In high school, something happened that puzzled and even frightened me. It had been going on for a while, but it wasn’t until those later years that I was struck by it — and struck hard. I found myself befriended, instantly and without any effort on my part, by the most religious students in the school. This was the pious group, the students who always smiled — the smiles never left their faces — and spoke softly, and they were always “sorry you feel that way.” They all dressed alike, sounded alike, said and did all the same things, prayed publicly at the drop of a hat, spoke frequently of their “close personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and often asked how yours was going. If you told them an off-color joke, their smiles would remain but there would be a tension in their eyes that fell somewhere between hurt and threatened. They sometimes expressed their concern about my interests in movies and horror fiction and told me what I should be interested in instead, adding that they loved me, anyway.
They were always praying for everyone, and they were eager for you to know it. “I’m praying for you, Ray.” I never knew how to react to that. Thank them? But for what? I prayed, too; sometimes my prayers seemed to be answered and sometimes they didn’t, and the only consistent thing about the whole process was that it was always completely inconsistent, with no discernible, sensible explanation for any of the results. Did they want a commendation? A donation to their favorite charity? A ribbon? The only reason I could see for saying they were praying for me was to let me know what righteous and holy people they were for praying for someone like me, who they claimed to love despite my wicked ways. None of this seemed to serve any god. It seemed only to serve them. To me, the words, “I’m praying for you,” always sounded a hell of a lot like, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m a good person!” They still sound like that more than 30 years later, only doubly so.
These students had always been drawn to me, but it wasn’t until high school that I began to wonder why. They were nice enough, but in all those years, I never thought anything they said or did was genuine. There was such a sameness about them, as if they were following a memorized script. Their movements and facial expressions were stiff and robotic and they always had an air of uncertainty about them, as if they weren’t sure they should be doing whatever it was they were doing at any given moment. They were quite certain, however, about their “close personal relationship” with a man they could not hold a conversation with or even see.
Do they think I’m one of them? I began to wonder. Have my efforts to blend in been too successful? Have I become one of them?
I began to examine myself a little more closely. What toll had blending in taken on me? I knew who I was inside, although nobody else did — not really. But what had happened to me on the outside? Had I been hanging around those people so long that I’d been molded into one of them? The possibility terrified me and made me ask myself an important question: Do I really believe the things they believe?
I went directly from my high school graduation into college — another Sadventist institution — without a summer break. But my heart wasn’t in it and I didn’t last long. I sold my first novel a couple of years later. Sadventism’s prophet Ellen White wrote that fiction of any kind was bad. I wrote horror fiction and that was worse. Most of my friends and fellow Sadventists did not approve. Apparently, my attempts to blend into the Sadventist subculture really had convinced a good many people that I was a pious, dyed-in-the-wool Sadventist. It had been my parents’ fondest hope that I would grow up to be a traveling, singing, piano-playing evangelist — something that never for a moment stood the slightest chance of happening. Apparently, I had bitterly disappointed a lot of people. My novel’s publication resulted in ostracization, vandalism and an attempt on my life, which my mother told me I’d brought on myself by living such a wicked life filled with comic books, novels, movies and bad TV shows.
After that, I moved into a vodka bottle and resided there for the rest of the decade. Writing was my escape, my refuge, and it took up most of my time during those years. I clung to certain aspects of the religion in which I’d been raised, but even as I did so, I knew it was out of fear and not out of sincere belief.
One thing that I could not shake was my terror of the “last days,” which Sadventists instill in their children from the earliest possible age onward. Sadventist children are told terrifying stories of how the world will end and that it could begin at any moment. Even in the early years of my relationship with my wife, in moments of end-times panic, I would ask her if she would come with me when it was time to flee to the hills and hide in caves, as I’d been taught from infancy I would someday have to do.
It began to dawn on me that I was still seeing events in the news as “signs of the end,” still losing sleep over a fear of something that collapsed under the weight of logical, critical thought — on the rare occasion when I applied logical, critical thought to it, which I seldom did. And I was a grown man! Something had to be done about it, and the only one who could do it — whatever “it” was — was me. I set out to find the original source of the Sadventist belief in a “national Sunday law.” I had always been told it came from the book of Revelation, but having read that book myself, I knew that just about anything could come out of that mess. It reads like it was written by a schizophrenic on a bad acid trip.
And that’s how I began to figure out what I believed — or rather, in the end, what I didn’t believe. I gradually discovered that much of what I had been taught to believe came from the bible had come instead from the feverish, inebriated and control-hungry mind of Ellen G. White. That’s because the cult — despite it’s public claims to the contrary — maintains that White is a prophet as significant and infallible as the biblical prophets are believed to be. It’s now estimated that 80% of her voluminous writings were plagiarized from writers of her day. She single-handedly created the Sadventist cult with those writings and the “visions” and visitations from angels she claimed god gave her. All of this is flatly denied by the cult in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Their denial works with the flock because everything they believe to be true is in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, so what’s one more denial of reality? I began to learn about White all of the things the cult wanted no one to know. With each new thing I learned, it became clearer that the Seventh-day Adventist church was, from its foundations on up, a lie.
If Sadventism was a lie, then what about Christianity in general? What about the bible, that book of sadistic, bloodthirsty “love” and Godzilla-sized self-contradictions? What about god, that entity in whom we are said to trust … even though he can’t seem to abide by his own laws and has a bad habit of wiping people out when he’s in a pissy mood? I set out to learn what I could about those things and answer all my questions. I did not set out to prove to myself that god does not exist. For much of that process, I was, in fact, looking for a reason to believe.
One of the first things I learned was why my teachers and pastors didn’t like the questions I asked back then. For one thing, they had no good answers to them. But mostly, asking those questions is like setting dominoes up in a long, elaborate string. Answering one question honestly knocks the first domino over. Then they all come tumbling down in a chain reaction. That last domino on the very end is attached to a curtain that’s pulled aside when the domino falls, revealing the tubby little old man behind it frantically working the rickety controls of the Great and Powerful Oz.
For quite some time, no matter what I learned, I could not give up the idea that there was some kind of god out there somewhere who had created us and was aware of us in some way. I would come to the very threshold of doing that, but I couldn’t step over it. My mind would slam into a wall every time I tried. This was due in large part to that old fear of denying the holy spirit. More fear, terror and guilt — they had been constant companions for so long, I think I would have been surprised had they not been around to hold me back. It took time.
After learning about the history of the bible — the historical inaccuracies, the vast amount of tampering and adding that had gone on over time — the ridiculous contradictions began to make sense. Obviously, it wasn’t the infallible revealed word of god. It was … well, let’s be honest: Nonsense. But what about Jesus Christ? Was he not the son of god? Was he perhaps just some anti-establishment troublemaker?
That domino fell, too, as I learned that there are no eyewitness accounts of Jesus Christ, the gospels were written well after he was supposed to have lived and died, and all the historians of that well-recorded time period somehow failed to notice a guy who was born of a virgin, made the blind see, the lame walk and the dead live again. Not only was there no reason to believe Jesus Christ was the son of god, there was no reason to believe he had ever lived and done any of the things credited to him. On top of that, I learned Jesus’s story shares an alarming number of details with the stories of earlier pagan gods, especially Mithra. Ellen White was not alone in her literary theft.
I did not choose to reject belief in god. I was, quite simply, left with no choice in the matter. Just like all the other gods laughed at by the believers of today — Zeus, Odin, Thor, Wotan — or the gods of other religions — Allah, Vishnu — Yahweh and Jesus Christ were nothing more than imaginary characters. The god that had ruled so much of my life was not there. It was the people who had told me he was there who had ruled my life, and I resented that. I had been taught to believe in the existence of this god to force me to live and think and react to things in a certain way. I had been indoctrinated and controlled before I was even old enough to reasonably think it all through on my own — terrified, traumatized and made to believe that I was a worthless blob of wickedness.
That resentment turned to anger, and for a while, I was pretty bitter. I had been robbed of a happy, healthy childhood and had been filled with guilt, shame and self-loathing I had absolutely no reason to feel. And I was pretty pissed off about it. I carried that bitterness with me for a while. But that stuff’ll kill you. Carry it around long enough and pretty soon it’s carrying you. I began to see that I was not alone in being duped. The same thing had happened to every other person on the planet who had been raised in a religion, any religion, and taught to fear an invisible, unprovable, nonexistent punisher in the sky.
Beyond my anger and resentment came a new consciousness. I had long been aware of the damage religion does to people, but it’s hard to argue with a system that claims to have behind it the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful creator of the universe. That changes once you get a good look at the old man behind the curtain. Then religion becomes nothing more than people terrifying and traumatizing little children, controlling people, making them feel guilty for having certain immutable biological functions or perfectly natural thoughts and desires — making them feel shame for being human! — marginalizing and hating and limiting the rights of other people who do not conform to their rules and discouraging and even condemning real learning and knowledge in favor of ancient texts written by ignorant, superstitious men.
So … I was an atheist. It did not happen suddenly or without thought. In fact, it involved a great deal of thought — nothing but thought — over a period of years. It wasn’t so much a decision as it was the result of a long process. But that was not the end of the process.
If there was no god, then where did we come from? How does the world work if it’s not dangling from a string held between the giant thumb and forefinger of a mighty deity? When I was in school, I was not only taught nothing about evolution, I was constantly told that evolution was a lie planted by Satan himself in the minds of godless men to deceive the world and lure people away from the truth of the bible.
We watched a lot of nature documentaries in my house. I enjoyed them, but invariably the narrator made reference to “millions” or even “billions” of years. Every time that happened, Mom would click her tongue and shake her head and Dad would shout, “That’s not true! Evolution is a lie! The bible says the world is only six thousand years old!” Of course, nowhere in the bible is the age of the earth given. At no time in my life do I remember seeing my dad reading the bible. He confirmed this every time he started talking about what he thought was in the bible, which he did with irritating frequency. He was always wrong.
I had given no thought to evolution and, like the overwhelming majority of Christians in the United States, I didn’t have the vaguest clue what it entailed beyond what my church school teachers had taught me about it. That pretty much amounted to this: According to Darwin, we evolved from monkeys. Clearly this is not true because today we can see that monkeys are not turning into people. When you know absolutely nothing about evolution — I didn’t, and neither did the teachers who were “explaining” it to me — that makes sense. After I began to educate myself on the subject and became acquainted with the facts, I looked back on that with deep embarrassment. I’m still educating myself, and I find far more wonder and awe beyond the doors opened by Charles Darwin than I ever found in the magical explanations with which I was raised.
The fact that I don’t believe in god is personal. That’s just me. I don’t discuss it much because it’s just not open for debate until someone can provide evidence of god’s existence. I have no desire to convince anyone else to think the same way as I. It would be pointless, to say nothing of obnoxious and rude. Having been on both sides of this fence, I know that belief in god is like being addicted to alcohol or drugs in the sense that one only gives it up if and when one is ready, and no one else can make one ready. There are evangelizing atheists out there — I’ve encountered some of them — and I find them irritating. While I understand their zeal, I think their efforts to “convert” are pointless and — to me, anyway — embarrassing. I’m not one of them.
Religion, on the other hand, is a different issue entirely. We’ve been brainwashed to believe that religion is always only good and that anything negative associated with religion is solely the fault of misguided individuals and never ever the fault of religion itself. We aren’t supposed to argue with that idea because we’ve also been brainwashed to believe that it’s wrong to criticize or question religion. That’s been the norm for ages — everyone mostly remaining silent about religion, tolerating its evils.
The truth is, religion is never good. There are good people, wonderful people within religion, but they are good in spite of their religion, not because of it, because if they were to do all the things their religion and their holy book told them to do, they’d be hateful bigots and most likely would be in prison. Religion helps no one but itself. No matter what it claims to be doing — whether it’s missionary work abroad or outreach and charity work at home — it’s always, without exception, engaging in self-promotion, self-protection and self-propagation. And no, I’m not talking about all the other religions — I’m talking about yours. Religion is the most destructive and dehumanizing force on the face of the earth, the worst thing humanity has ever inflicted on itself.
Sure, wars are fought in the name of religions and gods, and multitudes of people are slaughtered. We all know that, even the religious. What bothers me more is the less visible damage it does, things seldom blamed on religion even though it is responsible.
At the top of the list of offenses is the undeniable abuse of children in a host of ways. Teaching little children that there is a god who sees their every action and thought, a god who loves them but will punish them in unspeakable agony for all eternity if they don’t attain some unreachable standard of behavior and unnatural state of purity is abominable. Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion,” and doing this to children meets that definition. It is terrorism. But it’s been going on for so long that we don’t tend to see it that way, especially in a culture in which religion cannot be questioned or criticized. Indoctrinating children with these beliefs is even seen as a good thing, and it’s not uncommon for people who aren’t religious to subject their children to this abuse so they’ll grow up with some “morality.”
Then there are the children who are allowed to suffer and die of treatable, curable illnesses because of religions that rely only on prayer and faith healing, and the children who, for religious reasons, do not get the simple vaccines available to all. Parents who do this are, horrifyingly enough, protected by the religious exemptions in child abuse and neglect laws in the United States.
Religion unites no one, including its own believers. There are over 30,000 different denominations within Christianity because no one can agree on the specifics of the One True Faith, and each denomination believes itself to be correct and all the others wrong. Just as Jesus himself wanted to do, religion damages and breaks up families, as well as friendships. It creates an “us and them” mentality, with “us” being everyone who agrees with your particular religion and “them” being everyone else, and everyone else is not just considered wrong, but bad, as if simply not accepting that belief makes them immoral. Even worse, religion excuses this behavior by making it righteous, by giving it god’s seal of approval. Religion tells the lie that it is the source of morality — and that is a lie — making itself the arbiter of right and wrong and instantly placing nonbelievers in the “immoral” column.
But the most silent and ignored effect of religion is one of the worst: It perpetuates ignorance. I recently had a conversation with one of my very few remaining friends from my Sadventist high school days, a friend I value. Like me, she was raised in Sadventism, but she isn’t overtly religious now and even sees the damage religion does, especially to children. But she believes in god. That hasn’t been an issue between us. In this conversation, though, she surprised me by saying she prayed for me often. I told her I appreciated the sentiment. She said she thought someone was “looking out” for me. I said I was looking out for me and always had. Then she said she didn’t understand how I could not believe in god. I told her of my one requirement before I discuss god with those who believe in him. “First,” I said, “you have to prove he exists. If you can’t do that, I’m not going to waste time discussing him.”
“I have proof he exists,” she said. “I grew a human being in my womb and carried him for nine months. That’s god.”
I said, “So … you worship your uterus?”
“No, of course not. I mean that’s my proof that god exists, the fact that we reproduce.”
“That’s not proof god exists. That’s biology.”
“But who created biology?”
“No one created biology. There are explanations for virtually every aspect of our existence that do not involve anything supernatural. Before you say biology is proof of god’s existence, you should look into those explanations. Read some books about biology and evolution — books written by people who work in those fields, not by people who are trying to discredit them. Read some Stephen Hawking.”
“Who’s Stephen Hawking?”
Now, this is not a stupid person by any means. She’s sharp, very intelligent. But like me, the only explanation she ever got for everything was, “God did it.” Religion tells us, “This is the answer to everything, so you don’t need to ask anymore questions.” And most people don’t. In their early years when their brains were developing rapidly, they were told not only that god created everything in six days, but that science lies. That’s why, according to a 2010 Gallup poll, only about 16% of Americans accept the idea of “secular evolution.” And Christians want to shrink that percentage by requiring that the Genesis story of creation be taught in public schools in violation of the Constitution.
The poll points out that education is a factor; among college graduates, belief in creation drops and evolution is accepted by a higher percentage. I don’t take that to mean those who believe in creation are stupid, just as my friend isn’t stupid. It means they’ve been taught to reject the findings of science in this one area. Oh, they’ll take the drugs their doctor prescribes. They’ll listen to scientific evidence that this or that activity or substance causes cancer. They’ll take advantage of the many conveniences in their lives that have been put there by science. But when it comes to evolution? Science is lying! This is because religious indoctrination has crippled their ability to think critically and logically in certain areas — and in some cases, in all areas.
If you told believers that the earth is made of dough that slowly baked and rose in the heat of the sun, they’d be smart enough to say you’re loopy. But because of their early indoctrination, they would find it extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, to see that there is no more proof of the Genesis story of creation than there is of the “baked earth” story. They accept the creation story because as children, they were taught evolution is a lie, so they don’t even bother to take a closer look, or even a casual look. That’s not stupidity, it’s learned ignorance, one of the most harmful things religion does to people.
To recap: The things I was taught to believe as a child made no sense to me, so I went in search of answers, which led me out of belief entirely. My realization of how harmful my religion was expanded to an awareness that all religion is equally harmful. And that has landed me where I am now. Where is that?
Well, I don’t awake gasping or screaming from nightmares about the “time of trouble” anymore. While it may be disturbing, the news no longer sends me into panic attacks over that coming “time of trouble.” I no longer waste a precious second wondering if I’ll go to heaven or be damned. Without the lazy out of forgiveness from Jesus, I’m responsible for the wrongs I do and I must make them right and face the consequences, which has made me far more conscious of the feelings and welfare of others. I don’t do good things because I feel I must in order to please god and receive a heavenly reward — or more importantly, to avoid the agonizing punishment prepared for me by a loving god — I do them because it gives me pleasure to do them, because doing them improves my life, the lives of others and, in a small way, the world in general, and because sometimes they simply need to be done and should be done.
A friend of mine thinks that belief is genetic. She thinks you’re either born a believer or you aren’t, that some people simply don’t have it in them to believe. Looking back over my life, I seem to be one of those people. Had I not been indoctrinated from birth into a religion, I don’t think it’s something I ever would have gotten involved in. Even with the indoctrination, it didn’t work for me. It never made sense.
At the same time, I know people who have a deep-seated need to believe in something, anything. For them, there must be some unseen, unknowable explanation for everything, something we can’t fully understand because it’s mystical and magical and so mind-blowingly wonderful that it’s beyond our comprehension. My first girlfriend was raised a strict Sadventist and used to get angry with herself because she had problems with the with the church, but didn’t know what else to believe in. She was the kind of person who, upon seeing an interesting cloud formation, would say, “Good work, god!” Now she’s some kind of new age counselor out in the California desert and tells people that every time their digital clock reads 11:11, angels and/or benevolent space aliens are sending them a message of hope.
That sounds harmless enough on the surface. But what happens when reality conflicts with a belief system that’s not grounded in reality? What happens when the believer rejects reality in favor of the belief? Nothing good. And one of the worst results is willful ignorance, which spans a spectrum of danger ranging from risky to deadly. At best, that rejection of reality only harms the believer, but too often it affects others — especially if the believer is in a position of leadership and power, like, oh, I don’t know, um … the White House? As far as I’m concerned, leaders can believe whatever they want on their own time, but when leading, they should have a close, personal relationship with reality.
But, hey, that’s just me. All of it. The whole thing you just read. It’s just me. I honestly don’t care what you believe. I strongly support the right of everyone to believe whatever they please, whatever works for them. I’m much more interested in what you know than what you believe, in what kind of person you are and what makes you happy. If you can’t get through a conversation without repeatedly bringing up your religious beliefs, then we probably won’t be having any further conversations. If your religious beliefs move you to condemn or mistreat others and you do that in my presence, we will have at least one conversation, but it will be short and won’t end with an exchange of email addresses.
I’m really not out to offend anyone, I can’t stress that enough. But if you’re comfortable talking about your religious beliefs with everyone, then you need to be comfortable with the fact that some of those people are going to tell you what they think of your religious beliefs and it’s not always going to be good. If you fall apart at the seams when that happens, then perhaps you should come to grips with the fact that your religious beliefs are not great conversation-starters and perhaps have become a bit unhealthy for you.
Now you know, my friend. Now we don’t have to have that conversation in which you say, probably more than once, “I just don’t understand how you can not believe in god.” Knowing what I know, I don’t understand how you can. But the fact that I don’t doesn’t mean I’m an immoral, heartless, self-centered monster who believes life is meaningless and we’re all nothing but future worm food. And the fact that you do doesn’t mean that you have to beat me over the head with a bible and threaten me with hell, and that belief does not automaticallymake you a good person or give you any kind of license to engage in bad behavior because you think your god wants you to. We’re both human beings with more similarities than differences.
I think there’s one thing we can all agree on no matter what our backgrounds. This is the one life we all know with certainty that we have. It doesn’t last very long and we share it with those around us. Anything that comes between us, divides us, creates animosity between us is not conducive to a happy, productive life. Those things that bring us together improve us not only individually but as a whole. Personal beliefs that are truly positive, productive and loving will never get in the way of that.