I Was Molded by an Atheist Father and a Christian Mother
My parents' views on religion could not have been more polarized: My father was an atheist and my mother was a fundamentalist Christian. Surprisingly, they never argued over religion, in fact, religion was not a big subject of discussion at all. My parents just accepted each other as is. I was in elementary school when I learned that my father did not believe in a supreme being or any of the accoutrements, such as Hell, that accompany a god. I took the Christian God’s existence for granted. We kids sang “Jesus loves me” and listened to the state-mandated Bible verse every morning at school before the real classes started. God had always been a fixture in my life.
Daddy’s beliefs seemed a little unusual because everyone I knew was a Christian or, at the least, expressed a belief in God. My paternal grandparents, with whom mother and I lived while Daddy was serving in the army, were Christians. Grandma, a Baptist, came from a long line of believers, including an uncle and a grandfather who were itinerant preachers in the Ozarks during the 19th Century. Grandpa was a Methodist, and his great-uncle was the legendary James Johnston, who attempted to exorcise the Bell Witch from his young neighbor, Betsy Bell, in Tennessee. Author M.V. Ingram in his 1894 book, The Bell Witch, claims the witch whipped Uncle James's butt and he tucked tail and ran!
So with that kind of familial background, what would cause their son to be an atheist? I don’t really know, but I have a theory. The Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 seemed to be a big influence on the youth of that day, and a group of young students in the Ozark Mountains who fancied themselves intellectuals fell right in step with Scopes. Some people can accept a parallel between divine creation and evolution, and some cannot. Daddy was one of the latter. He was an impressionable 18-year-old who had always gravitated toward science when the trial of John Scopes took America by storm. Daddy taught me the theory of evolution at a very young age, and I grew up believing that God and science worked hand-in-hand. Mama never objected, at least that I knew of.
Mama grew up in a Church of Christ household. She took me to church until I was three or four years old, but after Daddy was discharged from the army, we stopped attending. Daddy did not object to our going to church; Mama’s health was failing. When I was five, she nearly died from acute appendicitis. After she regained her health, along came my sister and brother in January and December of the same year, respectively, and church stayed in the background. Jesus was only a factor in my life at Christmas and Easter.
I am not sure exactly when it became clear to me that Daddy did not believe in God or an afterlife. He was a very honest, moral, and upright person who taught those values to us children. His word was his bond, and he expected the same honesty from others. If someone broke trust with him, Daddy didn't take it very well. He was kind and generous to our neighbors and always the first to lend a helping hand. No one would have suspected that he was not a Christian man unless he told them so. He wasn't perfect, in fact, he liked to drink a little bit, but so did some of his Christian friends.
He had always chalked up some religious beliefs as superstition, including the belief in ghosts. I was afraid of the dark and what might be lurking there. My grandparent’s house was very old, probably built around the early to mid-1800s. One bedroom in the house gave me the shivers after dark, and I refused to go in there unless the light was on. Daddy would reassure me that there was no such thing as a ghost and it was quite safe. He would laugh and turn the light on to show me that there was nothing there. The reassurance lasted only as long as the light was on. But I didn’t believe in ghosts either because Daddy said they didn’t exist. Going into that room, and Daddy's laughter, evaporated tough little me into a whining sissy.
By the time I was nine years old, we had moved into our own home in town. One warm summer evening a lady came by our house selling religious pictures. I picked out a cheap, but nice framed print of Jesus and asked Daddy to buy it for me. He refused. I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t buy it, after all, some of our neighbors had pictures of Jesus in their homes. I raised a fuss and we got into an argument. Then Daddy explained to me in no uncertain terms that we would not have a religious picture in our house. Mama was in agreement with Daddy, but for a different reason: Her religion forbade religious images just as it did instrumental music in church.
I disagreed with Mama on the music issue and didn’t understand why it was a sin to play church music on an instrument. I have never liked a cappella. Mama was a musician who played the mandolin and the clarinet, so why couldn’t she use them to play a hymn? Daddy, of course, didn’t care either way. He didn’t interfere with her religion, just as she didn’t interfere with his teaching the theory of evolution to me.
Daddy had taught school for a few years, and he had learned subtle ways to attract children to learning. He would tell wonderful stories, a lot of them exaggerated, but he was serious when he said that a great civilization had existed before ours. He explained that it was even greater than ours, in fact, people could do what we only dreamed about. “Who were they?” I would ask, wide-eyed, and his answer was the same: “I don’t know. I wish I did.” He left me starving for more, but that was all he knew.
I suppose I started going to church because all my friends did. I attended a Baptist Church and was baptized at age 10. Mama was hurt that it was not her church, but I explained to her that if she wouldn’t take me to church, then I would go where the opportunity took me. Besides, the preacher's wife was a great organist, and sometimes they would bring in a visiting violinist from out of town. I liked to listen to the choir and sing hymns.
Again Daddy stayed out of it, but his influence was still lurking in the back of my mind. The older I became and the more I heard the Bible stories over and over again, the more some didn’t make sense. I began to question the relevancy of 2,000-year-old customs that didn’t apply today or of laws that were now illegal. What relation did sheep and camels have to automobiles and airplanes? Who were the Nephilim, and why did Genesis mention other gods and giants? Who was Baal? If God had no name but called himself “I am that I am,” then how could his name be Jehovah? What was all this stuff in Revelation that sounded like a bad acid trip? I could not agree with the biblical creation story from an evolutionary standpoint, and the church could not answer some of my most pressing questions.
One in particular shook my very belief system to its roots. My church taught that the one and only God, Jehovah, was perfect. The perfect do not make mistakes! I accepted that until I came across 1 Samuel 15:10-11:
10 Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” (NIV)
Whoa Nelly! Did I read that right? I think God just said that he made a mistake! Sunday morning I slyly asked my teacher, “Do you think that God is perfect?”
“Of course he is,” she answered.
Then I showed her the verse and asked: “If God is perfect and doesn’t make mistakes, why does he admit to making a mistake in this verse?” She was dumbfounded, and I could tell that she was a little shaken.
“Well, he certainly does say that, doesn’t he?” she replied. “I don’t know. I guess it’s just one of those things we have to take on faith.”
No, I don’t have to take it on faith, I told myself. After all, there were multiple versions of the Christian religion, so I didn’t have to accept any one in its entirety, did I? I never questioned the existence of God. My conscience, or whatever that voice in my head is called, never told me to question a divine existence, just the whys and wherefores. When I went to college, I began to find some answers, and they weren’t in the Bible.
My freshman year I attended a local private college owned by the Presbyterian Church. One of the graduation requirements was two semesters of religion class. Very grudgingly, I decided to get it out of the way. I went into the class expecting more dogma, indoctrination, and yada yada because it was taught by a Doctor of Theology, and he was reputed to be tough. Did I ever get a surprise! A whole smorgasbord of spiritual beliefs and values awaited me: Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, the Native American Great Spirit, all kinds of stuff outside the Old and New Testaments. The minister-professor made it come alive like I had never experienced before. He would propound a theory and say, “now Presbyterians believe …, but you can believe it however you want to, or not at all.” We had long outside reading assignments, and I found myself eagerly gobbling up those and reading for hours after the assignment was finished. I aced the class!
It was not all smooth sailing with my parents. Mama’s reaction came from my biology class, not my religion class. She nearly had apoplexy when she found my little brother looking at my biology book and laughing at a picture of a human baby that had been born with a tail. “What are they teaching you in that school?” she demanded to know. I avoided a real scene because I hadn’t studied that chapter yet, and I could honestly tell her that I didn’t know anything about it. Daddy thought it was funny.
My attempted discussions of life after death with him went virtually nowhere. He held that death of the physical body ended a person’s existence. Gone. Nothing. Nada. He was not worried about going to Hell because Hell did not exist. His stance was as solid as a brick outhouse in a windstorm, even when I tried to use his own scientific logic against him: “Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only changed in form, right?” I asked.
“Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but only changed in form, right?”
“Then if the human body goes back to dust, then where does his life energy go when he dies?” I asked him, hoping to get him to admit the spiritual.
He said he didn’t know, but he had an answer anyway. “There is lightening and electricity and wind energy,” he explained. “It must go there.” He never gave in. He was delighted when I found some recognized works that supported his stance against the literal interpretation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve. I lent him the first one I encountered, The Lost Continent of Mu by James Churchward. He devoured it eagerly, but then he died before I was able to find any more books on Lemuria. I had taken him a book by Edgar Cayce, but it was just another crock of baloney to him. Healing in any form besides conventional medicine was charlatanism, be it faith healers, metaphysical, or herbal.
My mother took the expected path; my father’s was the unexpected. They both affected the path I took, and I am thankful to the both for anchoring me like a piece of metal between two opposing magnets. Their influence kept me from polarizing in either direction.
I thoroughly believe that your life is what you make it. I made my own spiritual journey because I felt free to. I couldn’t accept that there was no more to life than a short sojourn on earth, nor could I accept a bipolar God who was loving one minute and fraught with wrath the next. I discovered that the teachings of Christ were like onions – in many layers, from little children’s understanding to learning so esoteric that I am still working on it. I discovered teachings in other religions that are worth exploring, and I have explored. I have allowed the natural feelings I had as a child to reawaken, and yes, I believe in ghosts.
© 2012 Doris James-MizBejabbers