Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning, by Lewis Vaughn (Farmington, Minn.: Freethought Books, 2017, ISBN 978-0-988-49384-1) 238 pp. Softcover, $20.00.
Full disclosure: Lewis Vaughn was my immediate predecessor as editor of Free Inquiry. Much that defines this magazine took shape on his watch, notably the celebrity op-ed columns. One of my own additions to the magazine is the department “The Faith I Left Behind,” in which FI readers who grew up traditionally religious share often-painful tales of their journeys toward secular humanism. Star Map is what Lewis Vaughn might have written for “The Faith I Left Behind,” albeit at book length. It’s vividly written—and harrowing.
Vaughn was born into a deeply traditional, back-country fundamentalist Baptist family. He grew up literally believing that a preacher “spoke for God—that he was the dummy through which God, the great ventriloquist, spoke. And proof that God was doing the talking was that the dummy would get really excited.” The final sentence of that quotation displays the wry humor that Vaughn peppers throughout this memoir. It’s needed, because young Vaughn grew up terrified: of sin, of hell, of God’s vengeance, of television and movies, of dancing, of sex, of thinking for himself—most of all, of his creeping doubts. He ably documents the progression of those doubts as he moved from passionate fundamentalism through a somewhat bitter agnosticism to his end point, a poised atheism in which he realizes that his search for values will be his responsibility alone.
Star Map is one of the most searing accounts I have read of the abiding harm that a literalist, fundamentalist upbringing can inflict. It can be profoundly psychologically damaging to grow up convinced that all humans (most emphatically including oneself) are depraved and unworthy; that one’s life is merely a test that most will fail, thereby earning eternal torment; that one’s own experiences and thoughts are never to be trusted, for Truth comes only from Scripture and one’s pastor.
This book deserves to be widely read, especially among younger unbelievers. There’s a very real generational split between older and younger humanists regarding their religious backgrounds. Readers who send stories to “The Faith I Left Behind” tend to be age sixty or older. In that age cohort, most humanists and atheists experienced traditionally religious upbringings; thinking their way free of that childhood conditioning was often a defining life event. Only a minority in this group attained their current views more or less painlessly—because they grew up in liberal faith traditions or in atheist families. Among younger unbelievers, the situation seems reversed. Most humanists and atheists under age forty either grew up without any religious identity or in an undemanding tradition that was easy to leave behind. Among Gen-Xers and Millennials, the minority consists of individuals who grew up in damaging religious traditions. In a cohort in which few individuals have direct experience of religion’s dark side, it’s easy to underestimate the harm that the more toxic forms of faith can inflict—perhaps to make light of the very genuine dangers posed by traditionalist life stances.
For that reason, I hope plenty of young unbelievers will discover Star Map. It’s hard to imagine a more poignant reminder that extremism in religion can be profoundly damaging—but also that the handicaps imposed by such a childhood can nonetheless be overcome. Even if—as in Lewis Vaughn’s case—a few of the scars never fade.