Tuesday, February 17, 2015

With Eyes Wide Open: Chapter 2

Coming of Age: Tending the Garden

To say that my late adolescent years were unpleasant would be akin to saying that the 
people on the Titanic experienced a problem with moisture but I won't tell you that they were entirely without joy. I had some friends and discovered that I could be funny when I wanted to. But now that I look back at the experience, I'm often surprised that I managed to survive.

Imagine this scenario: a young man who has just lost his faith and his first love. The time was the late 1970s and all the turbulence that went with that. School was a hell of bullying students and apathetic teachers. Church was a memory. The home he occupied was virtually loveless and two of the three other occupants in that home seemed hell bent on making it as miserable as humanly possible. He spent a great deal of time at friends' homes because that was his only escape.

I don't have to imagine it because I was that young man and I know where he went. It wasn't a good place. It was a place of doubt, despair, hatred and, very often, failure. I was hard wiring my brain for destruction. I hated myself, the world and almost everyone in it.

First, I stopped caring at all about my appearance or my health. I figured that I was destined to be the lonely, fat slob so I was just going to live that life. I was the target of bullies and that was my lot in life. There was no god to bail me out so there I was.

I still went to school because my mother wouldn't let me quit. At one time, I had planned on going to college to study electronics and mechanical engineering to enter the field of robotics. But my math teacher took me aside and said, “You should really consider another career path. You have no grasp of mathematics.”

There was another plant in the garden: a toxic nightshade of self loathing and it was threatening to choke out everything else.

Life had lost every scrap of meaning. Every morning I wondered why I bothered to get out of bed and every evening, I contemplated ending it all. Yes, there was an attempt but it was stopped by a friend, probably the best friend I've ever had. As he saved me, he screamed at me, “I don't have many friends and nobody is going to take one of them away from me! Not even you!"1

After a while, I tried dating. It didn't work out, though. I had a prom date when I was a junior but she was a bit older and she was already looking for a husband. As a 17 year old high school student with few prospects for the future, I wasn't about to go down that road.

During my senior year, I met a very special girl and fell deeply in love with her. She was fond of me but she didn't feel as strongly for me as I did for her. I was “such a good friend.” I know now that I wasn't the right guy for her. I needed to get my head straightened out before I could be worthy of anyone, let alone her. She did help me get into a somewhat better place in my head and for that, I'm grateful. She made me feel that maybe I'd get through all the problems and that I might even have a fragment of charm. We're still friends and I'm still crazy about her but in a much less desperate way now.

My whole situation finally came to a turning point on the day I turned 18. Before this day, unless I was running an errand or on my way to school or work, I had to ask my mother for permission to leave the house with, “Please, may I...” followed with a detailed description of where I was going, who would be there and when I'd be home. When permission was granted, she tried to act magnanimous about the act as if letting me leave the house was a tremendous favor. 

Often, it was easier to stay home than endure this humiliating ritual.

On this day, however, I decided that, as an adult, I'd simply say I was going and when I'd be back. The same information was there but the method in which it was delivered had changed.

My mother was resting on the couch dressed as she always was when she napped: in nothing at all but covered with a blanket. As I walked by and grabbed my coat, I said, “Dave and I are going to the Circle K for a Coke. I'll be back in about an hour.”

What happened next were not the actions of a sane person.

As I reached the top of the stairs, she came running out in pursuit. No, she hadn't bothered to grab as much as a pair of slippers. Suddenly, I had a crazy, naked woman chasing me, pummeling at me with her fists and screaming, “Since when do you tell me you're going out?”

To add to this madness, it's worth noting that my birthday is in the dead of winter. It was late December and it had been snowing since before Thanksgiving. There was at least a foot of snow on the ground with deep drifts all around.

I still couldn't bring myself to hit her in self defense but I needed this to stop. So I just picked her up and flung her over my shoulder. I thought that only a complete lunatic would hit someone holding her like that.

She drove the side of her fist into the small of my back so I dumped her in a snow bank which at least covered her. I turned and walked away, intent on continuing the trip I'd started minutes before.

When I returned, my grandmother asked me what I had done as if this incident were somehow my fault. She said that my mother had decided to spend the evening talking with friends which meant that she was sulking at her favorite bar, drinking a great deal and telling anyone within earshot, whether they wanted to hear it or not, how her ungrateful son had turned against her. 

I moved into a camper that we had parked in the back yard and went into the house as seldom as possible. In that camper, there was a nearly constant pall of marijuana and cigarette smoke in the air. The cupboards were filled with junk food and the refrigerator had store brand grape soda so my weight increased yet I was still malnourished. I worked after school and kept my eyes on graduation from high school simply so I wouldn't have to deal with that dreadful place any longer.

Because I had “no grasp of mathematics,” I decided I'd study art. Before I could head to college, though, I worked for a couple of years after high school. But I had a short fuse and would quit a job over the least little thing. I had to move back into the camper parked in my mother's back yard while I tried to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

During this time, I did an intense study of world belief systems. I read as much as I could about religion, the occult, philosophy, flying saucers, the supernatural and all aspects of what people use as guidelines for their lives. I felt the need for something but I didn't know just what it might be.

When I was 20, I met another young woman. I'd just wanted a brief fling but I got in another argument with my mother and was given the choice of crawling back home or moving in with this young woman. I chose the latter simply to salvage any scrap of dignity I had left. It's not what I wanted but I was in desperate situation. So I moved in with her until I could start school in the fall at Boise State University. I was also convinced that I was in love with her because, somewhere along the line, I'd learned to equate sex with love. In retrospect, I'm pretty certain I didn't love her at all but she was fair looking and biologically accommodating.

I'd arranged to live with relatives while in college but my mother had different plans. She wanted me to join the Navy. My aunt, who didn't want to get caught up in this argument, said that it would be better if I didn't live there. So I convinced the aforementioned young woman to move to Boise and we lived together.

We were beyond poor. Sometimes, we collected cans to make rent. I sold plasma. We were on every kind of public assistance available. Her two children from a previous marriage and her brother living there made it an even tougher situation. So she decided to go to work. I just didn't realize what she was doing.

She said that she was going to work for an escort service. In my naiveté, I thought that it simply meant that she'd accompany businessmen and the like so they wouldn't be lonely or be seen alone at functions. I now know the entire truth. She became a prostitute.

My male ego was now wounded so badly, I wasn't sure it would recover.

I stopped attending classes and just worked when I could. Because I was working two jobs in hopes of allowing her to quit whoring, I was constantly tired so I went to a clinic where I was given a prescription. Before long, I was addicted to amphetamines. I dropped nearly 70 pounds in a very short span. I knew had to get out of that situation but I couldn't afford to live on my own. So I moved out of our shared bedroom to live in a closet under the stairs of the apartment. I had to figure out my next move but I had no idea what that was going to be. My mother's scheme to get me into the Navy had poisoned me against that idea.2

Many of my friends still attended the university so I'd go on campus from time to time. On the afternoon of February 13, 1981, I ducked into the science building before waiting for my bus. It was miserably cold outside so I'd ducked in to get warm. As I sat on a bench, I noticed a piece of notebook paper with a great deal of writing on it. Instead of throwing it away, I decided to read it. It was the moment of clarity I'd been seeking since that rain soaked night on my grandmother's roof. Things finally fell into place and started making sense.

I don't remember everything it said but there are some quotes I remember even after more than 30 years:

          Religion is bunk!

               Thomas Edison

          I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose.

               Clarence Darrow

          But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

               Thomas Jefferson

          Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.


At the top of the page, was a single word that I'd never heard before: atheist. I forgot all 
about my bus and ran to the public library across the street to learn as much about this word as I could find. Outside a brief definition in the dictionary, there was surprisingly little information so I looked up some of the names I read on the page, one of which was Mark Twain. There had been a quote from his book, “Letters from the Earth,” so I found a copy and read it voraciously. This was the absolute end of my faith and my need for it. I suddenly realized that not only was faith unnecessary, but it was as binding and cumbersome as any chains. It kept me from experiencing on the universe on its own terms.

If I may switch metaphors, having faith was like viewing the world through the thickest, darkest glasses imaginable. There was an occasional flicker of how majestic the world was but I wasn't going to know that as long as I wore those glasses. To compound the horror, I was promised the most unimaginably cruel tortures if I even peeked over the tops of glasses. I would be delivered into the hands of these tormentors by the one who was supposed to love me more than anyone else possibly could. To be fair, the glasses had largely protected me from seeing how truly ugly the world can be but I still wasn't seeing the truth.

I didn't feel any sense of loss any more than a person shackled to a stone would find the removal of his chains a loss. It was as if I'd lived my entire life in a dark cave and, after years of groping in the darkness, had found my way to the entrance to see a sunrise. It was liberating and invigorating. It was also a little scary. It caused me to look back on my life, really contemplate what I'd been through and how I'd come to believe what I did as a child. Things made sense in a way I'd never understood before. My fate had been entirely in my hands and not the whim of some capricious god. The only way things were going to get better for me was for me to make them better.

One of the first things I decided to do was get myself out of the situation in which I was living because it was definitely not a good place. So, I enlisted in the Air National Guard. This was Ronald Reagan's America and I was certain we'd be at war in Central America within a matter of months so I figured it would be the smart thing to do. Besides, the US had just reinstated draft registration and I figured if I was going to wind up in the military, I wanted to pick where I'd be stationed.3

While in basic training and tech school, I did as much reading as I could about the nature of belief systems and the world's various religions. I also encountered my first discrimination as an atheist because those who didn't go to church on Sundays were required to pull extra shifts of dorm guard duty. But it was easy duty and gave me more time to read.

As much as it might pain me to admit it, the military was good for me. It got me in better physical condition than I'd ever experienced. I'd had a level of success I'd never achieved before. When I graduated basic training, it wasn't about getting it over with but it was about achieving a goal and moving to the next. It was invigorating and, rather than dreading the day ahead, I looked forward to it.

When I returned to Boise after basic training and tech school, I still needed to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. For the first time ever, I had a fair amount of self-confidence although there were still many things I needed to get straightened out with myself. I'd worked in kitchens and landed a job as a cook in an Italian restaurant but my interest in the sciences was reemerging after being dormant for years. But it took some time for it to come to fruition.

I still wasn't any great shakes as far as relationships went. After dealing with the prostitute, I was pretty desperate and wound up marrying a woman I probably loved but now realize I didn't really like (the distinction is very important). We shared few common interests and seemed to be together only because neither of us wanted to be alone. It only lasted about two years. We lived in California where I landed a job selling video equipment and computers. After we split, I returned to Boise and continued to work selling consumer electronics.

After my grandmother died, the last familial feeling I had that kept me in Idaho went with her. A large box electronics store put the store I worked in out of business so I moved to western Oregon. I have never felt such an affinity for a place as I did there. About two years after moving to the Eugene area, I landed a job in a museum and loved the work. One of the people who worked there showed me that I actually could grasp mathematics. I'd just never been taught how to appreciate it for what it was. This inspired me to return to college.

Just before college, I met a smart, charming, unique, patient and loving woman. I proposed to her less than three months after we started dating. But it wasn't because I was desperate to be with someone. It was about a connection. Something about being with her felt right. She didn't say yes right away but after less than a year, we were married.

We made ends meet as well as we could and things were going pretty well, especially compared to where I'd been just a few years prior. When we discovered that she was pregnant, we decided that was pretty great, too. No, we didn't have much money but we realized that poor folks had kids all the time so we could manage.

About three months into the pregnancy, we got a scare. It looked as if my wife might have a miscarriage. It turned out to be a small problem and the outlook was good. The experience made me decide to call my father. We'd been estranged for the better part of 15 years but I figured that if I had some feelings for this tiny creature, maybe my father might have some feelings for me. It was a great call although it would be years before we got things worked out between us.

Six months into the pregnancy, things took a very bad turn.

I was tutoring in the math lab at the school when my wife called me. She was at the doctor's office for a routine prenatal checkup. Her blood pressure had skyrocketed. She was suffering from toxemia and had to be transported to Portland. We were told that they might have to deliver the baby to save her life.

My son was born that night, three months before we were expecting him. He weighed only two pounds at birth. When I first saw him, I really didn't expect him to live. On more than one occasion, I heard people talk about what a miracle it was that he survived. But what they saw as miraculous, I saw as a triumph of modern medical science. Because countless biochemists, doctors and other medical researchers had worked so diligently, medicine had caught up with us and saved my son's life.

Almost 19 months later, my daughter was born and rounded us out to a nice, balanced family. A little more than a year after that, I graduated college with a bachelor's degree in physics.4  In the span between June 1989 and June 1993, I went from being a bachelor with 6 months of failed art school to being a married college graduate with two kids. It was a whirlwind four years.

A few years after graduating, I found a job as an astronomy educator in North Carolina.

Firmly fixed in my atheism, I knew I was going to have trouble fitting in as a science teacher in the Buckle of the Bible Belt. 

For a long time, I stayed pretty quiet about my lack of faith. I'll admit to completely copping out on a few occasions when asked, “What church do y'all go to?” I'd smile and say that my family had belonged to a local Methodist church for over 100 years. It wasn't exactly a lie but it wasn't the whole truth.

Only when people would come to my door to talk about religion would I let my real nature be seen. After all, I don't go to their houses to try to teach them physics so what right do they have to intrude on my home with their Iron Age belief systems? I'm civil but firm.

It wasn't until the 2008 elections that I got considerably more vocal about my atheism. At the time, Elizabeth Dole was running for reelection to the US Senate. She used a deplorable tactic. Her opponent, Kay Hagen, had met with a group known as the Godless PAC and Dole used that against her in a campaign ad. What Ms. Dole said to me with that ad was, “You don't deserve any kind of voice in the American system because you aren't one of us!” I'll be blunt about this: it pissed me off something fierce.

I decided that if I was going to fight this in any way, I'd need to find like minded people. I had my doubts about how well I'd succeed with this but was surprised to find that there was a large and active group in Charlotte. Since then, I've been involved with an internationally famous (or infamous) billboard campaign, been interviewed in the press and made my feelings on these issues known.

Above all, I've been a strong advocate for science. Science didn't lead me to atheism. Atheism lead me to science. I found the calm humility of saying, “Gee, I don't know the answer to that question.” But I also found the exhilaration of following that up with, “Why don't we see if we can find out?” 

Science gave me a way contemplating the universe on its terms, not mine. I came to realize that the universe didn't care about what made me comfortable or happy. It didn't even have a mechanism with which to be indifferent. The universe was what it was and I'd have to accept that if I was going to live in it.

I also realized that nobody was responsible for my happiness except me. I no longer had relationships because I needed them but, rather, because I wanted them and this was great. If I wound up alone in my life, I could accept that. If I had someone to share it with that was all the better. For the last 25 years, I've shared that with my wife and don't see any sign of that changing any time soon. We're together not because either of us needs to be with the other person. We're together because we want to be with each other. It's far better that way.

Our children are now reasonably well adjusted adults who caused us minimal grief as they matured. There were incidents but because they've lived in a home with logic tempered with love, we all get along quite well. There were no threats of a capricious god who would punish them eternally for their transgressions and I have to think that has helped to keep them a bit more sane than their religiously raised counterparts. The greatest signs of rebellion my children have shown involve hair color and hair length.

So this has been the beginning of the journey.

If you're not a person of faith, I hope you'll see that you're not alone and that we all have different paths to where we are. I do hope you'll find a group of like-minded people as I did. It can be a lot of fun. If nothing else, it's nice to have people with whom you can converse without the need to peek over your shoulder first.

If you're undecided about faith, I hope you'll see that there are options available to you besides what the mainstream has tried to convince you is the absolute truth. I hope to convince you that there is no absolute truth. But above all, I invite you to openly investigate all the options and question them vigorously.

If you're a religious person and you're still reading at this point, you're made of pretty stern stuff. It's been my experience that people of faith don't want to hear the message I'm conveying. I don't expect to convert you, convince you that you're wrong and smash your faith on the rocks of enlightenment. That's not my purpose here. But what you will find, after this personal history, is based on the contemplations and rumination of my more than 30 years as an atheist. Maybe you'll have a better understanding of why I reject all religions, yours included. At the very least, I hope you realize that the claims you make won't go unchallenged. Maybe you'll give some serious consideration as to why you believe what you believe.

It's the last that I hope most fervently. If your belief system has any validity, it should be able to withstand the most intense scrutiny.

Nothing is beyond question. 

1 He and I are still good friends. I don't know if he understands just how important he is to me. I've got to work on that. 
2 This is no reflection on the Navy itself. But I don't think they'd have wanted a man who'd let his mother force him into enlisting.
3 Little did I know at the time that I was less than a week too old for draft registration. Oh, well.
4 Which only goes to show that my high school math teacher had no idea what she was talking about. Now when someone offers an opinion about my abilities, I take it as a personal challenge to see just what I can do. 


Blogger Rick said...

Jim, I often felt that good math teachers were a gem and that people who were good at math were lousy teachers. I still have problems with math even though I made it to pre calculus.
Your story is compelling, I can't say our story is identical but it is similar.
My progression from belief to skepticism has been eye opening, I have yet heard a word to the contrary.
I have heard of stories of proclaimed atheists that became religious zealots. But were they practicing skeptics when they converted? Or were they raised secular and claimed them selves as atheists? And never thought critically of the position they claimed that they had?

10:43 PM  

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