Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

My religious background – For inquiring minds who want to know.

Posted on February 18, 2018

Second grade at Stephen F. Austin Elementary. I am in the white shirt on the far right.

 

 

 

In the 1971 movie, They Might Be Giants, George C. Scott played Justin Playfair, a man who believed he was Sherlock Holmes. Playfair’s psychiatrist, named Dr. Mildred Watson and played by Joanne Woodward, explored his delusion.

 

 

Watson:     Do many people call you Holmes?

Playfair:    No. Scarcely anyone.

Watson:     That must make you very much alone.

Playfair:    It does that, but it doesn’t make me wrong.

Playfair’s intellectual independence struck a chord with me when I was fifteen years old because I felt very much alone in my disbelief regarding a higher power. It seemed to me that I was the only person on earth who did not believe in God, and in Marshall, Texas, I was probably not far wrong. Children in the 1960s, at least in Marshall, were fairly well protected from forbidden knowledge about things like atheism and homosexuality.

The First Methodist Church – where my parents took me every Sunday – tolerated liberal ideas, and I recall having a spirited creationism-versus-evolution discussion with my Sunday school teacher. Nonetheless, outright denial of God was beyond the pale, and I kept my most iconoclastic thoughts to myself.

I do not remember exactly when I stopped believing in God – sometime during grade school. I have three fuzzy childhood memories about religion, but I cannot recall exactly when or in what order they occurred.

  • Perhaps in the third or fourth grade, I learned simplified legends of Greek, Norse, and Native American gods. I then developed a rudimentary Baha’i-faith notion that Zeus, Odin, the Great Spirit, and the Sunday-school God were all the same guy. I don’t think I ever really believed this. It was just an interesting idea.
  • A schoolteacher taught that primitive people invented gods to explain things in nature that they did not understand, such as Norsemen inventing Thor to explain thunder. Around the same time a Sunday-school teacher taught that that we know God is real because he created flowers, birds and other wonders of nature that no one can explain.[1]
  • I remember kneeling by my bed and fervently praying because I was not a very good Christian.

Beyond these three skeletal recollections, I probably have more manufactured memories than accurate accounts of my childhood rejection of Christian orthodoxy. Nonetheless, I think I can with reasonable accuracy reconstruct my basic train of thought.

So far as I knew in grade school, I invented atheism. There was certainly nothing original about the idea that most religions are false. Although I did not read C.S. Lewis until high school, like him, I noticed that my teachers simply assumed that religions in general were nonsense, “though our own, by a fortunate exception, was exactly true.”[2] At first, I felt exceedingly lucky to be born into the exact right religion. At some point, I began to wonder why our God was any less fictitious than Thor.

I loved science from an early age. When my playmates and I – inspired by space operas like The Queen Outer Space – explored new planets, I always wanted to be the scientist. In school, we learned how sun shining through water droplets creates rainbows. In Sunday school, we learned that God created the rainbow after the flood. I gave greater credence to the scientific explanation. The Sunday school explanation for rainbows seemed suspiciously similar to the Norse explanation for thunder.

I do not recall studying biology in school before the eighth grade, and I first learned of evolution from 1950s monster movies, such as The Maze. Based on this admittedly weak scientific foundation, I came to believe that the biblical creation story conflicted with science. I never liked the “cafeteria Christian” idea that believers can pick and choose which parts of the Bible are myth and which are true. I believed I had to choose between science and religion, and I chose science.

I might have engaged in the aforementioned emotional prayer while going through this process. Exacerbated by the fact that there was no one to whom I felt I could confide these doubts, I probably felt some stress while rejecting the Faith of my fathers. Much like the vast majority of gays in the 1960s, I stayed in the closet.

A couple of things changed in 1971. First, I read Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain. If you have never read it, stop reading this inconsequential blog and start reading Twain’s classic work of sarcasm – so biting it was not published until 1962 when the Soviets shamed Twain’s family for suppressing his writings.[3] Second, atheism finally hit the American airwaves when Norman Lear’s All in the Family introduced the first atheist television character, Michael “Meathead” Stivic played by Rob Reiner. I still felt quite isolated in Marshall, but at least I knew that I knew I was not the only nonbeliever on the planet.

My feelings of isolation eventually went the way of most teen angst. Over the years, I have read a few books and learned a few things on the topic of religion, but my basic views have not changed much since grade school. Before starting this blog, I was still to a certain degree in the closet simply because I have rarely had any reason to announce my religious beliefs or lack thereof. As I explained in my previous post, Why am I writing about legal apologetics?, I now feel that legal apologetics requires a response, and I am stepping up to do the job.


[1] Sunday school  teachers teach essentially the same lesson today.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy 59 (1955).

[3] The New York Times, August 24, 1962. Anti-Religious Work by Twain, Long Withheld, to Be Published.


-rgmiller