The Average Atheist

July 21, 2009 at 2:00 pm (Thoughts) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Approaching the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, hastily scribbled note in hand, I approached wearing the funny paper hat that the Orthodox Rabbinate requires all guests to wear. I put my right hand on the millenia-old stones, small note clenched between forefinger and thumb, cupped my left over the pathetic kippa so the wind wouldn’t swipe it from me, stuck my note in one of the cracks, and prayed…

What did the note say?

In the hand-writing my brother describes as “undeveloped,” it read: “Reveal yourself to me” followed by my initials.

I had come to Israel to study history. Middle Eastern History, to be more precise. It was a two-year MA program at Tel Aviv University coupled with a chance to live in the region I was studying, and for far cheaper than any similar program in my home country, the United States.

Before leaving, I had been given a Bible by one of my cousins, who happened to work as “missionary support” in Durango, Mexico (why Christian missionaries are necessary in a country that is 95% Catholic, I will never know). During my first year of graduate studies I would spend time every night going through this little book, cover to cover, searching for meaning, for answers, for anything. But more on that later. Let’s back up.

My family is religious. With the exception of my father (who has never attended Church and thinks religion is unnecessary), my sister, all of my cousins, and occasionally my brother (when he cares enough to throw his two cents in on a subject he apparently neglects) all maintain a fundamentalist, literal interpretation of the Bible and believe the “Word of God” to be infallible, but difficult to understand without a life-time of studying and living it.

Now, understand that I was the kid forced to attend Church service and who crawled under the pews of the sanctuary during the sermon to play with G.I. Joes and build forts out of the Bibles and hymn-books. Who, when asked after getting baptized at age 10 (on Mother’s Day) what it now meant to be a Christian, responded with, “Now I get to eat the white crackers and drink the grape juice.” Repeatedly. Never understanding what it really meant until years later… much to the chagrin of my devout mother. I was one of a small group of kids who felt the same way. We all attended the same Church growing up. My friends and I never cared much for what was said in Sunday school, we only cared about being with each other and playing outside, or with whatever toys we could find.

While none of us put more than a moment’s thought into what being a Christian really meant, we all decided that we were in some way superior to those kids who did not attend church, or, to push it slightly further, who did not attend our church.

I still recall a conversation between one of my church-going friends and another class-mate, who did not attend church at all, about the benefit of being Christian. It was 4th grade and we were on a field trip across town (we walked… that’s how small the town was). While walking back to our school at the end of the trip, my friend and I cornered the other class-mate and continued to verbally mock him for not being able to “ride the rollercoasters in heaven,” and how we would look down on him while he was being burned eternally in hell and smile while eating our ice cream cones. Kids can be cruel, it’s true. Although, all the better for him, it had no impact. He was fine with not being Christian, not because he didn’t want to be, but because he was a sports fanatic (even by 4th grade standards) who would never give up Sunday afternoon NFL football games for a religious sermon.

These part and parcel memories of my childhood religious experiences soon waned to even less than the measley bits they already were. Throughout my adolescence, my neglect of religion continued to get deeper. While still attending Church with my family every Sunday, I only did so in order to not worry my mother, or to get punished with mowing the lawn or cleaning the dishes after dinner for not going. She already believed me to be somewhat less “holy” than my brother and sister. Being a more respectable young adult, I may not have physically crawled under the pews anymore, but my mind wasn’t far off. Only this time, instead of G.I. Joes and “holy-book citadels,” it was the finely dressed young females of my congregation that my mind “sinfully” turned to. Behavior may change, but mentality doesn’t. I didn’t care about religion.

Leaving home for college at 18 did nothing to spark my interest in religion either, outside of the occasional “drunk-frat-party-obnoxious-argument-over-theology” that many college kids experience at that age. But what did I know? The one thing these arguments taught me was that my knowledge of religion was lacking at best. It wasn’t until college that I realized that I really did not pay attention whatsoever to any religious sermon or Sunday school lesson ever taught to me. I vaguely recalled a few of the Bible’s stories, but knew no specific details. It wasn’t until graduate school in Israel that I realized how deeply ingrained Christianity was in everything I did.

I can occasionally conjure up the sour feelings I would have in my gut whenever I would hear somebody bad-mouthing Christianity, or disputing Jesus as an actual historical figure. The outrage I would feel whenever somebody talked gloriously about Islam. And even the deep-seated hatred and anger of the Jews for being so stubborn and not accepting Jesus Christ as their savior when they had the chance. Now imagine somebody with these feelings suddenly thrust unprepared into the Jewish world of Israel, surrounded by religions not his own.

I once read that religious belief is something so engraved into our minds that it takes a significant mental shock to make the effects wear off long enough to see through the fallacy of our world views. Israel, then, was my metaphorical “shock therapy.”

I’m not proud to admit that the first year I lived in Israel I harbored very negative feelings for the citizens around me in that small country. So much so that I feel morbidly disgusted with myself, even more so having ended up marrying one of them (who I could not be happier with). I felt hatred, disgust, anger, nausea, and frustration each time I left my apartment. Then it happened…

I met my future wife at the very start of my second year of graduate school and everything changed. I will step back a moment and state that my interest in religion had grown exponentially before then due to my academic study of history, and of Islam, and my immersion in a culture I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with. Everything I had read on Christianity by that time was an apologia for its mis-handlings, or a creationist perspective of how the world works. I had refused to read anything inflammatory or critical of the beliefs I “supposedly” held since childhood.

I will even say that I based all of my then-religious beliefs on a website called “All About the Journey,” by Randall Niles. My brother-in-law had suggested it to me as it helped him formulate his beliefs (he had no exposure whatsoever to Christianity until marrying my sister. Shortly thereafter he became more devout than her – love does strange things indeed!). Randall Niles was a highly educated lawyer who had studied at some of the best universities in the world. He had a mid-life conversion after he came to sudden revelation while attending a youth sports camp.

His revelation?

1. He told the kids to drink water because it helps keep you from dehydrating;
2. His dad had told him to suck on oranges because too much water would give him cramps;
3. His dad was told to take salt tablets for the aforementioned avoidance of athletic cramps;
4. Erego, science is fickle and changing, whereas religion remains constant. Therefore it’s true.

How low have our educational standards dropped to make a man educated at Oxford and Georgetown (in law, no less) able to make such a nonsensical leap of logic? At the time of reading it, I was convinced, but still felt a strange jab of common sense poking its head through my mind’s doggy-door and whispering “false conclusion.” But the white-noise of my religious indoctrination was too loud for me to hear it.

Only when browsing through a Steimatzsky’s bookstore (Israel’s version of Barnes and Noble) and stumbling across Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” did I finally, and coincidentally, flip to the exact page that directly disputed almost every conclusion that Mr. Niles made on his website, and with sharp British wit to boot. I had picked up the book with mild curiosity to see what a written work with such a blunt title would say. I had no idea who Richard Dawkins was or what he was known for writing. I was stunned! One could say I felt the divine hand guiding me to this book, but today I think of any supernatural power guiding anything as a malignant fairytale.

Thus began my journey into atheism.

I started this blog over a year ago and wrote a number of short essays on atheism and my beliefs, but realized rather quickly that my writing on the subject was sub-par at best, and at worst, damaging to the cause for which I now found myself apart of. I was too immature in my thinking to make any meaningful contribution. To say that I have matured now would also be a mistake. I am but one year older and, maybe, 20 books and 100 internet articles/blogs smarter. I have, to date, held no serious debates with any of my religious family members on this newly acquired world view, nor have I fully articulated what I’m trying to do with this world view.

I am not a philosopher. I have no academic training in the physical sciences. I have never read Darwin’s works. I don’t speak multiple languages. I never officially studied religion at any university. I am merely a curious person with a desire to express the feelings that have flooded the chamber of my consciousness lately. I am not far off from the average person except that I have attempted in the little spare time that I have to study and challenge religion.

That is why I am the “Average Atheist.”

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1 Comment

  1. freidenker24 said,

    From one “average” atheist to another, I say: ” welcome to Israel”.

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