Image by timabbott via FlickrI was born in 1969 in Glendale, California, the last of four kids by a 9-year margin to my nearest sister, but my family moved to Portland, Oregon when I was five. My parents are Charismatic Fundamentalists; by the time I left home we had been plain old Baptists, Assembly of God, and Foursquare.
It's kind of wild: I've been visiting this site a lot lately, and it's got me remembering, sifting through the crazy shit I heard growing up, presented as truth. I distinctly remember a popular Young-Earth Creationist delivering a series of much-anticipated lectures in our church, explaining (among other riveting insights) how, since we know that the rotation of the earth is slowing, we can infer that if it was really billions of years old it would have had to originally be spinning so fast as to be centrifuged flat like a pancake.
We had our share of the Holy Ghost, speaking in tongues and the like. I can remember the tension in the room, that unique pregnant pause AFTER someone had babbled a coded message, but BEFORE the Spirit transmitted the translation to someone else. One woman in particular I remember was particularly vulnerable to convulsive aisle-rolling; I think the Ghost had a little crush on her. I mean, He was up in her business every week.
One incident is noteworthy because in retrospect, it was pivotal; a pre-awakening, if you will. A visiting minister (always a treat, for some reason) was cold-reading - oh, I mean delivering prophecy to and for various random - oh, I mean ordained members of the congregation. He turned to me and said - no, wait - revealed that I would become a real fisher-of-men, leading many to Christ in my lifetime. I was then summoned to the front for a full-on anointing, laying-on-of-hands, and spiritual slaying - although I didn't know, of course, that this was all going to happen.
I figured out that I was gay somewhere in sixth grade (it didn't take long to connect the feelings I was having with the message of damnation emanating periodically from the pulpit) so it's important to keep in mind that my primary objective in life at this point was to keep from being 'found out.' Which meant that, while I certainly wasn't overly shy, I was trying, in my way, to be unexceptional and avoid special attention. (I picked up the label of 'underachiever' in school, even as a straight-A student.)
So now here's this tool I don't even know calling me out and elevating me in this creepy way in front of the whole church. I did not want this blessing. My mother, on the other hand, was thrilled. I walked to the front row and was immediately surrounded by the Elders, who all touched me at the same time. I'd never been firmly grasped by a bunch of grown men before, and I remember both liking the feeling, and being terrified that I liked the feeling. It was over quickly enough, a little Wesson on the forehead and then - dude started pushing on me, on my forehead. Backwards. HARD. I wasn't expecting it, so I went to step back and catch myself, but... have you guessed?
My heels were squarely blocked, I went down like a board, and two men caught me and laid me down. Again with the liking/terrified conflict, accompanied by a revelation: I'd been scammed. Those people were never falling down for real, not all of them anyway. I certainly hadn't. But everyone was so happy about my wonderful news, and the new meaning in my life. And they sang and praised the Lord accordingly.
How does a twelve-year-old stand up and call the charade? He doesn't. He goes back to the pew whence he came; behold, reborn! His mother's beaming, tear-stained face awaits, a new hopefulness illuminated therein.
Perhaps these... curious tendencies she's noticed of late will now fall away as the youngest, very-late son accepts his new, clearly God-given direction? Perhaps the slightly unhealthy obsession with the handsome young Youth Pastor will abate?
I feel fortunate not to have become a high-school suicide statistic; Lord knows I had the set-up and the inclination. I had plenty of friends, but not one who knew my secret, at least as far as I knew. (The twenty-year class reunion blew the lid off that theory!) In some twisted way, I think feeling naturally excluded from the Church's grace, if not God's, made escape relatively easy. But I still took my sweet time about it.
My beloved oldest sister died in '93, at the age of 36, from complications around her Lupus. The actual cause of death was a heart attack, so it's likely that she died more or less instantly. She left behind a ten-year-old daughter, my only niece, and my parent's only grandchild. Her death was a devastating blow. She was a real anchoring force in our family, and the only skeptic. She was candid with me, in the years before she died, about her doubts regarding God. Sixteen years of Lupus will do that to you, I guess. I miss her desperately now, and wish I'd had the sophistication and presence of mind to engage her more deeply than I could at the time. I also know that these doubts of hers had generated some friction with my mother and that the two were estranged when she died. This compounded my mother's grief exponentially, and it took her many years to forgive herself.
Through my twenties and early thirties I harbored a fuzzy faith. I wasn't a church-goer, but if pressed I'd say I believed. This was true both before and after my close-call with death via a nasty opportunistic infection shortly after my HIV+ diagnosis at the age of 27. In my longest, darkest night in San Francisco General's Ward 5A (also know as Ward 86) in October of '96, my oldest sister, via a vision, visited me. And told me that everything was fine, I wasn't going to die yet, that she loved me. She didn't say anything about God or heaven. It was warm and sweet and peaceful. Then the newly-released broad-spectrum antibiotic kicked in, and I recovered and became one of the first of many not to die from PCP (a kind of opportunistic pneumonia) in the mid-90s in SF.
If you ask me today, I'll tell you that I think that the vision was the intersection of my physical weakness and the painkillers,and that the significance of the experience had nothing to do with whether it "really happened" or not, but at the time it was simply real, and that was enough.
Several years later, without meaning to really prove or change anything, but simply to satisfy a certain intellectual restlessness that had kicked in, I decided that I wasn't doing a very good job of staying informed about my world and began three magazine subscriptions; Harper's, the Atlantic, and Scientific American. While I still enjoy all three, it was SciAm that initially got me thinking, realizing that I was, really, still on the fence about evolution. (My 'faith' at this point was little more than an abstract notion of Universal Benevolence with Beautiful Mysterious Plan - I mean, hey; I'd been to Death's Door and my life was pretty good, right?) I was still subliminally influenced by the pancake-earth argument, but a few months of solid cosmology articles triggered a cascade of theological questions, which I'm pretty sure, considering the audience here, I needn't list. A little reading lead to more reading, which eventually led to Sam Harris, and that's when the facade really collapsed.
Even at this late date, the surgical extraction of deep disinformation from my mind was difficult and painful. But I simply could not argue with Harris, and really, I didn't want to - he simply, finally, and mercifully articulated and bolstered every shadowy doubt I'd ever had and transformed it into irrefutable reasoning against everything I'd been raised to believe. I was free in an alarming way: the light of reason is very bright. I could never thank him enough, but for a while there, it hurt. Now, I find the empirical revelations of the natural world to be more heart-pumpingly fascinating and exhilarating than any tent revival or prayer meeting, Holy Ghost or no.
It was around this same time that I discovered the power of altruism when I participated in my first California AIDS Lifecycle, a spectacular fundraising event that involves bicycling from SF to LA, 545 miles in 7 days, proceed benefitting charities in the two cities. Absent all delusion about a next life, the primacy of the here and now took over. I embraced a humanist world-view almost effortlessly, and felt compelled to act in a way I never had as a sloppy almost-ex-Christian. Family and friends were incredibly supportive, and my niece was my greatest single donor. I raised $8,000 two years in a row and can honestly say that, from a moral point of view, it's the 'best' thing I've ever done.
I've recently 'come out' as a rational, secular humanist to my other siblings. In my initial unveiling of my views, I included the following paragraph - I include it here mainly because it echoes the point just recently made here by Joshua K:
And I don't think it's enough for the Bible to be clear about one thing - "that if we believe in Christ we are saved." I want the Bible to be clear about everything. No discrepancies, errors, conflicting accounts of important events. A lot of my work involves editing text, and I can tell you that if a letter from the client goes out to 5,000 customers with even so much as one comma missing or out of place, there is - no pun intended - hell to pay. God intends his letter to reach the entire world. Frankly, I expect perfect clarity, about everything, with no mistakes. Certainly this is within God's power.
My brother and sister are basically supportive, if not in agreement. They're probably more bewildered than anything. I'm currently quietly wrestling with the if/how/why-bother of going there with my parents. I'll be forty this summer, they are in their late seventies, and it's hard to see what good would come of it. They've already been through the gay and the HIV, and I'm afraid I'll just finally give one of them a bona fide coronary with this. I'll probably keep quiet until pressed, and then just be honest.
The most vexing issue for me today is if/how to deal with my niece. I adore her; she is incredibly smart and sweet. She also voted to repeal my right to marry in California last November, for religious reasons. When I called to ask for her support at the ballot box a couple of weeks before the election, it turned into a half-hour conversation in which I learned that she doesn't believe that 'actively gay' people can be saved. Quoted Leviticus and everything.
What killed me was the subtext: "You can't be upset with me, uncle - it's not me that says it's an abomination, it's God." From biggest donor to judge and jury. I was pretty floored, Thanksgiving was aaaaawkward and I came home early, and we haven't spoken since. This is one of those times in life where I'm just at a loss for the way forward, so I'm sitting on it.
I find myself devouring books on evolution and cosmology and atheism, and sometimes I wonder why so much right now. It's authentically motivated by curiosity (evolution is crazy cool and I read the cosmology just to bend my head), but I feel the tinge of defensiveness, combativeness. It's as though I'm prepping for a fight, but I don't know who it's with yet. So I'm rolling with it, soaking up the new info, and trying to creatively direct some of the tornado in my head by writing (ta-dah!) and beginning to concept a typography (my secret love) project based on cool quotable quotes relating to science and atheism. (SCONNOR - Thanks for the Twain.) That's the plan for now.
I'm fortunate and grateful today to have an incredibly loving and devoted partner who's been nothing but supportive as I continue to grapple with these things; when it comes to religion, he's as cranky and vociferous an anti-theist rabble-rouser as one could hope for, and a kick-ass cycling buddy to boot. My heart really goes out to the Xtimonials here that involve tension with a spouse or significant other.
This forum has been an invaluable resource for me. I enjoy all of your postings, and I hope that my story will resonate with some wayward Faithful's healthy skepticism.
Thanks for reading, may Reason bless you all.