Free from Religion

atheism8

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. ~ Soren Kierkegaard

Talking about this is difficult enough, but putting my spiritual story into words has been a challenge. It’s 70 years long. While details are normally important, I cut them out because there are too many. I’ll save the “rest of the story” details for a memoir.

I grew up Roman Catholic–I prefer Irish Catholic. In parochial elementary school (K thru 8th grade), I was taught by nuns (Sisters of Mercy, who had none). That was a lot of church and religion. Then, I attended public high school (9-12).

Around age 13 or 14, I would leave home for church on Sunday mornings. But, I would go play pinball for an hour and then walk back home. Maybe I believed in god as a teenager. Because of the way I lived then, I don’t think I did.

My friend Jack and my girlfriend at the time, both attended the Episcopal church down the street. I started going to the youth group there, but my participation there had nothing to do with religion.

Following high school graduation, I joined the Air Force at age 18; I met and married a girl in Texas at age 19; graduated from college and started having children by age 25. Two years later, I was back in the Air Force and flying B-52s.

While I sampled some other Christian denominations during the 70s, I also ventured back to the Catholic Church for a couple of years. We had our marriage made official (sometimes incorrectly called blessed) in the eyes of the Church.

We had three children in the 1970s: boy, boy, girl. While we played on the Pope’s team, the boys were baptized. The girl was born in 1978, but she was not baptized Catholic.  So we must have stopped going to the Catholic Church before mid-1978. By that time, my wife and I decided that Catholicism was not working for us as a family.  Perhaps the anti-Catholic sentiments in her family contributed to her part in that decision. My wife and I always wanted to have a church home for our family. So, we kept looking.

The 80s decade began with us living on the island of Guam for two years. We seldom went to church there. Then we moved to California where we attended a Methodist church. That went well for a long time, and our daughter was baptized. However, our try at Methodist fell apart after the Methodist leadership decided to write political letters. They had no right to speak for me. Eventually, other distractions overwhelmed us, and we stopped going.

We next moved to San Antonio, Texas, then to Oklahoma. From the mid-1980s through the mid-90s, we participated in no religion. While that time was among the most difficult of my life for purely secular reasons, spiritual help would’ve been welcome.

About 1997, we again tried religion. This time it was the First Christian, or Disciples of Christ, denomination. During that time, I was reading books about, and trying to learn about, eastern philosophy and religious thought (Buddhism, Taoism, etc.). That led to my reading of Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. I was spiritually moved by that book, by him, and by other mystics. I considered myself a searcher in the spiritual sense. I was looking for something and trying to understand what I was going through.

In 2000, as we prepared to move back to San Antonio, I told my wife that I intended to go back to the Catholic Church again. Her response was, “Good. I think I’ll go with you.” We did, and this time she became a confirmed Roman Catholic, which means she joined the Church through the sacrament of Confirmation.

We did everything to be good, active, participating members of our large Parish: pray, pay, and obey, as one guy called it. If there was anything we could do, we did it. We went to every adult religious education class, and we participated in many other “ministries.” I ended up teaching those adult classes and I added several lessons to the curriculum, including a critical one called, The Problem of Evil.

I read all of the Bible and started adult Bible Study classes. I did all the lesson plans and taught every class for years. I also taught children’s religious education classes.

I applied to be ordained as a Deacon, but later withdrew my application for a variety of reasons. One was time, and becoming a Deacon required a multi-year program. For two years, I was a member of the Parish Council, then I served as its President for two more years. We were in the top five percent of financial donors to the Parish. My oldest son was married in the church. We did it all. My wife was also employed as the Parish Office Manager for more than 10 years. After she retired, I applied for and received a job promotion that required a move to Florida.

Before we moved, I began to realize that my twelve year immersion into the religion and church of my youth had crystalized within me what I was trying to avoid. I was deeper in doubt. Oddly, it was like I knew too much. I began to realize that I didn’t believe any of it. I felt unfit for any religion because no matter what I did over the years, I did not believe what I professed. I couldn’t. I don’t do hypocrisy well.

I was not ignorant. By 2012, short of most clergy and some long-time apologists, I knew as much about the Christian faith and many other religions, as any layman–more than most. For the next two years, I pondered my beliefs and all that I had put myself through. I am a… I’m… what?

I no longer considered myself a Catholic, practicing or otherwise. I was peeling away the nonsense and discovering my personal truth. I knew the answer, but I avoided it.

I watched a documentary about former ministers who are now atheists. Some were still ministers. I was in awe of their courage. I couldn’t imagine doing that. I still can’t. That’s when I knew I was going to come clean. But how? When? As what?

I probably have not believed in god since I was about 12, but I kept trying. I couldn’t bring myself to write or to say words contrary to belief. I didn’t want to tell anyone. For a long time, no one asked. About three years ago, I did volunteer to a coworker, “I don’t believe it—none of it.” He’s an apostate Mormon and told me that his father, a life-long Mormon, eventually said the same thing.

Question One1Retiring and moving to the Seattle area provided time for me to consider my beliefs in greater detail. I read more about atheism, and I started to write about it.

Then, a few months ago while meeting with my writer’s group, one lady asked me, “Do you consider yourself an atheist?” I didn’t answer the question right then. After more thinking, I knew that I had to say it. So, days after being asked, my answer was yes–I am an atheist.

I gave up on religion because it never worked. Perhaps it never worked because after I reached the age of reason, I never believed again. I wanted to believe, and I wanted it to work. Now, I know that was impossible. I accept that, and I’m pleased with the outcome.

give up religion

I have few regrets about any of my life-long spiritual journey. However, I do regret that so many people consider atheism a dark, bad, evil thing. It’s not. Admitting my atheism freed me from the last of my self-imposed, people-pleaser bondages. Now, I need to find a pinball machine for Sunday mornings. Free again, at last.

May your spiritual journey lead to discovery of your personal truth. Let no one place limits on your life, so that you may grow and learn. We need not fear the truth revealed to us, by us.

 

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Frat Friday with Thomas Merton

Frat Friday with Thomas Merton

Disclosure: I do not practice or align myself with any religion. I have in the past, I no longer do. This blog is not about what I do or don’t believe.

I’ve never known when someone would come into my life and make a difference. There have been many, both good and bad. Many have shaped who and what I’ve become. Such influential encounters have happened more times than I can remember. One of those people is the subject of today’s Frat Friday blog.

I’ve never met this man. He was accidently killed in 1968 during my sophomore year in college. At that time, I had never heard of him, and if I had, I would’ve had no interest in him, his life, or his outlook. I discovered Thomas Merton in the late 90s, almost 30 years after his death. I was inspired and intrigued by his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948. Through his writing, I met the right person at the right time.

As I see the man.

AS I PICTURE HIM – REAL

Thomas Merton was one of the most prolific spiritual writers of the 20th Century, a Cistercian Monk, and a mystic. In 1915, he was born in France of a New Zealander father and American Quaker mother, both artists. His mother died in 1921 and he was raised by her family. Merton wrote and published more than 60 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice, and pacifism. He wrote many essays and reviews. Another 30 (or so) of his works were published posthumously and many other of his writings have been released to the public.

Merton1What impressed me about this man was his complexity, his courage, and what I see as his wisdom. His life journey and the decisions he made will likely prevent him from ever being canonized a saint by the Catholic Church. Yet those foibles are exactly what attracted me to him twenty years ago, and continue to influence my thinking. The man was a real person – a human being who behaved like one. If they did make him a saint, I think he would be among the most human of that group.

In the early 1940s, Merton went to a Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, knocked on the door, and told whoever answered that he wanted to be one of them. Trappist Monks are strict aesthetics and followers of the Order of Saint Benedict. Merton chose this life and lived it until his death. The Frank Sinatra song, I Did It My Way, comes to mind despite the obedience pledge of Trappists.

Beginning about 1937 during his conversion to Catholicism, Merton was fascinated by what he learned about the eastern religions. From then on, he studied Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sufism.

Thomas Merton with Dalai Lama

THOMAS MERTON WITH THE DALAI LAMA

His primary interest was in Zen, particularly as it applied to Christianity, from his point of view. Within limits, Merton supported interfaith understanding. He pioneered dialogue with the likes of the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, the Thai Buddhist monk Buddhadasa, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Many of Merton’s books on Zen Buddhism and Taoism are still in print.

 

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” ~  Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

My favorite description of him was by Paul Hendrickson in the Washington Post on December 22, 1998: “Thomas Merton: that bohemian and poet and extreme sensualist, lover of jazz, prolific man, traveler of the new idea. A 20th-century prophet and mystic. Not a theologian so much as a kind of freelance spiritual thinker.”

While I can’t honestly say that Merton makes as much of a difference in my life today, he did at a time when he was the right person with the right thinking. He had prepared for me, fifty years before I needed it. I am not sure exactly what it is that still holds my admiration for and curiosity about him, but I suspect it is how he lived within his human condition.