Our first story this week is from Ryan:
I am an atheist. Being an atheist isn’t all that I am, but it is an important part of who I am. I only really realized how significant a part of me atheism was recently. At the beginning of July 2015 I started a Twitter account, @SWVAtheist, to bring awareness to atheism in rural Southwest Virginia. I use this platform to vent some of my frustrations about the non-secular things occurring around me and to bring another perspective to those who will listen. I also want to help stress the importance of science literacy and early interest in STEM. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I really became an atheist around the time I turned fifteen. When I was young my parents divorced. My parents had joint custody, we would be at my dad’s for two weeks then at my mom’s for two weeks. During my father’s time with us we would attend church every Sunday. Two Sunday Schools and two sermons every month. We would go to Vacation Bible School during the summer. I even memorized the verses so I could win ribbons and buttons, talk about indoctrination. The weird part was that every so often my parents would change churches. One month we’d be Methodist; a few months later we’d be Baptist. This went on for years. I was in my late teens when I realized that they would leave a church after they had gotten too embarrassed by their actions to stay. Migratory Christians. Maybe I’ll coin a new term for a family that bounces from church to church. Maybe Nomadic would be a better descriptor, but I digress. Through all of this my birth parents were constantly fighting over custody and child support in the family court system. I remember how horrible it was to be in and out of court every month (which actually happened for a two year period around when I was ten). The constant fighting between the two sides, grandparents included. The alcoholism of my father and stepmother. The man chasing of my mother. We were, the kids, torn at the heart of a raging hurricane brought on by our parents. I remember having doubts about my faith during all of this. My thoughts were, “How can people so religious be this way?” It weighed on my mind for years. After my dad moved away to another state, I only went to Vacation Bible School during the summer. I actually considered getting Baptized when I was fourteen, but chickened out at the last minute. I just couldn’t get past how hypocritical the whole world around Christianity seemed. What they preached and taught in church just didn’t seem to line up with how people acted in secular life. I was stumped. The first step I took away from faith came when I decided I had had enough with “organized” religion. Churches, mosques, and synagogues were out for me. I came to the conclusion that man was the problem with religion, and I wanted to have a private personal relationship with God. So I did for a while. I prayed regularly and actually read the Bible. Then I met a girl who was Wiccan in a chat room. We talked all the time. She taught me a lot about her religion and how she had learned from her parents. Being from SW Virginia, I had never really heard of any religions other than Christianity and Judaism; I was a middle schooler after all. My enlightenment had formally begun. I started doing all sorts of research. I looked into Wicca and paganism. I practiced Buddhist meditation. In 2001, I got a crash course in Islam thanks to an infamous terrorist attack. Until I finally discovered a word I hadn’t heard before: Agnostic. “This,” I thought, “this is what I am.” I didn’t believe there was any God out there, but I didn’t discount the possibility. I was afraid of the word “atheist” then, and I thought atheism and agnosticism were mutually exclusive. So I didn’t label myself atheist. It took me a more than a decade to finally come to the realization that I’m just that, an agnostic atheist. I’m finally here. The next step is coming out to the people I love who I’m afraid will judge me, but I know I need to come out. I need to be out for the sake of my nieces and nephews; my two brothers with children are both preachers. They need to know there is more out there. There is reason. There is science. There may not be a god, I surely don’t believe there is. My atheism is the reason my brothers exclude me from things already; I did politely decline to hear one of them preach on the grounds I didn’t believe. So I think I’ll come out to everyone soon. For the sake of those others who are too young and innocent for me to let slip into that dogma without hearing another voice, and for me so I can stop bottling up something that is an important part of who I am. We have to make ourselves known.
and here’s Joshua:
This is the story of my not so spiritual journey. Let us begin with my upbringing. I was raised in what can be described as an agnostic theist environment. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s when you believe in a god (or gods), but don’t feel you can know for sure whether it, or they, exist. My mother was brought up learning about several different flavors of Christianity (Lutheran, Catholic, Evangelical), while my father was raised in a Southern Baptist environment. Neither of them clung to faith, but fell more into the camp of “spiritual, but not religious”. Suffice it to say that from a religious standpoint, I wasn’t pushed in any particular direction as I was growing up. As I matured into a young adult, curiosity led me to question what this god thing was all about. I asked a friend who worked at a local church (non-clerical) if he could procure a Bible for me. He thoughtfully obliged and I began, periodically, to read from it. Shortly thereafter, I worked up the courage to attend my first services at a local Methodist church. It was a relaxed service (casual attire) where I met lots of friendly and welcoming people. At this point I was still non-committal to a place of worship, but it provided me the push I needed to really dig into scripture study. During my biblical studies, I began to wonder if I needed to find a more permanent spiritual home. After some research, I happened upon Mormon.org, online home of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After a few in-home lessons with the missionaries, I was making arrangements to be baptized. During my time as a member – roughly two-and-a-half years – I held several leadership positions. My gradual separation from the LDS (Mormon) church was prompted by a few different areas of contention. The first of which I’ll describe as “sinners guilt”. This happens when an individual doesn’t feel they’re living up to the covenants they’ve made, or the standards of the church. Though many belief systems share some form of this, Mormonism, if practiced to the letter, can take its toll on the psyche of its adherents. Most individuals holding leadership positions will have a certain number of the congregation reporting to them directly, for an assortment of reasons such as monthly reviews, temple worthiness interviews, action plans, teaching responsibilities, missionary work, etc. This kind of hierarchical structure inevitably breeds an environment of idol worship, whether intended or not. Another point of contention was with outmoded ways of thinking. As with most major religions of the world, women are often regarded as second class in a number of ways. While they can hold leadership positions in a specifically tailored-for-women branch of the church called the “Relief Society”, they’re completely denied other opportunities to lead congregants as Bishops, Stake Presidents, Apostles, Prophets, etc. Combine these issues with a lack of acceptance in an ever progressing society, and it wasn’t long before I resigned not only from my post in leadership, but membership as well. Even as a member of the LDS church, I was still curious about different belief systems. I began to study a bit from the texts of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Like Christianity, they all have good elements, but they also share a common thread of negativity I didn’t agree with. After my formal resignation of membership from the LDS in April 2014, I continued to study from texts such as the Lotus Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran. It wasn’t until autumn of the same year, that I began exploring atheistic literature. Around the holiday season of 2014, I bought myself a copy of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The book not only opened my eyes to the many absurdities of religious belief, but also to the atrocities they can lead to. This helped me to gain the necessary courage to publicly identify as an atheist. I’ve always been able to convey my feelings well enough to friends and family, so when it came to my atheist realization, I chose to approach my most religious friend with the news first. At present, I would say the majority of my friends and family are aware of how I choose to identify. Though not every conversation goes as smoothly as planned, and I do get some resistance from one of my friends who is hopeful that I’ll someday rejoin the flock, I wouldn’t change a thing about how I’ve gotten to this point. In closing, I’ll leave a brief remark as to why I’m an atheist. I’m an atheist because I know my morals don’t rely upon a fear of retribution or punishment. I’m an atheist because the evidence is overwhelmingly opposed to the existence of a creator. And lastly, I’m an atheist because we’re all born that way.