A Defense of ‘New Atheism’ Part I: Conclusion and Prelude

     This concludes my accounting of my journey through the woods of belief.  The view I have provided may be narrow – as the sole perspective was my own, from inside that turgid and stygian forest – and biased – as I am not strong enough to have emerged from the crucible of that voyage with my innocence entirely intact – and faulty – because I am a human, and as susceptible to errors of confabulation as anybody else – all which I freely confess.  But it is also as full and faithful an accounting of my relationship with faith and the faithful as I’ve ever attempted.  I arrive at the end of the story with the stage set and the players arranged through a series of tiny ebbs in probability over the course of my entire life, and all that remains in the telling is to describe that first step back into the world of natural discipline, represented in my case by my first reading of The Selfish Gene.  Even that, however, was not my “Defining Moment” of the kind I have written, but was only the first of many small steps along a new course, a course which, itself, I only ever encountered thanks to billions of imperceptible factors aligning in just such a way as to create the opportunity for me to use my agency to this end.  One different turn in that theological Schwarzwald and I could have emerged an entirely different creature.   

     But what happened is this: Dawkins gave way to other evolutionary biologists like Gould, Mayr, Dobzhansky, and Darwin, and reading their work and carefully studying the references lead me to Matt Ridley, Mary Roach, EO Wilson, Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Konrad Lorenz, Malcolm Gladwell, Jared Diamond, Frank Sulloway, Philip Zimbardo, James Randi, and many others.  I am convinced that one cannot come away from exposure to so much information of this variety with any remaining theistic belief shaken, if not obliterated.  By this, I do not mean to say that if you had read what I had read, you would believe as I believe; I am stating that my experience has been that as one’s understanding of the world expands, the difficult task of making sense of life – a purpose to which we are all put – requires belief in deities less and less.  All gods appear to exist primarily in the gaps of our understanding of the universe around us, and the need or desire for them shrinks to fill those narrowing canyons.  The logical terminus of this, simply said, is that belief in gods persist because we fear our mortality and do not well understand the universe around us.  Belief in theology overlays a sense of order on that tapestry of natural chaos and anchors our sense of self to something larger, something powerful and not mortal and in control of the massive, terrifying, belittling universe.

     The more that I went on to read, the more I gradually acquired the satisfaction and resonance that I had searched for.  Here was not answers, but conclusions; no revelation but through explanation.  Rather than impose upon us a set of decisions, reason and logic invite us to learn how systems operate and draw conclusions based on observable phenomenon.  Nothing need be taken on faith.  It was fascinating and exciting for my eyes to open to a world that made such marvelous sense.  I devoured everything I could find as my understanding of the world flowered anew.

 

     And yet, still, for reasons that I am certain many people whom I previously described as “apathetic” atheists will understand, I resisted using the word for a very long time.  What began as a largely innocent curiosity provoked by the flickering of a decade-nascent interest in science had transformed me from a self-described “apatheist” to – at different times and around different people – an agnostic, a humanist, a naturalist, or a skeptic.  But not an “atheist”.  Never an “atheist”.  Even a scant thirteen years ago, that word carried with it a significant amount of baggage of a kind that tended to provoke scandal and violence.  Discrimination against people who professed an unbelief in a creator God was, at the time, a good deal more acceptable and pervasive than we encounter it now.  Even as wannabe rough trade who during his teenaged years willingly adopted labels like “punk”, “anarchist”, and “warlock”, somehow to attach the word “atheist” to myself seemed to be courting a fight that I was in no lean sense unprepared for.  

 

     But that hesitation eventually rang false.  As I continued to read and think and debate both with those who agreed and disagreed with my views, it became apparent that my reticence was unnecessary and insincere, and in the course of time, I stopped hiding behind that little fig leaf.  The last scrap of modesty – or cowardice – that I clutched couldn’t hide the nakedness of my convictions, plain as they were to anyone who would look.  And so I embraced the word: I became an “atheist”.  And for a little while, I was kind of a knob about it.

     Adopting that label meant quite a bit to me because there was so little glamour in it at the time.  You are free to believe that after selecting a sequence of pathetic, rural, white, teenaged “bad boy” labels that “atheist” should simply be the next in line, cynically adopted because I needed a new flag under whose banner I could condescend to the greatest number of my tribal group.  If that was ever the case – and I do not believe it ever was – it is at least true now that I no longer wish to condescend to anyone at this point in my life, and here I find myself crouching by the camp fires of infidels all the same.  As I reexamine my life and the choices I have made, and having made sincere attempts for all directions along the axis of religious experience that were available to me, I am and remain an unbeliever, and as I approach the end of my preamble, I want to discuss what it is that I learned specifically from having lived on both poles of the religious/irreligious or theistic/atheistic spectrums. There is much that the cause of humanism can learn from the religious.

 

Community is Important

     The overwhelming majority of humans adhere to the religious beliefs that are dominant in their community in which they were raised.  The reasons for this require very little examination: “Give me the child for the first seven years”, goes the Jesuit saying, “and I’ll give you the man.”  The best available neuroscience confirms how impressionable children are, and as children, most of us believe without dispute what we are told by our elders, no matter how absurd or even uncontroversially incorrect; many are those who have claimed to believe with conviction things that were mad or wicked because they were instilled by a warped upbringing.  We are especially susceptible to learning from our elders, right or wrong, as a by-product of evolution; as humans, much of our mental software is acquired through pattern recognition and mimicry.  The fact that children will emulate the behavior of the happy, healthy, and successful members of their society is precisely what we mean when we invoke the term “role model”, and it is why the tired joke about mugging television personalities breaking the fourth wall to say “Don’t try this at home, kids!” is such a popular trope.  Children emulate those whom they watch.

     In Frank J. Sulloway’s ground-breaking study on personality and birth order Born to Rebel, he discovered that only children, first children, and children born five or more years apart from their siblings tend to emulate their parents, but largely so only if they perceive the parent as successful.  Children employ mimicry and pattern recognition in forming their model for being, so why shouldn’t we, then, adopt the religious beliefs of our role models?  Children do not understand the tenuous and circumstantial link between correlation and causation; to their mind, the habits of a successful person are all part of the overall mosaic of habits and choices that total up to success. We refuse or buck these lessons at our own peril when we are young, many of them legitimately being vital to adapting to behavior in our tribal group, and even as adults we reject them often only after we have earned the mental fortitude and vocabulary of choice required to approach them from a point of objectivity.  Having done that, we can select new software that resonates with us, or write our own to serve whatever end we require.  But it seems many never examine themselves to this extent at all.

 

     The fact that most people do not question their beliefs once they have reached adulthood is apparent when we look at people who live in extremely insular or segregated cultures where members of the tribe are not exposed to dissenting opinions at any point during their lives: there are, for example, no Buddhists in the cargo cult of Melanesia, and no Hindus among the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea.  Nor is there any reason to be; religious mythology is wholly contrived by human minds and fashioned, as it ages, after the fancies of its adherents, and is in no way divinely inspired or mandated.  If it was, we should see aboriginal Australians suffering self-inflicted torments in the name of the Norse god Wotan, or hear of Aleutians who find themselves compelled to kneel towards a Middle Eastern monument they have no conception of at regular intervals during their day.  This is not the case.  Both of these groups follow their tribal gods in some fashion and fall to apostasy only after having been exposed to new ideas.  In fact, it is telling that the only belief structure that seems capable of having germinated and flowered in multiple civilizations and epochs without requiring it be “spread” by human art, literature, or speech is the lack of belief in any such divine figures.

     Even if one adds to this calculus the fact that omniscient and omnipotent deities ostensibly must operate through mortal catspaws whom they empower only to reach very small portions of the sum of humanity in geographically-centric locations during times of unrest or disquiet in the historical tapestry, if the mind was truly free to forge its own path and not yoked into indoctrination of religious elders, we should see a profusion of belief structures across the world with the singularity of snowflakes.  This, too, is not the case, and if you quibble with this assertion, answer for yourself why the very young children of people who worship any god but yours must believe what they do.  Am I incorrect in thinking that the word “brainwashed” might arise in a statistically relevant number of responses?  Moreover, how many people do you know who were furnished with an education of the world’s religions by their parents and then permitted to make their own choice, without comment or guidance or expectation?  Encouragingly, this practice is becoming more common in some nations at this point in history, but it was not so in any but the most liberal of corners of the sphere a scant fifty years ago.  Why do more parents not so furnish their children with the tools to make so important and significant a decision on their own?  Because the overwhelming majority of parents do not want their children to make a decision.  

     This is less invidious than it sounds; parents wish for their offspring to share their core values, observe their taboos, and keep the rules of their home.  This, at least, is understandable, and the simplest, most effective, seemingly most benign way of safeguarding this outcome is to impart upon their children the same mental software that they run, a significant portion of which is made up of religious belief.  However, because so many religions are hostile to, scornful or, or ignorant of other beliefs, the child often receives a warped or malformed view of the “other”, or else has no view at all, and it is in this respect that all religious teaching is a form of indoctrination in that it restricts even the language in which an individual may consider new beliefs.  By limiting the vocabulary of ideas, one effectively controls thought, and therefore controls behavior.  The shaman has known this for many thousands of years, and Orwell illustrated it brilliantly with the concept of “newspeak” in his novel 1984:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.”

     Religious indoctrination is linguistic relativity in action: by pruning the language, the very vocabulary with which individuals may think in is limited.  Deviation from tribal norms becomes incredibly difficult when there exists no language in which to discuss it, speak of it, share the thought with others, or even properly visualize. It is for this reason that art, music, literature, and forums in which thoughts can be freely exchanged between peers are so important in the mental development of our species.

     It is, therefore, that I assert that humanism, naturism, skepticism, atheism, and our associated philosophical leanings must become a community, and something a good deal more than one that exists only on the internet.  Taken as a whole, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the internet, warts and all, but surely we can all agree that no online community is a replacement for an equally welcoming physical community.  Many of us spend much of our lives online, but it is not where we raise our children.  The process of shaping a young mind into a functioning, contributing, happy, fulfilled member of society is not a job that can be done by any amount of typing; we must live our principles, setting the example and showing those who would look up to us not only that one can be all of those things without faith, but that you can be those things without faith and still be a part of the world around us.  As atheists, we should be more involved in the world around us than others, as we among all humanity believe that this world and the things within it are not merely a test run or audition for a greater existence to follow.  Speaking for myself, I can say that if this life is all there is, I could think of no worse way to end it than to have withdrawn from the myriad sensations it had to offer.

<cont.>

Advertisements

A Defense of ‘New Atheism’ Part I: A Digression on Self

     The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins’ first published book reached shelves in 1976.  In it, Dawkins posits that the base unit of evolutionary selection is the gene, not the organism.  The Selfish Gene was, in its time, a revolutionary work that redefined much of our understanding of evolutionary biology and set the groundwork for Dawkins to emerge as one of the eminent New Atheists of the present epoch.  This book also marks the first use of the word ‘meme’, a term that anyone who spends time online is like to be familiar with.  Dawkins’ initial use of the word was intended to describe a conceptual counterpart to genes, memes being, in effect, the base unit of intellectual or conceptual selection; “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”

     I first held a copy of The Selfish Gene at a used bookstore in my hometown just a few days before my eighteenth birthday.  It looked new; the sort of volume a person had received as a gift or as part of a lot or perhaps even purchased with conscious and good intentions but ultimately gave up on.  Its spine was unbent.  I paid five dollars ninety-five for it and took it home to read.  I remember feeling very intimidated; I had not read a science book since I was a child, devouring every scrap of information I could find about dinosaurs, and the twisted and malformed education I received as a boy was followed by the hopelessly lean science I learned in high school, where I struggled through two years – the minimum, in my state at the time – before the discouragement of having so poor a foundation on which to build my understanding persuaded me to simply give up the study altogether.  The challenge of understanding a subject I had such a limited understanding of in general (science) and virtually no knowledge of specifically (evolutionary biology) was not one I relished.

 

     Understand, reader, that when one ties up so much of their identity in being smart – or being anything, really – that any threat to that quality is a threat to a person’s very sense of self.  it is why some people become easily enraged or aggravated over trifling contests of knowledge, or skill, or talent, or athletic prowess, or work, or love, or sex.  In effect, once the gauntlet is down, any failure to rise to the challenge puts a knife to the throat of one’s mental self: the “you” that you see when you close your eyes and think of that person.  If you see that individual as being defined chiefly or entirely by one quality, a deficiency in that quality is as good as admitting that you are deficient of purpose, of meaning, of validation of your existence.  People fight like wild animals to defend that little scrap of identity and agency.  Even well-rounded people who have many things they cleave to, many handholds that collectively comprise their identity, struggle with this, and can become vicious when challenged on matters which they tie to their sense of self.  I am scarcely any better, even now; oftentimes I find myself unwilling to do something if I know that I will not be The Best at it, feeling as though any shot that falls short of the apex is one that is wasted.  I know empirically that this is not true, and yet when I set out to do even those things at which I would say that I am proficient, there comes the gentle tug of Other people do this better than you.  Other people are smarter or more charming or are more naturally talented or have practiced longer, and they deserve it more than you do.  You will always fall short of your aspirations.  It takes considerable will to silence this voice.  I silence it with each keystroke, even as I write this.

     And so it was when I sat down sometime shortly before my eighteenth birthday, my knowledge of science extending no further than fairy tales, lies, and a thin coat of the genuine article that had almost entirely peeled away as the wood beneath had not been adequately primed, but nevertheless thinking myself “smart”, that I, with some hesitation that I would prove myself a liar and murder my sense of self, began to read Dawkins’ first work.  This I did at the prompting of a man named Hideo Kojima, who wrote a video game called Metal Gear Solid.

 

     It lacks a certain gravitas to say that you came to a deeper understanding of the universe through means that a good number of people would still consider to be childish.  It would be akin to saying you developed your love of Beethoven from watching cartoons or got turned on to medieval history listening to speed metal played by men dressed up as barbarians from outer space.  The thinking, I presume, is that knowledge and genuine interest don’t count unless they’re gleaned from the “high” arts, whereas mediums like animation, speed metal, and video games are among the ranks of “low” art.  Well, piss on that.  Certainly not all art is created equal, but all art can be useful if it leads one to a deeper and richer understanding of the world around them, and thanks to the multitude vagaries of humankind, it seems most any art is capable of stimulating such a response in somebody, somewhere.  As it happens, both of the statements I made about my personal interest in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and the rich tapestry of European medieval history were not merely examples.  I have no shame; video games are art, as are children’s cartoons, as is speed metal.

     Metal Gear Solid was released on September 8, 1998, three weeks before my eighteenth birthday.  Billed as a stealth espionage game, the protagonist must grapple with many obstacles, among them a rogue’s gallery of special forces operatives (which includes a psychic pyromaniac in a gasmask and an Aleutian congenital giant who carries a gun that is conventionally used mounted to vehicles, among others), a base full of American soldiers, a four story tall mechanized battle tank with legs, and his bete noir personified in the form of his twin brother.  As with many stories, it may seem odd in concept but pays off in the execution.  While playing through its narrative, the game introduced me to a ton of new places and names and concepts I’d never heard of before: the Kurdish ethnicity, rail guns, DARPA, Alan Turing, Saladin, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, gene therapy, the many and horrible wars of sub-Saharan Africa, and the idea that we human beings are, at our lowest biological level, little more than carriers for our genetic code:

“In Nature, family members don’t  mate with each other. And yet they help each other to survive. Do you know why? It increases the chance that their genes will be passed on to a new generation.  Altruism among blood relatives is a response to natural selection.  It’s called the Selfish Gene Theory.”

     While looking up all of the new and fascinating things I was learning, I fixed upon The Selfish Gene for reasons I can only attribute to caprice.  When I found a copy while poring over the stacks at my local used book store, a place I visited every couple weeks, I was as excited to take it home and begin reading as I was apprehensive at the thought that I simply might not get it.

 

     I am exceedingly fortunate that the circumstances of my life thus far had put me in a position where I did get it.  Many factors fell to my advantage, a cascade of small choices and compressions of probability acting upon me to the cumulative effect of what some might call ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ or ‘God’.  I know the truth, though: I was simply very lucky.  Lucky to be born bright, at a time and place where that mattered even a little; lucky to have been given an education and equipped with the tools to read and write and analyze; lucky to have not been hopelessly brainwashed before I could reach maturity; lucky to have never been pushed so far into my despair that I ended my own life, something that for many years was a very real and very constant thought; lucky to have had a few friends who encouraged me to look at the world around me in different ways, and to whom I am forever indebted; lucky that as awful as my situation sometimes was that I had parents who cared about me and fed me; and yes, lucky even to have been poor, to have been a latchkey kid, to have been stabbed three times before I left high school, to have suffered and fought against my own demons and my own sense of worthlessness for years.  Very, very lucky.  All those little ripples accumulating through the years, each one an opportunity that I was lucky enough to recognize.  I grieve when I imagine how many such opportunities I’ve missed.

     None of this should indicate a lack of agency on my part.  How much of who I am now was conscious choice on my part and how much was left to the vicissitudes of fortune I cannot say, but the fact remains that some portion of the creature that I am was carved out of wood by mine own hand.  Nevertheless, I cringe when someone is described as a “self-made man”.  There is no such thing.  Even parentless waifs are prisoner and product of their place in history, their community, their geographic location, their genetics, and a million other factors.  We are, at best, occasionally active agents in our own creation, a pawn on a chessboard we did not design, playing by rules we did not make, in an army we did not join, taking only one out of every four or five turns of our own volition and with an even partial understanding of the board.  And yet every move that we have the power to make is an opportunity to craft our selves.  It is these decisions that define us.

     Thankfully, it happens that when I sat down to reintroduce myself to science in the first meaningful sense in over a dozen years, not only did I understand it, but I was struck by what marvelous sense it all made.

A Defense of ‘New Atheism’ Part I: Dissent & Discourse

     As a preface to this entry, I must assert that it is very difficult to write about one’s teen years without blushing. If I am honest, there is much about myself between the ages of fourteen and eighteen to cringe in embarrassment about, and I would posit that anyone who can say they are not ashamed of any of the things they did during that age is either a liar or didn’t teenager properly; the road to identity is often mortared with the end result of a good deal of wanking, both physical and mental.
     At any rate, this entry is by far the most self-indulgent and histrionic in the series thus far, and that is because one’s teenage years tends to be ones of self-indulgent histrionics. I have tried to give an honest accounting of myself as a young man insofar as the matter is discussed while still capturing how these experiences felt to me in the moment. For this, I beg forgiveness.

     For most of my adult life, I’ve been very hesitant to discuss the fact that there was a period between the ages of fifteen and sixteen during which I was heavily involved with the occult, specifically with a strain of occultism that practiced what would in no uncertain terms be termed ‘black magic’. The reaction most people have to the idea is innately to be repulsed, and not without good reason: black magic is generally believed to entail trafficking with malicious and bane forces conjured from some version of a hell dimension, and is typically employed to nefarious ends. Very rarely does any story about the dark arts, fictional or otherwise, end with “But everything went better than expected and nobody got hurt!”
     My investment in these practices was intense for a period of about sixteen or seventeen months. During that time, I joined a small group of like-minded teens and adults, participated in rituals, learned several ceremonies and incantations, devoured scores of books on the occult and magical practice, and in no mean sense did I fully intend to wield the dark arts in service of my personal aggrandizement. And the reason that I do not like to talk about this episode of my youth, even after all this time, is because it makes me sound like an unbelievable fucking wanker.

     As it happens, I was an unbelievable fucking wanker. It was all pretend. It is all pretend, in all places and times, and for all people. There are no dark forces to commune with. No heaven, no hell, no God, and therefore no opposing force that can be appealed to. If the Devil was in the business of purchasing souls, he could have had my fifteen year-old one for considerably less than a fiddle contest, but to buy into the notion that there are “forces” that can be appealed to or bartered with for power or vengeance is to adopt with it a whole ridiculous mythology that cannot be avoided, and to remove even a single card brings the whole house tumbling down. In retrospect, this is so obvious to me as to be comical. Nevertheless, the purported ability to suspend the laws of physics and probability in your favor through will-working sounds both enticing and plausible to an impressionable mind, and indeed, recent advances in quantum physics cast the idea into hazy territory that I’m not prepared to tackle. However, I believe most reasonable people can provisionally assent that a lone individual thinking very hard on a mantra or a desire cannot affect this change in reality, even if the individual is joined by several similarly-minded friends. This, too, is crystalline to those of us who have not become addicted to an especially dangerous and narcotic form of magical thinking, and I am convinced, in retrospect, that men like Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, and many of the adults whom I knew that were involved in “magickal” circles were taking the piss out of the naive in order to fatten their wallets, had hit on a marvelous trick to getting impressionable young people into their beds, and were functionally simple con men using an air of mysticism to dress up the usual, garish tricks of the game in a miasma of promised revelation.
     For the reasons I explained in my last entry – reasons that I believe almost all people can relate to in some measure, speaking to basic human needs for acceptance, meaningfulness, validation – when neopaganism opened a door to outright occultism and pointed at it with neon signs promising primacy and distinction over my peers, I ran through it. With the grandiose claims that power was there for the taking to the devoted student, I hurled myself into the study and practice of the occult with a zeal that I had never been possessed of for religious observance, and I became an informally-christened Neophyte of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. While that may hit the ear as grandiose, what it actually entailed was pathetically unremarkable: for all my parents’ worrying that I might get involved with “witchcraft”, the reality of the situation was that I spent a lot of time at home that year, sitting in my bedroom surrounded by candles and herbs and cheap woodcrafts, reading and writing and concentrating in an act that could best be described as an especially elaborate form of mental masturbation that never reached a recognizable climax.
     This phase, too, ended, when after several months I came to realize that for all my considerable investment of time and money and effort, I had precisely nothing to show for it all except a mounting frustration that all of my considerable exertions had thus far amounted to piffle and the same indignant sense of how foolish I must look that I previously experienced when spontaneously babbling the language of the elohim in a frustrated panic at summer camp. It is ironic, considering my parents’ fears that I may fall victim to the occult (a fear shared by many white, Protestant parents thanks to the totally inflated and fabricated “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s), that it may have been role-playing games that finally diverted me from occultism, as at the time I stopped practicing “magick” I had been playing Dungeons & Dragons for no less than four years already, and was increasingly aware, to my consternation, that I wasn’t capable of so much as getting people to stop making fun of me at school, let alone summon fiery doom to rain down upon my enemies or conjure malevolent spirits to give them the herpes. Inevitably, this creeping dissatisfaction became total disillusionment, and whether through an inherent personal skepticism or the right combination of time, place, and external influence on me, I abandoned the occult with no small amount of embarrassment over having participated in such absurdity for as long as I had.
     My adventure in sorcery is not of the sort one generally sees represented in media, though I would wager that the mundanity and disappointment that marked my experience is a far more common reflection of what actually happens to many young people who take up witchcraft than all other alternatives together. Depictions of young adults struggling with this particular grope for identity that aren’t sensationalized and pedantic constructions of especially superstitious religious congregations are rare; however, Mike Judge captured the reality of this teenage existential crisis magnificently in an episode of the series King of the Hill, ‘The Witches of East Arlen’, a pitch-perfect capture of the journey of almost every teenager who has adopted and then discarded the occult, from the struggle for identity to the desire to fit in and look cool in front of peers and elders to the desire for distinction and individuality in a small and suffocating world, up to the eventual realization of how silly it all is, followed by rejection of the whole lot.
     I’m not the only teenager to travel this arc through mysticism and the occult, and I’m sorry to say that I know a handful of my contemporaries who entered that door only to become ensnared by the sexy mystique and the ethereal (and totally imagined) feeling of power at having been one of a select few to receive some great secret. Mark this well, monotheists: the real threat of occultism on children isn’t communion with dark forces. There are no dark forces. It’s the same threat as exists to children who became enamored of any misunderstood and misrepresented but ultimately wrong-headed fringe belief; some people are naturally attracted to the forbidden and confuse society’s collective dismissal for a rebuke, a misconception that practitioners are all too eager to capitalize on, be they sorcerers or fakirs or reflexologists or white supremacists.
     In the end, my experience with occultism was a sobering and difficult albeit necessary lesson to learn as a teenager: no amount of wishful thinking will change the world. It will always be up to you.

     It is then appropriate that I went so far to the opposite end of where I began my journey, because it was the last step on the path on my path out of the darkness of ignorance and superstition and fear and into light.

     The final steps on that journey can be attributed in the largest part to two sources: the first was punk music, most especially the California-born, heavily political punk belonging to my youth: Bad Religion, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, NOFX, much of which is outwardly hostile towards all forms of arbitrary and oppressive authority, but especially the church as it existed in the United States at the time, a rebellion that was, itself, almost certainly a reaction to the very militant fashion in which The Church, a single, unified entity born out of the years of the Carter administration, began to assert itself over the political landscape and become active in combating abortion, suppressing the discourse on AIDS, marginalizing women and homosexuals, and generally fighting for a vision of American that only existed in McCarthyist American sitcoms. Obnoxious, defiant, frustrated punk rock was the soundtrack of my teens, and as I began to walk away from the smoking wreckage of the vehicle in which I took my tour of spirituality, I found myself drifting away from the very idea of religion more and more.
     I became a philosopher.
     There is little more unbearable than a teenaged philosopher, so I won’t trouble this essay with the details of my philosophical readings except to say that I digested the works of many philosophers during a rather short amount of time, read many that I agreed with and many more whom I did not, Nietzsche, Sartre, Descartes, Rand, Russell, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Socrates, Diogenes, Aristotle, Mill, Paine, Hume, Hobbes among them, and that for years that followed I was something of an insufferable tit when it came to these subjects, because I was seventeen and having read that much philosophy it occurred to me that goodness, I rather do seem to have it all figured out, don’t I?
     There is nothing wrong with reading philosophy, of course, but I trust I need not supply examples of what a little philosophical understanding can do to a young person, lacking the perspective to understand the unwritten caveats that sit as postscripts to all philosophical thought as most of us do. None of this, however, meant much to my feelings on religion, and I spent the latter days of my time as a minor as a self-described nihilist. This study nevertheless primed my brain for what was to follow, and sharpened my rhetorical teeth in forcing me to think in ways I had never thought before.

     I trust that by now I’ve shown that my transition from believer into unbeliever was long and gradual, almost an evolution, and that by digging down into my childhood one can see the strata of my beliefs as I have held them through life. Like an upside-down reflection of Dante’s Inferno, I began my climb in the bowels of desperation and ignorance and fear and crawled my way through layers of questioning, doubt, distress, distance, divorce, to wandering and sampling other truths, to the desire for earthly power, to the soft but supportive ground of discourse. One final layer remained before at last I would escape. And while I trust that I would have found the path at some point, in some way, the way I actually did find it was in a video game, shortly before my eighteenth birthday.

A Defense of ‘New Atheism’ Part I: Vagrancy

     As a gesture that at some point I will be arriving at a point and not simply waxing autobiographical, I want to begin the final portion of the story of how I came to be an atheist (by which I mean, the entries addressing my teen years) by momentarily revealing the subject of my chase with a single thrust.
     I’ve already stated that there are two primary motivations I had in writing this piece, but what both really come down to is: I want to see more atheists on the front lines of the so-called “culture wars”, and I want them to be better representatives of our shared humanism. I am aware that this will require asking a lot out of many of my fellow unbelievers, those whom I have already spoken of as being members of discrete groups of “apathetic” and “evangelical” atheists; but I posit that in order to achieve what I believe to be our mutual end of advancing the cause and proliferation of humanism and discarding myth in the name of enlightenment and progress for all humankind, we as humanists have no other options. To continue on as we have teases and invites irrelevance, mockery, and condemnation. Specifically, I prescribe the following:

     For some apathetic atheists, it means being courageous enough to not shrink in the face of competition, scorn, derision, and challenge. It means educating yourself about what you believe. One should not be prepared to advance as belief an idea that one is not also prepared to defend. That doesn’t mean you have to look for people to argue with, or even debate everyone who disagrees with you: Richard Dawkins is somewhat infamous for flatly refusing even to sit down with some proponents of religious philosophy for the simple fact that be believes – and I agree – that it would be a waste of time to lock horns with people for whom even the most basic pre-facto assumptions are not shared. Many followers of the Christian texts hold close certain a priori assumptions about the cosmos and the function of the universe that a reasonable discussion about belief cannot be held with them as doing so would be, in effect, agreeing to have two different conversations about the same general topic, an idea on which I elaborated in my first post with the name of “Augustine’s Cataract”. What it does mean is that if an individual is going to plant their flag on an ideal or conviction, then that person should be willing and prepared to defend it. Marilyn Manson is quoted as saying “If they think that an artist can destroy their faith, then their faith is fragile.” If your convictions are built on sand, people are right to discount them. Unlike with theism, it isn’t enough to simply believe really hard. The early church father Tertullian defended his faith with the phrase “Credo quia absurdum”, or “I believe it because it is absurd”, and while this thought is not endorsed by the Catholic church proper, there are a great many monotheists of all kinds who espouse fideism as a virtue actually preferable to skepticism or empiricism, because, the thinking goes, faith in something absurd in the face of all the evidence to the contrary is no less than the supreme creator of the universe would ask of his children. This will not serve for us. Atheists must not be fideists. We must assert only that which we can demonstrate, speak of with some knowledge, and if needs be, defend, but should seek always to be in a position to assert all that which we hold as true.

     For some evangelical atheists, it will mean learning kindness, empathy, sympathy, patience, understanding, and calm. These are traits that all human beings should be capable of exhibiting and many need a deeper understanding of; I am not targeting my fellow unbelievers. But nowhere, except usually outside of war and riot, is the lack of these qualities more apparent than behind the anonymity furnished by the internet. To put a point on it, it is largely due to the repulsive bullying and posturing I’ve seen online that I was first prompted to write this essay at all, and that is why, in my introduction, I felt it necessary to distinguish my atheism from the sort that is acquired rather cheaply online. Again, this isn’t to dismiss humanism or unbelief that is purchased easily – we should all be so lucky, and I hope one day that we as a species will have advanced to a point that we will have discarded the practice of forcing mythology on children and allow them to come to conclusions about spirituality without indoctrination – but the distinction is important both because of the trials that lead me to that eventual state and because the anonymity and culture of the internet seems to breed a potentially very poisonous strain of humanism that, to be frank, must be exterminated.
     This strain I am speaking of, specifically, is a toxic form of “new” atheism that sneers not at ideas or doctrines, but at the people who hold practice them. It is an atheism that is aggressive, but only in making noise. Instead of encouraging people to seek truth and admire the majesty of the real, it bludgeons them over the head with data and derides them for not catching it between blows. Instead of providing a gentle, nurturing, and positive example and aiding others along the path, it sits scornful on a hilltop and mocks those who haven’t finished the climb yet. It claims special ownership of the Truth and disregards those who question, the very act by which they came to their understanding in the first place. It is an exclusionary in-group, the very thing that irreligiosity must never be, and a defeat of the very purpose of humanism. It is pompous, and cynical, and humorless, and clinical, and it inflicts those who catch it with a self-defeating phenotype that repels those who may be open to our ideas and inviting people of all creeds and religions, even other unbelievers, to dismiss our ideas, mock us, and compare atheists to the same religious zealots who are our enemies.
     This harmful form of atheism is common in the online world, and if it is not entirely accurate to say that it was birthed on sites like Something Awful, 4chan, and Reddit, it is at least without debate that it has reached maturity in those places. Atheists of this stripe are almost always young, white, heterosexual men. This archetype is so common, so pervasive that there are a number of memes that have entered the lexicon simply to describe it, and the template unbeliever can be conjured almost as easily as one would a “nerd” thirty years ago: male; white; heterosexual; between the ages of 15 and 35; very probably overweight or underweight; studious but likely does not perform well in school; had/has issues with being bullied or made fun of; possibly possessed of some mote of charisma or looks but does have overwhelming success at dating; frequently “friendzoned” by female associates; enjoys video games, books, music, film, games; commonly has facial hair; commonly wears a fedora, or trilby, or trenchcoat, or a lot of black, or some other anachronistic or curious article of clothing; florid, polysyllabic speech; smug atheist. This internet bugbear is earning – I repeat, earning – a reputation across the web for being an insular ogre that endlessly and noisily circlejerks with its compatriots, together a bellicose, loud, arrogant bunch of manchildren, fragile of ego, and lacking all credibility. Avoid at all costs.

     One could be forgiven for demanding, at this point, what exactly this has to do with the final portion of my evolution into an unbeliever. I appear to be jumping the gun a bit, after all. But as some of you have no doubt already guessed, the reason that I believe that I can speak with authority to both groups is because I have, in the varying stages of my metamorphosis into an adult human being, been at different times an apathetic atheist and an evangelical, a quiet pacifist and an antagonistic bully. It may only be thanks to the vagaries of probability and fortune that I am not one of the cringe-inducing misrepresentatives whom I now hope to reach; with a few details from the outline above changed, I could easily describe myself, as much at fifteen and twenty and twenty-five as I could now. And it’s not the absence of those details that distinguishes me from the mold: many of the people whom I speak of are successful with women, or of an average weight for their size, or academically brilliant, or aren’t straight, or are inclined towards sports, and still manage to be repulsive, off-putting intellectual bullies.
     What makes me so close to the individuals I now rail against is the underlying causes behind the archetype I described above: I was not popular, but I was smart. At the time, I had few role models, and even when I had friends, I felt isolated and alone. I felt insignificant, unremarkable, and was afraid that there was nothing special about me. I cleaved to my intellect, which seemed at the time to be the only edge that I was equipped with in the arms race that is high school social culture, and I sought out knowledge and secrets that would increase that edge. I wanted to be smart because I wanted to feel important, enough so that people would recognize me, and like me. I wanted people to want to be my friend and I wanted them to want to date me. I was sensitive, but guarded, and I hid behind affability, or humor, or seclusion, because it seemed to me an impossibility that I should reveal myself and not be hurt. I wanted those things that all people want: a sense of place in the world, brotherhood, respect, validation, intimacy with someone I loved, a feeling that I had something to contribute, and a feeling that I had a future ahead of me. When they were not forthcoming as I expected they would be, I substituted many things in their place.
     Yes, my friends, I think I know you. But that doesn’t make me special, either. We know each other. We are of a kind.

     The moment that I stopped calling myself a Christian was not so special. I was thirteen, and a friend had loaned me a copy of a book called The Principia Discordia, the holy text for what is either a joke disguised as a religion or a religion disguised as a joke which purports to worship Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos. I had decided recently that I was going to investigate the claims of divine knowledge posited by other faiths and had resolved to devour the world’s holy books. It was a matter of simple convenience and expediency that I started with Discordianism. Paradoxically, one could be a very good Discordian by ignoring the religion completely, so I thought it would be a fun and radically different faith to try on for my inaugural effort. Discordianism requires no belief in anything at all and admonishes adherents to disobey even their own commandments, which made it at once very freeing and also a totally pointless exercise, given that the goal was to explore theological landscapes seeking a measure of personal resonance. I continued to call myself a Discordian for years, but quickly moved on. In a sense, there is no reason I should not still be a Discordian now, since Discordians believe in no thing in particular. I could just as legitimately say that I still am, and there should be no conflict with my humanism or outright antitheism. Such is the nature of a joke disguised as a religion or a religion disguised as a joke.
     After my flirtation with Eris, it didn’t take long for me to visit the local library, check out, and digest the contents of the Bagavad Gita and several Vedas, the Qur’an, the Mahayana sutras, the Tanakh, and various books on spirituality and newer religions including various strains of Wicca, most especially Asatru. While I don’t mean to dismiss the religious traditions of the rest of the world with a wave of my hand, ultimately this story is about how I became an atheist, and the most significant step I made in that direction was away from the religion of my parents, so I won’t deconstruct my objections to the other major religions of the world. It’s enough for this essay to say that the time during which I tried on many new religions, hurled myself wholly into them, and rejected them lasted for three years, between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. I came to reject each of them for familiar reasons: the Abrahamic religions were all fruits of the same tree, so both Judaism and Islam were discounted shortly after I digested their holy texts; the Book of Mormon was read almost entirely for the sake of morbid curiosity; I came to understand Hinduism academically, but the values and precepts were alien and inscrutable to me, and it seemed plain to me that Hinduism was meant to flourish communally; Buddhism was an exercise in frustration as I had (and still have) no talent for meditation and the more I read of its beliefs, the more I came to balk at the implications; and while Wicca, neopaganism, and even Asatru seemed to be more or less in keeping with my morality and reflective of my cultural heritage, all smacked of little more than wishful thinking, and no ceremony I ever attended or ritual I ever took part in appeared to have any effect at all other than making willing participants eager to fantasize towards a unified end.
     In the end, I encountered in all these faiths the same problems that I had in Christianity: they raised scores of unanswerable questions and proffered only unsatisfying paeans for the questions it purported to answer, required unreasonable suspension of both observable reality and of my personal values, demanded submission of my free will in the name of an inscrutable and convoluted higher purpose, and most significantly, whether I was singing at church, or kneeling in Salat, or attending synagogue, or standing before a bonfire in the woods, or kneeling at a shrine to Ganesh, or attending the exultations of ceremony at the admittedly beautiful City of 10,00 Buddhas, in all cases, I felt nothing.

     My intended worldwide tour of religious practices had mostly run its course by the time I was fifteen and invested heavily, at the time, in the neopaganistic form of Asatru, a Scandinavian variant of Germanic neopaganism that venerates the Venir, gods of what is commonly known as “Norse mythology”. More than any religion I practiced before, I liked Asatru. I liked the Norse gods, and the community, and the ethics espoused (and in case it need be said, I am aware of the unfortunate connections between some Asatru practitioners and white supremacist groups, but obviously this wasn’t a part of anything I was involved with), but again, after months of fairly heavy investment, it nonetheless all rang false: hollow. What followed was, I am convinced, something that followed for a lot of disenfranchised former Christian teenagers in the 90’s and even up through today, and a natural extension of my hunger for a feeling of meaning, significance, and importance so as to fight back the gnawing ache of irrelevance: I got into black magic.

A Defense of ‘New Atheism’ Part I: Hollow

     At the age of eleven, at a time when I was still mired in the thick of my parents’ very bitter parting of ways, I was sent to a religious summer camp. It was here that I experienced the initial pang of indignation that would eventually lead me to reject my faith altogether.
     Despite having already begun to question my beliefs, I was excited about the prospect of camp. As someone who has traveled a few continents and the majority of the contiguous United States, let me assure you, reader, that from my experience, there is nowhere on this majestic sphere that the quality and quantity of camping space overlaps so greatly as in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Camping in the region in which I was raised is the Platonic ideal of camping, the camping experience from which all other camping experiences are borne and therefore only pale shadows of. We have a profusion of fish and wildlife, the weather is mild, the land is beautiful, and one can rest their head in the shadow of Sequoia sempervirens trees hundreds of years older than the British Empire and taller than three blue whales laid out end to end. Being a child and having never camped anywhere else, except perhaps at my grandfather’s ranch in Idaho, in no way diminished my appreciation for the great outdoors. It is fair to say that I was excited to go to camp.
     I will not belabor my experiences at camp cranking out every last, wretched detail, because very little that happened during that two weeks is of any long-term import. It was, as I mentioned, a Christian summer camp of the same hue as the school and church I attended, and at the time was still very much a pious Christian, albeit one with a host of percolating questions on my mind. The reason I want to address this experience at all is because of what happened my last evening there, the virgin spark of spiritual iconoclasm that I have alluded to.

     My father dropped me off early on the first day, and I was introduced to my cabin leader, a diabetic meathead who looked like a very young Dolph Lundgren and was, despite his unnecessary intensity, a decent enough fellow, who took me to me bunk to meet the largely normal group of boys with whom I would spend the next two weeks.  Days at a Christian camp were what one might expect: the usual spate of outdoor activities, camp food, cookouts, bonfires, sports, crafts, telling stories, all of which interspersed with mandatory prayers and church services in the morning, afternoon, and evening. And aside from those parts, which were dull in spite of being geared towards someone of my age, I had an enjoyable time. I developed a crush on a girl whom I cannot remember and who at the time I was too bashful to even speak to and made fast friends with a cadre of boys whom I have not spoken to since. I even participated in those religious activities, when they were actually fun: scavenger hunts where the clues were found in bible verses, writing a song for our cabin, writing and performing brief skits, making a flag. I groaned a little at waking each morning to spend an hour in devotion, but in this I was apparently not different from the other boys in my bunk.
     The least fun to be had was always at the nighttime service. Boys and girls were separated into a long barn divided down the center by a wall of planks. On both sides of either half of the room was a bench, wide enough to put your elbows on if you knelt in front of it, but not wide enough to sit comfortably. During nighttime service, we would spend half an hour in sermon and then be escorted to the barn, where we were instructed to pray. Pray, and pray, and continue to pray, for around an hour and a half, every night. I remember much of that long, lantern-lit , earthen-floored hall filled with straw and grumbling, sweaty boys bent over, hands wringing together, eyes shut tight, muttering, and the grown men who would mill about the room, putting their hands on our shoulders or back or legs and pray over us in loud, shrill, almost exhausted voices. This groveling was uncomfortable beyond even what I was capable of playing along with. By the second night, I had located and secured a place on the inside wall where I could see through a small knothole to the girl’s side of the barn. I was simultaneously discouraged and enheartened to see that they seemed no better off than us, with their ordeal on the other side of the wall being merely a gender-flipped reflection of our own.
     On the third or fourth night, I met the gaze of a young girl. She was taller than me by around a foot and probably a few years older, with long, messy brown hair tied off in two thick ropes, one to either side of her neck. I saw her, and she saw me back. I panicked momentarily, feeling guilty not only for having been away from the appointed task of fervent prayer, but also because my eleven year-old boy’s brain interpreted the brief flickering of attraction I felt for this girl as the hobgoblin of sinful and shameful lust. A shiver shot up my spine and I hurried to look away, but before I could, I caught her looking back at me, smiling. I was instantly smitten, and thereafter spent every night anticipating seeing her. For her part, she seemed to enjoy my silent company, as well, as she always returned to the same spot, and after the second night of seeing each other it became silently agreed upon that we would meet at the usual place. I never found her during the day, as the emphasis on segregating the two sexes at camp was of a kind generally only found in orthodox synagogues. I mentioned this young lady above when I said that I was too shy to speak to her. This is the truth, but it is also not a tested one; I never saw her outside the confines of that barn, sharing a knowing smile through a crack in some wood, the look on her face mirroring mine, as though to say “You, too, huh?” in a moment of shared catharsis.

     We campers knew well in advance that there was going to be something special happening the last night of camp. We had been told for a week that the counselors had planned a big event that was going to absolutely blow all of our juvenile minds. My bunkmates and I were nervous and giddy for days leading up to it, knowing that part of the evening’s festivities would include letting us know which cabin had accumulated the most points from camp activities during their stay, and more tantalizingly, what the reward for victory might be. We all had our theories; I do not remember mine. Nor do I know what the prize actually was, if ever there was one, because it was never handed out.
     Let me be clear that I do not feel cheated because I thought we would have won. I was aware from the third day of camp that I had been placed in a bunk with boys who were similarly doughy or scrawny or sickly, and while we had a wit and an intellect between us, none of us were cut out for the vigorous physical activity that is a staple of summer camp competition. It was simply that I wanted to see what it was we had all been tallying all those points for.
     The last evening of camp, at the appointed time, all the children were brought together under a canopy that spread out from a small bandstand on the campgrounds. A number of small fire pits were waiting for us, and we were given marshmallows and told to go get sticks for roasting, which we did. I was ecstatic. I thought, at last, I might see my mystery girl in this informal, coed gathering, once the ceremony was over, and was looking forward to an evening of songs and stories and bonding with my friends and roasting marshmallows before we were all forced to return to our homes the following day; returning home being a sentence that, for me, was something less than an unmitigated relief. As an adult, there are days where I would trade much for another night like the one I believed I was in store for.
     What followed instead sounds like some religious perversion of the first line of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: We had been roasting marshmallows for five minutes when our head counselor began to speak in tongues.

     Those of you unfamiliar with some branches of Christianity may not know to what I am referring, so I shall try to be brief. There are strains of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian sects that believe that once an individual has fulfilled a certain amount of requisite piety that they will be “filled with the Holy Spirit”, which is to say, suffused with the mystical, tertiary member of the triune that is Yahweh, which is broken up into its celestial (Yahweh, the Father), terrestrial (Jesus, the Son) and spiritual (the Holy Spirit) components. Men and women so entered by the Holy Spirit mark this brush with the ineffable through physical spasms that sometimes border on seizures and, most especially, the sudden manifestation of glossolalia, a private or celestial “language” spoken either between oneself and one’s Maker only, or else a celestial language spoken by all heavenly creatures. There is much debate even within these splinters of Christianity what speaking in tongues entails, what it means, how it occurs, or even what it is. Obviously, modern science gives us more compelling and reasonable answers: recent studies have shown that the phenomenon is not associated with the part of the brain responsible for speech or language at all, and is most likely what is referred to as a “learned behavior”, which is to say, a simple aping of the behavior of individuals willing to teach. It is functionally no more profound or complex than monkey see, monkey do, and it has been observed that church congregations that practice speaking in tongues seem to have very similar forms of glossolalia, almost as though congregants were cobbling together a false language patterned after another false language they heard, in the way that one might make fun of another man’s accent or language by heavily accenting sounds common to the language’s structure. Of the subject of speaking in tongues I will say no more, but instead defer to the admittedly false huckster child evangelist Marjoe, who as an adult returned to the pulpit to expose the tricks of his trade:

“Tongues is something you learn,” he emphasized. “It is a releasing that you teach yourself. You are told by your peers, the church, and the Bible – if you accept it literally – that the Holy Ghost speaks in another tongue; you become convinced that it is the ultimate expression of the spirit flowing through you. The first time maybe you’ll just go dut-dut-dut-dut, and that’s about all that will get out. Then you’ll hear other people and next night you may go dut-dut-dut-UM-dut-DEET-dut-dut, and it gets a little better. The next thing you know, it’s ela-hando-satelay-eek-condele-mosandrey-aseya … and it’s a new language you’ve got down.”

     As I mentioned, our head counselor, a reverend in his own right, began to speak in tongues, eyes clenched as tight as fists, face directed skyward. We campers were permitted to finish the marshmallow on our stick and then quickly herded into small prayer circles, each lead by the counselor who oversaw our cabin. The purpose was made explicit to us; in tones that seemed very menacing to me at the time, we were told that we were going to pray as a group until each member had been “filled with the Holy Spirit”. We circled up, locked arms, and began to pray.
     We prayed for hours. After the first, one member of our cadre broke into tears, his face contorting into an expression that I still do not know to be reflective of agony or ecstasy, but I have never forgotten it, in any case. He yelled, bawling, “I’ve been filled!”, and was then directed to speak in tongues over another camper who had not yet reached their quota. I was reminded of what a curious turn of phrase it was employed to describe someone of whom the Holy Spirit had entered: “filled”. What was I, then? Empty? Hollow?
     The whole affair made me very, very uncomfortable, standing there for two hours, muttering “Please” over and over again. I think at the time, I meant it in earnest. I wanted to feel the touch of the divine. I wanted to experience what everyone else seemed to be feeling. I tried my hardest. Two hours later, I was exhausted, bored, and wanted desperately to escape.
     I lied.
     God wasn’t coming. Somewhere around ninety minutes into the dreadful affair, that seemed clear. I spent half an hour trying to find a way out, but as my fellow campers succumbed, one by one, to speaking in babble, I was among the last that remained standing, an ever-increasing cluster of men and women and boys and girls speaking gibberish engulfing me. It was vaguely terrifying, if I am honest. And so, given the situation, I did what I believed to be the only reasonable thing: I started talking whatever bollocks gibberish I could come up with off the top of my head.
     The men around me exulted. They cheered, and congratulated me, and hurriedly pulled me and all of the people around us away to go pray over some other unfortunate boy who hadn’t yet managed to devise an escape. I stood and spoke gibberish for another hour and at last, sometime after midnight, we were congratulated and sent to bed. I returned to my cabin, frustrated, hollow, and for the first time in my life, I felt genuine, sincere indignation about the faith that had been imposed upon me.
     “This is stupid”, I thought to myself, bitterly. “This is stupid.”
     It is impossible to know how my life would have turned out had even one of the many details that compile my past had fallen in a different direction. It is possible, given where and when and how I grew up, that I might have spent my life as an evangelical Christian of the kind around which I was raised. This moment in my memory, however, indicates to me that there is something within me that could not be a believer, no matter the time or place. But perhaps I am wrong. In any case, I was driven home from camp the following day, and I remember very distinctly a weak, flickering thought beginning to throb at the back of my skull during the hours of contemplative silence that made up the ride home: “Is it all stupid? Do I just believe what I’m told to believe?”

     All this, one might say, exhibits clear motive for a perceived grievance against the Almighty, a smoking gun against God. My childhood was taken from me largely due to the intercession of despicable and wicked men and women who imposed themselves into my parents’ already acrimonious divorce proceedings, resulting in my father becoming a stranger to me and my life being made difficult through the severed lines of communal support to my mother. Why shouldn’t I hate God?
     Believers who would question the motives of my unbelief and fellow unbelievers alike, please take note: I do not have it in me to hate any of these people. They were occasionally (and often) stupid, cruel, and wicked, and there is no way to calculate the damage done to my childhood, other children, and entire families from their toxic meddling in affairs over which they could claim only a divine warrant to adjudicate. I hate the things that they did.

     But I do not hate them. Most men and women are capable of great evil, but I do not believe that the great majority of them set out with that purpose. Hanlon’s razor cautions us to “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” And while I should state it plain that I believe that all theistic beliefs – especially those that would cause a man to harm or, through inaction, allow harm to come to another – are fundamentally stupid throwbacks from the ignorant and fearful infancy of our species, I would humbly submit that humans are also capable of great malice through ignorance, and fear, and hatred, and mistake, and blind submission, all of which were instruments in the murder ballad of my childhood. Mary Wollstonecroft paints this even more eloquently in her A Vindication of the Rights of Men when she writes:

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”

     I am not an expert on morality, and I would provisionally assent to the idea that there are people on this planet who are not psychopaths but are primarily selfish and involved chiefly in their own interest at the expense of anyone in their out-group, but I imagine that even such sociopathic histrionics are undertaken with the pretense of “I have to look out for my own.” It is therefore that I cannot bring myself to hate these sometimes stupid, ignorant, fearful, hateful, mistaken, submissive men and women. Leaving aside arguments about free will and probability (they are well beyond the scope of this address), who among us can say that they have never been these things, at no time and no place and with no people? We are flawed to the last, and some of us are fortunate and dedicated and smart enough to redress those flaws so that we do not end our lives in a self-created quagmire of hatred and regret. What I can expect, and what, indeed, I think we all should expect – is that people be held accountable for their actions, regardless of the pretense under which they conducted themselves. In this respect, these individuals, too, have much to answer for. I do not forgive them, as it happens; one must exhibit remorse to be forgiven. I still consider them my enemies. And well I should! We fight for different things. But I do not hate them. I hate those things inside themselves that compel them to conduct themselves in so barbarous and selfish a fashion.

     In spite of my experiences with the church, and my school, and camp, and my father and mother, it can be said that I remained a Christian until the age of twelve or thirteen. While I had begun to question the canon of my beliefs and had developed many grievances with my brothers and sisters in Christ, as a boy of twelve I had not yet disposed of the husk of Christianity that remained for me. As late as that year, I recommitted myself to my religious belief and implored God to reveal himself to me.

     I felt nothing. There was nothing there to feel, I simply did not know it yet.

A Defense of ‘New Atheism’ Part I: Latchkey

     As I mentioned in my last entry, I did not turn away from religion because of the troubling time I had at religious school, though the time during which I lost my faith and embraced something else eclipses a portion of the time I spent there.

     It is common to think of a break with God as being dramatic: clean, after some traumatic or ecstatic awakening. This is for two reasons, I think: first, people in all places and times, and from all cultures and groups seem to have a need of drama and pathos in their lives, ‘Defining Moments’ to which they can point to and say “There. There is the mark at which things became different.” Such moments make for better anecdotes, and more importantly, the human brain is, despite its marvels, a fairly blunt tool when it comes to the categorizing and retaining of long-term memories. Being able to point to a Defining Moment allows us to better retain our mental hold on important shifts in our life that we may otherwise forget if they existed as a slow cascade of small changes. This is something that our brains do unconsciously, whether we are aware of it or not, as modern neuroscience has shown us. Nobody should feel morally responsible for this sifting, sorting, and organizing of information that we do unawares, and indeed, many of our stories are better for it, if not completely accurate. Because of this subconscious economization of our headspace, events such as relationships beginning or ending, changes in career, changes in ideology, and other lifestyle occurrences are frequently misremembered by our species as a singular happening rather than as a gradual accumulation of factors that finally tipped the scales in another direction.
     But this need for the pathos and ecstasy of a Defining Moment seems to me especially true of the religious, most specifically those who came to religion after adolescence, as adopting theism very frequently is a Defining Moment, taken up in while in the throes of despair. Even an atheist can readily conjure the template: “There I was. My wife had left me, I’d been fired from my job, I’d just been picked up for selling drugs. All my friends had either screwed me over or given up on me. Even my family wanted nothing to do with me! I never thought I’d see my kids again, but then…I found Jesus.” This stereotype of the born-again Christian exists for a reason, and each one an emulation of the dramatic conversions recounted in biblical texts, be they that of Solomon, Moses, the Apostle Peter, Saul of Tarsus, the Samaritans, the people of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, Abraham, the eunuch of Ethiopia, the jailer at Phillipi, Crispus of Corinth, the unnamed thief at Calvary, or any of the scores of dramatic conversions recounted in the biblical texts both before and after the presence of Jesus in the manuscript. This is deliberate. All religions speak of “rebirth” and of being “born again”. This is the Defining Moment, and the religious have used this understanding of the nature of men to make their mental mark of the minds of the credulous and desperate for millennia. The surge of ecclesiastic bliss that accompanies this moment is now well understood by science as a flood of serotonin, and can be similarly created by combinations of sex, drugs, food, physical torment, and other extremes of pleasure and pain.
     Evidence of how well this phenomenon was understood by our ancestors can be readily found in accounts of the cult of the Muslim Grandmaster Hassan-i Sabbah and his cabal of assassins (our word “assassin” is derived from the name of this man), specifically his fida’i, or “self-sacrificing agents”. The fida’i were Hassan’s most potent weapon, a man to whom death was a welcome reward for the successful butchery of their lord’s target. Marco Polo wrote on the fervor and conviction of these men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their master’s goals during his travels in the Orient, and claimed that Sabbah’s trick to breeding this loyalty involved drugging his young followers with hashish and then spiriting them away to a luxurious area Sabbah had prepared with decadent food and women who would pleasure them in their stupor. With his candidate delirious with pleasure and drugs, Sabbah would tell the adherent that he had been taken to paradise, and that he would one day return on the condition that he served faithfully. Thus were Sabbah’s most faithful and devoted servants crafted. Whether Polo’s account is true or not, it obviates the fact that men have known how to fabricate feelings of religious ecstasy in the minds of the impressionable and capitalize on that for their own ends for millennia.
     The narrative of the Defining Moment as it relates to so-called “born again” Christians is so pervasive and ubiquitous that the retort to the old wheel about “finding Jesus” comes almost as easily as the original declaration: “Why is it people only find Jesus in the gutter? Why does the Lord seem to be absent from the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange, or Park Avenue, or Beverly Hills?” No doubt even the believers have anticipated this objection already, whether they have a counter for it or not, so many times has this dialog been repeated.

     But my separation from theism was not clean, or fast, and instead took years of thinking and reading and seeking and trying to understand. Again I feel compelled to point out that during my adolescence, there was no atheistic echo chamber for a young man to curse in, and all of the heroes of freethought were either inaccessible to me, nascent, or long dead; I came to my conclusions from a place of relative innocence, specifically because at the time and place that I made the journey, I had to make it alone. There was no choice.
     I want to explain the journey that lead me to that place, because my core thesis concerns the way that I approach my belief as a social creature, and the way in which I would encourage others to comport themselves regarding their beliefs. This is largely a matter of persuasion, not empiricism, and the strength of my assertion stands on my character: it is buttressed by what I believe to be sound logical points, but ultimately I must convince you that I am a qualified authority on the subject that I address despite the fact that you may not know me, or, knowing me, knowing that I have no credentials or endorsements with which to stake an intellectual claim. I therefore feel it prudent to vivisect my beliefs, my motives, and the reasons I have to hold them.

     My earliest childhood memories are of going to church. I know that many people have written of their church experiences before and speak of the family bonding, or the communal sense of togetherness, of feeling the touch of the ineffable, or even simply of the pageantry of the affair. Church didn’t represent any of those things for me. Church was simply boring.
     Do not pretend to be surprised! Church is boring to a child, and it requires an exceptionally vapid child or an exceptionally thick adult to think otherwise. It need not be qualified that my experiences predate an era in which a portable entertainment system could be found in the hands of every five year-old; short of external entertainment sources or the banal Punch and Judy shows of ‘Sunday School’, church primarily involves sitting in uncomfortable pews while grown-ups talk and sing and listen to another grown-up who stands on a podium. I understand, also, that I am speaking of a uniquely white, Protestant type of church experience, but I am not convinced that Catholic or Muslim or Jewish or Mennonite or southern Baptist toddlers are much better off. Church is not “for” children.
     As I mentioned previously, my parents were Christians, in the way that lower-class Americans tend to default to Christianity. There’s a joke circulated around the internet about how the religion of your parents is like Internet Explorer, and you only have it because you can’t be buggered to find something else. It shouldn’t be controversial to point out that there’s a massive statistical correlation between where a person was raised and the faith that they ascribe to: the overwhelming majority of the human species adopts the religious beliefs of their parents, community elders, or whomever it is that they look up to as role models. This is a fairly obvious fact, and one that implies a good deal about the nature of religion in general. My mother and father moved to the town in which I was raised very shortly before I was born, and coming from their respective backgrounds as children of American Default Protestantism parents and a position of near poverty, it was a reasonable and wise decision to avail themselves of the community, fellowship, and support of one of the local church congregations. So we went to church.

     I will not lay bare the lives of my parents as fodder for this essay. But as the events that occurred at this time in my life were largely predicated by their actions, it would be irresponsible and false to leave them completely out of it. What I will say, in the way of setting the stage, is that before I was eight years old, my mother was a housewife, a young woman of fewer years than I am as I write this, and a singer. She sings wonderfully, in fact, and from the time I was born until the events which I am about to relay, she primarily sang in the choir of the church we attended. She was friends with many members of the church and was grateful for the sense of community and belonging it gave her, as well as the opportunity to sing. My father was older than I am now, and while I do not remember the specifics very well, I know enough in retrospect to say that he was fond of his motorcycle and susceptible to some of the vices for which motorcycle enthusiasts are known. He and my mother fought frequently, up until she left him. I was eight when that happened.
     It was not until I was well into my 20’s that I became aware of how very ugly the divorce that followed was. I know that few divorces are settled amicably, but until I was twenty-five and discussing the matter with other children of divorce, I did not understand the full scope and breadth of exactly how comparatively fucking awful our family’s rupturing had been. It is not germane to this essay to recall it in lurid detail: there were screaming matches, and broken hearts, and assaults, and bitter court disputes, and therapy, and acts of petty vengeance, and periods of homelessness, and frequent visitations by local law enforcement, and brief undernourishment, and custody battles, and years of frustration and scorn on both sides, and holidays skipped for the sake of simply not being able to afford them, and poverty, and poverty, and poverty, and myself and my sister being latchkey kids, for me between the years of eight and sixteen, or the whole of my childhood as I can remember it.
     It may be surprising to read – it is a little surprising to write – that none of those things meant much to how I felt about God. At this point I could be said to have still been a believer, insofar as a child can be, but the idea that God had some bearing on the proceedings never entered my head. I know it would be appropriate for me to say that this is the point, during this terrible, dreadful rending asunder of my family during which I was lost and alone and confused and torn between the two people I cared most about in the world, is the point at which I began to question the will of a divine and omnibenevolent force, but the truth is, even I could see rather plainly that my parents were not doing each other or myself and my sister any service by remaining together, and while the initial shock of the incident made me hope that things would simply not change, it soon became apparent that things would change, regardless. After that brief spasm of childish fear of the future, to wish that they remain together for my benefice seemed sinister and rather selfish, and a defiance of free will, and so even the thought that I should implore God to make them love each other again never occurred to me. Nor did the inherent unfairness of it all, the idea that my family should be thrown into such turmoil and my life to be upheaved, provoke me to seek divine justice. It seemed to me that events were unfolding exactly as you would expect they would given the players, the circumstances, the setting, and any request for divine intervention was tantamount to asking for mind control.
     In the wake of these events, of an age to be old enough to understand everything that was happening but still too young to have any agency over the events that unfolded, I remained a believer, and I called on God for the strength and temperance to endure what would come.

     Of my parents, I will say as little as possible. Both of them did what they believed was best at the time, of that I have no doubt. However, it is both factual and relevant to the discussion to point out that after my mother left my father, we were quite poor. There was a period of some years where she worked many jobs concurrently to keep us fed, which meant that I was more or less left to raise myself. Eventually she chose to date again, and while I do not begrudge her this, it was a difficult thing to cope with as a small child, not because I was opposed to my mother dating, but because her schedule and our level of poverty meant spending even more time alone or with mom’s boyfriends, none of whom I much cared for until she started dating the man to whom she is now married.
My father had a crisis of self and became a born-again Christian; his Defining Moment was my mother leaving him. He sought succor in the church, which decided that because my mother had left him, she was in the wrong. She was cut off, excommunicated on a local level, and this fact contributed greatly to the poverty we experienced in the aftermath as my mother was functionally black-balled by the churchgoing congregation of a small town. My father had a total reversal of character. In some ways he became a much better father, in the sense that he was more involved, and cared about what I was doing, and who I was spending time with. On the reverse, his admonitions against all things secular and the muscularly evangelical version of Christianity to which he succumbed made him a stranger to me for years to follow. It was only after he, too, remarried and calmed down somewhat that we have been able to make peace and embrace each other as family, but by then I was an adult, and living in New York.

     While there was in no sense a way in which my father and mother could have parted ways without strife, I blame our local church congregation for much of the tumult that followed. Our local reverend took advantage of my father’s personal crisis to indoctrinate him into an intolerant, sanctimonious, hateful strain of Christianity and coached him to simultaneously both rebuke the woman who left him while suing for reconciliation. In this, our pastor was aided by the church, which in no mean sense took a side in a bitter private dispute and then used its resources to seriously weigh the odds in one participant’s favor. What followed was nearly a decade-long game wherein the church and the administrators at my school (two groups that contained considerable overlap) coached one parent against another, with my sister and myself in the role of the ball. This sport was one of the chief reasons that my teen years took the direction they did, but that, too, is something I will discuss later.

(cont.)

(Note: As written, this entry was overlong by double. I’ll be publishing the second half of this entry next week.)

A Defense of ‘New Atheism’ Part I: The Little Fool

     It would smack of insincerity or special pleading to make a case for my beliefs without paying some attention to the circumstances under which I adopted them, and, perhaps more tellingly, the circumstances under which I came to reject those beliefs that had been given to me by my parents.  Moreover, I think there’s something to be said about belief and believers and how we deal with them that I can pull from my personal history with religiosity, so that is where I will begin.

     I have been accused of “hating God”, and this very accusation is commonly employed against those who espouse a form of antitheism, defined in this case by the Oxford English Dictionary as “One opposed to belief in the existence of a god.”  This assertion is false in the first, and lame in the second, as I hope to demonstrate, but I believe I understand why it is so commonly employed: as a believer, belief in such a deity means rejection of a worldview that functions without that deity.  One internalizes the truth that God is a necessary part of the equation.  Once this belief is adopted, the entertaining of hypothetical scenarios to the contrary becomes apparently rather difficult, like some malign reversal of Occam’s razor.  Rather than reducing all propositions to the most succinct, the most economical, this worldview unnecessarily adds in an irrelevant and unrelated additional quantity to every possible discussion.

     Sir William Hamilton employed the metaphor of the scalpel to describe Occam’s principle of economy; I shall thus refer to this inability to look at any aspect of reality through a lens other than the one affixed to ones eyes as “Augustine’s cataract”, which I name for Augustine of Hippo.  Doubtlessly you will have ample examples from your own life of people with which conversations addressing the mystical or religious were ground to an obdurate halt because one or more participants made plain, implicitly or directly, an absolute inability to take even as hypothetical the idea that some of their core assumptions should be false.  This is Augustine’s cataract in action; a malignant growth that colors and obscures everything the afflicted individual experiences.  I would be remiss if I did not comment that scalpels are frequently employed in the removal of cataracts.  And this is not to say that atheists should be exempted from this rigidity in thought, only that from my own life I have few examples of the latter being the case, but when speaking with believers I am fairly spoilt for choice.  In all cases, and regardless of belief, this betrays a lack of both imagination and empathy, and does a disservice to those who would intend to debate really any subject at all.

     Specifically, it can be said that when one fulfills the criteria of: belief in a theistic deity, and adoption of a worldview that is contingent upon that deity’s existence, and an unwillingness or inability to bring to bear the empathy and imagination required to momentarily understand how another might think or see the world, then it is logical, within that twisted framework, to claim that people who do not worship any gods or are opposed to the edifice of religion should “hate God”.  God exists, and therefore any refutation of his existence must be nothing but the bawling and thrashing of an angry child.  To the one making the assertion, the existence of this deity is an internalized and irrefutable truth that cannot be countered even as an abstract.  Indeed, I know many who would call this “denying God in my heart” and simply refuse in principal.  Richard Dawkins speaks with some credibility when he refers to religion as an especially virulent and robust meme, and one marvels to be reminded of the many internal mechanisms that police even the thoughts and feelings of those so afflicted.  The reality of being human, of which a part is that following admonishments against even the thought of wrong-doing is not possible, makes this all the more perverse.

     I cannot speak for all people who I would provisionally call my brothers and sisters in our opposition to religion, but it is my hope that, in my case, I can show that the path that lead me to unbelief was difficult, and painful, and gave me reason enough to turn against the God of my parents, but that ultimately the reasons that I walked it were for reasons that I found and still find to be affirming of life, humane, and the only intellectually honest one available.

     I do not “hate God”, but I am glad that no such deity exists, and so should we all.

     In early 1987, I was six.  My father was a salesman for a restaurant distribution company for which he used to drive a truck.  My mother stayed at home.  We lived in a trailer park in rural northern California, in a town on the borderlands between Napa Valley’s vineyards and Humboldt County’s marijuana plantations, population five thousand, and not another town for twenty minutes in any direction.  Living on the east coast for most of my adult life has made me realize what a rare thing it is to truly have no other towns nearby, and makes me wonder if children who grew up in the dense sprawl of the New York – Philadelphia – Washington corridor can relate to the childish conceit that everything is far away and your town is functionally All There Is.  It’s almost like living on television.

     I was just about to enter school for the first time.  I remember a meeting at what was at the time our town’s only grade school, attended by myself, my mother, and my father.  My parents had observed that I was a bright and studious boy (a quality I no doubt share with many other intellectually precocious children, and one that I concede grants me no claim to any special deference as an adult) and had brought me before some administrator to see if there was any form of advanced educational program they might enroll me in.  For reasons that I assume owe much to the time and place in which I grew up, no such program existed.  My parents were encouraged by a friend from church to instead enroll me in a new local Christian school, presumably under the assumption that a private school would offer a better, more well-rounded, more personal education.  At the time, both my parents imbibed a form of gentle, noncommittal, lower class, white, American Christianity, so a private school with a side of religious education seemed to them just the thing, I am sure.

     It would be easy – and no doubt expected – to say that going to the private Christian school somehow fundamentally warped my sensibilities and ruined my childhood, and that the malformations of my boyhood education turned me away from faith in God, but the truth is far from that mark, and a good deal more gray and complicated, like most things.  I attended that school from the age of six until the age of thirteen, shortly before the school at last was forced to close its doors for lack of funding, when for various reasons I decided I wanted to attend the public high school.  And while my experiences were no doubt unique to some extent, I do not feel, in retrospect, that my overall childhood school experience was all that much worse or better than anyone else’s on account of my time at school.  Perhaps I am wrong!  I was only a child once.

     I did, as it happens, receive a good deal of attention from my teachers at school, and as a boy who was fortunate in that I was predisposed to care about learning, I tended to excel at my studies.  After a couple years of sticking with the established curriculum I was freed and permitted to go at my own pace, and more than once threatened to skip grades entirely, an idea that was rejected each time on the basis that I needed to maintain a consistent peer group.  I received high marks throughout elementary school, primary school, and junior high, and I was rewarded for my efforts by parents and teachers.  I was encouraged to read, to write, and to draw, which I did voraciously, and the limited pool of talent from which our very small school of some thirty children on average could pull ensured that I also was afforded the opportunity to sing and act onstage.  It is ironic, in fact, that the tools of language and reasoning that I now employ in the service of nonbelief were most carefully and rigorously imparted to me during my formative years at a Christian school.  Like Christopher Hitchens, who also was subjected to religious education in his boyhood, I was encouraged to study my bible verses so as to better understand their meaning, and like Christopher Hitchens, this exercise appears to have had the reverse effect on me.  Even as a boy of ten or eleven, a thorough reading of the Christian holy texts turned up passages that I had considerable difficulty reconciling with my understanding of Christianity as a religion of peace and brotherly love.  Thanks to this intense focus on language, humanities, and rhetoric, when I eventually left that school and joined the local public school, I found myself naturally excelling in history, language, social sciences, public speaking, and art.

     However, many very unpleasant or very stupid things also happened at this school during the years I attended, and there is much that the administrators of that now defunct institution should be made to answer for.  To begin with only the least of the harmful and ignorant disservices done to students under their care, my fundamental understanding of science and mathematics was anemic to the point that I nearly failed those classes entirely when I entered the public school system.  Our math lessons were taught by an unctuous reverend who to my knowledge had no special understanding of math (and whose daughter I had a hopelessly unrequited crush on); science was taught out of pre-approved evangelical Christian textbooks intended for homeschooling, nauseatingly called “Lifepacs”, which focused intensely on Young Earth Creationist view of pseudoscience that eschewed addressing subjects such as geology, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and physics.  As I entered years seven and eight of my schooling and those topics became unavoidable, they were outright misrepresented and lies were given as fact.  I was nearly twenty before I came to understand that men and dinosaurs did not coexist.  I leave it to you to reread that sentence as necessary so as to register your shock.  This fact has a wrinkle of humor to it now, but I remember as a child of five being possessed of some zeal at the thought of being a paleontologist, a word which I was proud to know at that green age.  Like many little boys, I had an obsession with dinosaurs, and was something of an insufferable little academician about them, recalling with ease their common and scientific names, their diet and hunting habits, and the different geological epochs that comprised the age of those terrible lizards.  I had a great love of science and was committed to its pursuit, a rare and wondrous thing to see in a boy of five.  School put a fast end to that.  All the books I had owned up until that point were scientifically accurate as we understood the facts at the time: perforce, they were replaced with Creationist tomes that showed Adam naming Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Garden of Eden, substituting scientific inquiry for “God killed the dinosaurs in the flood, and that is all you need to know.”  Looking back, it is impossible to know what might have happened to that little boy had his interest in science been kindled and encouraged rather than smothered under Creationist stupidity, but speaking only for what I know of myself, I grieve to think that the study of the natural world was lost to me almost entirely until I started reading science again, on my own, and only after having graduated high school, and subsequently entering and then leaving college altogether.

     Each day at school began with Bible class.  Given the nature of the school, this seems, on the face, obvious and of little import.  Though looking back, I feel a truly needless amount of time each day was spent in pitiable obsequities to Lord God, including three pledges, a round of hymns, Bible class, and, once I reached the age at which most children begin to realize their sexuality, a Bible-centric “peer” class in which we were instructed to read articles and morality plays and then made to discuss them at some length.  By the time I was in grade seven, just shy of half of the day’s events was given over to religious indoctrination.  I would be hard pressed to put together a more educationally useless curriculum that could still pass even the least outside scrutiny.  This would be bad enough if it was merely a waste of time and of the very hard-won money that my lower-middle class family had earmarked – at considerable expense – for what was to be a better education, but when it is further observed that much of this time was spent instilling in me a hatred and distrust of my fellow human beings, this practice smacks of more than mere lazy cupidity and becomes simple evil.  Routinely I was taught that everyone outside my camp was bane and unclean: homosexuals defied God’s laws; fornicators had sinned against the condemnations set down by Jesus Christ; Catholics worshiped the Virgin Mary; Muslims worshiped a demon who called itself ‘Allah’; Buddhists worshiped Siddharta as a god and believed only in annihilation; secular rock musicians had signed pacts with diabolical powers for fame and influence and were drug users and fornicators to the last; hippies (a common feature of the cultural landscape in Northern California) were in league with dark powers and espoused feminism, homosexuality, and fornication; scientists preached evolution and atheism and devoted their lives to tearing down the majesty of God’s design; the Jews, of course, had slain our Lord Jesus Christ, but were to be tolerated because they were God’s “chosen people”.  If this sounds quite a bit to you like the especially thuggish and intolerant Christianity of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, that is because it is.

     To add to the list of sins yet to be redressed, it is worth mentioning that many of the teachers were unaccredited bullies who took advantage of a loophole concerning private and religious educational institutions to become employed as teachers in spite of knowing little or nothing of the subjects they taught, and who frequently delighted in tormenting and intellectually brutalizing children, especially those who dared to raise a voice of dissent.  Very little actual teaching went on in many classes, where students were crammed into rooms, given a home study booklet, and told to reach a capriciously selected end point by the end of an hour.  And this is to say nothing of the bullying that went on between students, which was permitted to continue completely unabated, thereby ensuring that much of my boyhood was spent cowering in fear of the only boys in my peer group at all, or of the actual physical bullying that was done to me by the teachers themselves, most notably when I threatened violence against the son of the school’s principal after he spat on my sister, an intercession on my sibling’s behalf that gave the principal cause to corner me in her office and shake me violently while threatening me with further violence should I ever lay a hand on her son.  Even the location of the school was itself a matter of some stress for me as a boy, as the lack of funding virtually guaranteed that each new year would find us scrambling under some new constraint as the church in which we took our studies was rented out, or partially condemned, or simply too cold or too hot to be a comfortable place to learn.

     These disgusting and unpardonable indiscretions would be bad enough if experienced by a young adult capable of articulating his grievances, or of being listened to if such a complaint was lodged, or of leaving the situation in absence of any other recourse.  To have inflicted them upon children too young and powerless to defend themselves, and to couple it with indoctrination into a religious cult that misrepresents the nature of reality, teaches children to hate those outside the cult, to be fearful of and disgusted by their own bodies, and terrifies them with stories about end times, demonic possession, taboos against sexuality, and stories of an omnipotent father who will condemn you for sins you merely think of is the summit of wickedness and cannot be called anything other than child abuse.

     You may, if you like, imagine that this experience is what lead me to turn away from the religious instruction of my parents, teachers, and peer group, but you would be getting only a sliver of the whole story.  I entered Christian school at the age of six and left at thirteen, but by the age of eleven I had begun to ask questions for which the answers I was offered were wholly unsatisfactory.  Rather unintentionally, my Christian education had supplied me with a stack of wholly holy inconsistencies, fallacies, and brutalities to dissect, as well as the intellectual tools with which to do the cutting. The spark of indignation, however, and the spiritual cry of indignity and grief that ignited it?  For that I can thank my parents, and for the ugliness that was my childhood away from the schoolhouse.  I shall discuss this, with some difficulty, in my next entry.