I don’t remember it, of course, but I was baptized when just a baby. My parents were Baptists: or at least my father was – I think my mother (being Japanese and raised Buddhist) was just along for the ride. They weren’t very religious; attending church only on occasion. I always hated the sheer boredom of church services and was lucky I didn’t have to attend very often.
When I was in 5th grade, our family moved into an apartment across the alley from a church in Lawton, Oklahoma; to stay while my Dad served the Army in Viet Nam. The front of our apartment building faced the back of the church. I awoke every Sunday morning to the God-awful, off-pitch, singing of hymns. It was while living there that the powerful ideas of Christianity first grabbed hold of me. Not because of that church or its tone-deaf congregation but because of a group of older boys I happened to run across in the neighborhood. They were passionately discussing Jesus and salvation. The concepts involved were a thunderbolt to my young mind. It was my first intellectual awakening: powerful, exciting and moving.
The following Sunday, I decide to attend the sermon at the church next door. I dragged my younger brother (a year younger, in the 4th grade) along with me. The preacher was charismatic. He was much more interesting than the stuffy preachers I’d experienced before. He got everybody excited. The interaction between the preacher and the congregation had an energy of its own. As he neared the end of his sermon, he invited all sinners who wanted redemption to come forward.
That’s when I noticed the tears in my brother’s eyes. He got up. I grabbed his arm but he jerked it away and headed down the aisle to join the others gathering in front of the preacher. I was shocked. How come my younger brother was so moved when he had never shown the least interest in, or awareness of, God? And how come I was not moved despite having been so powerfully moved just a few days earlier with those older neighborhood boys?
And that’s how it was for me all the years afterward until finally turning, slowly, to disbelief. I always wanted desperately to embrace faith: I just couldn’t make the leap! I believed up to the brink of faith but could never runneth over my cup.
In the years that followed, my interest in God and religion waxed and waned. Sometimes I would explore the Bible and, if I had friends who attended a local church, I might go to services with them. I could have remained in this spiritual limbo, indefinitely, were it not for LSD.
At the age of 17, I had already been smoking pot for over a year, when a friend offered me some ‘Orange Barrel’ acid (LSD). I took it and proceeded to receive my second intellectual thunderbolt.
‘Experience’ is the word to use to describe something we can’t describe. There is no way to convey the experience of tripping on acid. Entire worlds opened up before me in quick succession. I saw things in ways I had never imagined and had ideas that never would have otherwise occurred to me. It’s as if the barrier between my conscious and subconscious came crashing down and the two were allowed to intermingle until homogenous, making me super-aware of everything.
And I saw God. Listened to Him. Felt Him. Feared Him.
The experience was so intense, so real, my young, teen-aged, mind was powerless to deny it. That is, until I awoke the following day. Then I realized that I’d better not tell anybody I had seen God while tripping on acid. Obviously, I had seen no such thing . . . and I couldn’t wait to repeat the delusion: it was great!
That initial acid trip changed me permanently. I became obsessed with my quest for the truth. I knew that acid could never provide real answers but, at least, it opened my mind to the questions. Before that first acid trip, I always skipped classes to go smoke pot with the other pot-heads at school. I wasn’t very curious. I was just focused on fun and partying.
Afterwards, I wanted to understand myself and humanity. I read a lot about Greek mythology, and read many literary classics; especially those by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I wanted a deeper understanding of the human condition. I read the Bible cover to cover. I read about Buddhism and Islam. I read all of Ayn Rand’s books. I subscribed to Psychology Today. I began collecting short, insightful, quotes. Then science grabbed a hold of me, especially cosmology and physics. I may have been a poor, unskilled young man from a poor family but, by God, I was voraciously curious. I couldn’t afford to go to college but, fortunately, the library was free.
I gained confidence as I gained knowledge. Religion was the last thing on my mind. I was beginning to realize that, if I applied myself, I could learn whatever I wanted: do whatever I wanted. But I knew I was disadvantaged in the job market because of my lack of a college degree. I figured the thing to do was to plumb a new professional field in high demand so that employers would overlook my lack of a degree. In those days, computer programming was very much in demand. It was at this time when, finally, my parents lucked into a modest fortune. I borrowed money from them to go to I.T.T. Technical Institute, in Seattle, to get certified in computer programming. It was a half-year course and I was tops in my class. I was recruited, at the school, by Nordstrom (the high-end department store), before graduating and began employment with them upon receiving my computer programming certification.
After that, I never looked back. Whenever my profession became less ‘hot’, I studied and got certified in a new, high-demand, specialty. By staying reasonably close to the bleeding edge of computer technology, I was able to contract my services and make a much higher salary (though, without benefit plans) than I could as an employee. My wife held a regular job as an executive secretary, so her health insurance compensated for my lack of the same. And as we secured our family and home, my thoughts turned, once again, to God. After all, He had blessed me with many blessings: a great career, my wife and children, our home and all the modern amenities of suburban life.
But wait. Where was He when my family and I were poor? Were my parent’s blessings, and my own, the whim of God? Well, he may not have pulled strings for us but he did give us our talents. Right?
In the grand scheme of things, our talents were not exceptional. It was determination and hard work and, yes, a little luck, that improved our circumstances. But wait . . . isn’t it hubris to think that? To think we control our own fate is arrogance. Isn’t it? God is in control. Right?
I looked back on my life. I saw how God and the Bible always had a depressing effect on me. But life was engaging and rewarding whenever I focused on myself and my family. The correlation was undeniable: God was no good for me. But dare I trust only in myself?
Well, relying on myself had worked pretty well thus far. I couldn’t argue with success, could I?
Nonetheless, I couldn’t give up on God just yet. Instead, I blamed religion. I became anti-religious. I convinced myself that religions were an unnecessary and corrupting intermediary between God and me. I had the Bible as my guide, surely there was no higher authority than the word of God Himself!
I read the Bible again. This time, it seemed like a completely different book. I felt tempted to go buy another Bible in case the one I had was a mocked-up forgery. What’s up with this God guy? He’s got serious problems! The more I read, the more I wondered what those stories of incest, vengeance and scorched-earth battlefield atrocities were doing in a ‘holy’ book – and why I didn’t notice how perverse they were the first time I read them. Is this really God’s idea of right and wrong? Of morality? Surely these are the words of uncivilized, ancient, ignorant, men . . . not a timeless and perfect God!?!
For me, that was the last nail in God’s coffin. Throughout history, the Bible has created more atheists than any other book. It takes an intentional act of self-deception to ignore the immorality and impossible claims of a tribe of uncivilized, ancient, ignorant, men and pretend it’s some sort of glorious, immutable, truth. Faith is the suspension of disbelief. What, exactly, would require me to suspend disbelief? The obvious answer is: a lie.
If I trust myself and face facts, the biblical God becomes a joke. A very sad, sick, painful, joke. Religion is His predictable punchline. I just hope, in the end, humanity has the last laugh.
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