would share the wonderful life he was enjoying with the Lord Jesus, and thereby win me back to God. I said that would be fine, but I told him that converting me wouldn’t just mean demonstrating that he felt God’s presence, or even proving to me that God existed. He would have to also prove that it was his God that existed, and that I could only satisfy his God by going to his church. I included a list of preliminary questions, and he never wrote back.
I was the one to reinitiate contact with Grady. In his response, this man whom I had known as a gentle, serious, and sensitive boy sent me a picture of himself with a high-powered rifle and a dead elk that he had traveled all the way from Mississippi to Wyoming to kill. I didn’t say anything about the picture because, after all, some kindly people somehow find it within themselves to enjoy going to great trouble and expense to shoot animals, and I didn’t think any good could come from me sharing my anti-hunting sentiments (ironically, when we were boys, I would shoot animals for no reason other than that they were there, and Grady wouldn’t hurt a fly). However, when he told me about his “church home,” I told him about my atheism, and that was the last time I heard from Grady except for several months during which he forwarded religious stuff. I wrote to him repeatedly asking that he talk to me instead of sending me things that I found meaningless, but he just kept on keeping on, so I became increasingly stern until he stopped. I emailed him a time or two after that, and I also sent him a couple of Christmas cards, but then I gave up.
I’ve wondered from time-to-time how things would have gone with my former friends had I kept quiet about the subject of atheism, but I’m just not a person to keep quiet about things that are important to me. Imagine that one of them had turned out to be the one with a dirty little blotch on his character. For example, let’s go right to something really bad and imagine that he was a pedophile. I’ve had two friends—Ken and Bill—who were pedophiles, although I didn’t find out until years into our friendship, and even then it wasn’t because I had information that they could be arrested for, but because their behavior around children was so weird, and their interpretations of children’s behavior so disturbed. Despite this, I resolved to remain their friend but with the intention of gathering evidence and calling the law if I ever suspected them of molesting a child.
So, I’ve wondered from time to time if Don and Grady would have reacted any worse had I been a pedophile instead of an atheist. When I saw a survey last year in which most Americans said they hold atheists in lower esteem than sex offenders, I thought, yeah, that sounds about right. Just look at the way the Catholic Church has, at every level, blamed the victims of pedophiliac priests and the bishops who protected them, while readily forgiving the priests and bishops. Clearly, a great many believers see child molestation as small potatoes compared to atheism, but since God can’t be hurt by unbelief, and children can most assuredly be hurt by pedophiles, where’s the fairness in this?
Anyway, I think about my two former friends more than I would like, and I often wonder how I might have handled things better. I see those relationships the same way I see my church experiment last year in that, whatever my limitations, I did the best I could, and I don’t see that I got a lot for it because in every case, it was the other person who broke off the relationship without even trying to address our differences. When, upon leaving the Church of Christ at age 18, I first started losing my religious friends, that in itself propelled me toward atheism because, as I told myself, if people who worship God and claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit are less loving than people who have no religion at all, then, just maybe, God doesn’t exist. The only religious people with whom I am still friends face-to-face are a couple of old people I visit and with whom the subject of my own religious views has never come up. This means that my only existing tie with the world of religion is with my half-sister who I write to but never see, and with the religious people who read this blog. I’ve been both pleased and amazed that more of my readers haven’t gone away. It brings me no closer to believing in the supernatural, but it does make me a little less hostile toward religion.*Grady is standing in this 1961 photo in which he and I are admiring a watch I won in a newspaper contest.
**Don is at the top left of this 1966 double-exposure, which was taken in Bloomington, Indiana, where we had gone with a preacher on revival (I'm not pictured) and stayed with a family by the name of Ellett. The Elletts were wonderful people, right up until the time I left the church and they shut me out of their lives without a word.