Growing Up Secular
I came to atheism relatively late in life. As with the newly converted to anything, I was more than a little bit unbearable at first. I harangued my religious friends, picked fights on Facebook and waxed poetic about the beauty of logic and science.
“Join me in the atheistic waters. It’s cold, but refreshing.”
Eventually I calmed down. I realized that if you drop more than one Richard Dawkins’s quote into the same conversation it stops being cool. I got better at not being drawn into the conversation. I learned to ignore the thin smile of the pious. I continue to disagree with my religious friends and family, but they’re still friends and family and I’d like to keep them that way. Still, it’s hard to be a black American atheist and not be militant about it.
The church looms large in the lives of us black Americans who are the descendants of the slaves who helped build the United States. From the first Negro spirituals, through the Civil Rights Movement, on to the Reverend Wright controversy, the church is integral to the black American experience. It certainly was integral to mine.
Until I left home to join the military, my minimum weekly church attendance consisted of Tuesday night choir rehearsal, Wednesday night Bible study and all day Sunday. When I say “all day,” I am being only slightly figurative: Sunday school started at 8 AM and was immediately followed by a morning service which lasted until a little after mid-day and was capped off with an evening service which started at around 5 PM. During the summer we attended vacation Bible school and weeklong ‘revivals’ – church marathons, which parishioners used their vacation days to attend.
In our community, people who enjoyed these activities (or at least pretended to) referred to themselves as, “saved” and “Holy Ghost filled.”
One might overhear, “That’s Brother Clyde. He’s saved, sanctified and filled with the Holy Ghost.”
One would not overhear, “That’s Clyde. He’s a Christian.”
Christianity was a given. Everyone in our community – from the drug-dealing gang banger to the Korean War vet turned deacon – was nominally Christian. I’d never met an atheist. The concept itself frightened me.
The ministers I paid most attention to as a kid focused less on Jesus’s love and more on the un-pleasantries of hell. Some of these guys took obvious glee in describing the “lake of the fire” – an expression that, for me, never failed to conjure up horrific images of writhing bodies and gnashing teeth. Questioning God’s existence – that is, asking too many questions about things that didn’t make sense (talking snakes, the virgin birth, a guy wrestling with – well – God) – was sure to land you in said lake. I beseeched God to remove these blasphemous thoughts from my head. Then I worried that since all this agonizing was prompted by concern about saving my own ass – not some revelation about Christ-like love – it was all in vain anyway. That’s a lot of anxiety for a ten-year old boy who was, frankly, already overwhelmed with the more immediate dilemma of erections. If my latent disbelief didn’t land me in the lake of fire, then my not at all latent boners certainly would.
Now is probably a good time to mention that, as much as the petulant atheist in me would like to contend that my upbringing was eighteen years of tyrannical religious indoctrination – happily – I cannot. There were some great things about growing up in a black evangelical community: big church dinners, gospel music and ‘getting clean’ for Easter Sunday. But that petulant atheist (now stamping his foot with impatience) insists that I emphasize this point: from a very young age, my mind was (as James Joyce put it) super-saturated with the religion I now disbelieve.
“Do you believe in Angels, Dad?” My daughter was six when she dropped this one on me. We were hanging a punching bag in the backyard at the time. One of the strangest things about parenting is how quickly a mundane moment can switch to something potentially profound.
“Well, no, sweetie. I don’t.” I’d been thinking about how I would respond to such a question for years and that was the best I could come up with? The angel bit threw me for a loop. I would have comfortably launched into a rant about the Old Testament God, but angels? Who wants to be the Dad who tells his little girl angels don’t exist? I might as well have finished up by lambasting “Furbies” and “My Little Pony.”
“Grandma does. And,” She added defiantly, “So do I.” We’d never talked about religion before, but she’d sussed out that I wouldn’t like the idea of her believing in angels. Reminder, Dads: your kids are always listening.
I picked up a pebble.
“Is this real?” I asked her.
“How do you know?”
She gave me a skeptical pout.
“Seriously,” I laughed, “How do you know this pebble is real?”
“I can see it. I can touch it.” She trailed off, wondering where I was going with this.
“You’re right. Those things you just mentioned are evidence. You can believe whatever you want, but I’d be careful about believing in things without any evidence.”
Had I just given a life lesson with a freekin’ pebble? How Kung Fu was that shit?
Later it occurred to me that my father and I never had a conversation about the tenets of Christianity. We never needed to – there was a community based system for that. For a moment I wished there was some similar secular indoctrination system. Then I remembered what that community based evangelical system was up against. Kids are naturally curious and skeptical; they’re all little scientists. It takes a lot of training, community reinforcement and emotional manipulation – from a very young age – to change that. My task is much easier: I don’t need to change the way my daughter thinks, I just need to encourage her to continue doing so.
Lately my daughter has been into dolphins and horses. Specifically, she’s curious about these animals’ evolutionary paths. This has led to some great father-daughter research sessions and surprisingly heated conversations about vestigial limbs and hooves vs toes. I am far from an expert on evolutionary biology, but as an adult I’m supposed to have the answers. Luckily for both of us, the kid’s quick to call bullshit (“are you sure about that, dad?”) when I find myself on shaky ground.
So, yes the atheistic waters are freezing cold and I’m afraid there aren’t any angels to fish us out after we dive in. My job is to make sure my daughter learns how to swim in these refreshing waters on her own. That and to try not to quote Dawkins so much.