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4/1/04                                                                                       View Comments

My Path to Reason

sent in by Rob Ryan (a.k.a. Ro-bear)

It is time I told my story, as I have roamed this site for months and have posted for several weeks. Some of the testimonies I have read have been quite moving. My heart goes out to those who have lost friends and family or otherwise suffered for abandoning Christianity and embracing reason. My own deconversion was relatively painless, probably owing to the weakness of my indoctrination. My parents were and are rather lukewarm Christians; I suppose their own indoctrination was less than severe. I know my maternal grandfather became quite devout upon quitting alcohol, but that was after my mother moved out and married. God and religion were not staples of conversation in my chidhood home, but we all dressed up nicely and went to church on Sundays.I think my parents felt obligated to impart to their children a moral system, if nothing else. In that respect, they succeeded.

Church bored me. The preacher droned monotonously about God's forgiveness and man's unworthiness. I did not feel unworthy; I thought I was a good little boy. Everyone told me so. I did not see how I was to blame for Adam's and Eve's disobedience. I figured that would come to me as I grew up, but it never did. While the pastor spoke, I took offering envelopes and drew alligators on them. Sometimes I looked at the translucent red ears and wrinkled necks and stiff white collars of the men in the pews before me. Sometimes I looked at the coiffed heads and pillbox hats and lily-white necks of the old ladies. I became very good at drawing alligators. My parents didn't mind, because it kept me from squirming and asking nettlesome questions. I didn't like the music, either, except for the one that went "As it was in the beginning / it now and ever shall be / World without end. Amen. Amen." That one was quite catchy.

I sort of liked Jesus. He had such a kind face in that portrait, you know, the backlit one in which he looks so well-groomed. Still, it seemed odd that my parents would approve of him. He had a beard, and his hair was much longer than the Beatles', and my dad thought they were fairies. I found some of the pictures in Sunday school troubling, though, especally the ones depicting Jesus on the cross or sprawled dead across Mary's lap. How did that little piece of cloth stay on there, anyway? Did people see Jesus's penis? Was it a sin to think about Jesus's penis? It made me uneasy. My parents told me that God could see us always and knew our thoughts. I did not like that idea very much. I don't think I totally believed it. I trusted my parents, but I didn't see how they could know this. Plus, I couldn't see how one could see everyone at once, through walls, without eyes, no less. I guess I lacked imagination!
Besides, I had just learned the truth about Santa Claus, and I was beginning to doubt other things as well, despite only being six-or-so years old.

Our pastor had no doubts at all; he seemed quite sure. By the time I was nine or ten, I reasoned that ignorance must be behind my lack of proper belief and piety, so I began to read the bible quite often. I ran into a lot of trouble there, too. I found all sorts of things in there that I had a problem understanding. How could something be wrong when people did it but all right for God? Wasn't wrong wrong always? Hell was especially problematic; it didn't seem loving or forgiving at all. It even seemed cruel and vindictive. How could God do that to anyone? I mean, shit! Burn them a while then see if they have figured it out. This was my first lesson in subjective morality.Then I began to wonder where evil came from. I was told that God had given man free will and that man had chosen evil. How could man choose what did not exist, and why would he do so if God was so great? Man would have to be flawed to make such a silly choice. Did God screw up when he made man? My parents and Sunday school teachers grew very tired of my questions. My alligators grew more and more realistic.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I began to think I was an atheist, because I didn't believe in the god of the bible, and I didn't know of any others except the Greek and Roman ones which everyone knew were bogus. I told a couple of my school chums, and they were horrified. I quit telling people. I also quit saying "under God" when reciting the Pledge, and I began to omit "reverent" from the Boy Scout oath. One day at the supper table, when I was about sixteen or so, the subject of religion came up. Quite a rare occasion. My unabashedly honest-on-my-behalf sister suddenly blurted "Rob's an atheist!" to which my mother snapped in reply, "No, he's not!" She just wanted to spare me the wrath of my father (who had little tolerance for nonconformity), so I said nothing and someone wisely changed the subject. That was some thirty years ago, and I still haven't really "come out" to my parents. They know, though.

My students know, too. I teach high school in a very conservative East Tennessee community. Everyone, it seems, is a Baptist, students and teachers alike. Occasionally, religion comes up in our discussions of the literature we read. I am careful to be very neutral with regard to religion, which makes them curious as to my belief system. They know damn well that few Baptists are neutral about religion. They ask, "Mr. Ryan, what religion are you?" I respond that I have no belief in the supernatural, or that I am a rationalist, or I smile and answer "None of the above". Then they ask, "Does that mean you're an atheist?" I say yes and tell them my religious beliefs are irrelevant to my role as a teacher and the work we are doing. They sometimes seem a bit shocked, but they don't act any differently toward me. By then they know me and think I'm a good teacher and like me. A few innocently try to "save" me, the little darlings. I smile outside, but inside I weep for them and the generation they will indoctrinate in time. I have not heard from any irate parents; I suppose they and their children don't talk about my beliefs. The parents who have heard of me have only positive reports. I'm sure most of them think I'm a Christian.

My wife of twelve years doesn't claim a label for herself. I think she's a deist. My two daughters, ages six and eight, are brilliant little humanists, as far as I can tell. Their alligators need much work, however. I am very proud of my family and myself. That is my story. It lacks great drama, but that's the way I like it.

P.S. I hope I haven't bored you; I'm just trying to be a good citizen of the site. I feel I should register and contribute as well. I wish I knew more about some of those I see regularly on the posts, like tomkins and dharmadarwin and nemesis(cg) among others. I do feel I know you in a way. jevers reminds me of one of my friends when he gets pissed off.


City: Powell
State: TN
Country: U.S.A.
Became a Christian: Brought to church as a baby who, I'm told, burped loudly.
Ceased being a Christian: 12 or 13, a little gray for a while
Labels before: United Methodist
Labels now: Atheist, freethinker, rationalist, humanist, whatever. I am that I am
Why I joined: Just lucky, I suppose.
Why I left: More skeptical and inquisitive than gullible and smug