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Your Stories of Atheism: Unbelief in The Big Easy

This is an ongoing series featuring your stories of how you came to identify as an atheist. If you want to send me your story, you can submit it here. To read past stories, click here.

Our first story this week comes from Evan,

I’m sorry you had to go through that Evan. For those of you who feel alone because you don’t believe in God, check out my post about building a secular life: click here.

Next, and last this week, we have @nolarobert with his story of how he became an atheist:

Why Are You an Atheist? This is a question I am asked on occasion when people find out I am not a person of faith… any faith. I grew up in the hills of conservative, religious, and extremely Caucasian rural East Tennessee. (Check out just how white and Republican my home region is here). I came of age in the 70s and early 80s. Most members of my family and a multitude of friends attended the church I was forced to go to during my childhood. There was no question ever raised about going to Hunter First Baptist Church. The church wasn’t this big when I started going there as a wee lad. It expanded in the late 70s and then again in the 80s. This is the place where I went to Sunday School for indoctrination in the myth stories of the Bible. I remember the stories of Noah, Moses, David, and other OT icons being taught as if they were actual history. Even though it was a Southern Baptist Church, I don’t remember too much hell-fire and brimstone in Sunday School. The message of going to an eternal, burning, torturous hell was delivered from the pulpit by the preacher. It wasn’t every week, if memory serves, those sermons came about every 4-6 weeks. We also had revivals where visiting preachers would come and threaten us with hell for our sinful ways. I never thought much about the doctrine of the church or the existence of this particular god as a child. I just accepted what I was told by adults whom I trusted to tell me the truth given my lack of critical reasoning skills at that age. Around the time I started high school I started reading the Bible more closely and with a critical eye. I really wanted to believe what I was being told was true as there was extraordinary pressure placed on us in such a small close-knit community to conform and obey. By my senior year I just found I could no longer accept the teachings of the church without question. We were fortunate to have a good library in our town. I loved to read and my Mom would take me to check out books on a fairly regular basis. I was surprised to read about people in our country and around the world who had very different beliefs about the supernatural. There were many different versions of Christianity, then you had Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. along with atheists and Agnostics. I wondered out of the thousands of years of recorded human history, the plethora of claims for a god or gods, and just the very different and contradictory beliefs within Christianity, how could the doctrine I was taught as “the Truth” actually be legitimate. I still wanted to believe in a god but it was clear to me there were many choices on which god story to accept as being true. Being from a working class family, I attended our local university for my college education. Talk about having my eyes opened to a much bigger world! While East Tennessee State is not Cal-Berkeley, I still met many students from all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs that were different to my experience. My Mom and some of the adults in the church were worried that I was going astray. I had a youth minister I really liked talk to me about my doubts. I remember that John gave me Apologist Josh McDowell’s book, “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” to answer my doubts about the legitimacy of Christianity. On the surface it seemed reasonable but I started digging by going to the University Library to look up the scholarship in this field. I went back to John with questions that he wasn’t able to answer. He meant well but in the end the only advice he could offer was to pray about it and have faith. The classes in religious studies, history, philosophy, etc., helped me clarify my thinking about religion. I evolved away from the fundamentalist Christianity of my youth and was attracted to the Deism of Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Franklin, etc., and the other leading thinkers of the Enlightenment Era. I had been inculcated with god belief and it was difficult to break free of this bondage of the mind. The classes that I took and the discussions I had with my fellow students about this subject helped me weigh the evidence and decide on my own that the claims made by Christians for their religion was based on myth rather than historical fact. I looked into other religions and read their holy books and texts about their beliefs by scholars. Judaism and Islam were kissing cousins with Christianity and had no appeal. Hinduism was interesting but didn’t resonate. I found that I really liked Zen Buddhism and Taoism. So I started reading books on these philosophies and tried to apply them to my life. I was much more content with life and didn’t miss Christianity one bit. I got a challenge to my worldview when I became seriously ill and was hospitalized. It took a week of medical tests and procedures to finally determine I had Crohn’s Disease. During this nerve wracking time I had my family and people from church visiting me in the hospital and praying over me. My Mom and the big guns of the church didn’t respect my wishes to stop preaching at me when I was very ill, weak and in no condition to debate this subject. It got so bad that they even turned off the alarm on my IV pump so the preacher could continue to pray over me. When I would tell this story later my Mom would just say she had good intentions and didn’t want me to go to hell. Needless to say I was not amused by this breach in human decency but that is the fundamentalist Christian way. After 10 days in the hospital I was finally released. Crohn’s has no cure and in 1990 not too many viable treatments were available. It took extra time but I finally graduated with my Bachelor’s in 1991. I married a young woman I had met at ETSU. She was a liberal Christian but open minded about other worldviews. I don’t remember exactly when I finally let go of the need to believe there was a higher power in the universe. Neither Zen Buddhism nor Taoism required a god belief to follow their philosophy. So it had to be circa 1994 when I shed my superstition for good and left it in the dustbin of history. Being an open atheist in East Tennessee wasn’t easy but I was never one who was going to be bullied into staying in the closet. I didn’t mind if someone brought up their religious belief but if they started proselytizing to me I would respond and shut them down pretty quickly. I found that by knowing the Bible and the teachings of Christianity as well as I did it was difficult for these Apologists to debate their talking points with me. After going through a divorce (not related to religion) I returned to ETSU to work on my Master’s Degree in History. I joined a local atheist group and became active in advocating for the civil liberties of Free Thinkers. It was important to be socially active with like minded people in an area where we were such an oppressed and detested minority. We supported each other and we had access to the larger Freethought community via the Internet. I think that I would have ditched Christianity much earlier in my life if the Internet had been available in the 80s. We were made to feel isolated, outcast and abnormal for challenging the dominant cultural/religious paradigm of the region. So I am grateful to the government and the scientists working for them who created the Internet!

Thank you Robert, I’m glad you recovered so well and am fully jealous of the fact that you live in my most favourite city in the World.

If you want to send me your story, you can submit it here. To read past stories, click here.

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