Why I’m an Atheist
The late-summer sun peaked through a flush maple tree and poured a spectrum of variegated beams through the stained-glass windows and onto the United Methodist Church’s aging congregation. As the pastor began the benediction and directed his flock to bow their heads, I sat on the hard oak pew with my grandmother in the second row—head bowed just enough to still watch illuminated dust particles dance in the air—waiting anxiously for the moment to make my exit. I was nine. Mrs. Williams punctuated the last volume swell on the old Hammond organ that signaled the end of the service. The only formality between me and freedom was a hand wave to the pastor during my fast-walk out the door. But that didn’t happen. My escape into reality was immediately interrupted by the youth minister Ms. Jackson.
I don’t even know why they had a youth minister. Even for a small town church, there couldn’t have been more than eight youths there on a good Sunday. My one-way conversation with Ms. Jackson consisted of a manipulative mixture of god-speak entangled with overnight camping that had been conveniently condensed into an 8½ x 11 flyer.
“Would you like to go camping with all the other kids next Friday?”
“It will really be fun...it’s called Camping for Jesus.”
“You do love Jesus don’t you? Everyone is going to get saved and accept Jesus into their heart…you do want to be saved from burning in hell don’t you?”
She had me. At nine years old, my contempt for authority and dogmatism was blossoming but my debate skills, critical thinking, and psychological defenses were underdeveloped to say the least. I looked down at the flyer to try and think of something to say because Ms. Jackson hadn’t moved an inch and showed no signs of relenting. At the moment, my two options seemed to be either burn in hell for eternity or go camping with Jesus. I was at a crossroads. Then, all of a sudden there it was in black and white printed right on the flyer: $20 donation covers food and gas. It was my out and I didn’t even have to tell a lie about having some incurable disease…or something. I mustered my best I’m-really-sorry look, shrugged my shoulders and blurted it out.
“Sorry, I don’t have twenty bucks.”
“Sure you do.”
“What? No, I don’t have—“
The next thing I knew my ever-loving grandmother had already handed Ms. Jackson a crisp 20-dollar bill from her purse. She must have witnessed the whole thing or was in on the conspiracy.
“Dean would love to go camping—he camps out all the time at home,” my grandmother said with more than a hint of compulsive fervor.
“Great! We’ll take good care of him.”
My plan to escape rural-route proselytization collapsed right before my very eyes like a puff of holy smoke. I held my breath because, somehow, I felt compelled to scream “Goddamnit!” at the top of my lungs but this didn’t seem like an appropriate time or place. Once again, as always, I bit my tongue and succumbed to passive-agressive coercion.
I had been going to that same church for four years, which is enough time to earn a college degree or even memorize the binominal nomenclature of all earth’s species but, even after all that time, I was failing miserably at hearing the voice of God. I had been praying, pleading, begging, reading the Bible, meditating, etc., doing anything I could short of handling snakes or drinking arsenic, and yet I hadn’t heard the first peep out of God or Jesus. I thought that I was either defective, not worthy, or the entire town was deluded and simply in need of psychiatric help. That’s when I knew the whole God bit was total bullshit—a mind-control scam to control people. I was immediately onto the Tooth Fairy facade and the Santa Clause hustle before the age of six, but this was way bigger and was going to take quite a bit more convincing to point out the obvious to the deluded. I was beginning to see why they had to meet each week to keep up the charade.
I was born a natural skeptic and saw no evidence of the supernatural. I did learn very quickly that adults get mad when you ask hard questions about Jesus or God or question their beliefs. Some questions I asked that were met with disapproval were: Why do we eat Jesus and drink his blood?; Where is God?; Why doesn’t He answer prayers?; Why do bad things happen to good people? How do you know this is true? It seemed odd to me that people always became sick and always died—eventually—no matter how much praying was involved. None of the answers I was given were remotely satisfying, even at nine years old. I instinctively knew there had to be someone somewhere who had an answer. I just had to fake it ‘til I made it.
Next Friday came quicker than I anticipated. As the church van pulled into my driveway, Ms. Jackson and her boyfriend Bill had these creepy counselor smiles on their faces—like they knew something on me. My overly religious mother was thrilled that I was going off to camp with Jesus because she knew I didn’t like going to church. She was what I would describe as a televangelist fundamentalist. She watched “church” every Sunday morning from 9 ‘til noon. She was hoping I would get “saved” and give my heart to the Lord—whatever that meant. All eight of us kids must have been individually coerced into going because everyone was present and accounted for. I was the last pickup before we set off towards the backwoods of Kentucky.
The 60-mile trip was actually fun. One of the kids named Cameron had an older brother who was graduating college. Cameron said his brother would tell stories he heard about these weird philosophy classes in college. Some of the stories went something like this:
A distinguished philosophy professor sat in the front of his class for two weeks without saying a word—just looking at them— then, at the beginning of the third week, asked the students to write down exactly what they were thinking. There was a rumor that the professor didn’t believe in God. The other story was that a philosophy professor had the class read all these hard-to-understand books about the meaning of life. Then, on the day of the final, the only question on the test was: why? All the students wrote feverishly for the entire hour but the only person who passed the class answered: because.
To me, this was fascinating; maybe these were the guys with some answers. That little anecdote was my first introduction to big questions that didn’t have ready-made answers that involved burning bushes, magic messiahs, and roman torture devices. I fantasized about taking a philosophy class and already having the answer to the “why” question just to impress my professor. That seemed so much more interesting than worshiping some invisible super-friend in the sky who was never around when you needed someone who specialized in omniscience.
We finally arrived at our destination, which consisted of a few log cabins along a creek and a somewhat flat plot of land to pitch our tents. This was not like the “Jesus Camp” documentary in any form or fashion. This was real camping in real tents and sleeping bags—we just had to imagine the Jesus part. Bill started a fire near the creek to cook hotdogs while Ms. Jackson helped us erect our tents and lay out our sleeping bags while pointing out how God make all the trees, rocks, and hills. I always wondered how these people made it through science class.
After some fire-cooked hotdogs smothered in yellow mustard, I could tell it was time for the Jesus part of the camping trip. I’m sure a youth minister has some quota to meet in the saving souls department to move up the ecclesiastical ladder. Parents want to get their $20 worth.
I’m sure what happened next will someday legally qualify as child abuse.
Bill and Ms. Jackson handed out several boxes of crayons and some construction paper. We were instructed to draw our vision of heaven and hell (heaven at the top of the page, hell at the bottom), and guess where our friends and we were likely to end up. Bill had us use bright red crayons for hell and yellow for the tips of the flames. Heaven was light-blue clouds and pastels—the Holy Ghost was optional. The rule was that if someone hadn’t been saved, we had to draw him or her in hell indicating they would burn in hell for eternity. If they had been saved, straight to the clouds to hang out with Jesus while we watched the others suffer. Of course, in the process of picking and choosing, we had to ask around and find out who had or had not been saved. Several of the kids started crying as we started drawing them in hell. Cameron seemed to enjoy drawing the damned a little too much. Bill and Ms. Jackson began to describe to us what it would be like to burn for eternity—the skin and hair melting off very slowly, feeling your organs cook, bones frying, etc. All this was done against the backdrop of a raging campfire as Bill punctuated the agony of damnation by waving around a hotdog skewer and laughing wildly. Then came the pitch: “who wants to be saved?” Seven arms enthusiastically went up in the air. I sat there for a moment and watched the embers from the fire dance slowly through the clear Kentucky air—hating myself—as I slowly raised my hand, knowing I was being pressured into something I didn’t believe in but didn’t know what to do. It’s hard to be the odd kid out.
The next day’s van ride home was much quieter than the trip out. All I could think about was sitting in a philosophy class with a grey-bearded professor and asking hard to answer questions about life. I guess I did the right thing though. My mother was waiting for me in the driveway as Bill and Ms. Jackson dropped me off, which happened to be the first stop. She cried when they told her I had been saved. The van pulled away as she was hugging me and I saw several other kids crying too.
She talked to me constantly about the Bible and Jesus all through high school but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I didn’t believe a word of it. I would just nod my head in agreement until I left for college. She passed away when I turned twenty-three not truly knowing her son.
After years of philosophy classes (shaved and unshaven college professors), hard-to-understand books, world travel, and many, many late nights of libations and reflection, I still think back on that camping trip and wonder if I did the right thing. I guess there will always be some open questions. But one thing is for certain: these days, when someone asks me why I’m an atheist, I reflect back to my childhood and that van ride into the hills of Kentucky with Cameron the other kids. I just reply: because...there is no God.