Atheism, Humanism, or Other

April 27, 2009 | By | 14 Replies More

There was a time in this country that an open admission of atheism could get a person severely hurt in any given community.  Ostracism, mainly, which over time can be very damaging.  But like so many other “out of the mainstream” life choices, this too is no longer the case.

According to this article in the New York Times, “No Religion” has more than doubled on surveys in the past ten to twenty years.  Now, that does not mean all these folks are atheists or agnostics.  It means, quite specifically, that they align themselves with no organized religion.

Some folks might wonder at the difference.  What is having faith if not in the context of a religious umbrella?

When I was fifteen I left the church.  I’d been educated in a Lutheran school and received a healthy indocrination in that faith.  After entering public high school, I found myself growing less and less involved or interested.  There was in this no profound personal insight or revelation.  It was adolescent laziness.  I’d never been a consistent Sunday church-goer, and although there had been a year or two when I actually practiced Testifying, born out of a powerful belief in Christianity, other factors managed to draw my interest away.

I stopped attending church at all.  I didn’t give it a lot of thought—some, but not a lot—until some visiting teachers showed up at my door from my church.  They were nice, they were concerned.  I’d been receiving the newsletter and so forth.  They wanted to know where I’d been.  I handed them some sophistry about finding another path.  At that point, I still believed in god and accepted Jesus and all that.  And in truth I had begun to suspect that the whole church thing had some serious problems.  But basically, I just didn’t want to be bothered, and all my new friends came from other backgrounds and didn’t go to that church.  I hadn’t especially liked the whole school experience there (having been bullied, mostly, till almost 8th grade) and didn’t have much motivation on that score to go back and make nice with people who had basically treated me like shit.

They accepted my explanation and went away.  A few months later I received a letter from the P.T.L. and church board telling me my soul was in jeopardy if I didn’t return to the fold.  It took two pages, but the bottom line was I needed to get my butt back to church and beg forgiveness (and pay my dues) or I’d end up in hell.

I was furious.  My father read the letter, laughed, and pronounced that they were obviously hard up for money, and suggested I ignore it.

I did for another nine months.  Then I got another such letter.  Shorter, more to point, and the financial aspect was sharper.  This time I didn’t ignore it.  I went to the next open P.T.L. meeting there and when they asked for questions from the floor I stood up, read the letter, and then told them that this amounted to harrasment.  I didn’t care if they needed money, this was a threat and if I heard from them again, especially this way, they would hear from my lawyer.

I never heard from them again.

My anger did not subside.  It drove me into a frenzy of religious questioning.  Over the next two years I visited dozens of churches and more than a few off-the-wall sects (even the Church of Scientology), looking for…something.

I found bits of it here and there.  Being a rather idealistic youth, having not found a satisfying answer in any of them, I opted to have faith my own way and to hell with all of them.  I was done with Organized Religion.

And that’s how I felt about it for a long time—that it wasn’t god I didn’t believe in, but the church.  The more I studied the more I came to see how the church had become an institution that looked out for its own interests and my personal moral salvation was but a product sold to make sure the slate roofs didn’t leak and the clergy could dress well.  It wasn’t until I almost married a Catholic and went through some of the courses offered that I came to my final revelation that it was all just an extra-governmental method of social organization and control and had no real connection to anything holy.

Whatever that might be.

For several years I was militantly anti-religion.  I’ve mellowed.  All that I felt then about the church I do still feel, but not to the exclusion of much else.  I no longer view “church” as evil or even remotely culpable in social ills.  I’ve come to feel that many individual parishes and congregations have staid the tide of harm that sweeps over communities periodically and that without them communities would suffer more because frankly there isn’t anything else that does what a church does.  I believe that if all churches vanished tomorrow, by the end of the year there would be new ones, because people seem to need them.  They might not be called churches, but, like the organization in the Times piece, would serve all the social functions of one.

I also feel that belief in god is not something that will ever go away.  There is a connection people need to feel to things larger than themselves and for many the amorphous thing they call god is it.  I dropped that notion when I realized that I felt exactly—exactly—the same feelings I’d felt toward god when in the grip of great music or in the presence of great art.  It is, in any of its manifestations, a human thing that takes us out of ourselves and shows us what the universe can mean, and there are many ways to tap into that.  There was a time when for the vast majority of people the Church was the only place to go to find that.  Seriously.  In one place, people could stand in the presence of grandeur that took them out of themselves and connected them to a larger realm, through the architecture, the music…and the stories.

We live in a time when all those things can be experienced by many more people than ever before and in contexts shorn of the rather monopolistic trappings of religion.  Perhaps people do not consciously make that connection, but I think more and more people find that they are, for lack of a better term, spiritually fulfilled in the course of living a full life than was ever possible before.

So I am careful about associating labels that may not be exactly correct to this growing phenomenon of people rejecting churches.  They are not all atheists.  Many may not be agnostics.  But all of them have discovered that the thing they sought in religion can be found without it.

The best thing about this is that for all these people there is no one who can write them a threatening letter about hellfire and make them dance to a tune they no longer find danceable.


Category: American Culture, Community, Culture, Current Events, Meaning of Life, Noteworthy, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (14)

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  1. Karl says:

    Thanks for letting us know a bit of the beat of the drum you dance to.

  2. Mindy Carney says:

    Mark, this is a phenomenal post. Thank you. Your insight is spot on, and I'd yet to see it articulated so beautifully. Your ideas are much more than merely the beating of your own drum, as Karl put it – they are a testament to the fact that humanity as a whole, with all its beauty, confusion, agony and joy, surpasses any religion. Humanity as a collective should be honored, revered, even – no matter where one sees it illuminated.

  3. Hank says:

    Nicely done Mark. We seem to have shared more than a few steps on the same path. Troubling to hear about those soul-collector letters though. I was an angry kid anyway – something like that may well have pushed me beyond just standing up and telling them straight. Sad that they feel they have to intrude on peoples' lives to such an extent and essentially ignore their freedom of choice.

    Mark's "drum" is one that beats in all of us as humans, but some choose to deny it or drown it out (or attempt to drown it out in others – actual free will – not the biblical kind with all the caveats attached – is the biggest threat to organised religion).

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Good article, Mark. Based on our writings, I suspect that most of the people writing at this site were raised within a religion and "fell away." They didn't try to reject it our of an adolescent pushback, but they "fell away," meaning that they didn't see the point of the religous aspect of human spirituality and simply stopped going.

    Speaking of pushback, I too have mellowed, especially over the past few years. I also see religions as quite often the center for impressive do-gooding, especially when the congregation consists of good-hearted people.

    I too had a Scientology moment. When I was 17, a lead singer in one of my bands casually mentioned that he was a Scientologist. Would I like to read some of their literature? I said, "sure," and gave the guy my address. I started receiving 2 or 3 pieces of literature from Scientology every week. They had lots of tapes, books and lectures. I attended only one of those lectures(when I was 17) and wasn't impressed. I never responded to any of the mailings by purchasing anything or responding in any way. Yet I continued to receive 2 or 3 pieces of mail from them. I moved out of my parents house when I was 22, but the mailings kept coming. Finally, when I was in my 30's, the mailings stopped coming. They probably sent me 1,000 pieces of mail over 15 years. All of it unanswered. It serves as a metaphor of sorts: religions often dictate to the congregation but are famously unwilling to listen to the congregation, especially to their doubts. At that point, why not drift away.

    At least the Scientologists never threatened that I would be sent to hell after I died.

  5. Tony Coyle says:

    regarding Scientology.

    I remember as a student in Edinburgh participating in the 'Dianetics' testing — they offered a free lunch!

    I was never a potential 'convert', since I was a long time reader of SF/fantasy, and had read about the 'bet' that resulted in Scientology.

    During an SF convention, someone mentioned that any science fiction writer worth his/her salt should be able to create a religion that people would follow en masse. Much drunken raving ensued, the upshot of which was that if L. Ron hadn't made one million dollars within ten years, he'd pay 'X'* $10. In fact it only took around three years.

    * This was a drinking session, so the details of who made the bet are misty – Joe Haldeman, Fred Pohl, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov have all been mentioned. Haldeman and Pohl are the front runners (due to their close drinking buddy relationship with Hubbard)

  6. Tony,

    I know several of these people and something of the bet. Haldeman, however, was not involved—he was a late comer to SF. Hubbard had withdrawn by then. The bet was at a party with Heinlein, Sprague deCamp, Pohl, Harry Harrison, and John W. Campbell. Hubbard claimed that he was tired of getting .03 cents a word and would make real money if he started a religion.

    Campbell, as editor of Astounding Magazine, was the mule who carried Hubbard's water by publishing a series of articles about Dianetics. He estranged a number of his writers—Asimov in particular—over it, but because he believed Hubbard had "cured" his sinusitus through these principles, he was gung-ho—an unusual lapse for the usually hyperskeptical Campbell. (A.E. Van Vogt stopped writing fiction for a dozen years to be a proselyte for Hubbard, doing enormous damage to his own career.)

    Scientology has been the basis for any number of SF novels since the Fifties—Saberhagen's Berserker series was among the first; Phil Farmer's whole Riverworld series is one long Scientologist joke.

    The "testing" they do is a stripped down form of the Thematic Aperception Test, which can give a skilled administrator keys to a person's entire psyche, with subsequent abilities to push buttons.

    The absurdities of Scientology have their equal in Mormonism, among others, and it has always amazed me that people can swallow that shit. But if you sugar coat a turd and bake it right, you'll find someone to declare it a delicacy.

  7. Tony Coyle says:

    Mark – thanks for the correction – much appreciated!

    If I'd thought about the details – I would have realized that Haldeman was way too young to be party to that party (!). methinks a typo, then confusion turned Harrison into Haldeman.

    It also makes a lot of sense that Campbell would be front and center – given his power and influence in the first half of the century.

    re farmer: I always liked the Riverworld series – lots of 'layers' that poked fun at almost every sacred cow around.

  8. Erika Price says:

    Thanks for sharing your journey. I am very surprised to find that so many people on DI have experienced a brush with Scientology. It sounds like these events were all quite a bit into the past, though. I suspect Scientology did not have the widespread recognition and openly expressed disdain that it has now? Perhaps we ought to thank Tom Cruise et al for sharing the absurdities of the religion with a wide audience, inoculating many against its message?

  9. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I noticed that Heinlein often had little good to say about Scientology, In his novel "Friday" he described a riot between a group of Scientologists ( also referred to as L-Ronners, and Hubardites) and a band of Hare Krishnas.

    In his novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", the Fosterites are at least partially based on Scientology and in "The Number of the Beast" he even upped the ante with his concept of "Pan-dimensional Multi-theistic Solipsism"

  10. Nicklaus

    Heinlein had little use for charlatans and he presumably had first-hand knowledge of Hubbard's charlatanry.

    From Lazarus Long: " The profession of shaman has many advantages. It offers high status with a safe livelihood free of work in the dreary, sweaty sense. In most societies it offers legal privileges and immunities not granted to other men. But it is hard to see how a man who has been given a mandate from on High to spread tidings of joy to all mankind can be seriously interested in taking up a collection to pay his salary; it causes one to suspect that the shaman is on the moral level of any other con man.

    But it's lovely work if you can stomach it."

  11. grumpypilgrim says:

    Mark wrote,

    I realized that I felt exactly—exactly—the same feelings I’d felt toward god when in the grip of great music or in the presence of great art. It is, in any of its manifestations, a human thing that takes us out of ourselves and shows us what the universe can mean, and there are many ways to tap into that. There was a time when for the vast majority of people the Church was the only place to go to find that.

    That last sentence is a really excellent observation. Indeed, for essentially all of human history before the 20th century — i.e., before the invention of public museums and artificially amplified music — the *only* place where most people (i.e., commoners…non-nobility) could hear great music or see great art was inside a church. Perhaps people (say, at any time between the years 400 and 1500) went to church, were swept away by the art and music, and concluded that since the only place where they had transcendent feelings was inside a church, then god must dwell there, too. Maybe art and music are the cornerstones of what we see today as organized religion. And now that great art and music are as close as any wired computer, perhaps people no longer need a church to feel they are in touch with the divine.

  12. Dan Klarmann says:

    Grumpy, I've been to the Vatican and other sources of original transcendent art, live music, and natural majesty. There is something in the presence of masterpieces that is lost when compressed to fit portable media.

    Like the Grand Canyon: Until you've been there and experienced it, it is just a pretty picture. Same for the Venus de Milo, or a properly lit Van Ghogh, or artfully conducted Mozart. MP3's aren't the same as a living performance. Stained glass in the morning light cannot be conveyed on an LCD screen.

    But I can bike over to the St. Louis Art Museum and see an original Rembrandt for free. So I'm not sure whether this response supports or refutes your contention.

  13. grumpypilgrim says:

    A valid point, Dan, however my mention of "wired computer" was not intended to be limited to MP3s. For example, CDs can be played on a computer (wired or not) and can be made to sound superb. Perhaps still not as good as live music, but still excellent.

  14. Tony Coyle says:

    I think I'm somewhere between grumpy & Dan on this one.

    When I listen to music: some times it's just music, but sometimes I'm transported.

    When I play music – it's often humdrum and workmanlike, but sometimes it's qualitatively different.

    My family and I have been awed by the Alhambra Palace in Granada (my son – 8 at the time – was floored by the intricate carvings, as was I).

    I can recreate the sense of wonder and awe I felt whenever I look at video or photographs of that visit, but I certainly recognize the difference in my perception of how I felt about those carvings prior to my visit, and after. Seeing and touching and smelling the 'real thing' was intense and visceral, versus the purely intellectual 'amazement' I had previously felt.

    For almost everything, the most 'transcendental' experiences have relied on the engagement of many senses simultaneously – or at least the suppression of distractions.

    One thing is clear to me, however. I've never felt the presence of god, only grandeur and wonder.

    The grandeur of the natural universe is enhanced by my limited understanding of the forces and timescales involved. Looking at the grand canyon and seeing (and touching where possible) the banded strata is mind numbing. I feel really small just thinking about it.

    The greatest works of human endeavor make me intensely proud that our species is capable of reaching such heights of creativity and beauty and emotion, and simultaneously saddened that we so very often settle for our least efforts.

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