All the time I grew up, I never heard anyone express the slightest doubt that God existed. Indeed, as far as I knew, I never knew anyone who wasn't a Christian. Sure, people went to different churches - the Methodist church in our small town, the Lutheran church just outside it, the Catholic church in the next town - but they were all Christian, and the differences didn't seem to matter much to anyone.
I must say that this was nice. It was definitely progress, compared to the bigotry faced by my Irish Catholic immigrant ancestors in the mid-1800's. And it was even more definitely progress considering the European religious wars, and the practice of burning heretics alive, from earlier centuries. As a child, I thus got the impression that your religion was your own business. We went to the Methodist church, but I had friends of many different religions (all Christian, though), and it just didn't matter.
Maybe if there'd been non-Christians around, I would have gotten a different impression, I don't know. I do remember going to the dime-store in a neighboring town with my Mom, when she told me that the owner was Jewish. This was a teachable moment. I don't remember her exact words, but I do remember her point: that some people were bigoted towards Jews, but how that wasn't right. I readily absorbed that lesson. It sounded right to me then, and it still does.
But everyone I knew - as far as I know - was a Christian. Everyone apparently believed in God. Except me. I know how untrustworthy our memories can be, but as far back as I can remember, I remember having doubts, strong doubts. I assume, at some age, that I must have believed what everyone told me. But I just don't remember that.
I do very clearly remember believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. In fact, I still remember when I asked my Mom if the Easter Bunny was really true. She just said, "What do you think?" That sticks in my mind, because I still think it was a great answer. Maybe she didn't mean it this way, but I took it to mean that I had to decide for myself what to believe, not just when it came to the Easter Bunny, but with God, too.
But I don't think I believed in God even then, not really. After all, there was plenty of evidence for Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Someone brought us gifts at Christmas and signed the tags "from Santa." And plenty of people claimed to have seen him. In fact, we kids almost caught Santa one Christmas Eve. He had to leave so quickly that he left his empty toy bag behind. (I remember that it looked remarkably like a plain white pillowcase - but that still didn't make me even slightly suspicious.)
And someone always hid the Easter Eggs that we'd colored the day before - and brought us baskets of chocolates, too. Where did they come from if it wasn't the Easter Bunny? Who left me money for my baby teeth if it wasn't the Tooth Fairy? I understand now that none of this was good evidence, but at least it was evidence. And it wouldn't have taken good evidence to get me to believe in a god, not at all. But I did need some evidence.
As I say, I didn't know anyone who admitted doubts about God. But some people were regular church-goers, some were less frequent at services, and some rarely or never went to church. And how nice a person was didn't seem to have any connection to how religious they were. Some of the nicest people I've ever known have been deeply religious - and some of the nastiest, too. I always got the impression that going to church was supposed to make me a better person, but it really didn't seem to have that effect on other people.
I was always surprised to see that people who were so devout in church turned out to behave normally - some good and some bad - outside it. Clearly, church didn't make people good. Some people who went to church were already good, and some weren't. It was as simple as that.
And, of course, everyone was convinced that they'd go to Heaven when they died, and that unspecified "bad people" would go to Hell. But even as a child, I understood that they couldn't possibly know that. If you were alive, you couldn't have first-hand knowledge of the afterlife - and that was pretty obviously the case throughout human history. Santa Claus brought me presents every Christmas. Would I still have believed in him if those gifts were only supposed to arrive after I was dead?
This is how I remember it, although I could be wrong, of course. As I say, our memories are quite malleable and very unreliable. I did go to church, for awhile - I enjoyed the singing - but it all seemed very peculiar. Why did everyone else seem to believe all this? I just didn't get it.
Now, admittedly, I used to read everything I could get my hands on. I know that there was a time I didn't know how to read, but I can't really remember that, either. Reading has always been a big part of my life. And as a child, I was always desperate for something new to read. I would dig through boxes of books in our basement - most of them very unappealing - looking for something to read. I went through the tiny library in our little town, and the even tinier library in our school. I was always reading.
And so my childhood in that small Nebraska town wasn't as provincial as you might expect. I learned about the rest of the world through books. I read about Mormons in Zane Grey westerns, sometimes as victims of bigots, sometimes victimizing others. I loved Charles Dickens (until high school English classes put paid to that forever). I read my Dad's childhood adventure stories. I read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, falling in love with the Jewish daughter, Rebecca (or perhaps that didn't happen until I saw Elizabeth Taylor in the movie).
I read dog books and horse books. I read Harold Bell Wright. I read biographies of Alexander the Great and William the Conqueror (my disappointment with the endings of both books emphasized to me the difference between fiction and non-fiction). And for awhile, I was wild about ancient Greek and Roman mythology, understanding very clearly that these were religious beliefs at one time, too - but now just unbelievable stories.
So I wasn't restricted to just what I heard in my church or my town, or even to what I learned in school. (I remember my science teacher in 5th grade - who was also a Sunday School teacher, though not in our church - telling me that tattoos were wrong because they were "pagan.") But I wasn't reading atheist manifestos, either. In fact, my all-time favorite childhood book was Swiss Family Robinson (not the Disney version, but the original 1812 novel by Johann Rudolf Wyss), in which the heroes were deeply religious Christians.
I never advertised my disbelief, just because it never seemed to be anyone else's business. (I didn't deny it, either, but I don't remember anyone who didn't just assume that I was a Christian.) It didn't occur to me to ask Mom and Dad. Perhaps that's because of Mom's answer about the Easter Bunny. Or perhaps it's just because I understood that they couldn't really know any more about it that I did, that no one had any special knowledge when it came to something based only on belief.
I remember some bull sessions in high school (one of my best friends - and a very nice guy - was deeply religious). But although I was amazed at how differently people could think - even given the same facts, we came to completely different conclusions - it didn't seem to be any big deal. After all, what difference did it make? This was America, where religious freedom was enshrined in our Constitution.
Well, the world has changed a lot since then, hasn't it? In Part 2 - whenever I get around to it - I'll explain how I came to decide that I just had to start publicly outing myself as an atheist.
Note: The rest of this series, including Part 2, is here.
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