My Journey to Unbelief

Ross Blythe

My earliest memory of learning about God was when my parents took me to Child Evangelism classes taught by two neighbors. I remember that the “flannel board” was used extensively, and, since the time was during World War II and materials were in short supply, the class cut out words and letters from newspaper headlines to assemble Bible verses. Headlines that announced the death of GIs and enemy soldiers in battle were transformed into Bible verses that were to be memorized and later recited in class.

In particular, Isiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” At nine years old, words such as “astray” and “iniquity” were foreign to me, and I don’t recall any definition being given. Perhaps, this might have been the time when trying to understand the Bible planted the first seed of doubt. However, since all of my family and their friends attended a Baptist church, and since I was so involved in the church through my elementary and high-school years, whatever doubts about scripture I may have formed at that time were quashed by peer and family pressure to “go along.” I remember that when I was fifteen, I literally got down on my knees to pray to try to understand the “Word.” I strained to listen to God’s revelation to me but to no avail. I felt that there was a “ceiling” that kept my prayers from reaching God.

Because friends of mine were going to Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater), I enrolled there too. It was there that the requirement to participate in ROTC began to widen the gap between what I was supposed to believe and what was evolving in my thinking. Can a Christian college teach New Testament theology in one class and in the next class (military science) train me to fire a rifle and use a bayonet to kill a human being?

With the possibility of being drafted looming over me, I continued taking ROTC. I graduated with a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Anti-Aircraft Artillery Corps.

After I graduated from Nike School at Fort Bliss, Texas, my duty assignment was a sixteen-month tour in Korea from January 1957 to June 1958. Religion still had its grip on me, yet I was being exposed daily to the lives of Koreans suffering from desperate poverty and deprivation. This is when another revelation became part of my experience. Remembering the chorus, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world …” I could not reconcile believing in God’s love and witnessing the suffering of the Koreans, especially their children. How could a loving god who is omniscient and omnipotent allow this?

Some years followed when I was consumed with working, raising a family, and getting further education. My doubts about the existence of God were set aside to simply “go along” and try to do the right thing. Here again, I was greatly influenced by peers. All of our friends were practicing Christians, so I gave little thought to the question of the existence of God. I simply wasn’t challenged to think much about these things in those days.

Fast forward to about six years ago. One evening, when “surfing” TV channels, quite by chance, the remote took me to C-Span, where the program was about secular humanism and the speaker was Sam Harris. My whole attention was immediately centered on Dr. Harris’s comments. I immediately bought his book The End of Faith and read it almost in one sitting. This was my epiphany. I continued with his Letter to a Christian Nation and moved on to Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, followed by Christopher Hitchens’s works. Never in my life did anything so crystallize my thinking about the nonexistence of God as these books did. Later Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby’s book on the history of secularism, my associate membership in the Council for Secular Humanism, and my reading of Free Inquiry helped me to understand and reinforce what I should have believed all along.

Because of continued relationships with religious friends and family, I am in a quandary about expressing my new-found freedom from religion and speaking out for secular humanism. It is a difficult balance, and I try to subtly make my case without alienating any of my life-long friends, but what a sense of liberation and joy I have from this transformation. Freedom of religion is a term used so often, especially with recent court decisions regarding Obamacare, but my life has been changed because I am “free from religion!”

Charles Darwin was in the same predicament that I am. If his conclusions about evolution were published, Darwin would have alienated his family—especially his wife, who was very devout. In fact, Darwin might have been tried for heresy had he made his work public immediately. He waited many years before announcing his theory. Sadly, there are religious people still claiming that evolution is false and that “intelligent design” described in the Scriptures is the final authority. Our schools today are being influenced by these “creationists” who are demanding that creationism be included in the curriculum. How sad that our country is still wrestling with this problem, which is detrimental to the objectives of science. Too many “voucher” school plans are perpetuating this folly.

When I was a student at Wheaton College, (1952–1956), students were required to sign a “pledge” that made us promise not to: attend movies, smoke, drink, dance, belong to secret societies, and play cards. During my four years at Wheaton, I regarded the pledge as “sacred” and did not violate its tenets. I realized after graduating that I was probably the only Wheaton student who never violated the oath. It seems that everyone else “winked” at the pledge and really did what they wanted to do.

This idea was difficult for me to accept. However, today, I compare the pledge with what happens in the church. It seems that almost everyone “winks” at the “rules” of his or her church and is satisfied that doing so is okay. For example, a Catholic attends mass every Sunday, yet violates one of the edicts of the church by practicing birth control. Fundamentalists elect certain passages of Scripture as absolute but disregard other passages. “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” is considered one of the Ten Commandments, yet how many churchgoers do you find in restaurants after services? Their dining in a restaurant requires others to work and not “keep the Sabbath.”

Many Christians attend worship services and during the service will respond to a reading saying, “He is risen” or “a virgin shall conceive,” yet they do not believe any of these theological tenets of the church.

I was an educator for many years, and in studying the process of learning and obtaining knowledge, I learned that knowledge is obtained in four ways:

  • Look to authority
  • Be tenacious
  • A priori
  • The method of science

This revelation was life changing for me. It never occurred to me that one reason so many people (fundamentalists especially) continue to be religious is that they use the Bible as their only source of truth and knowledge, then cling tenaciously to that belief in spite of all the evidence that is available from science to disprove their point of view.

It is amazing to me that even today there are people who are climate-change deniers, people who believe the Earth is flat, or those who believe Earth is only about 6,000 years old. My education at Wheaton included a strong liberal arts curriculum, tainted as it was by evangelical dogma. In reality, if Wheaton were to really educate its students, it would be out of business, because all graduates should rationally deny the “truth” of the Scriptures and theology, in favor of all that science teaches us.

My life has taken such a positive turn, and I am very content with my life without religion. My only regret is that my “epiphany” didn’t occur many years earlier.

Ross Blythe

Ross Blythe, PhD, is a proferssor emeritus at Purdue University (North Central).

My earliest memory of learning about God was when my parents took me to Child Evangelism classes taught by two neighbors. I remember that the “flannel board” was used extensively, and, since the time was during World War II and materials were in short supply, the class cut out words and letters from newspaper headlines …

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