Like everyone, I was born atheist. Like many atheists, I was raised without religion. Although my parents sent me to Sunday School, they never asked me to believe. Until I started reading about atheism, I could not understand why five out of six of my siblings are atheists. But rating myself on a scale of religious emphasis in the home showed the answer--there was no religious emphasis in my childhood home. My parents did not attend church. Neither god nor religion was mentioned in our home. There was a Bible around somewhere, but it was not considered a reference book, even less a spiritual guide.
At around 11 years of age, I challenged my mother’s requirement that I attend Sunday School. I presented usual childhood issues like “if god created the universe, what created god,” and I told her I did not believe in god. My mother’s answer surprised me, she said, “we are not asking you to believe, we only want you to attend to learn background that may be useful later in your life.” Her answer satisfied my young mind and I attended Sunday School for another year or two, but I never believed.
As I grew up, I assumed everyone was atheist. I knew religion existed, but it was not something that I, my family, or my friends cared about. When I was in college, peers occasionally commented, “you are the first atheist I have met.” I thought it was odd for them to say this, but I did not think much more about it.
As a young man, my view of religion was mildly positive. I knew that religious people had some beliefs different from mine, but I thought, all and all, their thoughts and values were harmless. Additionally, I observed that religions often had charitable functions–running hospitals, providing shelter to the homeless, raising funds for victims of flood and famine. I think that was where my mildly favorable impression came from.
I also theorized that religion provided an external value system for people whose internal value system failed. I knew that alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals attested that they turned their lives around when they “found” religion.
Not so many years ago, I bought a used car with a Jesus fish on it, a fish-shaped chrome emblem of the Christian faith. I left the fish there as a joke--I thought it would be funny if others saw me as Christian. I did not find the fish offensive.
I lived through the 1970’s when “Born Again” bumper stickers appeared on cars. I was a complete outside observer when I saw the replies, for example a Star of David sticker with the text “born right the first time.” Religion was simply unimportant to me.
But bumper stickers lead to a change in my thinking. Sometime during the George W. Bush administration I was sitting in traffic behind an SUV plastered with bumper stickers. I have always thought of myself as a “live and let live” person. As long as another person’s conduct or beliefs do not interfere with my life, I have little concern. I generally do not think that I have answers that will make another person’s life better and I like to associate with people who follow the same philosophy.
But the driver of the SUV ahead of me thought differently. He wanted to require prayer in schools, outlaw abortion, teach creationism instead of science, and deport immigrants. Not only did the driver advise me of his opinions, he seemed to be willing to use violence to back them up. His stickers warned that “gun control means using both hands,” and that his car was protected by a .357 Magnum. Reading these stickers, it dawned on me that the driver did not share my value of “live and let live,” in fact, the driver wanted to force me to live like him!
Around the same time, the world experienced an eye-opener, religious extremists crashing airplanes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Although the media downplayed it at the time, religion played a key role in the attacks.
The aftermath of 9/11 surprised me. Within 18 months, the United States attacked Iraq, a county with no link to 9/11. The same SUVs that displayed Jesus fish and W stickers began sporting pro-war ribbons. People who protested the war were harassed and arrested. It seemed the “religious right” was taking over the country.
American religionists supported Bush with faith-like fervor as the U.S. Government suspended the Constitution and spied on its citizens, suspended the rule of law to imprison terrorist suspects without charge and ignored treaties to institute illegal policies of arrest and torture. American religionists consistently provided the strongest support for these actions. It seemed that Muslims and Christians were engaging in a holy war and that truth, law and the U.S. Constitution were the first victims. The media followed the government line, neither questioning the changes nor examining the role religion played.
More and more I saw religion imposing on my life. Using their ancient texts as guidance, the religious right sought a federal Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage starting in 2003. States put gay marriage bans on the ballot almost every year. The city next to mine started teaching creationism in the schools. Religious violence continued. Worldwide, religious terrorists attacked over and over again. And still the media ignored the role of religion in the killings.
My youth was filled with the fear of conflict between a nuclear armed East–the Soviet Union, and a nuclear armed West, led by the United States. After the Berlin Wall fell, political conflict de-escalated and I thought, “finally, there is an opportunity for peace in my time.” But horrifically, peace was not to be. The new area of conflict is religion, not politics. Now the fear is that a nuclear armed India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran or U.S. might rely on religious lies to unleash weapons of mass destruction. Instead of building a safer world based on our commonalities, we are building a more violent world based on ancient myths. The more I looked, the more I saw religion as a negative force, a force behind much of the wrong in the world.
I have spent most of my free time for the past four years reading about religion. The more I learn about religion, the more absurd its role in modern life appears.
In researching religion, I found many good resources. Reading the authors critics label “new atheists,” presumably because they have the backbone to denounce religion, several points made sense to me:
1. Religion gets more respect than it deserves;
2. The good that religion can accomplish is easily duplicated without religious baggage;
3. Religious moderates, as benign as they might seem, support the structure that empowers religious radicals;
4. Religion is a lie; and,
5. In a world where religious radicals are willing to use guns, explosives, planes and nuclear weapons based on their religious myths, religion is an especially dangerous lie.
Although the books I read made good points, the approach of many authors struck me as overly intellectual and inaccessible. I read about things like “Occam’s razor.” And although I tried to understand, other than repeating the odd name, I cannot tell you what Occam’s razor is or why it might be important to me. When I see 30 pages of dense text without a break, my eyes glaze over. So, I have written a book for regular people--people like me. This is a short book, with short chapters. I try to avoid big words and intellectual discussions.
I am writing this book to support existing or emerging atheists, to encourage agnostics to get off the fence and make a choice, and to encourage everyone on the religiosity scale described in Chapter 4 to move one step to the left. I feel obligated to act. I do not understand why so few people are willing to speak the truth when religionists are killing for their myths.
Atheism is an immature movement. Although it is a potentially powerful force, I am distressed by its weakness. Ted Haggard’s National Association of Evangelicals claimed 30 million members, while the largest American atheist group has 14,000. Compared to religion, atheism is disorganized, leaderless and powerless. Despite being right, atheism is neither taught nor promoted, it just sits there waiting to be found. Prejudice against atheists abounds. Americans boast of respecting freedom of religion but they do not see that concept as including freedom from religion. I hope to do what I can to change this.
I acknowledge up-front that I am not a professional journalist. I am not a professor of philosophy or biology. I do not write for a living. I do not have a research staff, a professional editor or a proofreader. I am a regular guy, raised without religion, who has a particular concern about religion. I have spent several years reading and thinking about religion, and I have something to say.