Phylogeny of Christianity.
All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God.
~ Baron d’Holbach, 1772.
Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted) was recently added to the Atheist Blogroll. You can see the atheist doohickey on my left sidebar, which looks like this;
The Atheist Blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to atheist bloggers from around the world. As a new member, I was invited to write a little blurb (blurp?) about this on my blog as a sort of announcement, so I decided I would write about how I grew up to atheism as a reasoned and reasonable way to live, even though I was (like many of you, I suppose) inculcated into the belief that there is a god from the moment I was born.
I was regularly lied to from the day I was born, although it took me awhile to realize it. What was this lie? I was told there was a god who both cared about me and wanted me to fear him, or else he would strike me dead with a Lightning Bolt from the Heavens. Because I was a small child who was inexperienced in the ways of the world, I believed this lie. At first.
Of course, it didn’t take long for me to notice little inconsistencies that made me wonder about the truthfulness of this assertion. For example, even though I learned it was a sin to take the lord’s name in vain, my father in particular, enjoyed telling god to damn certain people to hell for doing things he didn’t like such as cutting him off in traffic or bothering him about lunch while he was trying to read the newspaper on Sunday afternoons after church. Being barbequed alive seemed a terrible fate for such minor offenses, but I was a mere kid and had to be repeatedly reminded that all sins were equally terrible in god’s eyes, that bothering someone while he was reading the newspaper was the same as subjecting someone to extended physical and mental torture and rape before finally murdering that person by eating them alive.
Since I initially believed this lie wholeheartedly, whenever I heard the pronouncement, “goddamn you to hell!”, I held my breath expectantly and sat waaay back, hoping the ensuing Lightning Bolt from the Heavens would not singe my eyebrows. It never did, because oddly, it never materialized.
One day, I made this same pronouncement after discovering a sibling had committed the sin of theft against me, and then committed the sin of lying about it to me when caught in the act. At the time, I had no words or phrases in my limited verbal arsenal to adequately express my anger at the crime and at being lied to about this crime. Well, okay, there was that one .. little .. phrase ..
“Goddamn you to hell!” I loudly proclaimed as I had been taught throughout my childhood. Wow, I suddenly was transformed from an invisible and pliable child into a real person with individual thoughts to be reckoned with. My mouth had uttered the worst phrase I knew in response to the worst crimes I thought could ever befall me. So I had taken the name of the lord in vain, and it felt damned good. Liberating. Powerful. I could kill with words.
Except for one minor detail: god never fried my errant sibling just as god never fried me all those times I had been damned to hell. But the fallout generated by uttering this one oft-heard phrase was absolutely spectacular. I might have been a sweet little three- or four-year-old (although the parents would tell you otherwise), but my parents nearly killed me, and I mean they really nearly killed me. So I learned a very valuable lesson regarding the power of words: mere words control people’s behaviors and beliefs and thoughts. Mastering and controlling words was a mechanism for mastering and controlling .. people. Thus, words are to be employed with great care. I also noticed something else.
Lies are comprised of words.
After this event, while nursing my aching and battered body, I decided to wholeheartedly throw myself into solving the Mystery of the Newspaper: I was going to learn how to read and use words if it killed me.
And so I learned. I was reading before I entered school, which made the assigned reading material insultingly simplistic and ridiculous, but also made me keenly aware of all the wonderful reading material out there, beginning with newspapers and including my parents’ bookshelves, of all places.
Apparently bored by the domestic life (probably our only shared opinion), my mother had joined a book club that sent a leather-bound classic volume with gilted-edged pages each month and it was these books that I first began to read. As a horse-lover, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to read John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. The death of Jody’s pony, Gabilan, left me bereft, but ultimately undaunted. After I finished that book, it didn’t take long before I stumbled across another intriguing leather-bound gold-plated book, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, so I read that, too.
That book was so readable, even for a mere kid, and the logic was so pristine that it transformed my thinking at all levels. I grew up in a rural farming community, so many of the examples that Darwin used to illustrate his points were familiar. Through his words, his logic, his cautious and carefully-worded arguments, the world was revealed as a vibrant and mysterious place, but despite its seeming chaos, the world was still logical and understandable: it was governed by rules, even though those rules might not be obvious to humans. Inspired, I began asking questions, lots of questions, of the adults around me. Of course, I was ignored, but it wasn’t long before I asked the preacher what was the purpose of god since we evolved. Woops.
After being told that I was a stupid little girl who should remain silent until I “knew something” (the precise word used was “shaddup”), I realized that I would never be taken seriously until I had a serious education. Fortunately, a neighbor man who was in college at the time told me about his experiences and adventures, and I was intrigued. I immediately knew academics was my calling, and science was my inner passion, and that university was where I needed to be.
Because I loved horses and knew them well, I subconsciously began developing the conceptual framework of my grad school education while I was still in grade school: I began reading everything I could get my hands on about the evolution of horses and oddly, the genetics of breeding racehorses. So serious was my interest that, by the time I was twelve, I purchased a very expensive equine medicine and surgery textbook because the libraries didn’t have anything on the topic. I still have that book.
During this same time more or less, I also wanted to clarify a few points of personal confusion about religion, so I began to seriously read and think about it, specifically, about the presumed existence of god and how that doesn’t appear to solve any problems but rather seems to cause more of them. In short, god was inconsistent with everything I had learned in school: god made no sense whatsoever. As a product of a religious grade school and junior high school education (looking back, I now think it was a fundamentalist religious school), I had been trained to memorize large portions of The Bible. My rapid recall and accuracy made me one of the “stars” of the school (I was often told that it was too bad these natural abilities were wasted on a mere girl who could never become a theologian). So I was frequently encouraged to argue with nonbelievers and heretics — people who also happened to be my neighbors and their kids (my friends) whose sincerely held religious beliefs were different from mine.
This often vicious conflict between different religions made no sense to me then since they all were about god, and focused upon god and dictating how god’s followers were supposed to behave in public. What was there to argue about? And worse, why were some of “god’s children” condemmed to eternal damnation when others weren’t? Wasn’t god big and powerful enough to transcend all human definitions and parameters?
During the course of memorizing vast passages of The Bible, the internal conflicts throughout The Bible became so annoyingly obvious and numerous that they were impossible to ignore, so I asked questions. Lots of questions. For example, if The Bible truly was the divine inspired word of god, then why are there so many mistakes in it? I was once again told to remain silent until I “knew something”, so I began reading extensively about this topic as well.
I was eleven or twelve when I first read about the exploits of Madalyn Murray O’Hair — “America’s most hated woman” — and it was then when I realized I was not alone with my doubts. [Later, in college, thanks to my amazing education in the humantities, I learned that Diagoras, Epicurus, Critias, Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Julian Baggini (just to name a few famous thinkers and philosophers throughout history) had similar thoughts on religious matters.] Despite assertions to the contrary from the authority figures around me, I learned that I was very sane to recognize that there are many interesting parallels between god and
Santa Claus the tooth fairy and that only crazy people believed in the supernatural. I began to suspect that both Santa Claus the tooth fairy and god were convenient lies used by authority figures to manipulate and shame those who were vulnerable to believing such rhetoric because of their lack of education, social status, or their unwillingness to challenge established paradigms and social structures by thinking carefully about the world around them.
So by the time I was fifteen, I learned that god is a blatant lie; that religion is a social construct used by the powerful and the wealthy to control the finances, sexualities and destinies of others (especially women); and that words have tremendous transformative power that profoundly affect one’s thoughts, ethics and worldview. I also learned that reading is a powerful way to learn more about the world and to interact with others who, throughout all written history, also thought about these issues in great depth and in doing so, challenged the establishments of their day.
As my thinking and worldview evolved and matured, I realize I learned a few important lessons between birth and the age of fifteen, but the most important lesson is also the most fundamental: it is unethical to lie to children because we will grow up one day and in doing so, we will learn the truth. Further, we will never forget that those in power over us — parents, preachers, politicians — held us in such low esteem when we were weak or vulnerable that they thought it was acceptable to lie to us.