I want to write about what it’s like to be atheist raising a good kid in America. (What, you didn’t know? You thought those titles on the bookshelf up there were just decoration?) Before I do that, I’d like to explain myself. Maybe I shouldn’t have to do that, and maybe I don’t have to do that. But I feel like I’m tackling a hefty topic, and before I get to the parenting (which I’ll do next week), I think it would be helpful if you knew something of the role of religion in my life.
In Blog Bog and The Knucklehead, I wrote that The Knucklehead is my real audience for this blog. A sort of notebook for him if he’s ever in need of it. The only reason I post this publicly is that I figured there might be a parent out there retreading some of the same ground, and it’s always helpful to read what someone else did, if only to avoid their pitfalls. But really, it’s Knucks. So, Knucks, here’s my story:
I was born into a deadly serious Protestant family. My father was a pastor. So was his father before him, as was my uncle. My brother was ordained, as were several cousins, and much of the rest of the family was littered with Sunday School teachers, organists, custodians, and missionaries. I myself worked for the church in several capacities, both volunteer and professional, and for a while had serious plans for seminary. For pretty much the first 30 years of my life, I was a good Christian.
Or at least I worked hard at it. Really hard. Ever since my earliest days, I can remember having questions about what I was being taught. There was so much that didn’t fit together. So many little things nagged away at me, like flies at a picnic. I would nod appreciatively during sermons and Sunday School lessons, but once away from those venues, I couldn’t quite piece everything back together the way I was told it would fit. The arithmetic of salvation, redemption, forgiveness never seemed to add up. For example, here’s what I thought about heaven and hell when I was a little kid: both, I believed, were real places. Heaven bothered me, because it sounded pretty boring. I didn’t believe for a minute that a theology that was so dismissive of pleasure in this life would pull a 180 in the afterlife, so I assumed it was pretty much the harps and angels on clouds deal. It sounded dreadfully dull, and that frightened me. It frightened me, because nobody else was supposed to find Heaven boring, and in fact, only one other person in history didn’t like it, and he eventually got kicked out and became The Devil. Well, I didn’t want to become The Devil. But what if God caught me yawning or looking out the window during 9:00 AM Adulation? He’s supposed to know what we’re thinking, so right away he’d clock onto my boredom. Yer outta here!* That’s an awful load for a little kid to carry around.
But that was OK. I understood that this was the role of faith in religion. I took pride in my doubts, my questions, my longings, because I knew this was a test. I knew that if I was patient, and dedicated myself to study, meditation, prayer, and ministry, when I needed it, when I was ready for it, I would receive all the things I was told Christians enjoyed. Communion, the Holy Spirit, God’s love – all these were already in front of me. All that was required of me was faith.
For thirty years, I worked, watched, and waited. It never occurred to me along the way, that for something that was supposed to be so important to God, maybe he could have met me halfway. Maybe if it hadn’t been so important to me I wouldn’t have given it so much thought. Maybe that’s what did me in. Maybe I should have just relaxed. But I searched and searched and searched and searched and searched. I read the Bible through cover-to-cover. Once in my teens. Once more years later, as kind of a farewell tour. It was that important to me. Finally, slowly, it occurred to me that perhaps the reason I hadn’t found answers to bothersome questions (What kind of divine plan calls for so much human sacrifice? If so many billions of people can’t seem to discover God’s essential plan, well, whose fault is that? Why can’t we pay for our own sins?) was perhaps because there were no answers to be found.
There was no “Aha!” moment. No “born again” experience. There was just a gradual accumulation of evidence that eventually reached critical mass. There were a couple moments, sure. One was reading Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s Putting Away Childish Things (see? It’s right up there between The Story of Film and Six Great Ideas). It’s not that I was exposed to new ideas in that book, it was that someone else had been asking the exact same questions I’d been asking since I was five years old. Uta emerged from that show-down with her faith intact. I did not.
I do know that the transition seemed to speed up with your impending arrival, Knucks. That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen. You’re supposed to find God when you discover you’re going to be a dad, not discard Him. But I think in my case, fatherhood forced me to look at what it was exactly I wanted to pass on. What did I want to say to you? What was the crystallized version of it? What did I really – really – believe? Because lying to you, or skirting the issue, was simply out of the question. I knew you’d smell that out.
If I were going to steer you through life in this world, I needed to have as clear a grasp of it as I could. I needed to face what I’d avoided for years: the idea that I was actually atheist. It wasn’t a choice, it wasn’t a decision. It was simply who I am and how I look at life. And it was terrifying to me. Terrifying because it was the greatest unknown. I’d studied Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, even Jainism (that last one was one of my favorites), but atheism was one I’d shied away from. If I let go of God, what would I do for a moral code? I’d be cast adrift in this world. I may not have ever found what I wanted in Christianity, but at least it was something to hold onto. How was I to let go of that in reach of… nothing? I took the leap because I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. And do you know what I found on the other side of that divide, Knucks?
I found peace. It was like a burden had been lifted. The expectations, unanswered questions, the acrobatics of trying to arrange my morality into a system that did not make sense to me… all gone. The big surprise was that I found I was not without a moral code. I had one all along, one I’d been developing all my life based on my own internal sense of justice, fairness, and good. The difference is that I no longer had to try to shoehorn my ethics into a theology that was frequently at odds with what I really believed. Just like Christians do, I’d been making decisions all along as I read the Bible about what I accepted, and what I did not. Instead of the gymnastics of “the Bible (or Jesus) says do this, but that’s horrifying, so how do I explain it away without undermining the book’s authority,” I had no other template to wrestle with except my own integrity. But because I had no other framework, not even one that gave me fits, I had to be more intentional about my ethics. To my surprise, I found that challenge to be invigorating. I found peace that ironically, I’d never found as a Christian. I found peace in accepting full responsibility for my own moral choices, both good and bad. With no promise, however vague, of a divine presence to provide justice, I found the courage to accept the fact that it was up to me – to us – to bring meaning to this life. I found that when I had no guarantee of a world hereafter, it forced me to focus my attention on the world in front of me. A world which now included my beautiful, beautiful Knucklehead.
I hear what some may be saying. My atheism – isn’t that just a rebellion against my family? My own father? Maybe so. I have to accept that as a possibility. There’s not much my father loved (the church, football, the Atlanta Braves) that I embrace today. But that peace I found is almost a tangible thing. I’ve been rebellious, I’ve been angry. All I can tell you is that this feels nothing like that. I’m not proud to be atheist. It’s simply who I am, like being tall, or having a knack with movie trivia. But I am proud that I’m true to myself. It is through atheism that I am best able to see and understand my world. For some of you, religion helps you to see the world more clearly, and I applaud that if it brings you real solace and guidance. Really, good for you. I’m just not cut out that way.
As I held my boy for the first time, I knew I had a challenge in front of me. I had no template, no guide book for being a dad and an atheist, not even a bad example. Just nothing. How do I show him myself without shutting down his spiritual journey? What about his churchgoing mom and her family? What about holidays? We’ll get into that next week.
*Honestly, what I eventually came to believe is that all the joys of heaven, like the baked goods at the Fellowship Hour after church, were meant for other people. I would be an angel. The joys of Heaven are not meant for angels. Angels are there to serve the Rice Krispie Treats and set out the folding chairs for the congregation. A pastor’s kid for all eternity.