Saturday, April 14, 2012

Why I am an Atheist

In this article I will attempt to explain all the things that resulted in my opinion of religion, as well as try to defend my view as best as I can with hopefully well thought out arguments. First I want to say, that although I detest religion as it stands, it is a blight on what would otherwise be something special, I believe that as long as I argue for freedom, granting everyone the same rights, as a matter of law, and more so a matter of human decency, people should have the right to observe any religion they choose to, as long as that religion is not harmful.

For instance, if your religious beliefs dictate that once a day you pray to a toaster and eat ice cream while dancing, apart from the possible implications of eating ice cream every day, which include gaining weight, increasing your in-take of fat which could result in premature heart disease and maybe worse, after time a disapproval for ice cream altogether, I have no problem with it. Eat as much ice cream as you like, dance the night away, and pray to the shiniest toaster you can find. However, the second you criticize someone else, cause harm to someone else, or try to coerce someone else, all in the name of your religion, we have a problem.

Part I: Childhood, and the deranged

When I was a younger child, I knew nothing of the world, except the one that was presented to me everyday in school, or at home, in front of the television or through the interactions of my family. I have three brothers, but for most of my youth, I lived with two at first, and then one. I lived in a two family house, my parents, and brothers on the top floor, and my grandparents living on the bottom floor. For me this was a perfect situation, if I were unable to get something out of my parents, my grandparents were no further than a few feet away, down the stairs. My grandmother was to me, a very nice woman, at times, loud and seemingly crazy, but always loving and mostly well-meaning. My grandfather was a man who had been through wars, he had been a medic in the army and had seen his fair share of bloodshed.

As a child I was never told of the lives my grandparents had lived before I knew them, other than the occasional story of war, my grandfather would tell, in retrospect a gift, from a man who lived a life, no one should ever have to live. Even now thinking about the man brings tears to my eyes, knowing I never got to tell him the profound influence he had on my life. He has been dead now for many years, and I am sad to say, I don't think enough about him, probably because it saddens me so. Even now I struggle to think about what I really know about my grandparents, and I confess, not so much. These were the parents of my mother, unfortunately, my father's parents did not live long enough to be a part of my life.

I say unfortunately, because a part of me misses something I will never have. Having never met my father's parents I really know nothing about them, other than a few stories my father has told me, none of which should be repeated to any child. My father's father or step-father, not really sure, committed suicide in front of his children, something that would scar the memory of my father his whole life I am sure. And my father's mother would die in her bed, in severe pain, from an unknown cause, not because nothing could be done, but because another husband of hers would make the choice to not take her to the hospital for the care she so urgently needed. So my father had to witness the suicide of one parent and the slow, arbitrary death of another.

My grandmother was as I remember it a catholic, but not so much a practicing one. For one, she never left the house. She suffered many ailments, including trouble with walking and some agoraphobic tendencies. However, in conversations I've had with family members, she wasn't always like that, so I can only deduce this happened later in life, obviously either before I was born, or before I had the ability to understand it. She spoke to me on occasion about the nuns at the local church, and talked about how she liked going to church, as I remember it. I imagine, suffering as she did with her ailments, she also suffered in someway, not being able to pray in the church as she once did.

She never complained about it to me, in fact as much as I really try to remember it, I cannot ever remember a time she preached anything religious to me, other than the standard idioms. I can recall a few times hearing something along the lines as, God is always watching. I can most definitely recall seeing bibles located in random places throughout the house, however, as much as I try, I am unable to remember a time when either of my grandparents actually picked one up and read from it. I loved my grandmother, after all she was the only one I had, but more than that she loved me with all the love a parent or grandparent could love a child. I can't speak for my other siblings on the subject. I know that at times she could be a stern woman, and on occasion I remember suffering at the hands of a particular cane she had, it bore emblems that left an impression in skin, that didn't easily heal. I know that each of us certainly received punishment at times, that most people would deem today as child abuse by most standards.

However, I must point out that although my grandmother was easily unnerved, occasionally tapping us on the ankles with her rake for rocking back and forth with no rhyme or reason while speaking to her, we were not the nicest children to have ever been born. Admittedly, I spent a lot of my youth doing relatively dumb things, all with no logical reason. On several occasions, I risked life or limb, jumping from a height that no one would think of jumping from, or riding my bike down a hill with no brakes, or playing ball in the street with frequent traffic. I'm not even mentioning all the terrible things that occurred in my house as a direct result of what can only be described as blissful ignorance. My grandmother would almost always find out, and though she would definitely yell at you, a whack from the cane was only reserved for the dumbest shit.

My grandfather was a peaceful man, at least that was how I remember it. That isn't to say he was somehow a pacifist. Just thinking of the idea, gives me giggles. Generally, the guy really didn't get angry much, other than the few times he would mutter something out like, GODDAMNIT! In fact, trying to recall, I am unable to think of many other things he said that came with such fervor. He wasn't really a man of many words, except when talking about the war, otherwise he kept, kind of to himself. Although the man never received any awards for inventing something, writing some amazing theory, or teaching a class on quantum mechanics, as I remember it, he was a brilliant man. In all the time I knew him, I can't ever remember a time when I didn't want to listen to something he had to say to me.

As far as I remember it, the man practically knew everything. Whenever I needed something answered, I knew I could ask him and he would have the answer. Now my grandfather wasn't a doctor, or an astrophysicist, or a botanist, and I imagine if I had asked him something about plants or worm holes, he might not have had the right answer, but he would have faked it enough to make me believe it. What the man did know, was the human body. He had been a medic in the Korean war, and he could tell you anything you wanted to know about the human body. I remember studying something about the body in school and running home and telling him, and he always had something interesting to say on the subject. Of course, along with his extensive knowledge on the human body, he also possessed, as he said the ability to kill someone without resistance. He would show us children the ways a person could take another person down, and if they chose to, kill that person without them being able to stop them.

To most people reading this, you may be horrified at the prospect of any man teaching a small child how to take another person down and kill them. In his defense, his lessons always came with some kind of warning or moral story. It was his opinion that killing a man should only ever be done as a last resort, and only if you are left with no other choice. I have to confess, I know several ways to kill someone in a matter of seconds, but have never had an occasion or want to ever do it. I have some memory of asking my grandfather if he had ever killed a man, and to the best of my knowledge, a simple reply of yes, was received. Although I cannot truly be sure, I don't ever remember him going into gory detail of him committing the act, though he frequently spoke about how he and the other medics all had a price on their heads and how he had seen plenty of death in the hospitals.

When I was a child, my parents both attended church and forced their children to attend church with them. I remember wanting to do something with my Sundays other than going to church, but that was simply not an option, at least when I was younger. I know my dad believes in GOD, as I have asked him about it before, to which he seems wish-washy on the subject. He suffers from Multiple Sclerosis (MS), as he did when I was a kid, but in his later years, it has progressed to a worsening state. I tend not to bother him with things like this anymore, as his memory isn't the best, his brain having been ravaged by the disease over the years. He used to say that “Everything is a big mystery, but we couldn't have just come from nothing,” a standard religious argument, but one I will attempt to put to rest, further in this article.

Growing up with my dad was...a challenge. He was diagnosed with MS in 1979, two years after I was born, so I have no memory of the man without the disease. If I believe my mother, and I have no reason not to, the man was a wonderful, and loving man before he began to suffer from MS. Unfortunately, the only memories I have of my father were not of this wonderful, loving man as my mother would describe. Now whether this is a matter of disease, or a matter of his inability to deal with children, I can't say. I can only attest to what I experienced and it was most of the time, unpleasant. Although my brain is littered with memories that should haunt any child, I also have memories of good times with the man.

He loved fishing and candlepin bowling. When I try to think about all the hobbies the man might have had when I was a kid, I can't recall him doing much more than that. He would take us kids fishing with him, many times he went, and we would go bowling with him on his league nights and hang around the bowling alley playing with the other kids who's parents were also in leagues. He worked in a paper mill, as a boiler operator. His job was very demanding, having visited the environment in which he worked on occasion, I can say with absolute certainty, if I had to do that job I might go crazy. It wasn't a particularly difficult job, in fact I imagine it had some downtime, but when the shit hit the fan, it really hit the fan. It was also well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in there, all the time. If I had to guess how hot it was in that boiler room, I would say it was close to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. It was dark, dirty, and looked like something right out of a horror movie. In fact, the first time I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street, the boiler room where Freddy resides, reminded me exactly of the boiler room my father worked in.

He would come home from what most certainly qualifies as a shitty job, already stressed, and have to deal with screaming children. Now again, MS most certainly affects the brain physically, so with all the evidence I have now, I know if not the root cause of his anger, it was most definitely a contributing factor. I could spend hours talking about how often my brothers and I were abused as children, but I feel it really defamatory and unnecessary overall, and as such will only describe a few situations as I believe events like these helped shape me into what I am.

I can recall one birthday when I was a kid, my father had taken me to the local pharmacy to get some candy, you see today was my birthday. So we walked up the block to the corner store, he bought for me some chocolate and we walked back. In secret, my mother had planned a party for me and invited some kids over. Everyone was hiding in the kitchen, unknown at the time to me. We entered the house and climbed the stairs and made our way down the hall toward the kitchen. Suddenly, Surprise! I stood in absolute shock, my parents were never one for parties so this was completely unbelievable. I sat there and opened my gifts, one of which was a brand new hockey stick, it was a wooden stick with a green blade at the end. So after opening my gifts I ate some cake and all seemed well.

Now I can't exactly recall what set the man off, in the moment one does not unnecessarily try to record the events in their head for later playback, when one is running for their life. I remember running down the hall and having the man chase me, brand new hockey stick in hand. My only advantage as a kid was speed, and I used it well, by the time he had reached the top of the stairs looking down, I was at the bottom, looking up. Without a second thought the man through the hockey stick like a spear, aiming straight at my head. If not for what I can only conclude to be, child-like reflexes, I spun around twisted my head out of the way just in time as the hockey stick smacked the light switch on the wall, breaking it off, leaving a hole in the faceplate where the switch was once located. Had that stick hit me in the head, I have no doubt it would have likely killed me, or at least left me with a major injury, such as a loss of an eye or brain damage. This was a man who only an hour ago, walked me up to the corner pharmacy and bought me a chocolate bar, took my hand and walked me back home.

On another occasion, my younger brother and I who lived in the same room for a few years, were resting in our beds, but not asleep. As with most children, sleeping is the last thing you want to do at the end of the day, for most children sleeping only comes when you have exhausted yourself and your body forces it to happen. So as we did on some nights we spoke to each other from our beds. My brother and I had bunk beds, he was on top and I was on the bottom. Though this sometimes switched, depending on whoever wanted which bed that night. As conversations between young children go, If I had to listen to what we were talking about now, I'd fall asleep myself. “Who would win in a fight between Lady Jaye and Destro? The Voltron lion with the girl sucks, but the black lion is awesome. Optimus Prime could totally kick Megatron's ass.” Just a lot of childish nonsense.

On this night, like every night we weren't particularly loud, as a matter of fact our room was clear across the house from the living room where my father was located, but to be on the safe side, we kept our tone at a relatively low level. “I can fucking hear you kids in there, you better shut the fuck up or I'm going to come in there and give you something to cry about,” we heard from across the house. Ok, let me first point out this is a big house, not a small house, not only that but the man often professed an inability to hear even the loudest things spoken clearly within earshot. How he was able to hear us this night is still quite a mystery. So shaking off the warning, as kids do, we continued to talk but now at an even lower tone, figuring no one outside this room could hear us. Just to be on the safe side though, as on other previous occasions we had actually brought several large books with us this night, although not to read. Taking the books, we packed them down the legs of our sleepy pants, and padded our butts with them.

My father had a few spots he would use in particular over others, so we could be reasonably sure where we wanted to protect ourselves. So having secured the books in our pants, we continued talking, again much lower than previously. Suddenly, pounding footsteps could be heard coming down the hallway toward our room. The floor was a wood floor and made a sound like the clogging sound of hooves from a horse as he approached. The sounds grew louder, the closer he approached until finally he arrived in our room. Without a word, he grabbed my brother on the top bunk and started wailing into him with his fist. Repeatedly, he continued. My father was violent for sure, but in a weird way, either because he didn't like to hear his children cry from being beaten or because, and more scary, he found satisfaction in it, he stopped once he elicited tears.

So through repeated exposure to being beaten, you develop a sense of when you can start crying and he would stop. So once my brother started crying, he immediately turned his rage on me, grabbing me by the shirt and pounding into me with his fist, hitting my leg and ass repeatedly, until I started crying. Of course, I was only fake crying, after all the books had done what they were there to do, protect me from injury. He stormed off, saying nothing, presumably going back to watching the television on the other side of the house in the living room. Once I had assessed the situation and determined I was no longer in danger, my cries turned to laughter, having just endured a thrashing and suffering no ill effects from it. But my brother was still crying, so I leaned out of the bunk and spoke, “Why are you still fake crying, he's gone?” To which I received the reply, “I'm not fake crying, one of the books slipped.”

On another occasion, my brother and I had been sitting in our room playing with our G.I. Joes on the bottom bunk. As we got a little older, we got a little smarter and the floor of our room could only be described as looking somewhat like the surface of the moon. After years of abuse, we had learned a few things about my father, for one he couldn't really chase you anymore, he had started walking around with a cane, and so if you could outrun him, you had a really good chance of getting away. Another thing we had learned was that his legs were prone to giving out on the man at times, and as such he wouldn't chance walking into a situation where he knew he might fall. This of course opened a perfect opportunity for us, and as most kids with a ton of toys do, we littered the room with them. I swear, it was impossible to find any place in that room, where you were able to identify the green carpet underneath.

So of course once we had the room configured in a way that gave us some protection from ground attack, it only made sense we needed some protection from an air assault as well. My mother loved quilts, I mean holyshit the woman had forty of them, maybe more. So I had this idea, of course at the time I had no clue if it would work, but I theorized that with enough layers of protection we could stop anything. You need to understand this was way before I knew anything of Kevlar, and certainly I had never heard of or knew anything of a bullet proof vest, as far as I remember it. So I had this idea, in hindsight, it was not only genius but as it turns out life saving. We gathered up some quilts, I don't know the exact amount, I doubt we counted, but I know it was a lot. My brother and I took the first quilt and tucked it underneath the mattress of the top bunk, and draped it down over the bottom bunk.

This made it impossible to see what was going under in the bottom bunk. We then took another quilt and repeated the process. We continued until we had used all the quilts and had created this massive draping wall of quilts that hung from the top bunk over the bottom and blocked all activity below from sight. Now we used this for days, playing G.I. Joes and transformers and anything else we wanted to play, all in the privacy under what I had dubbed, “The Great Blanket Barricade.” My father really didn't like the idea of privacy I imagine, after all, the door to the room had been taken off only months earlier and to my recollection the only rooms in the house with doors were my parent's bedroom and bathroom.

So hearing us playing with our toys on the bottom bunk, unable to see what was actually going on, I can only guess we were up to no good in my father's mind. In fact, I didn't start drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana until l was a little older, so whatever he imagined was going on, reality was much simpler. He approached the edge of the room, standing in the doorway and yelling at us from the hall. Under all those quilts his words seemed muffled, or it might have just been my ability to ignore a rant when I heard one. My brother lifted the blanket up and we looked out toward the doorway.

My father was standing there looking menacing as he often did, pointing his finger and yelling at us about hiding under the blankets. Ignoring him, I could see in his eyes rage was beginning to build. He surveyed the room, looking at the crap scattered all over the floor. In a second, he had his shoe removed from his foot and he aimed it toward us. Quickly we hid beneath the barricade, waiting to see if it would work. We heard a tap as the shoe hit the barricade and lightly fell to the floor. It had worked! So I lifted the quilts up to see his reaction, and I could immediately see some scheming in those eyes. He looked all over the room but soon his eyes settle on a spot merely a few feet from him.

In hindsight, it may not have been the best idea to leave this object where it was. When my older brother's were kids they played with these very large metal Tonka trucks. I am not sure if they were actually bought for one of my older brothers but they played with them nonetheless. So when my younger brother and I were kids we also played with these very large metal Tonka trucks. There was a crane and a dump truck if memory serves. Now understand, they do not make these anymore, the ones you find today are made entirely out of plastic, I'm guessing for good reason. Not too many parents today let their children play with the kinds of toys we played with when we were kids, a couple of them come to mind, lawn darts for one and these Tonka trucks are another. So seeing one of these Tonka trucks before him, the dump truck, in particular. My father, without really thinking, I can only guess, picks this beast up and hurls it right at us.

Fortunately for us, those child-like reflexes being what they were, we were under that barricade in under a second flat, with time to spare. We had no idea what was going to happen, after all in my preparations I didn't actual calculate the amount of stress each quilt could take and multiply that by the number of quilts being used, being able to determine how much could actually be tossed at the thing. Not to mention it would never have even occurred to me to test a Tonka truck that had to weigh twenty-five or more pounds being thrown at it. Suddenly, it hits the barricade, a shock wave is felt as the impact of the toy hits the barricade sending its force into it. We see it move slightly on the inside, but no more than a few inches. “HOLYSHIT!” my brother declares, “It worked!” Needless to say, we stayed in our room for many hours that day.

The one thing I can tell you about that is that my dad has a cooling off period in which he would generally wind down after he enraged for a while. Once this happened, you could approach him and he was fine, he might make a remark but he wouldn't hit you. Now again, I must stress, if any such object of that weight were flung at a child, it would likely do a tremendous amount of damage, including possibly kill the child. The only conclusion I can draw from these events is that my father had no plan, did not think and only acted on instinct alone. Of course, I wonder where anyone gets the instinct to hurt a child from, but that's a matter for a later discussion.

My mother is a good person. When we were growing up my brothers and I were terrible at times, and often made my mother cry. If it weren't breaking something she loved, it was getting in fights, or doing death-defying stupid acts. My mother is by no means a saint, but how many of us are? The only thing I can say about my mother with respect to her disciplining techniques was that she enjoyed certain tools. Although my father enjoyed throwing objects and using his fists, my mother would use small hand tools as weapons of discipline. For instance, on many occasions the weapon of choice was a plastic spatula which left a red spot and bar like pattern where it landed.

She also often fancied the use of yard sticks, or what she called switches, which were branches you would have to go outside, break off a bush or tree and bring back to her for use on yourself. However, the most evil of all the weapons, in my opinion, were the claws she bore. Growing up my mother had these finger nails that rivaled Freddy Kreuger's. If she got a hold of you, she would dig into your skin with them and yank you away for punishment, which could be anything from being sent to your room to getting a whack with the spatula. Obviously, she didn't see the nails in the skin as a punishment all on its own.

The biggest difference between the way my mother disciplined her children and the way my father disciplined his children, was night and day. After all, as horrible as getting claws to the back of the arm was, it paled to having a Tonka truck whipped at your head. It would have never occurred to my mother to seek out an object that could kill one of her children. My father however, anything was fair game in his book. Hiding things you didn't want tossed at you began kind of a game with us kids. If you knew it could be used, getting rid of the weapon that could be your death, was considered a good idea.

Now at about this time, I am starting to get more interested in science, I had a third grade teacher by the name of Mr. Jebaca. Now I'm absolutely sure, I'm killing his name, but us kids just called him Mr. Chewbacca, like the wookiee. I remember his teaching style, it was certainly an interesting one. He would have you come to the chalk board to solve a math problem. After writing down the answer, he would give you this look of disappointment, and ask, “Are you sure that is correct?” And you'd start thinking about it, and he would poll the class and no one would answer. “I think you need to take another look,” he would say. Maybe I was wrong? After all he's the teacher, so I would look at it again and say, “No, I'm pretty sure this is right.” “Good,” he would say. And that's how every lesson was, you had no idea if you were right or wrong. He made you consider the possibility each time you answered.

It was in his class that I first discovered I had a love for science. He did a lot of experiments in that class, with all kinds of things. And after we were finished he would explain the science of all of it. He would say that science was a search for truth through experimentation and observation. “You should never just assume something because it is what you have been told,” he would say. In that class I would begin to learn that there was more to life than just what I knew. I began to study a lot on the Sun and the planets in our solar system, and my mother would buy me books on the subject. It was then I would begin to question some of the things I had been told about the earth.

After all, if dinosaurs existed millions of years ago, all died off and left us evidence to study, why wasn't that ever mentioned in the bible? Surely, while God was working on Genesis, he could have found time to mention the dinosaurs. It occurred to me, the tyrannosaurus rex was quite large and he was a meat eater, so wouldn't have Adam and Eve have met their demise at the hands of just such a large creature. So, with information I had read and learned in school, I came to Sunday School with questions ready.

And I asked my questions, and although the Sunday School teacher tried her best to answer them, the answers were less than satisfying. Insisting that Adam and Eve were the first humans but they coexisted with all the other animals in peace. “Now wait just a minute,” I said. “Dinosaurs are large, and they eat meat and Adam and Eve would be...Meat. The dinosaurs have to eat something, they can't just coexist in peace with all the other animals they will starve and die.” She didn't like what I had to say. I then said, “What about Noah's Ark? How is it possible that Noah really got all those animals on a single boat. I mean, wouldn't those animals try to eat each other? A lion couldn't very well exist on the same boat as a zebra? And even if you managed to have a cage for each set of animals what would the lions eat? You would have to feed them an animal. And if you did that than, you wouldn't have any more of those animals.” I don't remember how long I was allowed to remain in Sunday School but I clearly remember that at some point, I didn't have to do it anymore.

In part two I will explore more of some of the events I remember that may have led to me becoming an atheist, as well as discuss some of the issues I have with religion.

UPDATE: You can find part two here

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