Is This All There Is?
I should have written this down years ago. Thanks for being the impetus!
I was a Catholic school-child—a six-year-old first grader, I think—when I first thought, a bit like Peggy Lee, Is this all there is? I’m not sure what prompted that thought. I have a memory of climbing the staircase up to the classroom hallway after coming into school and thinking it. That was followed in a year by wanting something to “happen” when I took my First Communion. Nothing did. And nothing, again, when I went through my confirmation a few years after that.
Otherwise, my childhood was spectacularly normal. I sang in the church choir, did okay in Catholic grade school, and went to church on Sundays. I gave the appearance of being a person of faith, I guess, although I didn’t think about that for a minute. The last youthful loss-of-faith incident (although truthfully I doubt I ever had any faith) was when my mother wanted me, her then sixteen-year-old daughter, to continue going to church. I told her that I thought Jesus was a good person but just a person, not a god.
After that, it was a “couple-few” decades before I said out loud to myself (and others, who didn’t really want to hear it), “There are no gods, period.”
Not sure why it took so long to take that final step, but I did take it, about thirty years after my six-year-old self had kind of figured it out. Now I can cheerfully say, “Atheist here!”
One Question Too Many
It was Easter Sunday 1954. I had recently turned six years old. After church services, my parents and I went to my aunt and uncle’s house for Easter dinner. Prior to dinner, my uncle suggested he and I go outside and hunt for Easter eggs. As I picked up the brightly colored eggs, it dawned on me that chickens lay eggs, not rabbits. My uncle operated a commercial egg operation on the premises, so I knew full well where eggs came from. So I asked my uncle if there really was an egg-laying Easter Bunny. He asked me what I thought, and I replied I didn’t think it was true. With some thought, he finally confessed that, indeed, no rabbits were involved, just my uncle and some chickens.
Feeling pretty smug at this point, I asked my uncle about Santa Claus. He choked on that one and suggested I go talk to my father, who had just stepped outside. I proudly ran to my dad telling him all about my Easter Bunny revelation and then asked about Santa Claus. Dad asked me what I thought. I said I didn’t believe in Santa Claus either, and he confirmed I was right but said not to tell other children. It was a big secret. I felt smug and pretty proud of myself that Easter Sunday.
The following Sunday, feeling emboldened, I asked in front of my Sunday school class if there really was a god. The other kids laughed. Mr. Smith [the Sunday school teacher] choked, turned red, grabbed me hard by the arm, and took me to see my father. My dad said he would take care of it. He didn’t. We never discussed either that incident or the existence of God. I have come to believe that my dad knew the truth but felt he couldn’t say anything.
I didn’t know I had become an atheist. I didn’t know for many years that I was even allowed not to believe. Everyone I knew and loved went to church and believed in God. I just knew I didn’t. I had no interest in religion and, given a choice, avoided it. When I joined the U.S. Army in 1969, one of the forms asked what religion I was. I checked the “None” box. Arriving in Vietnam, my commanding officer noted this on my record and angrily asked if I was “one of those fucking atheists.” For the first time, I realized I was and replied, “Yes sir, I am an atheist.”
That realization was the birth of a lifelong quest to learn about and better understand religions in general, the true history behind Christianity, and the psychology that underlies religious belief and magical thinking.
James Kotterman received his PhD from Capella University in I/O psychology. Raised in rural northwestern Ohio, Dr. Kotterman enlisted and served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Upon discharge in 1972, he lived in Arizona, Ohio, Texas, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Illinois, and Michigan, where he retired.
Of Penguins and Vampires
Whack! I felt the sting of pain as the piece of wood was laid across my seven-year-old arm by the woman who stood above my desk. With her black-and-white habit, she seemed to me to be some kind of demented Nazi penguin. I wondered why the nuns were doing this, and I was told “It’s for your own good.” I told them that my left hand was the one that I was most comfortable writing with. That didn’t seem to matter to them. I learned when I was older that their book of fairytales, which they seemed to like so much, said that it was “sinister.”
I liked to read as well, and the Catholic Church had a comic for kids titled Treasure Chest, in which I read of the brave Irish hero Éamon de Valera, who received arms from German U-Boats to use against the English during World War I. This confused my child’s mind, as I had been led to believe from movies and other comics that the Germans were “the bad guys.” Even at that young age, I had been reading of the aerial battles of men such as Manfred von Richthofen and Billy Bishop. My parents were unable to answer questions of how collaborating with the enemy made de Valera a hero. I later found out it was about Northern Ireland and “the struggles.”
Around 1961–1962, I lived in Ottawa, the Canadian capital city. It was an embassy town, and I played with kids from all over the world. There was a boy in St. Raymond’s Catholic School named Mike Fitzgerald, who claimed to be related to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No one believed him until the day after November 22, 1963, when he didn’t return to school for a while. It was something like “compassionate leave.”
When Mike returned, he was still very upset. He said that after the president’s death, he “wasn’t going to believe in God anymore but believe in science.”
We later heard he had woken up one day crippled for no apparent reason, which led to my thinking, “Well, if there’s a god, he’s a cruel and vicious god.”
By the time I was a pre-teen, I was really into horror movies and books about werewolves and vampires. My mother would take me to task for reading “that trash that will rot your mind.” When I asked her to explain, she said that dead people rising from the grave was just a bunch of silly superstition. “Yeah, Mom, but unlike you, I know that it’s not true.” She asked me what I meant by that. I replied, “You believe that Lazarus and Jesus rose from the grave just like in my ‘trash that will rot your mind.’ I know that Dracula and The Mummy aren’t real, but you believe those other two guys rose from the dead.”
She really didn’t like hearing that and became quite angry with me.
I soon began making excuses to get out of going to church.
Michael McAllister is retired after thirty years as a mechanical technician (Millwright). He has a keen interest in history, likes to spend time reading (mostly) non-fiction, playing music, and scuba diving on shipwrecks. He has had several articles published in magazines, including Diver Magazine and EYE SPY Intelligence Magazine.
From Not-Muchism to Nothingism
I was lucky. My mother was a Christmas-and-Easter Christian, which never made sense to me. My father had his own beliefs that he would never talk about, so his views were not instructive to me. My maternal grandfather grew up where Sundays were only for prayer and Bible reading. He became a Unitarian in later life, and his wife followed him. His change made more sense to me. I don’t know what my paternal grandmother thought.
I occasionally went to Christian Sunday school as a young child but always felt out of place. I was more interested in coloring the pictures of those biblical people wearing interesting robes than in any lessons to be learned, except perhaps the Golden Rule, which has become a core principle that I live by. I don’t remember anything else the church tried to teach. Somehow I absorbed the ethics of hard work, honesty, and compassion for others, probably through my family. In junior high, I went to the Unitarian Youth Group, where we studied other religions. I found them fascinating and their believers ardent, but to me they couldn’t all be right. By high school, my atheist views had formed. My university course in world history confirmed that for the most part, religion has had a very bad influence on the world. It has kept the poor poor and punished any insightful thinkers for diverting from the preferred theologies with varying degrees of severity, from ostracization to torture, murder, and war. Today, after the rampant pedophilia of Catholic priests and watching the religious Right subjugate their values to Donald Trump, I find anything religious disgusting. I have become a confident and intolerant atheist, but I usually keep it to myself. If others want to believe, that is up to them. However, I strongly support a strict separation of church and state and do not agree with the Trump version of “Freedom of Religion.”
Peggy Garber grew up in several western states, graduating from the University of Washington. After Peace Corps service in Sierra Leone, she lived in France before returning to the United States. Garber started her family in San Francisco, eventually returning to Seattle, and has continued to travel the world extensively.
A Lean toward Science
I grew up in a deeply religious family. We’d gather around the dinner table each evening and duly recite the prayer so many are taught: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest.” My dad was active at the church, along with my mom, who always taught the children. I started playing in the Sunday-school orchestra when I was ten years old. I loved being involved with the music. However, by the time I was twelve, I was a’ thinkin! and my world seemed to be chang ing under my feet. My family remained totally devoted to religious activities, but I began wondering and wandering.
My dad was frequently in charge of the Sunday school services, and one morning he was speaking to a group of at least 200 people meeting in the parish hall. He was talking about all the things that were accepted within those walls. I simply raised my hand, and my dad acknowledged me. I stood up in front of all those people and said, “Daddy, I don’t think what you’re saying is right—I don’t believe it,” and sat down. I expected my dad would discuss this with me when we got home, but he never said a single word. This gentle man just let me be who I was and didn’t try to change me. My four siblings never discussed my differences, and as I developed into an adult, my life philosophy developed with me. I have lived a full, happy, and productive life.
When I found the man in my life, he too believed as I did, even though he had also been brought up in a religious family. We created our own daily “saying,” and our family repeated it before eating and on special occasions. We recited: “We’re grateful to nature for filling our needs, but we must replenish the world by our deeds.” That clearly stated our goals.
Fast forward many years to when my dad, at ninety-nine, was on his deathbed. I had to ask—and I cry as I write this, but I had to know—was he a believer? In his last moments, he told me I must not tell mother (who was ninety-one at the time and still very religious) that he was not a believer, but he accepted the life of religious people because he saw them as good people who did good deeds, and he wanted to support Momma and her happiness and the things she contributed to the world. And, it’s true, she was an absolute treasure who raised five kids—a happy person—and she became our role model for a good person. She supported “the kids” even though she rarely understood what we did as adults. I recall at a party at my parents’ home I had mentioned that I was headed to a scientific meeting and would be “giving a paper.” As I was leaving the house, I heard her proudly say, “JoAnne’s going to hand out papers at a science meeting!” That says it all! Amen!
Jo Frohbieter-Mueller is a scientist, having worked throughout her life studying the genetics of protozoans and spoken at scholarly meetings throughout the world. She’s become known as “The Renaissance Lady” because she’s active in fields other than science: she creates art on slabs of marble, performs regularly on flute and fife and for many years on harp, and writes, having had seven books and hundreds of scholarly and popular articles published.
The Senselessness of It All
One of the greatest things my mother ever did for me when I was very young was to respond, “We don’t know,” when I asked her if there was a god. This gave me the freedom to figure out the answer to that question for myself. I was raised a Quaker but not in any serious way, so I was never a very religious person. Deep down I never really believed in a god or that there was anything resembling a spirit world. I still worried about not believing, however, and considered myself agnostic—particularly because I felt “connected” to nature and feared death. One day, however, when I was in my early twenties, I was reading through an encyclopedia entry on David Hume, and at the end of the entry it described that when he was on his deathbed someone asked him if, as a skeptic, he feared death. His response was that no longer existing was no different from having not existed before he was born. This was one of those simple statements that, after seeing it, made me wonder why I had not thought of it before. In addition, while there is no space here to elaborate, in college I learned in an anthropology class how the dominant religion of a society closely reflects the economic and political system of that society. In a nutshell, religion provides divine justification for the rules that organize societies and the leaders who transmit and enforce those rules.
Throughout my life, I have also noticed that religion can make good people do terrible things. People who are “witnessing” to others are trained to engage in dirty tricks to trap one into a conversation, and religious groups often fight to take human rights, civil liberties, and other social goods from groups of which their imaginary friend disapproves. Finally, I discovered how immoral religious teachings can be. In particular, regarding monotheism, I realized that it was impossible for an all-powerful, all-knowing being to judge, including casting people into a place such as hell. A million years ago, this being would have known that one of his creations today would not accept him. He would have the power to change this but chooses not to do so, and yet punishes this person via unimaginable horrors for all eternity. This makes no sense! In addition, one of the best ways to make one a nonbeliever is to suggest that he or she read the Bible, in which genocide, slavery, rape, incest, and many other horrific things are given divine sanction. In the end, it is clear that gods are an invention of, and reflection of, human beings.
Nathan Pino is a professor of sociology and Honorary Professor of International Studies at Texas State University in San Marcos. He is the coauthor or editor of five books and over thirty-five academic journal articles. In his spare time, he enjoys road cycling, travel, and listening to music.
‘Til the Cows Come Home
I don’t know if there is a “God gene” that some folks mention now and then, but if such exists, I don’t seem to have been privy to that “gift.” I don’t believe I have ever felt there was a supernatural power looking after me. Even as a young child, very little of what I was taught or heard in a loving, devout Southern Baptist home, in years of attending Sunday school and church, or later attending my junior year of high school in a Lutheran boarding school and my freshman year at Mars Hill Baptist College did enough to convince me that there was much in any of the religions that made good sense.
I think my first pivot point moment took place when, as a five- or six-year-old, I was walking across a hill on our farm in the mountains of North Carolina with my older sister as we were bringing in the cows on a beautiful summer evening. There had recently been a shower, and as we crested the hill, the sun was casting rays of light through the remaining clouds onto the path in front of us. I was thrilled and inspired to remark to my sister who is six years my senior, “That is God’s way of showing he is taking care of us.”
With the wisdom of a twelve-year-old, my sister remarked, “That’s only the sun shining on water droplets left in the air.”
I was somewhat disappointed but knew she was right. For how could there be a god who cared for me when he didn’t seem to care for all those starving children in China that I always had to clean my plate for? Or, if he was as loving and powerful as people said he was, why didn’t he heal my poor sick grandmother?
Each year, although I tried to believe as my parents and devout grandmother, who lived with us, I became more questioning and disbelieving. Finally, upon my retirement as an educator at age fifty-seven, I devoted some of my spare time to trying to find a philosophy that answered my need for integrity and authenticity. I became involved in a session at my church titled “My Spiritual Journey.” While preparing the required thesis, I took a test on Belief.net and learned that the philosophy of “secular humanism” was indeed one I could wholeheartedly endorse. I immediately subscribed to both Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer and have been enjoying them ever since. In fact, I received Third Prize in Free Inquiry’s “Why I Am Not a Believer” essay contest. The entry was published in the April/May 2010 issue.
Elaine Graybeal is an eighty-three-year-old educator who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. She is now enjoying life in a retirement community in the Piedmont area of her beloved state where she was an elementary teacher and a curriculum coordinator for thirty-three years.
I Just Never Believed
I never “left behind” a faith, because I never had one. I was never exposed to Christianity until I was fifteen, at which time I tried—but too late. I just could not believe what the minister was saying! Now, at age ninety-four, I still can’t. I just read Richard Dawkins’s Outgrowing God and found that my librarian was next in line to read it! So good to find fellows. I used to feel alone in a Christian/Jewish world.