My father wasn’t a religious man. He was a technical one. Though he often entertained the idea of the supernatural existing alongside us and of aliens hovering above, he was primarily a man of science-based thinking. The closest thing he had to religious beliefs was some vague “something unknowable” must have created everything but it was nebulous and very un-Christian.
One of the very few right things he correctly in raising me was to allow me to find my own beliefs. While he had his belief in some sort of quasi-god-not-god, he never pushed me into believing the same. He rarely spoke of those beliefs. You would more often hear about his belief in alien life in the universe than you would a god that created it.
This being said, after we moved to the United States (after the divorce when I was 5 or 6), we moved to Kansas and started going to church on Sundays. I don’t remember much outside of it being boring and my being upset that I didn’t get to have the cookie with everyone else (later to learn it was a much less exciting communion wafer and not a sweet, delicious cookie). I don’t even have a memory whether it was Christian or Catholic. There were long, tedious sermons I was made to suffer through then a kind of Sunday school for us kids afterwards. What little I remember from the sermons, I can recall even less from classes that followed. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t molested but who knows? This was Kansas in the 80s, there was a male teacher/pastor, and it is Christianity/Catholicism we’re talking about here.
Attending church didn’t last long. A month or two at max. The experience was lost on us and neither of us gained from it anything of merit. Looking back, I wonder if our presence in church was a way to meet people or integrate ourselves in this new community or perhaps even offer some sort of stability in both of our lives. I haven’t a clue and I can’t quite ask a dead man.
While I wasn’t a Christian, I did in my younger days believe in “God.” Nothing from church instilled this belief into me and it certainly didn’t come from my father. Everyone around us believed in God. Everyone on TV and in the movies believed in God. George Burns even portrayed God in a couple of movies. And I shouldn’t say I believed in God. I understood God was real. God existed. As real as you or me. I also understood ghosts, Bigfoot, aliens, the whole cadre of modern make-believe monsters and fairy tales, existed.
I also believed in magic. Magic was as real as everything else. I was enamoured with every decent magician my little eyes came across. I was amazed at all the tricks and trickery they masterfully produced. So amazed that I wanted to become a magician myself. I would visit magic shops on our trips to Vegas and be taught small tricks with foam balls and with rigged cards. What little money I had would be spent on sets filled with tricks and secrets. Preteen me was quite the fast-paced learner and picked up things very quickly.
This newfound knowledge ignited a fire in my to pursue magic harder than before. Not because magic was making me happy. Just the opposite. With every trick I learned, with every gamed gizmo I acquired, I became more disappointed. I learned magic wasn’t real. That man didn’t actually create a bird out of thin air; it was hiding in his sleeve the entire time. That man didn’t know which card was mine; he forced me to pick a specific card. Magic wasn’t magic; it was deceit and cheating. Before I turned 10-years-old, everything I thought started to develop cracks. Because if magic wasn’t real, what else isn’t real? If these magicians were lying, who else was lying?
I endured a terrible childhood. I was truly terrified that my father was going to kill me. I grew up wishing I found out I was adopted, hoping my real father/parents were out there. Someone who could raise me with love. Someone who didn’t act like that hated me and everything about me. I prayed I was adopted. I prayed for the abuse to stop. I prayed for the ridiculing and malicious comments to stop. They never did. If God was real and all-loving, why would he let this happen to me? Daily? Relentlessly? Why would every woman my father dated also treat me with malice and brutality, instead of love?
Over the years, my doubt grew. I began making demands. “God, if you’re real, you’ll do [thing] right now.” I was scared to think it at first, afraid of some other-worldly punishment but I did and nothing happened. I’d think those demands more and more and nothing would happen. Then I’d whisper my demands. Perhaps God couldn’t hear me. He didn’t respond to my whispers. He didn’t respond to my speaking. He didn’t respond to my shouting.
But surely God existed. There simply was no other option. He was ignoring me. Neglecting my calls. I understood neglect very well. It was the only other mode my father operated in. There was mental/physical abuse or neglecting me. There was no in-between. God must have operated the same way.
What didn’t neglect me was the television. The only parental figure who was always there for me. The only thing in the house that showed me any affection or love or warmth. Sitcoms like Roseanne and Fresh Prince. Movies like Clue and Wizard of Oz. Then there was stand-up comedy specials and Comedy Central. Specifically from George Carlin on the former and clips of Penn Jillette on the latter. Both of these men openly and humourously spoke about an alternative to believing in God that simply never occurred to me before: don’t.
I was already familiar with Penn because in my search to learn about magic, he was one of the few magicians openly revealing how tricks were done. He also talked about Atheism but it George Carlin was the primary force that really opened my eyes to disbelieving.
Where learning the secrets behind magic tricks opened the door to me questioning everything, Carlin’s stand-up obliterated that door. What he said made sense (and was hilarious). I began to question everything. I read the Bible and so much of it didn’t make sense. I started learning more about actual science and where we came from, learned about peer-reviewed evidence and carbon-dating, and learned about evolution. I learned how to think critically. If something didn’t make sense, I’d look into it until it either I understood it or decided it didn’t exist. I had, over the course of a few years, just as I was entering puberty, become an Atheist.
Carlin’s material on religion and Atheism, for lack of a better term, was a revelation. The feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness and uncertainty and worthlessness I had in believing in a god were stripped away. It wasn’t me that was unworthy of an answer from God, it’s that there was no God. For the first time, I felt a sense of hope and fulfillment that partially-Christian ideology never did.
Being a non-believer in a small mountain town with a population of about 2,000 where there are more churches than there are places to eat wasn’t as troubling as you’d expect. There was no pushback from my father (either in his neglecting or abusive states) nor were my open lack of beliefs ever really met with derision or hate. Most people (almost all of whom were believers) simply accepted my state of non-belief.
The only area of issue came from my English teacher during my Junior year of high school. Every school day would start with everyone standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. I did, just as everyone did, without much thought. Despite my being a self-proclaimed Atheist for many years, I’d never really thought about the words of the Pledge. Then one day, I realised the “under God” part and my standing and pledging while reciting that part was a validation of a thing I didn’t think existed. So one day I didn’t stand. I didn’t make a big production of it. Didn’t call attention to it. I simply remained seated when the disembodied voice over the intercom asked everyone to stand for the Pledge.
My teacher told me I had to stand. I said no. “You have to.” “No, I don’t.” “Why do you think that?” “Because there is no god and I can’t pledge to something that doesn’t exist.” She was offended, like what I had done was a personal affront to her and everything she ever believed in. She eventually relented, perhaps assuming it was a phase. The next time I had her class I still didn’t stand. She claimed I had to stand but I didn’t have to place my hand on my heart. I still declined. The next time she told me I had to leave the room while everyone else stood for the Pledge. I still declined. You could see the indignation on her face every time, plain as day. It got to the point that when the morning announcement to stand was coming around, she would be burning me to a crisp with her fiery gaze.
When I became an adult and started doing drugs (specifically mushrooms and LSD), I began to adhere to a pseudo “spiritual” belief system. Some mishmash of Buddism/Taoism. When the entire world melts and twists into colours there aren’t yet names for, you truly do believe you’ve seen God. Those beliefs wore off shortly after the drugs did. But in the decline of my drug usage, I did explore various other religions. Perhaps there was an answer out there, I simply hadn’t found it yet. It was would completely asinine to think I had everything figured out without truly researching all the options.
I spent many adult years learning about various religions. Buddhism, Paganism, Judaism, Mormonism, Islam, Taoism, and found none of them to be factual or believable. Sure, each had their good parts, but those good parts all boiled simply down to “Treat other people as you want to be treated i.e. don’t be an asshole.” And that’s something I could do without the aid of a nonsensical religion. There was no morality inherent to any religion I didn’t already possess (in fact, nearly every religion is rife with amorality).
I proudly reclaimed my lack of belief when I reclaimed my sobriety. Usually, the opposite happens. Usually, when people sober up, then find religion and cling to it as hard (if not harder) as they did drugs. Not me. I returned to my natural state of non-belief. Though I never really found the label “Atheist” comfortable. I don’t think it’s strong enough for me. The definition of Atheist is “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.” I don’t disbelieve or lack belief, I’m thoroughly convinced there is no God or gods, just as I am that I have skin covering my body and clothes covering most of that skin.
Not only that, but I find belief in fictional stories made up thousands of years ago by people who didn’t have a firm grasp of what caused illnesses or lightning, to be devastating to the psyche. To believe in the lie that is religion is to be receptive to believing other lies. To believe in a God is to believe in those who claim to believe in God. Belief in falsehoods allows other falsehoods to seep into your life. It invites charming liars and fanciful stories to have merit in the lives of believers. Liars and stories that are demonstrably false to everyone not blinded by belief.
And I get why people believe. Some are raised in belief. Some choose it after a loss or a tragedy. Some marry into it. The belief in God or gods or an afterlife is comforting. To think there is something to look forward to after this life, especially if your life is/was a disappointment. To think something or someone is looking out for you, who cares about you unconditionally, really is a beautiful thought. The opposing thought that there’s no one watching over us, that there’s nothing after we die is a frightening proposition.
But it’s the truth. There is no God or gods, there is no afterlife. There is only this moment, right now. So be good to each other. We’re all we have.