My YouthWhile I am now living in Iowa, I was not raised here. I was raised in a rural area near a small town that is lucky to show up on a map called Amidon, North Dakota. This area leans primarily conservative in political views. As I did not receive much exposure to the religious environment, it is hard for me to say what that is like. I do know that there are a number of Lutherans and Catholics, so the people seem to be a bit more liberal/moderate on the religious views, but I do believe there are some more conservative/fundamentalist churches in the area. (I will perhaps need my parents to set the record straight on this.)
Religious Upbringing...Or Lack Thereof
I was fortunate to be raised in a secular household. My parents, especially my father, had been exposed to Christianity (specifically Catholicism for both parents), thus my other, more distant relatives were Christians and the little religious exposure I had was primarily a Christian exposure at large family gatherings, such as holidays, weddings, and funerals. In short, I've been an atheist all my life. I never truly believed in a god. (I did, as I still do now, believed in the concept of a god.) There were certainly moments in my early youth (I'm talking about when I was like 5 or 6) where I did look at awe at the sky, the local geological formations we call buttes, and life itself. It was what I had heard was God's creation and I certainly thought it was amazing (and I still do today), but, perhaps due to my investigative mindset, I was not sure I should be attributing those things to God. I had never seen God, nor did I have any understanding of how he could pull off such a stunt. In my mind, he was an old man, much like Santa Clause. In much the same way I questioned how one person could deliver presents to children by entering their houses through a chimney (this was not helped by the fact that we did not have a chimney), I questioned how one man could create all of that. Additionally, where did he live before creating the earth??? As my parents didn't ever talk about this, the idea of god was never taught to me as fact. This left God to be one big mystery to me, as well as more of a fictional character. Until I could understand that mystery, how could I attribute any actions, such as the creation of earth, to that god? I was also home schooled much of my youth, and since we lived in a secluded area, I had little to no interaction with peers who could have potentially influenced my beliefs.
Don't trust the adults!
While not having this idea of there being a god reinforced on me week after week was certainly important to my atheism, perhaps another factor that I often overlook in reflection is that I was conditioned to not trust adults. As I said earlier, this was an area that leaned conservative on the political scale. My father, however, was (and still is) a very outspoken, fiery Liberal. It would not be uncommon for him to be calling some political figure or even a local citizen an idiot or even worse! I suspect this led me to realize that adults can say stupid things and that I cannot necessarily trust what they say, so I needed to think for myself. While I still find that my father can be a little harsh in his words as well as his approach, it would be
Into High School and on to College
When I was older and returned to public school as a sophomore in high school, where I was more exposed to Christians, I failed to examine the claims of Christianity, or any other religion for that matter. This failure to examine continued through much of college. In reflection, I am not entirely sure why I didn't take a closer look. I am also not certain what my thoughts were in the past, and as I have been trying to reconstruct my memories, I wonder how much I am skewing those memories with what I know now.
One thing I am sure is that I only remember one person ever trying to proselytize me, and it was done in a polite, non-confrontational way. Without people pressuring me on the issue, why would I have reason to give it much thought? I had so much else going on - sports, theatre, robotics, and (oh, yeah) homework.
A second factor may be that I perhaps did not believe anyone took it seriously. Here, the actions of my father may have thrown me off! Whenever we had the big family gatherings and someone would bless the meal, he would participate (take note that I don't remember him blessing himself) in bowing his head and doing the whole recognizing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit routine. Likewise when we went to church for weddings or funerals, he would sometimes kneel at the pew when asked. Yet, there was never blessing of food at home with just my immediate family. And, as already mentioned, we never went to church except for weddings and funeral. (At this point, I should mention that I did go to church with my grandmother on my father's side a few times in my life.) Looking back, I wonder if this gave me the perception that going to church was more about culture and community. I found the sermons to be boring, if I payed any attention at all, but I could understand how some people could enjoy the singing or enjoy visiting with friends afterward. It just wasn't for me as I did not enjoy those songs nor did I know anyone. (This would have been more for the years prior to college. At college, there were religious groups on campus, so I would have known some of the people who participated in them.)
Yet, there was one thing that should have giving me some pause: the 9/11 attacks. This happened during my senior year of high school. This should have been a clue that, yes, people do take this seriously! I think I considered that Muslims took it seriously and never considered that maybe Christians did, too. It was hard for me to know for certain, as I did not know any Muslims, nor did I know much about their religion. I likely also considered that there were other factors involved, such as quality of life, government, etc, that would lead someone to fly an airplane into a building, not just religion. Today, I still find that (the other factors having impact) to be true, but, in 2006, my understanding of religion began to slowly change.
There is also one important roadblock that I must make note. This one I must blame on my own parents. As helpful as they were in keeping me an atheist, they oddly enough had trouble accepting me for who I was. (Rather, it was odd to me at that time; I suspect I now have a better understanding of their reasons.) I remember being home from college some weekend (I think it was in the spring of 2003) where I said, "I think I'm an atheist." The response I got from my parents was a stern, "No, you're not!!!" I even received this reaction from my mother who is at most a deist, if not an atheist herself. The truth, though, is that I was, and always had been, an atheist. However, I was still at an age where I wanted approval from my parents. Their dismissive attitude was certainly discouraging. It sent the message that an atheist was a bad thing to be. I sometimes wonder if they would have had an inquisitive attitude instead how much sooner I would have reached the point I am now. Having said that, I cannot hold a grudge against my parents as I obviously overcame that roadblock.
Out of the Dakotas
As I pointed out above, I had not known any Muslims in my life from birth through much of college. That changed when I had an internship (more properly called a coop) out here in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A couple of months into my coop, a Muslim from Pakistan was assigned a desk in the room where I worked. When the conversation of Islam would come up, he would tell me that the people inciting violence were not "true" to the Islamic faith. I yet had no idea what the Koran actually teaches, so I just sort of took his word on it. (I say "sort of" because I still left the question open. I wasn't going to take what one person tells me as fact.) However, later that year, another Pakistani coworker told me that I should not defend the religion. This indicated that maybe I had better do some research of my own since I was now receiving conflicting views on Islam.
Back into a Fire
After my coop was over, I returned to South Dakota, where I was going to college. This was in the fall of 2006, and there was a measure on the November ballot that would ban abortions. One of the arguments the people in favor of the ban used was, "God is pro-life." This was a wake-up call for me that, yes, in fact, some Christians do take this seriously! Unfortunately, I was too ignorant then to know how to respond to such claims. This should have been a time for me to start researching into Christianity. However, I did not do so. I suspect I was much more concerned with graduating as well as no longer concerned with the issue after the election.
Finding the "One"While I must give credit to my other atheist friends for their Facebook postings that helped me begin to learn about religion, the most important factor was my search for a woman to date. I primarily (as in about 99.9%) used online dating sites for my search. All of these sites asked you to state your religion. Having still been behind the roadblock put up by my parents, I was calling myself an agnostic at this time. (I will be explaining the differences between "atheist" and "agnostic" in a future post as well as how neither are actually a religion.) I still had not been giving religion much thought other than that I didn't buy into it. At this point, I probably recognized that prayer was a joke as well as any other supposed sign of an interventionist god, which Christianity and Islam both believe in, though I had yet to examine their holy books whatsoever. I likely also realized that belief in an afterlife was primarily out of fear of death. However, I suspected, thanks in part to the roadblock my parents set up, that someone was bound to question me as to why I was an agnostic, so I realized I needed to start thinking more about it. Then in June 2008, an atheist woman I was exchanging emails with recommended that I read Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion." I did not suspect things would go well with this woman (but I wouldn't have to explain myself to an atheist), so I did not hesitate to pick up the book so that I could be ready for interactions with other women. I didn't have to get far into that book to realize that I was indeed, as I had suspected 5 years earlier, an atheist. I finally made it over the roadblock my parents put up.
Making Sense of it AllPerhaps the most important thing I got out of Dawkins' book is an understanding of why people believe in a god. It came down pretty much to childhood indoctrination as well as social pressure to prevent people from straying from the belief. People believed because their parents believed and their parents had taught them that belief since they were very young. I also looked at some of my own ideas and realized that the reason I was a Liberal at that time was because my father was a Liberal and my political ideology was a result of his influence. (On a side note, I still am a Liberal, but I have looked into the positions and ideas much more on my own and have realized I still agree with many of them. In fact, I have become more progressive since I began thinking for myself.) Getting back to religious belief, it was then not hard to follow this chain back to a time when humans were very ignorant of the world around them, such as the days when people thought lightning was supernatural. It became clear that much of belief in god is filling in gaps in human knowledge, though some beliefs, such as the age of the earth being about 6000 years old, actually do go against human knowledge.
A Disappointing Collection of KnowledgeOne thing I had trouble with early on in Dawkins' book is that he kept referring to this character known as "Yahweh." I was at home (North Dakota) visiting family for 4th of July weekend when I was reading this. I figured this had to be some sort of Biblical character, but it was a name I had not heard of. So, I asked my father if he knew. He did not. As I found out later, that was God! (Rather, Yahweh is more the Old Testament god, as Judaism and Christianity are really two quite different religions, though Christianity tries to incorporate the Tanakh...but this is perhaps a discussion for a later time.) I cannot be too hard on my father as any belief he has, as I am not sure what he actually believes, is likely the result of the childhood indoctrination I mentioned earlier, but this began a realization that I was going to have to know more about a religion than the believers themselves! (I probably should have realized this after realizing that much of religious belief is derived from ignorance, or lack of knowledge, but this discussion with my father is what helped put those pieces together.)
I also started to understand why my parents set up that roadblock on me. Dawkins' book addressed morality and revealed that there was this defense mechanism of religion that a person had to believe in God in order to be moral. I wondered if my parents, though not really religious themselves, still had this false idea buried in their minds somewhere. I also much later learned that, during the Red Scare of the 1950's, atheists were thought to be directly linked to Communism. It was during this period that "In God We Trust" became the national motto, was added to paper money and all coin money (some coins already had the phrase), and "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Atheism, to anyone who objectively looks at the facts, is clearly not tied to Communism. This should be evident by the fact that Ayn Rand, who has influenced today's Libertarian views, which are on the opposite end of the political spectrum, was an atheist. (On a side note, it has recently been brought to my attention that Rand Paul, Ron Paul's son, was possibly named after Ayn Rand. It turns out that is probably not true, though was the shortening of "Randal" or "Randy" to "Rand" still inspired by Ayn Rand? We'll perhaps never know for sure.) However, I still see people today say that atheists are communists. The effects of the Red Scare are still visible. I cannot help but suspect my parents' views of atheists had been, and possibly still are, impacted by such stupidity.
Another factor may be the work of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Now, I know nothing about Murry O'Hair except for what I read or hear about her. My parents, however, are more likely to know about her. (For one thing, I read that she was a frequent guest on The Phil Donahue Show, and I'm fairly sure my dad watched that once in a while.) I've heard people describe her as the "queen bitch of atheism." Could her actions be an influence on why my parents objected to me stating that I was an atheist? If not this or the stigma left over from the Red Scare, what was(were) the reason(s) for their objections? (I am going to ask them to read this post. Maybe I'll get an answer back.)
That's my story in a large nutshell. I hope you enjoy my blog!