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Waking up in America

Introductory note: I happened to have breakfast with Marshall Evans (not his real name) at the American Atheists conference in Atlanta in April 2009. He looks exactly what he is, an American military pilot, flying jets from aircraft carriers. Perhaps naively, I was surprised to meet such a man at an atheist conference, and I curiously asked him about his story. When I heard that he had been home schooled by fundamentalist parents, who had thrown away his treasured collection of science books because they mentioned Darwin, I wanted to hear more. When I heard that his atheism and his liberalism had caused his mother to disown him and his brother to sever all connection with him as '€˜the enemy'™, I was moved to ask him if he would like to write a brief account of his life for RD.net. He was modestly diffident about it at first, but I persuaded him, and here is the result.

Richard Dawkins

Waking up in America

by Marshall Evans (this is a pseudonym, but the story is true)

I am an American Atheist. I don'€™t believe in miracles, holy books, superstition, or any kind of faith in the afterlife. But, I wasn'€™t always this way. I was brought up to have faith in Jesus Christ (the only way to salvation) and the '€œHoly Spirit'€ was to be my personal messenger, an inner voice to guide me through life'€™s tricky paths and lead me to God – the creator of the universe – who resided in heaven to welcome me to eternal bliss upon fulfilling my purpose in life.

Allow me a moment of special emphasis, I once truly believed all of this.

My mother recently confided in me that she thought I would be something special when she was pregnant with me. Perhaps this was the reason why my parents were more lenient with me than my siblings when I began to question things. You see, when I was raised in the Judeo-Christian faith, there was always one problem that kept coming up; my mind was always at work. My sister once remarked that she could see the gears turning in my head. Those gears were beginning to turn mechanisms of doubt. Even so, I was told by my parents that doubt was a natural consequence of faith and that it only made our relationship with God stronger. So I was able to make sense of things. There was a sentimental logic in God sending his only son to die for the world. This type of self-sacrifice was a message for the world. It was a beautiful message of love which seemed to get perverted at times by sinful men who made a bad name for Christ. Yet, even they could be forgiven. This simple message was such a wonderful thing, right?

Still, something was wrong. Eventually I would figure it all out. I could sense that there was something awesome about the universe. At that time in my life, all awe was taken up by God –about whose nature I could find only the most cryptic clues. Unfortunately for it, but fortunately for me, the Bible was unable to provide satisfactory answers for my increasing curiosity. I wanted to know everything I could about this wonderful world and the God who created it. Thus began my early interest in science.

I would collect everything '€œscience.'€ My school library had a program for earning 'book bucks' which could be used to buy used books. Sometimes, I would trade classmates my lunch for book bucks, and I suspect that my teachers, once they realized what I was up to, made sure that I was simply given more of them. By age nine, I had two shelves of science books and I imagined it would take me a lifetime to read them all.

Age nine was an important age.

It was that same year that my parents decided that my siblings and I should be pulled from public school and schooled at home. After going through my science books (remember my hard earned book bucks), my parents discovered something in all of them: Darwin. There were either brazen descriptions of evolution or arrogant references to the age of the earth being in the billions – instead of 6000 years (fundamentally derived from Biblical truth). I never had a chance to read much of those science books. My parents threw them all away.

As a momentary aside: In some circles of thought there is an evil in America that seeks to pervert and destroy God'€™s word. That evil is Darwin's theory of evolution. Behind his theory lies a world view which subverts morality and causes society to act in the exact opposite of God'€™s word. Simply put, it is a lie from Satan that is being used by sinful men to pervert society and destroy God'€™s message – and eventually all of those who follow. At least that's what my parents said.

'€œ…savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. [30] Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.'€ - Acts, chapter 20, verse 29-30

I never fully questioned any of this as a child because it seemed like my parents knew what was best. When they talked about these things, the '€œfriend versus foe'€ mechanism overrode critical thought. But I was still young and I had to be on their side. I would go on to become the '€œgood'€ son. That, however, did not last.

At age 18, despite my homeschooling, I managed to get into a university to pursue a higher education and a better life, a pursuit I was able to continue through attaining a Masters degree. After finishing graduate school, I joined the military and went on to fly jets from the flight decks of one of the most spectacular displays of scientific and technological innovation, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. My parents were very proud of my accomplishments and even made reference to me as their '€œself-made man.' This reference has a special kind of irony for me.

I actually went more than a decade calling myself an agnostic. One reason for that was the process by which I came to my non-belief in faith-based assertions of truth. More than that was a need to prevent division between my family and me. Agnosticism provided philosophical blinders to allow my family to view me as a '€œbacksliding Christian'€ instead of a 'traitor.'€ Eventually, I accepted that I am an atheist (under Dawkins' scale, I am a 6 out of 7) and thus began my fall from grace. All of the taboos of thinking, formally part of my programming, have slowly eroded to a basic understanding of what we know versus what we don'€™t know – and this has helped shape my cultural and personal values. Now I have become, in the eyes of a few, one of the aforementioned '€œsavage wolves.'

Once I accepted that this life is it and came to terms with it, the idealistic principles of making the world a better place became much more focused. I became a more liberal person. When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, my being a liberal as well as an Atheist was like I lived in Sodom and summered in Gomorrah to my family. Just before the election one of my brothers sent me email stating, 'œYou are the enemy. Goodbye.'€ He then deleted me from his MySpace account. Then my mother called to disown me as her son. That conversation was painful. Not only did she disown me but said that I do not deserve to wear the uniform of a U.S. military service member because I had betrayed the Constitution of the United States, a document I swore to protect. I know what our constitution and our other founding documents say, and when I asked my mother how, specifically, I had betrayed our country, she couldn'™t answer. I think the reason for that is that she has a religious idea of what the United States is about, not based on any particular item included by our founding fathers. It is true that America still faces an identity crisis, one that in my opinion will soon be resolved. Our country was founded on freedom and liberty, and I stand, now and always, behind those principles. In fact, I have discovered that the very reason to found a country on those principles was to preserve and protect the pool of ideas which have made our country great.

That wasn't the first time I was attacked for my atheism or liberalism. The U.S. military attracts many fundamentalist Christians. About five years ago, I had a roommate (a military colleague) who saw himself as a kind of Crusader for Christ serving in the army of God. This is not a fabrication of his ideology. He once told me that the historical Crusades were a '€œjust and noble time for Christianity'€ – his words, not mine. Others have joined our military for this same reason. While I was his roommate, he was intent on trying to convert me back to Christianity. He had been a philosophy major, so I can see how it became frustrating for him when, time after time, I defended my position. He once got so frustrated that his response was to tell me that I shouldn'€™t be in the military since, as an atheist, I had no bearing on right and wrong; argumentum ad hominem. Eventually we ended up in an altercation in which he punched me in the face and broke my nose. I am not one to go around and tell everyone around me what my views are or to create division so let me be clear: This guy meant to convert or destroy me. Though uncommon in the majority of American society, this type of person is much more common in our military.

As I said, I am an American Atheist, and the sad reality in America for many is that I have gone to the Dark Side. So here I am, trying to find my way in this life. How do I deal with such irrationality, from my family and colleagues, in a society that is meant to have enlightenment principles of liberty and freedom as its cornerstone? If you don't know what it is then you probably shouldn'€™t read any more of this. I don't want to spoil the trip for you.

My personal quest for truth could be a work on its own. Suffice it to say, I have never discovered any form of absolute truth in my thinking. Instead, my journey has led me to discover the process needed to point me in the right direction. In short, I have come to terms with ambiguity in truth because I have realized the difference between meaningful truth and blind faith in assertions of absolutes.

There was a moment at my university where I suddenly realized that my faith was invalid. It was a life changing moment. I can, and always will, remember the exact place, the exact time when, with absolute clarity, I saw that the enormity of possibility trumps any belief in truth that requires faith. I could never fully discover, not in a thousand lifetimes, all of the roads of possibilities without taking that shortcut of faith, a shortcut that dilutes the very idea of truth as a meaningful concept. My interest in science became a love affair on that day. For the first time, I could see how small I was in comparison to the universe of possibility. On that day I reconciled with my nemesis, which I now identify as the scientific process. I had made peace with it. Though science will never find all of the answers, we can now see the universe like none of our ancestors saw it before. Regardless of whether I find all of the answers to my questions, I have the conscious realization that I am only a small observer in a very big universe, a universe of infinite possibilities, and I am lucky to see just a glimpse of it. I am sure that someone has said that before, but it still seems profound.

Then there'€™s my family. When my own mother disowned me, that had to have been the most insulting display of ignorance that I have ever witnessed. I didn'€™t get mad. Somehow, I could see things through her eyes and realized that she is trying to hold onto something that is slipping away from her. To her, being an American has a very religious and ideological significance that isn'€™t written down anywhere. It is a deeply held belief that exists in a declining minority of people, started by the '€œChristian Revival'€ movement of the early 19th century. It's a form of identity which is becoming irrelevant, as it should. Though I may rejoice in this, I still have empathy. I took a page from Jesus and turned the other cheek. After my mother called me, I sent her flowers for Mother'€™s Day, and wrote these words:

€'All children come to differences with their parents at some point. That is just the nature of things. Whatever else you might think, I am still your son and you are still my mother. With Love and good memories!'€

My mother responded within days and we have reconciled in a private mother and son kind of way. I didn'€™t realize, when I sent the flowers, how significant the message was; which is why I shared the story in this article. We all come from a very frightening and confusing past, but in the end we are a product of those things. It's an evolutionary concept that has implications in social memes. Some ideas which strive to exist in a free society are simply irrelevant and will cease to be; it's a probabilistic certainty. This is true for the American identity as well.

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, I watched in tears as he proclaimed the very message that humanity should, and I think will, aspire to. It'€™s a powerful message that will live with me and will probably shape the historical identity of what it means to be American:

'€œTo those – to those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.'€ - Barack Obama, 11-04-08

America has come a long way. To those who don'€™t understand the significance of these words, let me put it in perspective. I have lived in a country where the scars of slavery, racism, and injustice have been an unfriendly and inhibiting source of division. On that night, November 4th, 2008, I saw a change that was, improbable as it may seem, an inevitable consequence of a free society –words spoken beyond the scars and anguish from which they arose. This is the power of ideas. My own ideas seem irrelevant against ones that are so great, and they should be since mine are just a few from the countless possible ideas. I have come to terms with my atheistic worldview, but more than that, I have struggled with and finally settled on my own identity as an American. My parents tried to shield me from things that they see as evil, but I had the freedom to form my own ideas.

I am an Atheist. I am an American. Though I will never be perfect, neither will America. Ideas born within a free society, through the labour pains of discussion and debate, are the closest we may ever get to sacred truth. Some ideas might even be immortal. Amen.

EDIT: The author asked to add a small piece to the final paragraph of the article after reading many of the helpful comments below.

TAGGED: COMMENTARY, POLITICS, RELIGION


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