Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Atheist Recalls

As far as I can remember, everyone I knew professed to be a Christian. Like many, I was baptized as an infant. I went to School on Sundays even as a high school senior. Confirmed at 13, I spent many Saturday afternoons at Confirmation classes.

Despite this, I asked Jesus into my heart one day at a Christian book store I entered one snowy day en route to a department store to buy the new Black Sabbath album. Like many, this event changed my life. I went to Bible Study with older Jesus Freaks, even though I had to ride there on a bicycle because I was still too young to drive.

I went to a Methodist Youth Fellowship canoe trip in northern Wisconsin and sang a few times with the choir, sitting next to a good singer. Later, I became president of Methodist Youth Fellowship. I organized the youth of the church to vote to retain the pastor who took us on the canoe trip. Adults, however, discharged him.

In college, I wore silver cross necklaces. I went through several because the chains were not sturdy enough. As a young adult, I had to change my diet when I ate with observant Jews. I worked for the world’s nicest Muslims during Ramadan. They brought me wonderful homemade food after sundown. Even the door alarm code was an Arabic word.

I converted protestant denominations for my first wife. My children were baptized in this denomination and one of them played the baby Jesus one Christmas. She and I edited the church newsletter and worked in the nursery together. My second wife and I were married in a different denomination, where I attended Bible Study. I own both a New International Study Bible and a famous daily devotional book by Oswald Chambers. When I moved back to Wisconsin, I only attended church for Good Fridays and Easters. I have attended weddings, funerals and meetings of alcoholics in churches.

Oddly, it was volunteering at a faith-based food pantry where my long faith started to be shaken. One volunteer called for death to gays based on the Old Testament. This especially shook me because an AIDS activist in Africa was killed by HIV-deniers on this very day. A second said gays were outside the love of God. I thought immediately of gays and lesbians that I know have faith in God; some are ordained. A third made a joke at the expense of lesbians. A fourth said the story of Genesis makes clear dinosaurs and people existed together and that science that says otherwise is simply wrong. This view is common among fundamentalist Christians.

A friend suggested I read a New York Times best selling book by well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens. Yes, I know that he is deathly sick but has not recanted his atheism, insulting believers. I have read three books and numerous articles since that first one. I think the jealous, wrathful God of the Old Testament is the God of what we now call ethnic cleansing. Most of the misery of human existence is the result of theism, including worshiping Gods that no longer exist. Almost all exiting religions believe in a virgin birth. I am not as gifted a reader as John Stuart Mill, as organized as David Hume or as good a writer as Mark Twain, to cite just three well-known atheists.

Many of my friends still believe in God. I would never want to insult those who show their faith every day. Some, however, live awful lives because they think one confession would give them eternal life and not eternal damnation. A nearby church left on my door a night-light and self-promotional Christian literature. They meant well.

No, I did not seek to become an atheist. I will always treat others as I hope to be treated. I will never become militant about it. Militants will not rest until they wring every single shred of religious meaning from public space.