But That’s Just Me: One Atheist’s Explanation – Part 1

You can be a Grinch at Christmas time, or have no interest in baseball, or refuse to vote or salute the flag, or sneer at the mention of Mickey Mouse, or even hate apple pie, animals, children or your own mother, and while people might not agree with or understand you, they probably will shrug it off.  “That’s just him,” they’ll say.  “That’s just the way he is.”  But if you don’t believe in god and/or you think religion is a bad thing, you’d better have a steel helmet, a bullet-proof vest and a bunker to hide in because a lot of people aren’t going to like it.  Even the people in your life who claim they don’t care that you don’t believe in god may actually care very much.  If they do, you’ll know, because they’ll get in a little dig every now and then, or when telling you they don’t care, they will word their statement in a way that reveals just how much they do care.  A friend might say something like this.

“I don’t care what my friends believe.  You have your beliefs and I have mine.  I believe in god and, because you’re an atheist, you have to believe there’s no god.”

This happens a lot.  “I believe and you don’t believe” is too easy.  It’s too cut and dried.  It’s accurate, of course, but for some people, it’s just a little too accurate.  Simply stating that I do not believe boards a train of thought that a lot of believers simply do not want to ride or even acknowledge.  It means there is a choice.  It means there is a viable alternative to believing in god.  That opens the possibility that the decision to believe might be wrong.  You don’t have to say it’s wrong or even imply that it’s wrong.  To a lot of people, simply acknowledging the mere possibility is scary.  One might be a thieving, alcoholic, child-beating adulterer, but if one at least believes in god, somehow all of that other stuff is softened.  The mere act of believing is, to many, a redeeming quality, a virtue in and of itself.  To suggest that belief could be in error is personally threatening.  So it must be couched in terms that transform the lack of belief into an alternate belief.  Then the atheist is also a believer — he just happens to believe in the wrong thing.

I can’t let that pass.  I probably should because life would be a little easier and more comfortable.  But I can’t.  Letting it pass without comment would be allowing someone else to rewrite my thoughts for me, to characterize me in terms with which they are comfortable, but which are inaccurate.  And I simply cannot do that.  Well … not anymore.  There was a time when I did nothing but that, and by doing it, I made myself feel … less than.  I made myself feel that, because I did not fit into the mold approved of by those around me, I was somehow unworthy, somehow inferior, and I had to misrepresent myself in order to be accepted.  I buried myself under a mountain of self-loathing doing that.  I don’t do it anymore, even if it creates some tension.  But that’s just me.

Instead of lying to fit in, or deceiving with silence, I try to explain the difference between “I don’t believe in god” and a statement like “As an atheist, you have to believe there’s no god.”  And there is a difference — a rather large one.  Roughly the size of a cruise ship.  Actually, that’s probably a conservative estimate.  The exchange can go something like this:

“No, I don’t have to believe anything.  Atheism isn’t a dogmatic belief system.  It doesn’t mean I believe something, it means I don’t believe something — specifically, the existence of god.  If you’re Muslim, you have to believe in Muhammad, and if you’re Christian, you have to believe in Jesus Christ.  Otherwise you’re not Muslim or Christian.  Atheism isn’t a belief, it’s the rejection of a belief.  And it’s not a club I decided to join one day, it was the eventual result of years of experience and careful contemplation and study.”

After a frustrated sigh:  “Why does it matter?  I mean, what difference does it make?  You believe there’s no god, you don’t believe in god, it’s all the same thing.  Why is it such a big deal to you?”

“It’s a big deal because there is a difference.  A significant one.  One is correct, one isn’t.  I don’t believe there’s no god, I simply look at the evidence and, based on that, reject the belief in god.”

“I’m trying to say that I don’t care what you believe.  I’m being open-minded and accepting.  We all believe in something.  You just believe there’s no god, big deal.”

There’s really no easy way out of this and if pursued, it often ends unpleasantly — or with cold silence.  But it’s common.  Sometimes the people who say they don’t care actually care a great deal — enough to insist on defining your thoughts on their terms while rejecting what you really think because it doesn’t work for them or they find it threatening.  It gets tiresome.  In fact, I’m exhausted.

It occurred to me recently that it would be nice if I could avoid the conversation altogether by directing the person to a thorough written explanation.  He or she could read it and I wouldn’t have to go through the arduous song and dance about the difference between not believing and believing something different.  That’s what this is — the thorough explanation.


I was raised from birth not only to believe in the existence of god but to fear god.  And I did.  I was terrified.  I feared god so much that I was never comfortable getting too far away from the bathroom.  When my mother took me out of the house as a child, I could never lose sight of her.  If I did — in a department store, for example — I would fly into a panic so intense that it was difficult for me to breathe and my palms would sweat and my hands would shake uncontrollably.  It wasn’t until years later that I understood these to be actual panic attacks.  My parents could never understand my fear or my inability to be left alone.  I didn’t fully understand it myself.  They blamed it, of course, on television.  “That’s what you get for watching scary shows on TV.”  But it wasn’t The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits that caused that fear.  Mom and Dad had taught me to be afraid.  Of god!  Years later, I came to realize that that’s probably what I was afraid of — the god they had taught me to believe was everywhere at all times, always watching me, waiting for me to do something wrong.  If I lost sight of my parents, then I was alone and unprotected.  I think I subconsciously believed that my parents were the only ones who could protect me from the angry, omnipresent god in whom they had taught me to believe.

My Seventh-day Adventist (Sadventist, as far as I’m concerned) parents never hinted at the possibility of an alternative to this belief.  Not believing in god simply did not exist as an option.  I was educated in Sadventist schools and all my friends were Sadventists, so the beliefs I was taught were shared by everyone around me.  Not only did we believe in god, we believed that he was intensely interested in even the most minute and intimate details of our lives — every thought we had, every move we made, what we ate, what we wore, what we read, listened to and watched on TV.

For example, masturbation was prohibited.  Absolutely forbidden.  From the writings of Sadventism’s founder and prophet, Ellen G. White, to my teachers at school, the word came down — masturbation was one of the most vile and wicked things anyone could do.  Ever.  Period.  This posed two problems for me.

The first problem was that it didn’t make any sense.  If god didn’t want me to masturbate — if it really was such a foul and immoral act — then why did he install in me the urge to masturbate?  And why did he decide to position my dick in the most convenient possible place for my hand to reach it?  Why didn’t he put my dick in the middle of my back?  You know that one spot you can’t possibly reach, the one that usually itches when you’re in public?  Why didn’t he put it there?  Sure, it would have made urination awkward, but hey — it would have taken care of the temptation to commit that vile, sinful act!

He put it where it is, Ray, because he wanted you to have free will.

That brings me to the second problem:  I liked to masturbate.  I liked it a lot.  That business about free will just didn’t fly.  With my dick within reach, I had no free will because I had to masturbate!  There was no free will involved.  So that made no sense, either.

A lot of things didn’t make sense.  I had another problem that didn’t involve my dick at all — if something didn’t make sense to me, I questioned it.  I was inclined to keep questioning it until it did make sense.  This was a problem because the only people I could ask those questions did not approve of those questions being asked.  Not when it came to religion or god, anyway.  Not even a little.  Oh, they had a few stock answers, and when I asked them about something that didn’t make sense, I would get one of those — which usually didn’t make any sense, either.  After repeating or rephrasing the question a couple of times, I was usually told that god is mysterious and we can’t know his will and he would explain everything to us when we got to heaven.  But I didn’t want to wait — and besides, they kept telling me I’d never get to heaven if I didn’t shape up, so what would be the point of waiting?  If I kept asking, things got pretty chilly.

The bible raised a lot of questions.  Of course, the bible was a big part of my life growing up.  It was part of the curriculum at Sadventist school, and it was the center of attention at church every Saturday (Sadventists worship on the seventh day, hence their name, Seventh-day Adventists).  Much time was spent immersed in its archaic tales and interminable litanies of begats and begottens.  I didn’t have any trouble understanding the stories as written, but I was utterly baffled by the things my teachers told me about those stories.

The story of Abraham and Isaac, for example, created a great deal of cognitive dissonance for me.  It also gave me nightmares.  As written, I found it to be a horrifying story — and I still do!  But back then, the things my teachers and pastors told me about the story only made it worse.

The tale is told in Genesis 22, and right there in the first line, it reads, “And god did tempt Abraham.”  Wait, what?  I thought it was Satan who tempted people.  God’s supposed to be the good guy, right?  Can you tempt someone to do a good thing?  I thought god was supposed to lead us not into temptation!  But there it is, right there in Genesis — “And god did tempt Abraham.”  As far as I was concerned, this did not get the story off to a good start.  Then god tells Abraham to take his son into the land of Moriah and sacrifice him.  But the command isn’t that simple — god gets mean and nasty about it:

“And he said, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’”

Your only son … the son you love sooo muchBwah-hahahahaha!  What a fucking sadist!  It’s hard not to imagine god’s sinister grin as he twirls a long, villainous mustache between thumb and forefinger.

How does Abraham react to this divine order?  Is he horrified?  Devastated?  Does he lash out at god?  I was told by my teachers and pastors that Abraham was “saddened” by god’s command.  Then why doesn’t the bible say he was saddened?  It doesn’t.  My teachers and pastor were telling me something that simply wasn’t there, because Abraham wasn’t saddened — he wasn’t anything.  According to the bible, he doesn’t react at all.  He just packs up and heads out with Isaac and “two of his young men,” according to the bible.  He chops wood for the fire and then, after three days, Abraham tells his young men to watch his ass — his donkey, you perverts — and he and Isaac go to the place god instructed.  When Isaac asks where the lamb is for the burnt offering, Abraham very cleverly says, “My son, god will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.”  Obviously, Abraham is aware of the fact that what he’s about to do is loathsome and disgusting, and he knows if he were honest with Isaac, the boy would probably say, “Fuck this noise,” and run off.  So he tells a lie of ommission.

When I was a boy, verses 9 and 10 of Genesis 22 were among the most horrifying things I’d ever read:

“And they came to the place which god had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.  And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.”

I immediately put myself in Isaac’s position.  The bible does not take the boy’s point of view, of course.  Abraham’s supposed to be the hero of this story and that would be a little difficult to maintain if we saw things from Isaac’s position.  But I did.  I’ve always had an extremely vivid imagination, and when reading that tale, I became Isaac:  Tied up on a stone altar, helpless, while my father, who towers over me, takes a knife in hand and raises it up to kill me like an animal.  The bible mentions no reluctance on Abraham’s part.  It doesn’t even suggest that Abraham is mildly disconcerted by the idea of murdering his only son.  He does it without question, without hesitation and without any remorse.  So in my imagination as I took the role of Isaac, there was never any expression on my father’s face.  He had no feeling one way or another about killing me.  The bible doesn’t tell us what Isaac is doing, but I’m guessing he squirmed and struggled and shouted, “What did I do, Daddy?  Is this because I walked in on you and Mom the other night?  But I didn’t see anything!  What the fuck did I do?”

My father was physically abusive, sometimes for reasons he kept to himself (not that any stated reason could justify beating a child), so that part of the story was easy to imagine and always made my insides shrivel with fear.  Then, at the very last instant, just before the knife’s blade is plunged into Isaac, the hand of god stops Abraham and god calls, “Abraham, Abraham!”

“And he said, ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest god, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.’”

What the fuck?  Essentially, god says, “I just wanted to see if you’d do as you were told.”  Another interpretation might be, “Made you do it.  Ha!”  This made my young self quite angry.  I had experienced that near-execution with Isaac.  I had felt the horror of seeing my father raise a knife to stick the blade in me and end my life.  That kind of trauma doesn’t just disappear in the blink of an eye.  “Oh, it was just a … a joke?  Oh.  Well.  How … nice.  Dad, could you hand me something to wipe myself with?”

But my teachers saw the story differently.  Abraham’s lack of resistance was seen as admirable obedience.  The fact that he didn’t question god’s order or express any horror or sadness was the kind of blind devotion that we students were told we should aspire to.  How sick is that?

One of my teachers — Mrs. Rhoades in the third grade — said, “This was an expression of Abraham’s great love.”

“Not for Isaac!” I said.

“His great love for god,” she said.  Oh, well, how nice for god!  Meanwhile, Isaac’s going to have nightmares for the rest of his life and every time Dad reaches for a knife, he’s going to wet himself.  “God had to see if Abraham truly loved him, if he would be willing to sacrifice his only son — the person he loved most in his life.  And Abraham’s love for god was so great that he was willing to do that.  Is your love for god that great, Ray?  If god asked you to sacrifice the person you loved most in your life, what would you do?”

I remember the bone-deep chill that fell over me at that moment.  I was already scared shitless of this capricious deity, but now I had something new to worry about — the possibility that he might, at any moment, command me to kill my parents, or my sister, or my best friend.

Is it any wonder I didn’t get a good night’s sleep until I was in my twenties?

That story made no sense to me and neither did the fact that I was supposed to get from it some lesson about love, of all things.  Read the descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians 13 and try to justify that with tying your son to some rocks and taking a knife to him.  It can’t be done.

There were many things that made no sense to me.  But even so, I remained terrified of god — even though he didn’t make any sense, either.  He was supposed to be a loving god … and yet, after commanding his people not to kill, he told them to go out and brutally slaughter those he didn’t like — men, women, children and pets — and take any left-over women home to do with as they pleased.  He ordered the execution of anyone who broke the sabbath, engaged in witchcraft or certain kinds of sex, and even of incorrigible children … and yet some of his favorite men — Lot, Samson and David, for example — engaged in adultery, incest and murder with impunity; he called them “righteous” and in some cases even rewarded them.  But he sent a global flood to wipe out everyone on the planet for unspecified reasons and he obliterated two cities simply because the residents were “wicked.”

Again, how does any of that fit into the bible’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13?  In that chapter, it does not say that, in addition to being patient and kind and not jealous or angry or spiteful, love is killing all of your children if they do anything to piss you off or telling some guy to murder his son just to see if he’ll do it.  God is only a loving god if “love” is the exact opposite of everything it’s supposed to be and god lives in Superman’s Bizarro World.

But that’s the Old Testament, Ray.  As Christians, we focus on the New Testament and the grace of god’s son, Jesus Christ.

Oh, yes, that’s right, the “prince of peace” — who, according to Matthew 10:35 and 36, said he specifically came “to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”  How was that any different than his father, who might order me to kill my family?  Luke 12:51 quotes Jesus as saying, “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth?  I tell you, Nay; but rather division.”  So much for that “prince of peace” business.  And in Luke 14:26, he says, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”  Jesus isn’t even interested in us unless we first hate our parents, siblings, spouses and children!  We’re even required to hate our own lives!  That sounds more like Charles Manson than the “light of the world.”  Apparently, the nut really doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

The man known for all his talk about loving one another was the same guy who introduced the punishment of unimaginable suffering for all of eternity in hell.  That punishment awaits anyone who simply calls someone a fool (Matt. 5:22) or so much as gets angry at someone (Matt. 5:21-22) or has a sexy thought about someone other than one’s own spouse (Matt. 5:27-30) — thought crimes!  What’s next, do we have to show god our papers? — and anyone who does not accept Jesus Christ and become baptized (Mark 16:16).  It makes no sense!  I was repeatedly told that the Old Testament was harsh, but in the New Testament, we found love and forgiveness and peace.  But all I found was more of the same.

As far as I could tell, Jesus was as angry and tyrannical as his bloodthirsty father!  I was being told one thing and reading another.  It made my head hurt!  But everyone around me — my parents and all their friends, my friends and teachers and pastors — had no problem with it.  They seemed to think it all made perfect sense, and the only person who had a problem with it was, apparently, me.  Like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, I began to fear that I was crazy, and there was no shortage of people in my life to tell me how my very questions were putting me in danger of damnation.

I didn’t get all of this stuff from my teachers.  I got some of it by reading more of the bible than I was assigned.  If I were assigned a few verses from Luke 14, I’d read the whole chapter to see what came before and after.  This led to the discovery of unexplained contradictions in the bible, even in the story of Jesus.  For example, Matthew 1:16 says the father of Joseph was Jacob, and Luke 3:23 says his father was Heli.  Well, which is it?  It can’t be both.  Is one of the gospels lying?  Or is one of them just misinformed?  I was always taught the bible was the infallible revealed word of god, that god’s hand guided the hands of the men who wrote the bible.  Is god just not a very good proofreader?  Or did god not know who Joseph’s father was?  What the hell kind of a “supreme being” is that?

As with the story of Abraham and Isaac, there was a chasm of difference between what I read on the page and what my teachers told me it all meant — sometimes the two directly contradicted each other.  But I was expected to embrace what I was told and not question it, and if I did question it, I was expected to be satisfied with having to wait until god could explain it to me himself in heaven in the unlikely event that I one day cleaned up my act and became a good Christian instead of the sinful worm I was.

But I couldn’t understand why god didn’t just explain it to me at the time.  I mean, he talked to people a lot in the bible.  Sometimes he used a burning bush, sometimes he sent a messenger, sometimes he just spoke — once he even talked through a donkey, for crying out loud!  And yet, he didn’t speak to anybody anymore.  Did he lose his voice?  Was he busy?

Oh, sure, I knew lots of people who claimed to hear from god, but it was never in the way god spoke to people in the bible.  Instead, they would say that god “impressed” them to do or say things, or that god had given them a “burden” to do something.  This always struck me as a deceptive use of the language.  I suspected they weren’t really hearing from god but were instead crediting god with their own thoughts and decisions.  This was a convenient way to say and do things that others might find rude or in some way irritating because all you have to do is say, “God impressed me to tell you that you’re dressing inappropriately,” or, “I felt a burden from god to remove that un-Christian bumper sticker from your car.” I’m not an asshole, I’m just following god’s orders, and if god told me to do this, then it’s his will, so you can’t complain about it — unless, of course, you’ve got a problem with god’s will.  Do you have a problem with god’s will?

Again, none of this made sense to me.  Was there something wrong with me … or was it possible that others felt the same way but were afraid to say so?  At the time, of course, I concluded that I was the problem.  But then I watched TV and saw other people out there in the world who did not live or talk like the people in my life.  They never mentioned Jesus, they didn’t say that every single tiny little thing that happened was god’s will, they didn’t spout bible verses — and most amazing of all, they seemed happy.  They weren’t ugly, miserable people, which is what I was always told people were if they didn’t have god in their lives.  And yet all the Sadventists I knew — despite their big smiles and cheerful talk — were always talking about the blood of Jesus and the “last days” and how we had to ask Christ’s forgiveness for every little mistake, every harsh word, every negative thought.  That did not strike me as happy.  Not at all.  And what was so happy about fearing god?  Or fearing anyone or anything?  It was impossible to be happy and afraid.  I was afraid all the time … and I was not happy.  But at the time, I didn’t know I was not happy because I knew nothing else.  Yet, anyway.

Could it be, then, that this god we all feared was … imaginary?  The very thought made my testicles crawl up into my chest.  Mark 3:28 – 30 quotes Jesus as saying,  “Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.  Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.”  The unpardonable sin — the one sin beyond which there was no going back — was to speak against the holy spirit.  And the holy spirit, of course, was one of the three components of god (don’t get me started on the trinity, the contemplation of which, even as a child, sent me to bed in a dark room with a splitting headache), so denying the existence of god would be the same as denying the holy spirit.  Wouldn’t it?  I wasn’t quite sure at the time, but I was too terrified of the possible consequences to take the risk.

Simply questioning the existence of god was flirting with doom.  The possibility began occurring to me as a boy, but was quickly shoved away because, as I had so often been told, such thoughts came directly from only one source:  Satan.  Merely entertaining those thoughts meant that you had gotten Satan’s attention and he was working specifically on you — working very hard — to win you over to his side.  I already heard enough about that as it was.  Simply by being myself, I had led everyone around me to the conclusion that Satan was hard at work on me.  I enjoyed comic books, movies (especially horror films) and all the wrong TV shows — and because I wrote a lot of horror stories in my spare time, many thought Satan wasn’t just working on me but working through me.  And I usually ended up thinking that maybe they were right.  Maybe that’s why I sometimes stepped up to the very edge of wondering if perhaps god was imaginary, a human fantasy — because Satan was working so hard on me from every direction.  That was the wall I kept running into throughout my childhood:  I was bad, I was one of Satan’s projects, sometimes even his puppet, so anything that occurred to me — especially the possibility that god did not exist — could not be trusted and should not be examined because I was one of Satan’s special projects.  I had, as Jesus had said, “an unclean spirit.”  I was a toxic geyser of wickedness.

I had some health problems as a child that required spending a lot of time in the hospital.  This was due, I was told, to my sinful interests.  Some said I was being punished while others tried to soften it by saying I was creating distance between myself and god.  Either way, what it boiled down to was this:  I had pissed off god.  Lots of people prayed for me.  While in the hospital, I met other patients, some around my age, who were far sicker than I.  Unlike some of them, I was lucky enough to leave the hospital eventually because I got better.  This, of course, was attributed to all the prayers being said — not to the doctors who treated me, which I found odd and more than a little unfair.  After all, I’d been there the whole time and god had never entered the room — he hadn’t examined or treated me and none of the doctors mentioned a consultation with the almighty.  But I was told that god had taken mercy on my black, degenerate soul and was giving me another chance.

I had to wonder, though, about those others who never left the hospital, those who died of their illnesses.  They were good people who had befriended me.  There were people praying for them, too.  If I were so awful, why had god made me better but not them?  Why had he let some of them die?  When I asked that question, instead of receiving an answer, I was told that because god had given me a second chance, I had better clean up my act and quit committing the sin of doubt (among all the others), or I was really going to piss god off.

It was while I was in the hospital in San Francisco — sometimes for months at a time while doctors poked and prodded me and tried to figure out what was wrong — that I had my first exposure to people who not only weren’t Sadventists but weren’t even Christians.  I was just a kid, far from home, and the nurses, even the doctors, paid extra attention to me.  They were so kind and accepting.  They didn’t think any of my interests were bad — they encouraged them.  Even better, they were all very interested in and supportive of my writing.  I had never met adults like them before.  Being around people who thought I was a good kid, that I was smart and talented and funny, required quite an adjustment.  It was alien to me.

There was one exception.  The nurse in charge during the day was a wiry blond woman in her fifties named Dorothy.  She was a Christian.  She had a square face, was always heavily made up, always telling people she was a Christian just in case they’d forgotten since the last time she’d told them.  Nobody liked Dorothy, and she had worked hard to earn their dislike.  For one thing, she kept the radio at the nurse’s station on syrupy Christian music at all times.  For another, she was mean.  She constantly smiled — she smiled so hard it looked like her face was about to shatter — even as she told people, as she so often did, what they were doing wrong or what was wrong with them.  Dorothy didn’t waste her time on anything constructive like compliments.  She was too busy preparing everyone for heaven.  I’d never met her before, but I recognized Dorothy.  She was familiar.  I knew many people like her back home.  But I avoided her as much as possible in favor of all the other nurses who were so warm and kind — and who never mentioned Jesus or god or the bible.  Ever.  Those people were happy.  And they made me feel happy.

The people I met there were a catalyst for me.  I had to continue visiting the hospital over a period of years (I made my last visit while I was in high school) and during that time, they had an effect on me.  None of them were religious, Christian or otherwise, and yet they were all of the things the Sadventists in my life claimed about god and Jesus, both of whom I feared.  They were loving and generous and light-hearted — they weren’t afraid of anything.  Knowing them created more questions because they contradicted everything I’d been told about people who did not have god in their lives, people who weren’t Sadventists, people who — unlike Sadventists — didn’t go to church and ate pork and seafood and drank beverages with caffeine in them and smoked (gasp!) and wore jewelry and went to movies and went dancing.  And they were all … wonderful.  And they did something no one in my life had ever done before:  They made me feel good about myself.

Was it possible that Ellen White and all of Sadventism were wrong?  Maybe I’d been born in the wrong religion and there was some other religion that had all the right answers.  But what if it wasn’t just my religion?  Was it possible that god was imaginary and the bible was all made up and —

Then the terror would kick in and my chest would tighten and my throat constrict and I would have to divert my thoughts to something safe, something that wouldn’t end up getting me cast into the lake of fire on judgment day.  But with practice, I found that I could entertain those thoughts a little longer each time.

These were some of the problems that preoccupied me through my childhood and teen years.  During that time, I remained very active in my church, and I was quite sincere about it.  I genuinely wanted to do the right thing, and what I knew the right thing to be then was fearing god so much that I couldn’t sleep at night and had nightmares when I did, and living with shame, guilt and self-loathing for being the fiendish instrument of the devil that I was.  I did not enjoy this, but it was all I knew and it was what I thought life was supposed to be because everyone I knew lived the same way.  When you are a child, you believe what the adults in your life tell you.  What other choice do you have?

Each passing year brought more questions, more doubts, and those questions and doubts brought more shame, more guilt and more self-loathing.  But no matter how wrong I believed those questions and doubts to be, they did not go away.  Even after I knew better than to voice them, they persisted.  Also with each passing year, the sincerity with which I participated in religious activities at church and school lessened because those activities made less and less sense.

But I maintained the facade necessary to survive in that environment.  I had seen what happened to people who did not maintain that facade — they were condemned and shunned.  I attended church, I sometimes gave musical performances for church and sabbath school, wrote plays that were put on at school, always furthering the Christian message, the good news of Jesus Christ, the word of god’s love for his children.  But all of that rang increasingly untrue to me, especially as I dealt, year after year, with the behavior of the Christians around me.

They were pompous, pious and self-righteous, behaving as if their religious beliefs set them above people who did not share them, whether they were people of other denominations or other religions, or people of no religion at all.  Toward their fellow Sadventists, they were petty, hypocritical, dishonest, backbiting, vindictive, duplicitous, even hateful.  Their double standards, slippery justifications and hurtful and even cruel treatment of me and others became more and more intolerable.  And I counted my own parents among them.  They were mean — but always with a smile, always with gentle words and the assurance that they were simply doing what the bible instructed, what god wanted them to do, so no matter how much it hurt, it was always acceptable, always the right thing.

When I got fed up with all of this and lashed out in moments of biting honesty, they told me I was supposed to be forgiving and loving, like Jesus.  We’re not perfect, we’re just forgiven, they said.  The church isn’t a club for the sinless, it’s a hospital for the sick, they said.  That got pretty old, and after a while, it became just as infuriating as the rest of their behavior.  By the end of my last year of high school, after 12 years of Sadventist education, I was exhausted, filled with anxiety and self-hatred and depressed to the point of being suicidal.  Something had to change — either my life … or me.

Read Part 2 of “But That’s Just Me: One Atheist’s Explanation”

About Ray Garton

I am the author of more than 60 books, including the horror novels LIVE GIRLS, CRUCIFAX, LOT LIZARDS and THE LOVELIEST DEAD, and the thrillers SEX AND VIOLENCE IN HOLLYWOOD, MURDER WAS MY ALIBI, TRADE SECRETS, TRAILER PARK NOIR, and my newest thriller, MEDS Please visit my website for more information: http://www.raygartononline.com
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23 Responses to But That’s Just Me: One Atheist’s Explanation – Part 1

  1. Brandy says:

    Damn Ray! That was truly moving. I think that many of us had those same thoughts when we started to question religion. As you know, I just recently started reading the bible (I’m still in the old testament part of the King James version) and it is seriously hard work to stay committed. I feel like shooting myself in the foot when periodically while reading that I remember that people ACTUALLY believe it’s true. How can ANYONE be so dumb? WHY would they want to believe it? Than I started to debate a little with my friends on FB and invariably get the response you have gotten…”but that’s the old testament and we worship the new.” I always say, so what? If you believe in one then you have to believe the other and the old testament is the only one I feel comfortable debating right now but you just wait, I’m getting to the new testament. LOL Most of the time I feel like simply saying, screw it! It’s all fiction, what’s the use of arguing the finer points? Or continuing to read it for that matter?

  2. Brandy says:

    My phone cut me off (as usual), but I wanted to say one more thing. The only reason I keep going is because debating the actual stories in the bible seems to be the only way to get anyone to question or think about any of it.

  3. Ray Garton says:

    I think it’s great that you’re reading it, Brandy. And I think it’s very important. Atheism isn’t just rejection of these beliefs — I think it’s THOUGHTFUL rejection, and you can’t be thoughtful about it unless you know exactly what you’re rejecting. I’ve found that Christians are quick to claim they focus only on the New Testament whenever someone discusses the horrors of the Old Testament, but they love using the Old Testament when they’re condemning others for things like homosexuality (which Jesus never mentioned, by the way).

  4. As Usual…the excellence of your writing skills, the depth of your ruminations, and the sheer skill of your analysis of the clash between believers and the free ALWAYS makes for a thrilling read!

    I grew up under the thumb of a different religion that the Sadventists ( a word that because of you, I have added to my dictionary) . Baptists, or the “Dunkerds” as I call them, have many of the same issues; belief they can escape death by imagining a heaven where they will reign forever. None of them can tell you what they will be doing for eternity other than singing praises to God. Sounds like the most boring hell imaginable. I could never understand why an all powerful being would need to be worshiped, but quickly understood at a young age that questioning such lunacy could indeed create a “hell on earth”. I’m glad you survived to tell the tale, my friend.

  5. Sue Blue says:

    Ray, your story is one I totally identify with. I too was raised to believe that Satan lurked around every corner, in every thought, and could definitely be found wherever there might be some fun going on (dancing, going to movies, listening to popular music, socializing with non-Adventists). One of my earliest memories is feeling ashamed and somehow dirty for running naked out of the bathroom simply because my three-year-old self loved the freedom of being naked. Of course that was my inborn sinful nature expressing itself. One of the more destructive things religion did to me was to instill a sense of distrust in my own intellect. We were taught that “Man’s” intelligence was one of Satan’s chief weapons against us – trusting in the conclusions of our own reason and logic (and, by extension, in science and intellectual progress) was folly. I was ashamed of my interest in science. I remember actually hiding National Geographics and library books about astronomy, physics, and biology under my mattress like porn magazines for fear my unholy intellectualism would be found out. Whenever I brought up all the advantages and improvements that science has given us, I would be told that if the result was good, it came from God’s inspiration, not men’s minds, and if it was bad (like evolution) it came from Satan. The stifling of natural curiosity, the stunting of intellect, the denigration of human endeavor, the fear, the destruction of self-esteem, all necessary so that one might bend every thought and action toward the supposed “will of God” is nothing more or less than child abuse. Not that I’m any great genius, but I wonder how many budding Einsteins, Newtons, Mozarts, etc., have been destroyed by religion. I wonder how much further along the road of progress we could have been if these children had been encouraged to develop their minds. Along with all the physical suffering and death caused by religion over the millenia, the other great crime of religion is the intellectual and emotional death being suffered by children every moment of every day.

  6. M. M. Mohica says:

    Your right Brandy, but its not surprising how little people understand about their own religion, or themselves. Excellent post Ray, excellent. Hearing more of your story is fascinating, as the cruelty of the religious is always wrapped tightly in an air of righteousness, and the only way to get one of them to actually THINK is to hold up a mirror in front of them. Sometimes that doesn’t even work.

  7. Paul Grant says:

    I too am a Sadventist refugee. I attended their churches (Corning, CA), schools (Rio Lindo) and potlucks(Yay Haystacks!) until I was old enough that attendance wasn’t compulsory, all the time secretly loathing it and keeping my unbelief to myself. I also liked writing stories, many of them very unchristian in nature. I congratulate you on your success, something I have yet to experience myself. I loved sci/fi and horror and read constantly. My dad had a paddle with my name on it and believed with all his heart in “spare the rod, spoil the child”. Growing up I didn’t dance, go to movies, listen to anything but hymns and for years we didn’t own a TV, let alone go see a movie. I also felt like an alien on my own planet. Earlier this year my dad found out I am an atheist and he lost it. Suddenly I became an immoral, conniving asshole, just because I don’t believe in his imaginary friend. *sigh*

    Thanks for posting this, it was fascinating and right on the money, plus it brought back so many memories, both good and bad.

  8. Brandy says:

    Ray, I have noticed that too. The christians use the old testament when it suits whatever crazy idea they have or agree with but ignore the rest. Of course, the same could be said for ALL christians and both the old AND new testaments. It’s extremely annoying and is a point I make constantly to my friends.

  9. Byron Canfield says:

    I eagerly await the next installment.

  10. Bronze Dog says:

    I am truly glad my household was on the far liberal side of Christianity while I was growing up, before we all went atheist. I can’t imagine living in such a terrifying world.

    On the topic of Abraham and Isaac, I think I should mention that one of my Sunday school teachers went with the idea that with Isaac asking where the sheep was, and Abraham answering that god would provide it, they were essentially winking to each other that they knew god was bluffing, which kind of ruins the whole ‘test of obedience’ thing and makes the exercise pointless.

  11. Brooklyn Boy says:

    I can identify with many aspects of this post.

    Like most children of Italian immigrant families, I was brought up as a catholic. But I was lucky because religion wasn’t emphasized in our household in any special way. So, at the age of 12, when I announced to my folks that I didn’t care about religion and no longer wanted to go to church, they merely responded with a shrug. Later on, I discovered that most of my family didn’t buy into the fairy tale either. But, in those days, you didn’t mention that openly. I didn’t look at the issue as one of belief.

    The way I saw it, you were either a rational person or you weren’t and I preferred rationality to fairy tales and boogey men. I’m raising my kids the same way.

  12. stardust says:

    When our kids were small and we were still trying to do what we thought was the right thing and take them to church, etc., we started them out in a Lutheran school. When our oldest graduated Kindergarten, there was a church service. The story that was told to these small kids was about a shepherd who had a sheep that kept going astray away from the flock and after so many times of wandering off, the shepherd broke its leg!!!!!!! And that is why god sometimes allows or causes bad things to happen to people, to keep them close to the flock. I have it on video as evidence. I will never forget the horror on the little ones faces after hearing such a terrible story on what was supposed to be a happy occasion.

    We left there and never went back…and gradually we moved further and further away from religion and all the holy horror novel.

  13. KA says:

    1 of the more ridiculous aspects of the entire Abraham/Isaac story, is that when Isaac was born, the voice in Abraham’s head stated the kid would be a king, & the father of kings. Skip ahead 11 years later, Yahweh the yahoo says sacrifice him.
    The religionists always skip over that part…wonder why.

  14. Brandy says:

    KA, because noone can remember anything 5 seconds ago. I see it especially in politics… you guys know what I’m talking about so don’t feel the need to explain in detail.

  15. Sue Blue says:

    I remember being told that the Abraham/Isaac story was a metaphor for being willing to give up whatever “worldly” things are most precious to us in order to show faithfulness to god. Parallels were drawn between this horrorfest of insane child abuse and Jesus telling his disciples to give up (“hate” is the word used in the New Testament) their families, jobs, friends, etc. to follow him. The whole point is that nothing should be more important to a christian than his/her relationship with god. It never ceases to amaze me that christians go around railing against sex and violence on TV and touting their christian “family values” while basing their whole existence on one of the most violent and depraved books ever written.

  16. NorCalAtheist says:

    Thought provoking post. My mom was raised “Pentacostal Holiness” in TX back in the 30s and 40s. She remembers preachers talking about awful things – like unsaved babies being pitched in to hell. She thought that was so awful, so unfair, she rejected the PH religion. Mom never was an atheist tho – just kinda morphed into a type of liberal Christian, I guess is the best way to describe her beliefs in her later years of life.

    Anyway, thought I’d share with the “class” – I live in Sonoma County (northern California) and yesterday, in the grocery store parking lot, I saw a van plastered with KEAR radio/Rapture May 21 2011 bumper stickers AND a signboard on top of the van advertising same. I shook my head. Uh, guys, didn’t y’all notice May 21 has come and went, no massive quakes, no rapture? Whew. Ain’t no cognitive dissonance like that of a True Dyed-In-The-Wool Believer. Yikes.

  17. Stardust says:

    1 of the more ridiculous aspects of the entire Abraham/Isaac story, is that when Isaac was born, the voice in Abraham’s head stated the kid would be a king, & the father of kings. Skip ahead 11 years later, Yahweh the yahoo says sacrifice him.
    The religionists always skip over that part…wonder why.

    Ok…I asked a Xian that question, and here is the answer…ready for it???

    “God can change his mind like that any time he wants to ” and the usual, “ours is not to question the ways of god.”

  18. Jesse says:

    Ray, I just wanted to add one more to the list of ex-SDAs that I’ve been reading above. The Seventh-Day Adventists seem to get so little attention that it’s always a bit shocking when you see those words in that order wherever they may be. Still, it’s more than a little refreshing to know there are others out there that have ‘escaped’ from adventism. I had much the same story – SDA family, SDA schools, SDA friends, etc etc. I tried, really really hard to be a perfect christian. I eventually educated myself out of the cave, so to speak. I’ve never felt better than when I let go of all the religious baggage I was carrying (I find it humorous that I can turn almost every religious metaphor back around) Now my wife and I have to fend off snippet little comments from both our families and ‘accidental’ mailings from the Review and Herald that could only be sourced to those wishing to get the ‘holy spirit’ back in our hearts.
    Thanks for sharing.

  19. Ray Garton says:

    Thank you for posting, Jesse! I think the Sadventist cult gets so little attention because it has succeeded in disguising itself as a mainstream Christian denomination, and also because, in its endless paranoia, it tries very hard to avoid attention.

  20. Sue Blue says:

    I think that’s why you don’t hear too much about adventists getting into politics, backing anti-abortion, anti-gay legislation and the like. Not that they don’t support that legislation on a personal level and spout the right-wing crap in their own publications – you just won’t see them leading prayers at the White House or railing about these issues on Fox News. Publicity leads to scrutiny, and they don’t want to draw the same fire for being a cult that the Mormons do. By being perceived as a low-key, mainstream Protestant religion, they appear “respectable”.

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