“Madalyn Murray O’Hair once said, ‘an agnostic is just a gutless atheist.’” I was sixteen years old. My mother’s partner, Sheila, a former Catholic nun, had asked me about my religious beliefs. When I told her that I was an agnostic, she quoted O’Hair. And she was right, at least about me. For years I had been struggling to let go of a childhood acceptance (if not strong belief) in the supernatural, including a belief in God. At some point, I decided that there was no way to know for sure and declared myself an agnostic. But my agnosticism wasn’t just about being fair-minded. I knew there was no logical reason to believe in even the possibility of the existence of God. So why not go all the way to atheism? Was I afraid of being wrong? Was I afraid to let go of the last shreds of comfort that belief in the supernatural offered? The answer was probably a bit of both.
Like most people, I grew up believing the same things as my parents did. I guess you would call my family “casual Christians.” Once, when I asked Dad what our religion was, he said simply “Methodist.” What did that mean? Who knew? Probably not even Dad. At the time, I thought it involved drinking a lot of coffee. As a kid, if the subject came up at all, I just referred to myself as “Christian.” What that meant, I had no idea. I believed in God. I said grace before dinner and the “NowIlaymedowntosleep” prayer as quickly as possible before crawling into bed, but by the time I was in elementary school, I—and my parents—had lost interest even in that.
We rarely went to church except for weddings and funerals, where I began to get the idea that not everyone was as causal about being a Christian as I was. Everyone around me seemed to know the songs and the prayers, when to stand up and when to sit down or kneel, and what to say back to the guy talking at the front of the church.
Our neighbors weren’t casual, either. If I was playing with the neighbor kids and blurted out “God!” or “Jesus Christ!,” I would promptly get a lecture from my best friend, Toby, about “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” If Toby’s mom heard me, I’d be sent home to “get a spanking.” I never actually got a spanking, usually just a lecture on respect.
My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Buist, started a unit on mythology by talking about the Greek gods. Some of the kids were confused, so she explained briefly the difference between these “myths” and “our god.” Now I was confused. “How do we know those gods are myths but our god is real?” I asked. Some of the other kids giggled, but some had thoughtful looks on their faces, as if they suddenly had the same question. I don’t remember Mrs. Buist’s answer, only that it was obvious even to me that she was uncomfortable with the whole subject.
By the time of my conversation with Sheila, I’d learned that nobody, no matter what he or she believed, could explain why those beliefs were true. So I left the questions on the table and grew comfortable calling myself an “agnostic.” There was no way of knowing, so why debate it? Why take a side?
My gutless atheism met its greatest test when I was in high school. My family had moved to a new school district, and I had no friends. I was feeling lonely and vulnerable. I started hanging out with the born-again Christian crowd, whom the other kids called the “Bible Buddies.” This was during the early Reagan administration, and fundamentalist Christianity was a powerful force in America. Spurred on by the writings of Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith, and others, many believed the end-times would arrive in the next decade; the threat of atomic annihilation hanging over us all just reinforced that idea.
The Bible Buddies nearly scared me into buying into their whole apocalyptic vision by the simple tactic of being nice to me. I never went to the morning Bible studies, and I never accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I did read an entire paperback version of the King James Bible and Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth in my room at night so my family wouldn’t know. I devoured the endless supply of tracts my Christian friends always seemed to have. I genuinely feared that the world was coming to an end in the near future. Luckily for me, my gutless atheist combined with my inner geek, and I fell into the orbit of the Dungeons & Dragons crowd and away from the Bible Buddies. My crisis of credulity passed.
At the University of Michigan, I began to see the real harm religion could do. As a reporter for the student newspaper, I was assigned one weekend to cover a speech by Palestinian scholar Edward Said on Friday night and a neo-Nazi rally on Saturday morning. The editor came right out and told me that I drew these assignments because “none of the Jewish reporters can stand the thought of it.” Whether it was being assigned a story because of my religion or studying the religiously inspired parade of horrors that is history in my freshman Western Civilization class, I rejected the idea of religion in general and of God in particular.
It wasn’t until after the September 11, 2001, attacks, nearly two decades later, that I started to feel comfortable talking about my atheism. Despite the political rhetoric in the West, especially President George W. Bush’s use of the term evildoers, I knew the hijackers on those planes didn’t think of themselves as evil. They believed they were doing God’s will and would be rewarded for it in the afterlife. They were wrong, and Bush was right: they were evildoers, and beliefs that encourage evil acts must be challenged. Another few years passed before I read Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, but I already knew that religious beliefs must no longer be out of bounds to criticism.
There was one final step for me to take, though, and it was a personal one. My father died in 2008 after getting progressively sicker over the previous few years. I knew it was coming, and while obviously this was not the foremost thought on my mind, part of me wondered how my atheism would hold up under the emotional strain. Would I pray to God to make it not true or at least to give me comfort? No, as it turned out. There was a lot to think about in the immediate aftermath of Dad’s death, but through it all I was surprised to find that I did not fall back on the comforts of religion in this, one of the most stressful and upsetting times of my life.
That I was surprised at all made me realize that somewhere deep inside, there had been at least a small part of me that wasn’t gutless after all.
That’s all gone now. The loss of that last thread of gutlessness gave me real comfort that the false comfort of religion never could. I’m not afraid of God. I’m not afraid of religion. I’m not afraid of speaking my mind, especially against evil, even if the source of that evil is someone else’s sacred belief.
I have the courage to face the world without a supernatural crutch. I am unafraid. I am free.
Rob Earle is a ship captain and writer living in Seattle. From 2009 to 2012, he wrote The Misunderstood Mariner, a blog devoted to busting maritime myths and misinformation. He is also a poet; his most recent poem, “The Ballad of Captain Zero,” won first place in the 2014 Northwest Seaport Stories of the Sea Competition.