I grew up in a 50-50 household: Mom was religious, Dad did not seem to be (and, later, Step-Dad didn’t seem to be, or at the very least preferred football to sermons.) Mom made me go to church from the time I was tiny until she died (when I was 14). My best friend in junior high was the son of a preacher, so I often went to the church that his dad ran. Even after my mom died, I continued to go to church with some skateboarder friends that I had, until I was about 16 years old. I was somewhere between 16 and 18 when I realized that I no longer believed the stories.
As a kid, I was always a reader. I loved ghosts and bigfoot and folktales and U.F.O.s and the possibility of psychic powers, so I read about them. A LOT. I’ve always loved to read, since my first Dr. Seuss books and my HOBBIT storybook that came with a record that chimed when you were supposed to turn the page. My first R.I.F. book was WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (and the fact that I can still remember, forty years later, what my first R.I.F. book was should tell you how exciting it was for me to get a FREE BOOK!) I’ve always read a lot, and after my mom died and I seriously threw myself into my religious studies, I started reading everything I could about Christianity: how it started, how it developed and changed over time, how the Bible was compiled from older manuscripts, how the stories in the Bible were different from (and often NOT different from) so called PAGAN religions, how much politics influenced the development of religion, etc., etc., etc…. I devoured books on world religions, psychology, cognitive science, anthropology, history, and philosophy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have read between 50 and a hundred books a year since I was 14 or 15 years old.
And through all this reading, and my personal writing and thinking, and my experiences in both the religious world and the secular world, I started to doubt the veracity of the Christian conception of the universe. The doubt actually started pretty early, like around six or seven, and it would grow bigger, then ebb back, throughout my childhood.
At about 16, the church that I went to at the time had a guest speaker who performed a stage trick called “slaying in the spirit,” which I later learned (in a cultural anthropology class about shamanistic rituals) plays on “group think,” a fear of upsetting the room by not participating, and the well known psychological phenomena of self-hypnosis. At the time, I still believed that the “supernatural” was a real part of life, that people had souls, that angels and demons were real, but despite my willingness to believe, the guest speaker was unable to “slay” me. It just didn’t work. No Holy Spirit flowed into me, no all consuming light caused me to lose control of my body, no healing took place. It was just an old guy pushing my head backwards until I lost balance and fell over. I seriously felt cheated.
In fact during his presentation, I got a bit bored, so I started chatting with a friend, keeping half an ear on the guy in case he said something interesting. He thought I wasn’t listening at all, though, and tried to catch me and embarrass me. He stopped in the middle of his talk and asked, “Did you hear what I just said?” And being a weird freak with an odd memory, I repeated the last three sentences he’d said, word for word, then went on talking to my friend. (I’ve always had a freaky good memory for sound. I’m shit at remembering the passage of time, but SOUND, I’m solid.) The guy stood there with his mouth open for a minute, then went on with his talk and left me alone until the end of the night.
After the talk, the guy grabbed me before I left and told me the LORD had spoken to his heart, and that I was meant to be a prophet. I’m not shitting you. The guy actually told me that, and then he gave me a few chapters to read in the Bible, which I read as soon as I got home. However, I didn’t feel like a prophet, I felt let down. Everyone else at the event had experienced this great mystery, and I didn’t feel anything at all. I started to wonder how much you had to PLAY THE GAME, and let the stuff that isn’t working slide in order to keep the belief alive. Maybe the game wasn’t for me.
A few weeks later, I was at the same church for Sunday service, my last day being at a religious service EVER, and the preacher got up in front of everyone there and said that God had told him that anyone who smoked was under the control of the devil, that the devil wasn’t going to be allowed in their church, and so if you wanted to be saved, if you wanted to stay at that church, you had to quit smoking. I didn’t smoke, but I couldn’t believe the EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL, the fear of damnation that this man was attempting to use in order to control his “flock,” so I got up and got the FUCK out of there and never went back.
Mind you, I wasn’t suddenly anti-religious, but I saw how controlling and how manipulative the ideology could be, and no longer felt any desire to be involved in the organized form. About this time, I ran into Bertrand Russell’s book, WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, and he recounted all his moral objections to the Christian ideology (including some seriously unfair treatment that he himself had received because of his outspoken atheism), but his moral objections still didn’t convince me that there was nothing to the GREAT MYSTERY. So what did convince me? Why did I give up the faith? How did I go from TRUE BELIEVER to NON BELIEVER? It was a process of reasoning, gathering information, and learning to put what I WANTED to be true behind what seemed more PLAUSIBLE.
I read. I thought about it. I wrote essay after essay trying to clarify my thoughts. I searched for answers to life’s biggest questions. I took philosophy and religion and anthropology and logic classes. I talked to people and got their views. And slowly, I stopped believing in magic. I stopped believing in superstitions. I learned how critical thinking and reason produced reliable, repeatable, useful results, while praying tended to have the same success ratio as not praying.
Now, after three decades of study and research, I know more than I did when I was a 16-year-old kid with some doubts. I know about how translation works, now. I know the political motivations behind which “Books” were kept in the canonical Bible and which were excluded. I understand how, historically, psychological phenomena, like DREAMS, were not understood, and so a person could have a “vision” and write about it, and at the time, people thought they were really seeing a dead person or an angel or a djinn or a demon.
I understand that people are AFRAID of what it would mean if there wasn’t some all-powerful figure with a wonderful plan in charge of the universe, that life would be, ultimately, meaningless—that HUMANS WOULDN’T REALLY BE SPECIAL AT ALL, and that death would just be “GAME OVER.” These things just don’t jive with what most people WANT TO BELIEVE. I get it.
But I also don’t see how the magic that religions suggest is real could possibly be real. There is no evidence for it. (No modern miracles ever survive scientific scrutiny, and if all it takes for someone to invalidate a miracle is looking at it carefully, it’s not a miracle.) Critical reason, using the evidence of your own eyes and ears, is enough to tell you that magic isn’t real. It doesn’t happen. But more importantly than that, using scientific techniques to TEST magic, test psychic powers, test for auras or spirits, you get nothing. You have to look beyond what you WANT to believe. I would love to believe that there are ghosts and monsters and magic, but I don’t. I love the stories and the art and the folklore and the movies, but I know they are products of human creativity, not reality. I believe that we live in a strange world, that human brains are awash in weird chemicals that make them see things and believe in things that aren’t there, but once you start to understand the HOWS and WHYS of the world, then the ghosts and monsters start to fade, and it becomes abundantly clear that the physical world is just what you see in front of you, and any MEANING or PURPOSE that exists in the world isn’t instilled by a divine, floating, non-human entity. It has to be put there by YOU.
Why am I not a Christian anymore? Because I understand now that the Bible, the basis for all this BELIEF in all these supernatural entities and occurrences, is just stories, newer than some, older than a lot of them, but JUST STORIES that were made up by HUMANS to try to explain how the world worked and how people should behave. The stories were based on the knowledge that the writers had when they were writing, a pre-scientific conception of the world. We have a better understanding of how the universe works now than we did 2,000 years ago. (Technically, 1,800 years ago, because the earliest New Testament manuscripts are actually dated to somewhere between 100 and 200 years AFTER the time in which stories that they are reporting on happened, even though they are presented as if they are eye-witness accounts. They aren’t. They are stories…)
Today’s stories are better, to me, than those old tales, which seem pretty naïve, if you actually bother to read them (which I have…) I am not a Christian because I don’t want to live in the world created by those stories. I want to live in the ACTUAL world, however frightening that might be or how meaningless that might make it. Plato advocated the “NOBLE LIE,” but I think it’s time we start living with the NOBEL TRUTH instead.
—Richard F. Yates