That's just what we did in the 1950s
Before I knew an angel from the ice cream man, I was taken to church - because that's what parents did in the 1950s - they dressed up the kids and trekked off to weekly doses of righteousness. I never did actually enjoy church; my mind was too active to sit still and listen to monotone stories of how sinful I was. But I tolerated it - because that's what kids did in the 1950s. Our family had moved to Dallas in 1952 and promptly joined a Presbyterian church in the neighborhood. I enjoyed Sunday School more. We made stuff. I enjoyed making stuff. I enjoyed Vacation Bible School also - because we made stuff there, too.
I started avoiding church services in junior high or high school. Sometimes I would lay in bed and pretend to be asleep when mom or dad came down the hall to see if we were ready for church. They'd prod a little bit, but not enough to make me actually get up and get dressed in a tie. That 'faking it' procedure got me through the high school years. I was, however, active in the evening youth vespers - I even became president of the Vespers group. That was enjoyable because of the friends I had there and the friends I made there. It was a social outing. It was fun. There was no deep spiritual commitment. I just went through the rote drills of worship.
I went to the diverse community of Austin, Texas for college at the University of Texas. One evening, in the living room of the neighboring dorm, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the country's eminent atheist activist came to speak. I listened. I still considered myself to be a Christian, but I had to admit, much of what she said made sense. I was open minded enough to at least ponder options of spirituality and/or religion. I didn't embrace atheism, however. It didn't feel right. After all, I was the product of years of brainwashing of mainstream Biblical fairy tales.
In college, while I lived at the Sigma Chi fraternity house (whose creeds and rituals were based on Christianity), I became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ. A crusade rep spoke at our chapter dinners, led Bible Study, and counseled us individually in our rooms. As I was about to serve as chapter president, I prayed to Jesus for the strength and guidance to lead a bunch of college fraternity guys. I also smoked marijuana. Now I'm not sure which was the greater help - Jesus or weed, but I did get through the year-long term as president.
So, late 1970 or early 1971, I became a devout born-again Christian. I hung out with the Christian faction in the fraternity house, went to church, dated a woman from church, and truly believed I had found salvation and joy in Jesus (or was that the dope talking, again?)
While I was in college, I concluded that denominations could not have come from God since they were so often based on human disagreements. Sects splitting from sects that had broken off of cults that had broken off of cults. So I searched for and found a nondenominational Bible Church. This felt better - no divisive creeds - just teachings rooted in the holy Bible. I carried that philosophy with me when I moved back to Dallas and, although I went through phases of being devout and being lukewarm, I usually stayed true to a nondenom Bible church.
In 1974, I wrote some goals:
• Serve God, to live righteously, to be happy.
• Create a more aesthetically pleasing environment.
• Entertain earthlings.
• Design & produce products that better mankind & convey strong ideas.
Goal could just read "to serve God." as a result of trying to reach that, I would live righteously and be happy & reach my objectives, since I want those objectives that serve God also. I must dedicate my life to serving God. Then all these other wants & desires will be fulfilled & the pieces will fall into place.
I did go through another search phase, this time looking for a more honest, true church. I found it in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). These people had their act together. What a slick organization. I was sold. In about 1980, I was baptized a Mormon. I had to be re-baptized since the Mormon church did not honor nor acknowledge my Presbyterian baptism. I enjoyed the Mormon church - the zeal, the purity, the striving to earn the right to enter the Temple.
Some Christian friends thought I was an idiot for becoming a Mormon and submitted my name to two Mormon-buster mailing lists. These are organizations that exist solely to get people out of the cult of Mormonism. They now had my name. I received lots of mail and phone calls. I read their literature. I was open to what they were trying to tell me. Soon, after considering their logic, I agreed with them - the Mormon church is a hoax. It was founded by two humans who, dissatisfied with their own church, created their own and wrote an accompanying book.
One of my favorite activities is to invite Mormon Missionaries into my home and ask how the angel Moroni could have taken the golden plates (on which Joseph Smith received the Book of Mormon) up to heaven - how could physical objects be taken into a spiritual realm? The missionaries hate that question. One young kid even got angry with me because he had no answer to my question. his white-shirted partner had to calm him down - I suspect the younger guy was new to the proselytizing task.
Well, I did go back to the Mormon church - to meet with the elders and tell them I thought their church was a hoax and not for me. They were disappointed but polite (I think they had heard it before). I went back to the Bible church.
I was so devout that I broke up with what many said was the perfect wife for me, but she was an atheist and I felt strongly that a couple should share at least some basic spiritual beliefs. I was a Christian and she was an atheist - couldn't happen.
"I think it's so neat that, even though you are intelligent, you're still a spiritual Christian."
I didn't know how to respond to this student after class. I was teaching part-time at a community college. I had told the class the news that I had earned my PhD (I had earlier shared his faith with the class). The student said that research shows the more intelligent one is, the less likely one is to be religious. Well, that bothered me. I was religious yet he wanted to consider myself intelligent.
During grad school, I enrolled in a Special Projects course with the Chair of the Department of Visual Arts & Design. After the first class, he suggested we go downstairs to his office to discuss my special project. Initially, I was a bit nervous about meeting and persuading the head honcho. Following him down the staircase, in my mind, I recited, on a repeat loop, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." It calmed me, gave me some peace, and helped my confidence for the meeting. My presentation went well. I believed that Bible verse was the reason.
After graduate school, I sent out several applications and resumes for full-time teaching positions. It was almost too late in the year - most schools had completed their hiring homework. At one point, I wrote a prayer in my journal,
"Lord, please find me a good teaching position by my birthday. I pray this in my savior, your son's name, Jesus. Amen"
This was in late spring. My birthday was in July. More applications were filled out, more resumes were sent.
Just when I was about to give up on finding a job as a teacher, a letter arrived. It was a request for an interview for the position of Assistant Professor. This could be it. I went through the process. Meeting the faculty, a tour of the campus, and interviewing with the department chair and the dean. I was offered the job. After being home for a couple weeks I returned to campus to sign a contract. I submitted the contract to the Academic Provost. Walking back to my car, I remembered today was my birthday. God is good.
‘Jesus died for my sins.' I never understood exactly how that could be and no one had ever been able to help me with that one. Jesus committed a gruesome suicide late Friday evening and supposedly left his tomb later Saturday night or early on Sunday morning. About 30-36 hours. He was in heaven or some other place, dead, napping, or in a coma for about a day and a half. So, at best, ‘Jesus was temporarily inconvenienced for my sins.' A pastor at my Bible church once told him,
"Jim, all Christians have doubts - if they didn’t, they were lying to themselves or were ignorant of their own beliefs. It's quite a large pill we're asking you to swallow. Virgin birth, miracles, reincarnation."
I tried to work through my doubts about how or why Jesus died for me. At that time, I accepted the overused rationale that there are some things God just didn't want me to understand.
I moved to Oklahoma and went to MetroChurch in Edmond. I was looking for another nondenominational church and that one seemed to have spirit. I was very devout at this time. I would not go to sleep until I had read the Bible, often memorizing verses. I fasted on Sundays and tried to keep the day free of distraction; My Mormon phase taught me about the sanctity of the Sabbath. I was so devout that when I got into my car, I would sit quietly and pray that God protect me, my occupants, and other drivers on the road. Only then would I start the car. A few weeks later, my insurance came due for renewal.
"Well, I'm going to get some insurance, just in case, Lord, you don't come through for me."
That is not trusting God. That's not faith. It seemed to be offensive and an insult to God. I canceled my car insurance.
Months later, I was driving on a suburban Interstate. This was an older section of the highway with no barriers in the grass median. My dog, Dallas, was sitting on a thick pad in the back of the SUV. We were in the left lane, going down a slight hill with a good view of the traffic ahead. A silver car, about to enter the highway, began to merge. There was a car up ahead to my right. The merging car entered right behind that car and then started to move around it, into the occupied left lane. I thought certainly he would see my car and move back into his lane. Nope. Maybe I was in the blind spot and that driver neglected to check to his left. I had two options. Stay in the left lane and risk a crash or slide onto the left shoulder. I opted to move over. Any comfort in my life drained away. I was now in emergency mode. We were going Interstate speeds but time switched over to slow motion.
The shoulder wasn't wide enough for my car. I eased the left wheels on to the median grass while slowing down. Next sequence in the movie, the left tire had caught the grass and my car was spinning around. I was focused on avoiding the oncoming traffic that came into view with each revolution. Spinning around on a scary carnival ride that I didn’t want to be on, the images blurred right on by. A semi-trailer was heading right towards us, I saw the terror in the driver's eyes. Both lanes were busy and the truck didn't have time to avoid hitting John. Fortunately, my car spun back into the median where the right front tire hit a drainage culvert and it came to a stop. Time returned to its normal rate of speed. I got out to check the car and check on Dallas. The wheel rim was bent, the tire was flat, and we were in between lanes of opposing traffic.
There was a Shell station on the other side of the road. I made sure Dallas was okay in the car; it wasn't very hot out. Then my task was to cross a busy Interstate. I patiently searched for a gap in the traffic, spotted one, and ran faster than I had since the Franklin Elementary Field Day. The Shell station had a tow truck and service bays. That was a relief. I found a helpful mechanic and pointed to my car over in the median. The mechanic nodded and told me to get into the truck.
Back at my car with its hazard lights flashing, I saw a note stuck in the window.
"Saw the whole thing. What a poor welcome to the state. And a nice dog in back. So sorry this happened to you."
A man pulled up next to us in the median. The traffic had slowed due to the flashing lights on the tow truck. He got out, said he saw what happened, and chased the silver car to get the license plate number. But, that driver had torn out of there. The nice guy gave up after a few miles and came back to see if I needed help. He was glad to see the tow truck already there. I thanked him for his help and caring.
As we were about to get the car loaded onto the flat bed of the tow truck, a police car, also with lights flashing, stopped behind us. I asked the officer what recourse I might have.
"You really have none. You chose to drive in the median. If you had let him hit you, then the police could be involved with an accident."
The policeman guided the tow driver onto the freeway and to the next exit.
At the gas station, the mechanic announced that the axle was also bent. They couldn't fix it there. I asked if they could put on a cheap tire so we could finish the remaining 40 miles of our journey.
"Sure, we can do that right now."
Somewhat relieved, Dallas and I waited at a bench under a shade tree. The next morning, I took my limping car to a dealer for repair. I felt disillusioned and disappointed that God had allowed this to happen. I couldn't find any good that might have come from the experience. I soon stopped praying in the car. I bought some car insurance.
My teaching philosophy includes helping students to become better thinkers - to be open minded, to reason, to be innovative risk-takers, and become better problem solvers. I push students to think things through for themselves. Over the course of about two years, I had three students that made a huge impact on my spiritual growth - Ginger, Jodie, and whats-her-name. These students were unable to think for themselves.
Jodie, who often quoted the Bible, responded to one of John’s thinking questions,
"Well, the textbook says . . "
"I can read the book, I want to know what you think."
"Well, the class seems to think . . "
"I'm not asking the class - what do you think?”
Dead silence. She was unable to think for herself.
Another of the students had very low self-esteem and turned to her faith for guidance. She was too reliant on her faith to want to become a more independent thinker. The experiences with those students made me wonder - the more devoutly religious one is, the less likely one is to be a good thinker, a good innovator? I was reminded of the earlier student who was so impressed that a devout believer could also be intelligent.
I spent two years researching religion, creativity, and thinking. The rationale that the Bible is true comes only from that very same book. The antidote to sin is found in the Bible, but the concept of sin is also found in the Bible - the book tells us how to overcome something the book created in the first place. I realized that all the things the Mormon-busters told me about Mormonism could be applied to almost all religious sects and cults. Were they all doctrines created by men to achieve power and promote human-based beliefs?
I started exploring my own beliefs and spiritual philosophies. My devout Christianity was so ingrained in me that I was resistant to let it go. After all, it provided comfort and familiarity in a tough world. It was part of who I was. I wasn't willing to let go of that. The more I read and discussed with others, the more I came to accept that religion is just medication - it helps some ease their pain. It is comfortable, it does help one belong. It does provide social outlets. But its a sham - faith built on fairy tales, found in a book. That book says its true (the antidote to sin is found in the Bible, but the concept of sin is also found only in the Bible - the book tells us how to overcome something the book created in the first place). I also realized that all the things the Mormon-busters told me about Mormonism could be applied to most religious sects and cults. They were all doctrines created by men to further and promote man-based causes and beliefs.
At first I became an agnostic. That made sense. The existence of God is unknowable. We will never know how the world began nor how life began. Those events are simply unknowable. Therefore, all humans are agnostics. None of us knows for sure, despite what my Christian neighbors tell me. The universe may have been created by a magnificent supreme being (could even be God) but, if so, I think he has moved on to other projects. After you create something, don't you move on to other projects? I enjoy the bumper sticker: "Militant Agnostic. I don't know and you don't either".
The more I read and studied and listened to my inner thoughts, the more I realized that believing in an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing superbeing was not for me. It was too silly and fraught with too much conjecture and too many inconsistencies and shallow creeds. But it was very hard to let go of my Christian beliefs. My identity was based on being a Christian, it provided comfort and acceptance. But I had learned enough that I could not go back.
When I became a born-again Christian, it was a huge leap in my spiritual growth. When I became a born-again atheist, it was an even larger leap in my spiritual growth. I truly felt liberated. So much about religion and Christianity now made sense. It is a drug, medication for people in need. In need of belonging, in need of feeling accepted, in need of justification, in need of a set of beliefs.
As an atheist, I am more satisfied, more ethical, and more self-confident; and I have more self esteem. There are statistics that show atheists have higher morals (they answer to themselves, they are not led by an invisible God, and they believe that this life is it - be good while in it.) Questioning religion and then becoming an agnostic/atheist is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me: more joyous, happy, and liberated. My eyes have been opened. I have learned the truth, and the truth has truly set me free.