At the local Barnes and Noble book store, they have a new section on Atheism. They’ve hacked together the space by shrinking the philosophy section. Two full aisles, front and back for religion, a small section for philosophy a few feet across. Then they go and shrink the section further. What can really be said about atheism that hasn’t already been said? Is it really necessary to get rid of Epictetus to make room for the newest Dawkins book?
I was about 10 years old when I first decided that I was an atheist, not that I then knew what that meant. You see my grandmother was a severe fundamentalist, the kind that thinks that having fun is an afront to god. I listened to her tales of fire and brimstone, revenge, and intrigue with wild eyed wonder. I was fairly young when I decided that I really did not like god, at least not the god of retribution and punishment that she described. So at about the age of 8 I started wondering if I might be a satanist, obviously I had no truck with god. This phase did not last long, I learned quickly that I wasn’t evil, or at least I did not feel evil. So I chalked up these fanciful tales as Just So Stories (not that I knew what that meant at the time).
I don’t remember how old I was when grandma dragged me to church, or was it prayer meeting? When they called for all the sinners to repent and ask Jesus for forgiveness she forced me to the front of the church to kneel at the alter amongst all the other sinners (my younger brother included). I got on my knees at the alter and went through the motions of thinking/praying for Jesus to forgive me for whatever it was that made god so mad at me that he might condemn me to hell forever.
So a dozen or so sinners kneeled to beg forgiveness and the rest of the congregants gathered behind them, praying and crying and carrying on. As things should have been winding down, the other (former) sinners were rising, crying and hugging the others. But I only grew more frustrated, I felt nothing. My grandma asked me if I felt Jesus, and I replied that I felt nothing. More people gathered behind me, they prayed louder, they shed more tears and I grew fearful. I quit trying to commune with god and started wracking my brain for what I should be feeling so that I could lie my way out of there. The problem was that I did not know what I was supposed to be feeling, I did not know the answer that would get me out of there, so I stuck to my statements that I felt nothing. They gathered closer, clutching at me, raining tears on me, supplicating themselves to god to please save my sinner soul. I don’t know how long this all went on, it seemed an eternity, but was probably minutes.
The fable was that Jesus was knocking on my heart and all I had to do was let him in. I tried, I really tried. My young mind visualized this, trying to hear a knock, but all I heard was silence. Silence and the mad men and women braying over me. I didn’t give in and I guess I wore them down, they let me out of there with a shy promise to keep trying on my own.
When I told grandma about the dinosaurs I learned of in school and how they dug up bones from tar pits, she told me that god had hidden those bones there to tempt our faith. When my parents dumped me at grandma’s while they were out of town, I was told I was going to go to hell for having a Santa coloring book.
I really wanted to believe, I tried hard to believe. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to believe, but there was nothing. I could hear the pounding of my heart, but I recognized it as the pounding of my heart. Was this what they had mistaken for Jesus’ knocking? I did not have the words or the courage to question them.
My mind, not fully developed, attempted to figure these things out, surely I must be missing something…but what? I thought god must have abandoned me because of something that I had done, but I couldn’t make things right as I did not know what I might have done.
Not being able to figure things out, I chalked god up as tales to tell children. And while adults didn’t believe in Santa, some of them kept their belief in god into old age. I feared these people, yet I also pitied them. This mixture of fear and pity formed a sort of revulsion in my mind. I was still made to pray and ask forgiveness, but I only went through the motions. When asked if I felt something, I would look them in the eyes and lie.
Still, 35 years after the fact, it makes me mad that they would remove Foucault to make room for another book by Hitchins or Harris.