I honestly tried to be a good Christian. It was not something I had grown up with. My parents were non-practicing Catholics. Growing up in Brooklyn, NY and then spending my formative years in a Long Island town called Hicksville (Hometown to Billy Joel), we generally only went to church on Christmas and Easter. My parents made a half-hearted effort, mostly at the behest of my Grandmother, at some sort of religious instruction. This resulted in a few months of spending a day or two each week in the musty and dark classrooms of St. Ignatious Loyola Catholic Church. As I said, it was short-lived, and for the most part, I had a near completely secular upbringing. Religion basically had little, if any, influence on our family life.
When I was a little older, married for the second time and living in Raleigh, North Carolina, I got invited to the only church that I know to have its entire statement of faith in its name. The Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church.
I dove into the faith with both feet, becoming licensed as a Preacher and studied endlessly, sponging up everything I could. I eventually left the PFWBC to start a church of my own. Several years later, my wife and I were running a moderately sized special care outreach ministry in our home town that provided food, clothing and household goods to the poor. We even became affiliated with the state food bank.
We moved a couple towns over and I began what would end up being a ten-year stint writing for a weekly newspaper column that for the first five years or so expounded the evils of the world. I produced a similar weekly radio program that was syndicated on three local Christian radio stations. I attended classes at the local Baptist Seminary and changed my Ordination from Pentecostal to Baptist and had amassed a library of over two-thousand volumes, of which I read every single word.
I wrote bible studies that were used in a few rather large churches in the area and was very well known and respected in my community and the surrounding communities. My peers, countless individuals and families had looked upon me as someone they could trust as a strong community leader and trusted ally. As well as Pastoring the Eternal Light Christian Fellowship, I filled in for vacationing pastors at larger churches, was on the local rotation of three county pulpit supply lists and held morning worship services at a local senior center for quite a while.
The Turning Point
I walked away from all of it in 2005, which was also the year that I founded the United Atheist Front, which now, six years later, is an International Civil Rights organization, Incorporated in Georgia, that serves as an advocacy group dedicated to fighting against the discrimination of non-theists through political activism, the peaceful redress of grievances, being a friend of the court, community organization and serving as the media arm of several other atheist civil rights organizations.
What set the whole house of cards crashing down for me stated after reading a book called “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” with appendixes explaining the similarities between Utnapishtim and Noah. I could not get away from the fact that Utnapishtim had predated Noah. So I began asking questions which led to more questions which led to more questions, none of which had answers that served to validate anything about my faith. I began to realize that the book in which I placed my trust in, the Holy Bible, was rife with contradictions, inconsistencies and errors.
This sparked my interest in ancient mythology and the mystery religions. I found many parallels in my examination with older religions that pre-date Christianity, which sparked my interest in the sciences. I began devouring as much as could on the sciences with more enthusiasm than I had when I began studying for the ministry. I drank in (and still do) as much information as I could on archaeology, paleontology, biology, sociology, paleoanthroplogy, and psychology and anything else that and an “ology” on the end that wasn’t theology. I had spent ten years studying that and the last five didn’t offer anything really new.
The result was even more questions that had no satisfactory Christian answers and the more questions I asked the more that my Christian peers chastised me for having the audacity to even ask. After a while, I could no longer honestly believe in the claims and doctrines of Christianity. The more I learned, the more I realized how blind I had been, how I had been not only living in a bubble of willful ignorance, but also hurting those who do not fit in with theological thought patterns and a biblical worldview.
I had been at the end of a course that would result in me being certified as a Neuthetic Counselor, and I realized that the bigotry I had against homosexuals was legendary. I was also a misogynist and a fear monger. I did more damage to good people than I care to even remember.
Needless to say, the “powers that be” in the area – the other pastors of churches both large and small, as well as business owners who were customers of mine – were not happy about “losing one to the other side.” I was once an ally, so out of fear and ignorance, they tried to discredit my name and destroy my family. Divide and conquer, as it were. They were afraid of the influence I might exert over the vast amount of Christians who read my column, listened to my radio show and heard my sermons on Sunday mornings. They were afraid that I would somehow be able to turn people away from the faith in droves.
The gloves came off…
For those of you who are unaware, I have been disabled for the better half of the past twenty years. My main conditions are neurological, degenerative and incurable diseases that are eating away at my nervous system. Combined, they have a similar effect of ALS, but with a longer life expectancy. I also suffer with Ataxia, Aphasia, Memory Loss, Mild Sporadic Dementia, an annoyingly dysfunctional urinary tract and skin cancer. At that time, my doctors had not found the right medical cocktail to slow it down and alleviate some of the painful symptoms. As I do now, during this time I had also spent a good amount of time in a wheelchair. Several former friends and aquaintences wasted no time in telling me, my wife and our children that God had punished me for abandoning my faith.
Some of the local pastors, ministers and church leaders would try and plant seeds of doubt and resentment within my wife in what I can only assume was an effort to turn her against me. While that may have been my own paranioa speaking to me, it didn’t change the facts. She was already vulnerable at that time due to the my loss of faith, and it seemed as if they took advantage of the situation.
Even some of the local Christian women, some of whom she had known for years, would take her out to lunch and their horns would come out. Some of them even told her that if it were them, they would divorce me and take the kids. They cited biblical justification and told her that I could no longer be trusted as a good husband. Needless to say, it got pretty dicey for a while in my house. They almost succeeded in destroying our marriage and tearing apart my family.
My kids were fair game, as well. They were regularly told that I could not be a good father if I were not a Christian, and, amongst other choice tidbits, there is a special place in hell for people who cause others to stumble. Very nice…
However, I was (and still am) a very good husband and father, and after a while my family realized what these people were trying to do. Slowly, my relationships with them began to heal. But that did not stop them from their relentless goal to run us out of town, where we had lived for many years. Two of my kids were born in the area and we had considered it home. They succeeded in their goal. It wasn’t just beacause I started noticing incidents of property damage and had begun to receive email threats, but also the fact that when they realized they were not going to split up my family, they decided a group shunning was in order. People my wife and children had thought to be close friends ended up being no more than friends of the fair-weather type.
We moved across the county for a few months, but at the first opportunity, I took a job and moved my family six hundred miles and three states away, uprooting my two youngest children from everything they had ever known, and my wife away from her mother and sisters. The few people who I did manage to keep in touch with for a little while let me know that our exodus had been the subject of several area sermons, and they shouted cries of victory. When I got to Alabama, my initial plan was to just lay low and keep my mouth shut. For the first year or so I relegated my unbelief to the Internet, and if I needed to, I would insinuate to the locals that I was a believer. For a brief few months, I even led my family to believe that I had found some sort of quasi-faith again. That was a decision that to this day I still regret, but my intentions were honorable.
However, I did not want to put them through what we had just come out of, all over again. So, I went to the occasional church service and played a little music with a rather moderate minister friend of mine. But living a double life began to bring out the asshole in me and I felt like a complete hypocrite, and not being completely truthful to my family was immoral and not fair to them.
So I made the decision to just be myself. However, in Alabama, I came to understand just how much worse religious bigotry could get. In most cases, you are expected to bear your cross very publicly and many parts of the local government are so intertwined with the church that the lines of the First Amendment are blurred beyond the ability to separate them. You are assumed and expected to be a Christian, and you are treated very “differently” if you are not. Although I am now living in the Atlanta Metro area, outside the perimeter is not much different that rural Alabama, and added to the mix that I am a known atheist, anti-theist and author of an atheist book requires me to keep my guard up at all times.
Currently, most of my family still identifies as Christians. But previous experience makes them very aware of what their fellow believers are capable of, and they are prepared to defend themselves, my right to be who I am and the sanctity of our family. They know that I have been through the ringer and I am done playing nice. I know it is not a popular choice, but I will not be forced to live a double life, pretending to be something that I am not, just because it will cause a confrontation.
For me, personally, the whole idea that a god even exists goes against every fiber of my being. I can not wrap my head around how it could be good for anyone to believe in an imaginary being that expects credulous servitude, convicts believers of thought crimes and actually cares who we sleep with, what kinds of food we eat, what we drink or smoke and what we watch on our televisions, computers or in the movie theatres. As well, that if we piss him off we will be punished in a variety of lovely ways. No, I make no apologies anymore. When I sit back and look at all the arguments, hate, strife, war, murder, crime and discrimination that revolve around the belief in a deity I still find it rather shocking that with the cumulative knowledge in the sciences and in our age of reason that it is still necessary to argue and debate on a serious level that there are gods that really exist, and that they interact with humanity on a daily basis.
I will continue to speak out abrasively against all organized religion, and that humanity would be better off without them. I refuse to take fundamental religious beliefs seriously and I continue will fight against the misogyny that has caused women to fight to obtain every liberty that they now possess in this country because the Bible teaches that they are inferior to men. I will continue to fight against the racism, bigotry and intolerance that the bible has inspired. I will continue to fight against the willful ignorance that chooses to replace fairy tales, myths and legends with real, proven scientific fact. I will continue to condemn a book that promotes racial separatism and sexual discrimination, a book that fails to condemn slavery and human sacrifice, a book that encourages discrimination against the handicapped and the idea that there is no such thing as a war crime, and that the murder of men, women, children and animals for land gain is God’s plan.
“You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.” – Bertrand Russell
“No other work has more often been blamed for more heinous crimes by the perpetrators of such crimes. The Bible has been named as the instigating or justifying factor for many individual and mass crimes, ranging from the religious wars, inquisitions, witch burnings, and pogroms of earlier eras to systematic child abuse and ritual murders today.” – Nadine Strossen
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully – Richard Dawkins
My advice to you is to free your mind. If you are a person of faith, run as fast as you can away from organized religion. If your faith is strong, it will only grow stronger without the constraints of a religion that only serves to make you a slave to contradictions, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, bad science, poor mathematics, erroneous geography, immoral comments, false prophecies, degenerate heroes, and too many other problems to mention.
If you are an unbeliever, then speak up and don’t be afraid to speak your mind and to expose religion for what it is. Religion is the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of the universe. It makes Bernie Madoff look like a five-year old who stole a cookie from the pantry. It will be our downfall.
Al Stefanelli is the author of “A Voice Of Reason In An Unreasonable World – The Rise Of Atheism On Planet earth.” He also writes for the National Atheism Examiner and Yahoo! He is also the President and Founder of the United Atheist Front, wich can be found on the Web, Facebook, Twitter, Podbean and YouTube.