Speedbumps on the road through theism

When reading heathen blogs or forum discussions between heathens and a-heathens, I often observe remarks from the godly like this (paraphrased) example, in response to an atheist’s description of negative experiences at the hands of religious people:

Poor atheist. You have had some really negative experiences that
turned you away from the Church! If only you could see the positives of belief and of belonging to the Christian community!

Well, it’s actually quite understandable (in a first-year Freudian analysis kind of way) that a religious person would think that a bad religious experience would drive someone to rejection of the church and, ultimately, to atheism.

Naturally, the road to atheism is a lot deeper & more complex than that. Human minds are a lot more resilient than to completely abandon anything that gives them a shock. I’m sure a lot of victims of paedophile priests still believe in God, pray to Jesus and still expect to enter heaven. A true believer isn’t going to abandon their faith just because an agent of their Lord betrayed their trust. An intelligent person realises that a single bad experience isn’t enough of a reason to turn their back on the source of that experience, or avoid the context of the experience for the rest of their lives. Look at the number of divorcees who remarry, car accident victims who drive again, people who complain about Pop Idol but watch it every year without fail, forum members who repeatedly find themselves involved in the same retarded arguments with creationists, refuting the same old canards with the same old refutations, metaphorically (& occasionally literally) beating their heads against a brick wall. Imagine if you avoided everything that had ever caused you pain, discomfort, annoyance or even agony? You’d never love anyone – or anything, be it a band, pet, movie or TV show – again for fear they’d leave you, break up, have terrible sequels or prequels made (I’m not mentioning any names, George Lucas & the Wachowski brothers), be cancelled or die. You may never even leave the house if you’d had a car accident or even just experienced frightening ineptitude or road rage at the hands of another driver. No, humans don’t just abandon something because it’s hurt or betrayed them. It can often take quite a lot for a rational person to abandon something they once loved.

I have indeed personally experienced many negative things about religion, but they were far from the things that drove me from it (although they most certainly sped up the thought processes which culminated in “No god. No worries”). For the record, in my mid-teens and following a brief, well-meant but in hindsight sort of half-arsed foray into being a good Christian, I was already suspicious of organised religion (particularly Catholicism) – it seemed that it existed more to enrich and empower itself than to actually attend to peoples’ needs. How else to explain the Vatican’s reprehensible, dogmatic, dictatorial attitude to just about every decision most people are allowed make for themselves, the oft-cited (and oft-used as stand-up comedy material) lifetime of guilt, the constant refusal to let laypeople see vast sections of church archives, the Catholic emperor (sorry, “Pope”) living in a virtual golden palace while the vast majority of his subjects live in abject, over-populated, ignorant (yet pious) poverty? Even if I’d never had a direct bad experience with religious people I still would have felt suspicious of their motives.

But I have had experiences which merely served to reinforce my suspicion of the whole religious enterprise: Jehovah’s Witnesses have woken me up on a Saturday morning more times than is polite and they’ve never taken the suggestion to put my address on a “don’t bother” list seriously. Once in my late teens, a couple of years after my unceremonious and unremarkable exit from school, when I was looking for work, Miniplenty (Centrelink, the government unemployment services provider or “dole office” to locals) put me onto what was innocuously called a “printing course”. It was located in the offices of an inner-city church – this didn’t ring any alarm bells though, as I still thought that most religious civilians had their hearts in the right place and genuinely wanted to help people, regardless of the ultimate motivation. Ostensibly, this course was meant to teach us poor unemployable scruffs how to use printing press equipment and then set up some sort of a mini-business, teaching us skills, fiscal responsibility and other useful stuff about modern business. “Teen Challenge” was the name of the organisation – again, something pretty innocuous. So I thought.

So, there we were learning how to make a printing plate and run it through the press and make a gazillion copies of something. I even ended up drawing a little comic strip to be included in the handouts we ended up printing (if I can find it I’ll scan it & share it with the class). By this stage I’d realised the printouts we were making were religious in nature, but I made sure to make the comic strip as secular in nature as possible (my teen counselor hero, “TC” was a big muscly duck and never once mentioned the Jeebus). In retrospect, that was probably exactly what they wanted in order to appeal to the kids – can’t believe I was doing their dirty work!

That wasn’t the end of it though. Soon, the time came to send these things out. After a couple of small, token-ish efforts at some business skills, word processor skills and a visit from a real printer to talk about inks & paper, all print-related work ceased. All efforts were turned toward folding and labelling our printed work for a massive mailout to the faithful. I’d estimate the first week of this six-week course was about printing and the rest was all about us urchins folding their mailouts. Well, the rest that I did, anyway. After I’d realised we weren’t going to be doing any more printing and I’d read a headline of one the articles in the mailout (I can’t believe it took me so long to actually read the stuff we were printing!), entitled “How To Be An Effective Soul Winner”, I realised we’d all pretty much been duped into being this church’s mail-slaves. Turns out this inner-city church was run by the Assemblies Of God, a pentecostal evangelical ministry whose mission is to win souls. Around the same time, my father had heard a radio interview with the leader of the course, a pastor named Morrie, and warned me to be careful of “those people”. Turns out he was right! They’d lured us poor unemployed youths in, got some government subsidies because they were “training” young people, taught us how to use 30-year old printing presses for a week (which would’ve raised an eyebrow to anyone older than about 18 – this was 1996 or thereabouts and noone was using that kind of gear anymore, except maybe evangelical churches. Obviously it wasn’t paying off like it does in the states!) and then shifted the entire focus to folding and labelling their mailouts to the faithful for six hours a day. Thanks. I could’ve actually been looking for a proper job you bastards!

But, ridiculous waste of time (and slight case of egregious dishonesty on the part of the AOG) as that was, it was about the worst thing that’s happened to me from a religious point of view. It coloured my perception somewhat, but really only toward evangelicals. In Australia, moderately religious people are really quite inoffensive and there’s very little of the brand of insanity our US cousins frequently have to endure (the Creation Museum in Kentucky is my favourite example: run by an Aussie called Ken Ham who clearly realised that kind of bullshit wouldn’t fly in Australia even if had an anti-gravity boots).

It wasn’t any combination of bad experiences at the hands of churchies that turned me off religion – it was religion itself. Not just the unsupportable belief in a supernatural deity, not just the concept of eternal damnation for most but eternal free beer and porno bushes for very few, not just the unwavering devotion to ancient fables, not just the endless dodginess of so many religious people claiming to do God’s work or hear his word, but a combination of all of those things.

It didn’t happen in that order, though. The realisation that belief in a god was completely irrational and unsupportable by any standard of evidence came pretty much last of all. My suspicion of organised religion came first. I thought to myself “if God is infinite, he doesn’t need my prayers or hymns or any other of that lip-service! I believe that as long as I do more good than harm I’ll end up in Heaven”. Then came my realisation that we’d made God in our own image much as the ancient Greeks had done with their Pantheon – insecure, spiteful, wrathful, a god who plays favourites, a god who seems as privy to the extremes of human emotion as any carbon-based sentient biped – and not the other way round. It really wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I read a number of books which outlined exactly what I had been thinking for years and I realised that all my thoughts, words, concepts, feelings toward religion all added up to “I’m an atheist”. There were a few recent years when I read Neale Donald Walsch’s “Conversations With God” series and wholeheartedly embraced deism, but once they’d more or less faded from memory, I started reading Dawkins & Dennett, who aided the coalescing of my thoughts into a coherent position. Which is probably another thread in itself.

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