I think it’s a form of self-testing, that apostates of any kind will assert themselves regarding adoption of a new frame of reference. I remember how shocked I felt when I eventually acknowledged, to myself, my apostasy. “Well, okay, now what do I do with this?” I remembered John, a disrespected atheist with whom I had worked in California, and after whom I later modeled a character in THE OTHER WAY. His good natured honesty and likableness eventually impressed me. With him on my mind, I set out to find people to whom I could ask questions.
What I found was a mess. Madalyn O’Hair scared about ten years’ worth of atheism out of me. No, make that fifteen, maybe twenty. Thirty would be barely exaggerating. Once I put that disruptive experience behind me, I realized I had no way to know right from wrong beyond what I had learned growing up, the various social conventions, and the legal system, none of which have much relevance to the ten commandments, which seem like platitudes in comparison.
Raising four daughters emphasized a need to know why some acts are right or wrong with little or no explanation. “Mrs. Addlefay said it’s wrong to not go to church. Why, Dad?” Or, “Why can’t we go outside naked when it feels so good?”
I still wish I could possess a good, honest answer for that one. “You’ll get a sunburn?”
The age-five image of her mother, she plants her hands on her hips and glares at me. “We only want to wade in the creek. We’ll stay under the trees.”
M’gosh, I want to do that! “You better not, Sweetie, I’m afraid the Sheriff will find out and take you away from us,” and so the Sheriff gains notoriety as an intolerant enemy of freedom—without lifting a thumb. I wonder if he knows.
I also wonder if that’s how atheists gained terrible reputations despite any evidence at all standing against our favor. We’re the fall guys used to make an unsupported point to children. Every group that ever existed has its own Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Franco, Sheriff, cops, preacher man, nosey neighbor, people of a different color or opinion —people who may or may not be innocent or guilty of allusions made against them without benefit of judge, jury, trial, or even their own awareness. Paranoia makes a dangerous and unfair basis on which to develop a tradition or philosophy.
I believe Ms. O’Hair induced paranoia into my age twenty self that thwarted development of my atheism, but also imprinted a life-lasting example of how to not treat people that, according to later experiences, she must have learned from the toxic kinds of Christians. “Turnabout is fair play.” As time passed over the next several years, belief continued to ebb, but a strong mental image of a disapproving Ms. O’Hair loomed in the pathway to religious freedom. Ms. O’Hair, my decades-long image of atheism, unintended enemy of freedom, victim of her time.
What saved me was the tiny bytes of philosophy I had heard John utter, that often popped into consciousness to remind me of a different kind of atheist. Quiet, trusted and reputable, he did not display the blustery fury supposed to be common among atheists. I avoided computers until I realized that I could eliminate the story notes I kept in a bushel basket, as well as keep notes related to my work. It seemed an endless task but worth the effort from which my first book, Gran’Pa, grew.
Writing spawned a need for Internet access and occasional bouts of exploration came from that. Curiosity induced me to search all kinds of materials. Joining discussion groups led to formation of one of my own, which I abandoned due to a lack of focus. (The link to Gaian Ethics in the sign is dead.) During all of that time, I became friends with several atheists, a very few like Ms. O’Hair, a whole bunch of them people I feel proud to know. Their beliefs include Christianity (without the god), Pantheism, Buddhism, Wicca, various philosophies, and creeds they have reasoned for themselves. That would suffice to explain all the squabbling typical of atheist discussion groups, but not why the religious feel any kind of threat from them. If any two of these folks tried to drive a fire truck that steers on both ends, they’d wreck on the first corner.
The fear mongers of this world are wrong on atheism. Those who’ve befriended atheists know that. Long-time atheists will generally be as moral, kindhearted and helpful as the best among your friends. Youngsters and newcomers still testing the waters may challenge your beliefs, whatever they are. Go ahead and challenge them back. Just remember this rule about evidence: “Show, don’t tell. Question, don’t preach.” If you have nothing to show, stay quiet and take a lesson: you may find he also has nothing to show. What you observed, then, is his belief. Let it be. He (or She) is as entitled to unsupported beliefs as you are to yours.