I wanted to be the best Presbyterian possible, so I had questions in Sunday school. The beleaguered lay teachers tried their best, but their answers made no sense. The Old Testament Bible stories said to do things that were not moral. God was a bully and a jerk. The lessons contradicted each other. And do you really get born predestined for heaven or hell, but God won’t tell you which it is while you’re alive? Frustrated, I wanted out and so asked even more questions. Finally, I asked, “Can an all-powerful God make a rock so big he can’t move it?” Success at last; I was kicked out of Sunday school.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire: now I had to go to church with my parents. That was all ritual and no substance. The sermons were verbal pabulum, and you couldn’t even ask questions. During the most important ritual of the day, post-church dinner at the Country Club, one did not discuss religion. Religion was a lecture to be learned, not something to think about.
At the same time, in early 1960s Raleigh, North Carolina, the civil rights revolution was convulsing polite society. When I asked, “Why do we set the laws against a whole group of people from birth?,” I was emphatically told by adults (not by my parents) that the separation of the races was part of God’s plan; it was all explained in the Bible, and only Satanic outside agitators questioned it. So, I questioned it. Racism seemed incompatible with the message of Jesus, which I laid out in detail, having read some of the Bible on my own. The snarling, outraged response and my resulting ostracization by polite society and even kids my own age taught me in a visceral way about the nasty defensiveness of self-sealing ignorance and how religion can be used as a club for evil.
With that, I turned a corner. Now I questioned Presbyterianism, Christianity, religion, God, faith, and reason itself. I discovered philosophy—never mentioned in school—and studied the long history of other people who asked questions, what happened to them, and what happened to societies that repressed questions. Once you head down the Enlightenment path to truth as best as you may understand it, there is no turning back. After a few years of unencumbered questioning, I was an atheist and a skeptic with a scathing contempt for religion.
Later, I encountered Christians of various sects acting like Christians, doing good works, and expecting nothing in return. The contempt softened, but the hard questions remained. People can choose to do good without the complication of religion. Why add a complication that can easily lead you to evil? The good Christians found the question incomprehensible. Faith was central to their lives; they did good works because of their faith. Why choose faith in this instead of that, and why have faith at all? One must have faith in faith, they answered, which is self-sealing ignorance.
To this day, I prefer truth as best as I can make it out. Do what good you can do.