Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How, When and Why I Gave Up Religion

I am not a religious person. I want to clear that up right off the bat.  In fact, I think I can qualify these days as anti-religious - as in anti ALL religions. But, once I was religious, at least as much as an adolescent boy can be. At the age of twelve I had convinced myself I wanted to become a ‘Preacher’, and announced the fact at church before my proud grandmother. I grew up living with my grandparents for big chunks of my childhood, so my grandmother exerted a lot of influence over me.  My grandmother herself was the daughter of a Methodist preacher you see.

My grandmother told me stories of her father who died long before I was born.  He was a ‘Stump Preacher’ in the North Georgia mountains. That meant he had a small country church somewhere near Dahlonega, Georgia and ran a ‘circuit’, preaching around about. He took his sermons out into the hills several times each month to bring the ‘Word of the Lord’ to those who were too far away to attend his little church. Stump preachers sometimes stood on stumps in the wilderness to deliver sermons, hence the name. One story about my great-grandfather which sticks in mind was the time he preached in a logging camp somewhere in the Georgia hills. At the time the big lumber companies were busily cutting down all the hardwood forests all over the Allegheny Mountains, from Maine to Georgia.

One evening around 1910, Preacher MacDonald - that was his name - was standing on a stump delivering a fiery sermon to the men at the logging camp by lamplight. One  logger, apparently drunk, started heckling him. After pausing a few times to admonish the man and call for quiet, my great-grandfather finally lost his patience - obviously not possessing too large a stock to begin with. Stepping down from his stump my preacher ancestor carefully placed his worn bible there. Then he strode purposely up to the inebriated logger and knocked him flat with his fist, and completely unconscious. My grandmother told me this was not at all unusual - she had witnessed similar things several times.  Preacher MacDonald was of the opinion no one got to heckle the ‘Word of the Lord’ without suffering the consequences. And, he was a large man with the will and the punch to enforce his opinion. My grandmother said that little hillside congregation was extraordinarily quiet, respectful and attentive for the rest of her Dad’s sermon that  evening, and when the collection hat was passed around it was filled to overflowing.

I have one single picture of my great-grandfather. He is standing by my great-grandmother staring at the camera with his fierce hawk-like eyes, wearing a Stetson sort of hat and a carefully combed beard and sweeping mustache, looking a lot like pictures you see of Wild Bill Hickok.

When I lived with my grandparents, I went to church - whether I wanted to or not. My brothers and sisters did too - it was expected and part of our weekly routine.  But that didn’t mean I liked it. Besides messing around with the girls during Sunday School, there was not a whole lots to recommend it, in my opinion. The preaching bored the absolute bejesus out of me. To this day I can’t remember one single sermon I listened to, except the time the preacher was sick and one of the church members got up to tell about how he had once been an alcoholic until religion turned his life around. I remember vividly his telling about how he would steal absolutely anything to get enough money to buy more liquor.

He told a riveting tale about being so corrupted by stealing he got in the habit of stealing even when he didn’t need to. He said one time he was out in the woods and there was absolutely nothing to steal, so he took off his shoes and placed them at the base of a tree - then sneaked back up to steal them. I still believe him.

When I turned sixteen I got my driver’s license. As a farm kid I had been driving since the age of eight or so anyway, and could drive anything on the farm from a mule to a John Deere tractor to a two and a half-ton log truck. Any automobile was a piece of cake. And like most farm kids I loved to go fast - so whenever I had the car to myself I did.

One Saturday afternoon, my brother and I were out ‘scooter-pooting’ around in the car. When we got to the paved road I floored the old Chevy and got up to about 90 MPH or so. Things went fine until we rounded a curve in a sliding turn and met the biggest bootlegger in the county taking the air in his big, yellow Cadillac. I was pretty well out of control and couldn’t do much other than try to keep the Chevy on the pavement - so our bootlegger neighbor had to take to the ditch in his big, fine Cadillac. My brother and I did not stop. But, old Marcus the bootlegger knew who we were all right. When you live in a small community, that’s just the way it is. Ordinarily Marcus might have complained to my grandfather, who would have dealt with the situation. But Marcus and my grandfather were bitter enemies - and not on speaking terms. In fact, my grandfather was so ornery he was not on good speaking terms with a fairly large number of our neighbors - and due to that, my brother and I could, and often did get away with almost anything.

But Marcus was not one to let it go. It so happened he was also a senior deacon at our church. And, oh yes, everyone in church knew what he did for a living; made, hauled and sold bootleg moonshine liquor. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t be a deacon in our church, at least in that day and time and place.

Next Sunday when my family sat there in church, my brother and I were perhaps smirking a little at old Marcus’ glowering looks. So, we were surprised when Marcus asked the preacher if he could say a few words. Being allowed, and without preamble he launched into a spittle flinging personal attack on two teenage boys - my brother and me, by name, right there in church, in front of God and everybody else.  We were called hooligans and worse. It was shocking and humiliating, as I’m sure Marcus fully intended. The rest of the congregation sat there transfixed, and nodding as in agreement with Marcus, with many a superior, snide glance over at my brother and me.

But it was also infuriating. Here was this sanctimonious criminal bastard venting his spleen on two rowdy boys in front of a congregation apparently in full agreement - and he was the biggest crook in the county! And, everyone knew it!

It was enough for me. I must have some of my great-grandfather’s short temper in me, because all I could see was red. I leapt to my feet and shouted, “That’s it! You God-damned bastards will never catch my randy red, rawboned ass in this God-damned church ever again! Or any God-damned church for that matter! You can all have your God-damned bootlegging deacon, and I’ll never set foot in any church ever again and you can all kiss my ass!”  (My grandfather was a great example to learn swearing from!)

With that I got up and stomped out - and my entire family did too, including my grandmother - my grandfather seldom went to church - I think maybe he had already figured things out. I was never so proud of my family as on that Sunday morning. And, you know what’s a fact? I've stuck to that vow too, my whole life. The only times I’ve ever been near a church since was to a funeral or a wedding. I do make concessions for those. But, I still don’t have to like ‘em, do I? And, I certainly don’t.

Looking back on it now after all these years, I realized that old man Marcus actually did me a huge favor. Besides saving all those hours I might have otherwise wasted by attending church simply because I was expected to, that single event opened my eyes to the realities of religion. Next to my divorce from my first wife, and my final discharge from the US Marines,  that was about the most freeing event in my entire life. By forcing me to take a good long hard, reality based look at religion and churches I came to realize what shams and huge Ponzi schemes all of it is. And, in time I have realized this is true of all religions, be whatever they are. And, one of the worst parts is how they all incessantly fight one another.

The amounts of wasted money, treasure, lives and destruction due to religions are staggeringly immeasurable and uncountable. The grief caused by religions over the milleniums is incalculable. All religions I know are dangerous, irrational fantasies based on fear and punishment. Any belief in a mystical metaphysical boogeyman, residing in an imagined 'Heaven', rewarding those who believe and never-ending punishment to those who do not, is, in and of itself,  an irrational fantasy;

I’ve decided to enjoy my Heaven right here on earth, right now.  So, please tell the ‘faithful’ not to waste time praying for my poor, rotten, disbelieving, sinful soul,  I’m gonna put my bets on the Tooth Fairy!

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