Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How and why I became an atheist, part 4

In part 1 of this series, I look at my conservative Lutheran childhood, above all my conservative Lutheran minister father's influences.

Part 2 gets into my high school and college years.

And Part 3 gets to my trying to follow in dad's footsteps at a Lutheran seminary, or divinity school, up to the point of realizing that psychologically, I didn't want to be a minister and that, at the same time, intellectually and emotionally, I had problems with what I had been raised to believe.

So, here I am after two years of classes and a year of internship similar to a medical residency (we ought to make would-be lawyers do one of those, too), back for a final, wrap-up year of classes and realizing that this is NOT where I wanted to be going. I had enough money from scholarships and part-time work at a Lutheran publishing house that I didn't have to borrow much money to finish getting the degree while trying to figure out what I did want to do. (I've not totally figured that, 19 years later.)

On the academic side, I started doing "intellectual judo" on what I had been taught to believe. We'd been taught the bare bones of historical-critical theology with the idea that, as one professor put it, when Time or U.S. News comes out with its usual Christmas or Easter story, we could explain to church parisioners in a semi-fundamentalist denomination what was wrong with the story.

Well, being near the top of my class academically, and interested in the study of the texts and their exegesis, I took to this like a duck to water. Soon enough, before the year was out, I realized the more liberal wing of Lutheranism, just like liberal mainline Protestantism in general, wasn't a viable stopping point or landing point for my spiritual development. I was going to be some type of Unitarian, or beyond.

Related to that, I was reading more about psychology of religion and related issues. With my dad a minister, my oldest brother in the same graduating class as me, my sister having married a minister from the class ahead of me and getting her own master of arts in religion degree, my dad's sister being a Lutheran parochial school teacher, there were these larger issues.

I was losing, or cutting myself away from, some existential moorings. So I had emotional and psychological issues to face.

At the same time, I was bringing emotions, and philosophy, to bear on other religious issues, religious problems not just Christian in nature.

Big-ticket problems like the "problem of evil."

And, though I knew the basics about Buddhism, already then I was realizing that it wasn't necessarily just Western religions that have problems with this issue.

(The problem of evil is this, for the three Western monotheistic religions: How can an all-powerful god also claim to be all-loving while there's still evil in the world? For theologians who blame human sin, the quickest "counter" is with "natural evil" like hurricanes, etc.

Eastern religions? With more and more years of thought, karma, as an all-powerful law of reincarnation, becomes as evil, in a sense, as an all-powerful god for this failure. And, in some sense, the Buddhism that holds to karma is to me more perverse than the Christianity/Islam/Judaism that at least attributes this to a personal deity. But, I digress.)

On the academic side, tender young mid-20s Lutheran minds of mush were apparently too sensitive to stand up to such ideas. The dean of students eventually told me, after he'd been approached by several other students, that the only way he'd let me stay in school and graduate was if I observed a gag order. No, seriously.

So, I felt more isolated. And, as a divinity school has just one objective for its graduates (and my Lutheran undergraduate college had declined due to lack of enrollment), I had other angst on my hands, increasing - employment issues and lack of support.

Well, I graduated, continued to work part time at the Lutheran publishing house for a year after that while doing other PT work, and working on figuring out whether I was a Unitarian, an agnostic or an atheist.

A year after graduation, I realized I was at least quasi-agnostic. I knew then that Unitarianism the denomination was broad enough to accept agnostics, but ... was halfway ready to abandon religion as an organization.

Anyway, this wasn't an overnight process. My apartment complex where I lived the year after graduation was next to a small suburban St. Louis city park. I would pace out there late at night, praying/talking, or "praying"/talking to Jesus, Buddha, Yahweh, Allah, the Tao and more, venting my psyche, running through emotions and more.

This is part of why atheists (usually the P.Z. Myers type of "Gnu Atheists" who talk about religion as a psychological crutch don't get the time of day from me. I understand the desire for its comforts, still today. Ditto for those who treat "conversion" to atheism as a relatively pristine, highly intellectual process.

Then, my dad offered to let me move back home ... with the hope of me teaching on an adjunct basis at a college there. Well, it was better than what I was doing ....

And, that will continue in Part 5.

No comments: