In the Beginning
My formal religious education as a child was as a United Methodist. I was a member of the sixth generation to attend Crews United Methodist Church. My great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Peace Crews, Jr., donated more than half the money required to build the first church and supervised its construction. His son, Cornelius Elijah Crews, my great-great-grandfather, donated the land. Their remains and those of their respective wives are buried in the church cemetery. Their granddaughter/daughter, Rosa Ellen Crews, was a charter member; she and her husband, my great-grandparents, are also buried in the cemetery. Their daughter and her husband, my grandparents, are buried in the cemetery as well. Their daughter, my mother, and my father were married in the church.
I went to Church School and Worship Service almost every Sunday. I attended Vacation Bible School every summer. For two years, I was a member of Troop 930, Boy Scouts of America, which is still sponsored by the church. One year, during our annual Christmas pageant, I was given the honor of reciting John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (KJV). I took this task so seriously that I permanently etched into my memory both my practice sessions in front of my mirror and my very careful recitation during the pageant.
Even so, I can't say that I was particularly devout or religious. I participated in church activities because my mother took my sister and me to church, and it was just what we did almost every week. I learned the Bible stories and the moral precepts, but it was simply a matter of learning what I was taught. I always found learning to be something akin to an involuntary biological function; my brain processed knowledge the way my stomach digested food. I was always a rational and intellectual child possessed of an extraordinary intelligence. I could create an interest in almost anything, but was always particularly interested in science and mathematics. My natural inclination was to analyze whatever gained my attention, to break it down to its fundamentals, and to grasp a deeper understanding of it. I have never overcome this predilection, much to the consternation of others, and all too often.
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A Pilgrim Wanders into Apostasy
Being a mainline Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church is generally staid and orderly. Worship services follow a formal, defined, systematic structure, or, if you will, a method, hence Methodism. Only once did I attend the services of another denomination; this was also, as best I remember, the only time that my father went to church with us. When I was eleven, my paternal grandmother died unexpectedly. In what must have been an attempt to "get right with God," my father took us to his late maternal grandmother's Pentecostal Holiness church up in the sticks in the county north of us. The service was a chaotic mixture of hellfire-and-brimstone revivalism and "speaking in tongues." Once I overcame the culture shock, I took exception with the assault on my rationality. I observed the members of the congregation as they produced a cacophony of unintelligible and meaningless vocalizations, some of which were "translated" into English or yet another "divine tongue." I realized that they were all faking it; the adults were doing what was expected of them, and the children were simply imitating the adults. While I understood that the Pentecostals were fellow Protestant Christians and shared the same basic faith tradition as my familiar United Methodist Church, I couldn't help but see that their religious practice wasn't simply a different form of Christian worship. It was complete, utter nonsense at best and unmitigated disingenuousness at worst. Though I was unaware of its ultimate impact, I had learned a fundamental lesson.
Later in the school year, my sixth grade teacher had my classmates and me complete a fairly lengthy and detailed worksheet as an instructional guide in the study of Greek and Roman mythology. I spent at least a full evening in the public library gleaning answers from various reference books. I found completing the assignment difficult because I kept being drawn deeper into the subject than was required. I couldn't resist the urge to read further than was needed simply to answer the question at hand. I recognized the uncanny humanness of these long unbelieved-in, unworshipped gods and that they were used to explain human behavior and the human condition; I learned later this was called anthropomorphism. In retrospect, I learned two very important facts from my brief study of Classical mythology:
man created gods in his own image and gods could die from lack of worship.
When I was twelve, I and the other seventh graders attended confirmation classes, formal instruction in the Christian articles of faith and Methodist church teaching. One is required to complete this religious training in order to join the church officially as a mature believer. These classes stimulated me to consider seriously what I truly believed. Now, it's usually dangerous to get me to think about things; I'm liable to end up somewhere I'm not expected to be! I have always heard the beat of my own drummer very loudly and most clearly. As I hadn't "confirmed" to myself that I actually believed what the church said I was supposed to believe, I declined to join the church when the time came for the formal ceremony. Of course, most, if not all, of the other kids went ahead and joined if for no other reason than they were expected to do so. The formal joining process culminated with taking Communion for the first time before the congregation who served as witnesses. My absence was very noticeable. Our minister, whom I recall as being "very concerned" which was perhaps his self-characterization, confronted me afterwards and wanted to know why I hadn't joined. I explained that I wasn't sure if I believed the church's teachings and that I considered it inappropriate to join until I was certain that I did believe them. (My mother told me her side of it many years later, sometime in my late thirties, which was the first I had heard of it.) A little later, in an obvious attempt to seek parental support to influence me to do the "right thing," he went to my mother and related the encounter to her. He referred to my response to his query as "a very rational and intellectual explanation." My mother described him as "flustered and shaken." Well, I should think so! I'm certain that no adult had ever expressed the slightest doubt in the thing to which he had devoted his life, and certainly no twelve-year-old boy!
Mind you, I wasn't an atheist at this point and probably couldn't have told you what one was if you asked. Even so, I definitely was losing whatever faith I had, assuming of course that I ever had any. I was probably what could be described best as an "agnostic." At any rate, I was not simply questioning religious belief, but actively and seriously doubting all religious claims, and this created other conflicts in my socioreligious life. One of the twelve descriptive adjectives that a Boy Scout was expected to embody was "reverent." I fully realized that I had become "irreverent," so I quit the Boy Scouts as I no longer met this organizational (and personal) expectation of being "reverent." Thus the line of thought that had begun with my confirmation classes inexorably progressed towards its logical conclusion. I had cleared and plowed the field which allowed the germination of the seeds that had been planted by my experience with the Pentecostals.
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Taking a Wrong Turn on the Road to Damascus
The process which had begun approximately six months earlier reached its conclusion on a gorgeous spring day. While I can't recall the precise date, it happened on a warm and sunny day during the first week of May 1974, give or take a week or two. I was a month or so past my thirteenth birthday. The oak trees on my junior high school's campus were full of new, dark green leaves which blocked out the noonday sun. I was walking back to Language Arts/Social Studies class after lunch when I had this sensation of seeing a brilliant white light that momentarily blinded me. Simultaneously, I realized that there was no God. I "saw the light," and I became an atheist! Concurrently, I expanded the concept of "God" beyond the Christian God and understood "God" to be a metaphor which referred to every deity ever imagined. By extension, "God" also included all supernatural beings and entities (angels, demons, souls, ghosts, etc.) and anything purported to exist outside of the material world as well. Thus, I fully accepted the natural world as the real world and utterly rejected the purported supernatural realm as a phantasm. Suddenly, everything made sense; I felt as though I had been let in on one of the great secrets of the Cosmos. This experience was, and remains, the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying of my life. As poet Wallace Stevens once noted, "To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences."
While I am no neurophysiologist, I have often speculated on the nature of this "seeing the light" phenomenon and what happened in my brain to cause it. The light I "saw" was certainly not an external event; no one else observed it, and an actual flash of light of the intensity I sensed certainly would have damaged my optic system. I think the phenomenon was the culmination of an act of intuitive reasoning. I didn't deduce the conclusion that God didn't exist. It literally "came to me in a flash"; I simply knew it. I had done so much intensive thinking about religion that I must have created numerous new neural pathways in the process. While I was walking back to class, I undoubtedly was ruminating on religion. I must have created a new connection that initiated a cascade of synaptic firing that created even more new connections. This intense cerebral activity must have overloaded the visual center of my brain. The visual center had to do something with this stimulation, so it interpreted it as a blinding white light, thus creating the illusion. This is as plausible an explanation as I can determine.
Christians likely consider the "seeing the light" phenomenon to be not merely an exclusively religious, specifically Christian experience, but a direct communication from God marking the beginning of a life within the Christian faith. This erroneous belief no doubt has its origins in the conversion story of Saul of Tarsus, later called Paul, as related in Acts 9. How many times has a Christian, having learned that I was an atheist, "blessed" me and encouraged my conversion with an unknowingly ironic "I hope you see the light"? In addition to "seeing the light," English idiomatic expressions for "a sudden brilliant understanding" include "in a flash" and "a flash of intuition." Intuitive reasoning is a natural function of the human mind and may or may not include a light sensation. These "eureka moments" can be found at the core of scientific, philosophical, intellectual, and artistic breakthroughs. So, "seeing the light" is actually more common, and more commonplace, than Christians apparently believe.
Furthermore, the Zen Buddhists have two Japanese words which refer to the process, satori and kensho, which are roughly translated as "sudden awakening," "sudden illumination," or "sudden enlightenment." While the words are imperfect expressions of deeper concepts which confound common Western understanding, they refer to a transcendent experience which opens one to the true nature of things. Similarly, "seeing the light" reveals "the truth" to the "enlightened one." One who has such an experience doesn't so much "believe," but rather "knows," and with an emotional intensity which transcends reason and renders the "revelation" impervious to counterargument. Of course, this says nothing about the validity of what the "seer" "knows" which is just as applicable to my intuition as it is to the Christian's "Godly vision." That being said, perhaps there is a most telling difference. Christians interpret their transcendent experiences as external events, as coming from something outside of themselves, as coming from something that was not themselves; that is, God. I recognize my transcendent experience as an internal event, as coming from something within myself, as coming from that part of the Cosmos that I am; that is, my mind.
While intuiting the nonexistence of "God" is inadequate in and of itself, the intellectual framework upon which the intuition rested had been erected using rational and deductive means. The intuition was simply an intellectual shortcut to the deduction that would have followed logically from my line of thought. Even so, I have always subjected my atheism to the same rational scrutiny that led me away from religion. After forty years, I have found no reason to reject the intuition that brought me to atheism. I consider atheism to be one of the fundamental truths of human existence and have used it as the foundation for my worldview ever since. Once one dispenses with the imaginary cause and effect of "God," everything else follows.
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