The first story this week is from Michael. He says,
I was born into a Catholic Church in Maryland. My parents raised me and my siblings as such, and are fairly conservative. We aren’t the most loyal churchgoers, but I did consistently go to Sunday School. There, I learned pretty much all the basics of The Catholic Church. In fourth and fifth grade, I was bullied fairly badly-I was often called “Gay” and “a f*ggot” for seemingly no reason by my “friends.” Throughout that time, I simply endured. I never really relied on faith during that time.But, the role this experience plays in my story is very important-it taught me to be accepting and inclusive of everyone. So, middle school rolled around. It was at that time my parents sent me to youth group-and my leader just happened to be gay. At that time, I had heard the word “Atheist” before. (My Dad told me the joke in which the Atheist is offered a chance by God to save his life from a bear)So, one year of Youth Group passed. Dan, my leader, was incredible. But then, during my second year, something happened.The story, as I heard it, was that Dan retweeted a clip from Will and Grace-which was brought to the attention of a parent, and then the church. Dan was subsequently fired. It hit us all hard-but me especially. We all knew why he was really fired-because he was openly gay and working for a Catholic Church.The next Youth Group meeting, they did their best to explain to us why Dan was fired. But during the meeting, one of the leaders, ended up saying “that type of sin, unfortunately, is unforgivable.” This eventually led to them telling us that technically, we were all going to hell. So, at that point, I had no idea what to do. I had lost all faith in the church. Fast forward a few months. I’m watching the Super Bowl, and there it is-an advertisement for Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot. So I watch it. And I loved it. And this gets me interested in Tyson, and other scientists-which eventually leads to my redisovery of atheism. I quickly knew it was right for me-I had always been scientifically minded (enjoying topics of evolution and such) and this scientific mindset, combined with my experiences and issues with the Church, led to my deciding that I was an agnostic atheist. (I think open mindedness is one of the best qualities one can have). So, here I am. Very few people know I am an agnostic atheist. (A few friends and my sister-whom is very loyal to the church, I must add). I don’t think I can ever go back to religion-when I came to terms with myself, I felt… liberated, and truly happy-the happiest I had ever truly felt. But now, I need to come out to most of my family-something, that I, unfortunately, will not be able to do for a long time. So, until then, the best I can do is to continue what I’m doing now-living my life, with the morals and mindset of the atheist (or, more accurately, agnostic atheist) I am.
And here is Kaleesha,
“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” -Carl Sagan.
My name is Kaleesha Williams and I’m a writer, a mother, a partner, a friend, a lover, a geek, a gardener, a life student, a teacher, a humanist, and sometimes a downright funny woman. I just wanted to get that out of the way because I want you to have some idea of who I am before I continue on in this essay to explain why I’m also an atheist, a non-theist, an unbeliever in deities of any kind. If you think about it, identifying yourself as a “non thing” is kind of weird, isn’t it? The label “atheist” however is not a completely benign one. In a world thronging with theists of every flavor, it can be helpful to set yourself apart with a single word. What do you think when someone tells you they’re an atheist? When I was a Christian I immediately thought, “This person is angry with God. This person is rebellious.” I believed that God revealed himself plainly to every man, woman and child, and we had a choice to accept or deny him. I thought people who denied him likely just had Daddy Issues. I see this attitude a lot among Christians still. Now when I come across someone who identifies as an atheist I assume a few things, mostly revolving around one assumption: this person has given religion some amount of thought and rejects it. I know I’m dealing with an observant, questioning, thinking person. I love observant, questioning, thinking people. People on the fence won’t identify as atheist. Agnostic, maybe. Or they believe in the idea of god, just not the God of the Bible. More and more I come across a, “god is love, god is everywhere, we are god” mentality (which seems to me a lazy approach, but I’m a stickler). But if I hear the word “atheist,” I know that that person has asked some courageous questions and dug deep for answers. My name is Kaleesha Williams and I’m an atheist. I have asked questions my entire life. I have thick callouses from constantly digging for answers. I believed in the God of the Bible most of my adult life, up until about two years ago when I began asking the right questions. I was raised in a loosely religious family. My mother believed in the Bible God but rejected the fundamental approach of the believers by whom we were surrounded here in rural Missouri. She laid an early foundation of curiosity and love of learning in my life (by not hindering that with which all children are born and creating, instead, an environment for it to grow, instead encouraging it) and within our framework of belief, questions were welcome. When I was eighteen years old I became pregnant. Out of a sense of shame and obligation I married the father of my child. I was distraught, but the church was there with open arms, ready to forgive and make the shame go away. That was the true beginning of my own spiritual journey. I learned and grew as a believer, visiting different churches, connecting with people, asking questions, studying the Bible. I was fearless. I didn’t care what this or that church or pastor or anyone said, I wanted to know the “truth.” And I “knew” I’d find it in the Bible because I “knew” that he existed and that his Word told us everything we would ever need to know about how to live. I accepted Jesus’ sacrifice in my place, accepted that my life was no longer my own but his. It was my heart’s desire to know God and serve him better, to let his will be done in my life. I’m a scholar at heart and I’m passionate. I’m hungry for knowledge and experience. Going over both my life and the Bible with a fine toothed comb every day, I spent years trying to adapt to meet each new understanding of the “truths” I found within the book’s pages. Unfortunately, all of my questions were bound by the assumption of the Bible’s literal interpretation and application to our lives. This was part of my every day in small ways, but among the more striking manifestations: I let God determine my family size (finally stopping at seven children when, with no small amount of guilt, I felt I just couldn’t handle another pregnancy and birth); I paid tithes I couldn’t afford; I didn’t eat pork or shellfish; I kept the Sabbath on the 7th day by not working, buying or selling; I watched the moon’s cycles and kept the biblical holy days accordingly; I dressed myself and my children very modestly and taught them about purity; our homeschool curriculum was based entirely around the Bible; and I refused to consider divorce even though I was in a very rough and unsatisfying marriage. I never joined a church, never identified with a particular denomination or cult. I did seek out like-minded believers, but among the very religious no one is ever like-minded long, so I made and lost many friends along the way. In spite of the hardships of my life and marriage, the strength I drew from my relationship with God helped me make it through. I found beauty and joy in my children, my friendships, in the simple things this life had to offer. But the more of the Bible I read, and the more people I talked to, the more questions I had. There were so many things that didn’t make sense. I thought it was me, that I just wasn’t focusing, taking enough time to study, wasn’t praying hard enough. Maybe God was testing me? Maybe I didn’t love him enough for him to reveal himself to me fully in his word? By the summer of 2012 I’d amassed enough questions and turned up enough answers that I found it was time, against the advice of well-meaning friends, to ask questions about the Bible itself. If some of it was written by fallible, uninspired man (and by then I was sure it was), then I needed to sort out which bits were which. That’s when the whole thing fell apart. Book by book, I tossed out the New Testament. I nearly converted to Judaism at that point. I prayed, “God, please understand that I love you. I trust that you are big enough for my questions. I have to know the truth. Please show me.” I applied the same reasoning to the Old Testament that I had the New. The flaws in the text surfaced, my God vanished, and I found myself closing the book, never to put my trust in it again. I wasn’t looking for a way out. I didn’t “lose” my faith. My faith was destroyed by the Bible itself and the only way left for me was paved with reason. My endless questioning and my willingness to exercise reason has kept me out of other religions and “woo” of all kinds. Was I devastated? Was my life turned upside down? Not at all! In fact, it all turned right side up. I climbed out of my religious box and took a look around at this beautiful, exciting universe. Literally. Some of the first folks I stumbled across were amateur astronomers, so I immediately began learning about our origins from a non-religious point of view. The freedom and the sheer volume of new information available to my unchained mind was dizzying, thrilling. At that point I found my only bondage was my marriage to a broken man, and although my husband experienced a similar journey and similar freedom, our incompatibility was such that we divorced the following spring. One of the most important realizations was that I was able to take back the credit I’d given to God for strength, guidance and love all through my life. In hindsight those good things came from within me and from friends and family who loved and supported me. Every imaginary fingerprint of God had been carefully laid over good human character. Most importantly, I am leaving my children a legacy free of lies, shame and blame. We are free of religious bondage, free to explore, free to love, laugh, question, reason and dig for answers, unafraid of what any god thinks of us. We “know” very little but we love exploring the possibilities. Nothing goes unquestioned and we love the journey. Life couldn’t be more wonderful. You’ll note that in the beginning of this essay I identified first as a writer. Writing has always been a significant part of my life. Through journaling, letter writing, blogging, and toying with bits of fiction, I’ve found suitable and necessary ways to process my thoughts and experiences. With my time no longer wasted on serving a god who doesn’t exist and a husband who couldn’t love, and having settled down with a lovely secular man who believes in me, I find myself embracing my identity as a writer. During the first year out of my deeply religious lifestyle, as my paradigms shifted and I began to heal, I wrote like a madwoman. Eventually there was enough material to compile into a book, which I published in March 2013 at the insistent nudging of my partner and friends. The dialogue with myself soon became dialogue with others. People came out of the woodwork to share their stories and connect with me. It’s been a very rich, rewarding, unexpected experience, one I hope to foster for many years to come. If you’d like to know more about my journey and my life after religion you can check out my website, www.KaleeshaWilliams.com, where I continue to blog about atheism, writing, and raising a gaggle of secular children on a permaculture homestead in the Bible belt.
Thank you, Michael and Kaleesha!