My Christian Deconversion – by Jedi Mind Trick

JMT is a member of FRDB who is now a Buddhist, but his deconversion from Christianity still holds good.

I was raised in a Missouri Synod Lutheran home, A actually my Mom was the religious one and my Dad, for most of my childhood, was agnostic. I attended St. Peter’s Lutheran School from 2nd grade all the way through half of the eighth where I was then placed in public schools.

Growing up was confusing for me because my Dad was also an alcoholic and there was turmoil in the home. I spent most of my time as a teen up in my bedroom playing the guitar and listening to music, it was a great escape for me.

I went through a time of drug experimentation during my mid teens, mostly just pot. Anyway, I was trying to get involved in a good band but I didn’t have the contacts I needed. Most of the guys I ran with who played an instrument were not all that serious about it, but I was. I wanted to become a musician and a great guitarist someday.

I started hanging out with another guitar player during the summer previous to my junior year in high school. All we would do is get high, play guitar and listen to music. It was fun, but it would lead nowhere and by the end of the summer I began to feel real empty.

I had been listening to Jimmy Swaggart a lot on the TV (this was before his scandal) and I was beginning to take him seriously. I especially liked his emphasis on the end times as I had a keen interest in it for some reason. I would also tune into Jerry Falwell’s broadcast and various other televangelists.

One August evening I was laying in bed getting ready to sleep and I was thinking about existence. I remember thinking to myself that the mere fact of existence somehow proved there is a god (don’t ask me the logic of it because I wasn’t running on logic at the time). And you know what? I also had the good fortune to know that if there was a god the only true god, obviously, could only be Jesus.

Remembering the stuff I saw on the televangelists programs I was prompted by emotion to ask Jesus into my heart and to promise to live for him all my life. So in the solitude of my bedroom I, then and there, asked Jesus into my heart and life and I made the promise to live for him no matter what.

All of a sudden I felt a flood of exhilarating, deep peace like I had never felt before. It was physical too, it was as though I felt Jesus enter into my soul and awaken me. I was saved! Or was I?

The very next day I marched over to my guitar buddy’s house and his Mom let me in. I went upstairs to his bedroom, where he was busy smoking a bowl, and I grabbed my guitar gear, turned to him and said “Dude, I’ve become a Christian and I won’t be hanging out anymore.” Thereupon I left and never returned…

I started attending St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, my Mom was very pleased. I remember thinking to myself that what was once so boring to me, church, had now become full of meaning. I would almost always find something of value coming from the pulpit that I took as “a word from God” directly to me personally. But the Lutheran church wouldn’t hold my attention. I was very interested in the claims of miracles and signs and wonders that I heard about from the televangelists.

About this time I would run into a Christian guitarist through a mutual drummer friend and we started a Christian Thrash band called “Tsaba” meaning “lord of the armies.”

I played with Tsaba for three years and just when we were getting ready to cut a demo I left the band over doctrine. I also, regrettably, left playing the guitar behind.

I left the Lutheran Church and started attending “The Vineyard Fellowship.” It was a heavily Charismatic church. Speaking in tongues, Singing in the spirit, Healings, Prophecy and all manner of ecstatics typical of the movement. I was in deep and walked with my head in the clouds 24-7, until I read a controversial book called “The Seduction of Christianity” by Dave Hunt.

This book was painful for me to read. It was an attack, by a Christian, on the very practices of the charismatic movement. This book convinced me that I had been deceived by the devil. I, with some disillusionment, left the charismatic movement and started attending fundamental bible churches.

It was about this time that I left the band also and for many of the reasons that Dave’s book outlined.

I would stay a bible only fundamentalist for the remainder of my Christian walk, except for the last year where I experimented with more liberal ideas.

As a fundamentalist I would ignore things like all the evidence for evolution, the observable age of the universe, the absurdity of the biblical flood. I would just pack those things away in the back of my mind and plod on believing.

I had several stints at a “backsliden” state. I would, for a time, in my twenties go to bars and get plastered with friends only to latter turn my back on those friends and repent.”

This lead me deeper and deeper into a problem of faith that I had always struggled with, the question of whether or not I can and or have lost my salvation. When my Dad died this turned into questions about whether or not my loved ones were ever saved. I would find myself increasingly obsessing over the issue of eternal hell and if I and others I love would go there.

In my late twenties I married a woman who was a Christian but just as compromised as I was. We lived together and slept together before marriage and this nearly ruined my conscience. I was full of guilt…

Later in the marriage I began to obsess over the question of divorce and remarriage. My Wife was a divorced woman and I began to wonder, based upon some things I read, if this meant I had lost my salvation because we were technically “living in sin.”

This proved to be the issue that would cause me to ask questions about the justness of an eternal hell. I would obsess over the hell issue daily during this time and one day I asked myself important question. Would I want my worst enemy to be tortured in a hell for eternity? My reply was no… I then had the blasphemous thought to actually question God’s own justice. The question was “why then will God torture his own enemies forever.”

As a Christian I spent a lot of time reading apologetics especially anti-cult and anti-new age material. I was also very interested in prophecy and I expected the fulfillment of the return of Christ in my lifetime and I read quite a few books on the topic, some more scholarly than others.

By the time I had turn away from the Charismatic movement I had come to a theological stance known as dispensationalism. As I ‘grew’ older in the faith my dispensationalism took on more and more radical tones. Just before I tried liberal theology on for size I was persuaded by radical dispensational theologians like E.W. Bullinger, C.R. Stam, J.C. Ohair, Miles J. Stanford and Adolph E. Knoch.

What I liked about this theology is that it, especially the radical dispensationalists, divorced the church age from the old testament and emphasized that this age was an age of unparalleled grace as opposed to the age law, one passed and one yet to come. Miles J. Stanford was especially favored by me. His emphasis was on the mystical union of the believer with Christ, so much so that god is said to only notice the perfection of Jesus when he sees any of his children no matter how sinful they may be. This was good news to someone who was guilt ridden and having very low self esteem, like myself. It also was an attempt to answer for myself the perplexing question of my enduring salvation when it eluded me by my actions.

My actions, now that I look back on them, were not sinful. In fact there is no sin to worry about at all. I have only ever acted as a normal red blooded human male. I’ve made mistakes, sure, but where there is no god to sin against there is no sin.

I would also spend a lot of my time trying to figure out differences in theology within the church in a effort to find the “true” doctrine. This only led to greater confusion.

I asked the blasphemous question about the justice of a good god sending anyone to hell. This began my exploration into more liberal forms of Christian thought.

It was also about this time (2004) that I began to visit the internet infidels to “teach” them about true Christianity. Boy was I in for a lesson. A poster who goes by the screen name “Mageth” thrashed me with my own words.

It’s a little embarrassing that I used to be that preachy. The thread where Mageth gets around to hanging me with my own rope is still availible.

After my run in with Mageth I really could no longer tolerate the contortions I had to go through to justify some of my beliefs. I started out by modifying my belief in an eternal hell because it disturbed me the most.

I eventually turned to universalism and argued for it on the infidels, but the critical genie was out of the bottle and before long I was looking critically at the bible and finding it full of contradictions that I could no longer make excuses for. I determined that I wasn’t going to prop the bible up with faith anymore. If it couldn’t stand on it’s own feet then it deserved to fall, and fall it did.

It wasn’t long before I was calling myself an agnostic and then shortly after that, an atheist.

This isn’t the end of the story though, I would yet give theism one more pitiful chance. Not Christianity, but a wishy washy I hope I hope I hope I hope there is a good god up there sort of theism mixed with generous amounts of new agey feel goody fluff.

This reversion back to theism happened mostly because I had a nervous breakdown late 2005 due to the break-up of my marriage and near financial ruin. Me and my wife are patching things up now.

After I lost the need for an emotional crutch I soon had to admit that no other gods are any more or any less likely than the Christian one and I feel I have falsified him to my satisfaction.

It is now a matter of parsimony and honesty that I call myself an atheist.

Our Stories – by epepke

I grew up in a vaguely theist family. We never went to church, except occasionally to the churches of others. Growing up in New York, I was exposed heavily to Judaism and Catholicism. After moving to Sarasota, Florida around 11, I was exposed to some Protestant sects. Sometimes, when I was very young, I asked why we didn’t go to church, and my mother always said, “God is in your heart, not in a house.” Which I suppose is the kind of thing you tell a kid, but I still think it’s a dumb thing to say.

Now, a lot of people here know what my brain is like. For those who don’t, my brain is highly unusual. Some might say freaky. I can’t really tell, because it’s mine, and it seems perfectly ordinary to me. However, I can infer this from how people sometimes react. Sometimes I am incredibly wrong in exactly what I infer, but I’m as sure as I am of anything that some inference is valid.

After I moved to Florida (I had already hit puberty), I inferred some things from the way people, especially those of the female persuasion, treated me. Those things I inferred were hideously wrong, but I was not to begin to understand that until 15 years after graduation. In any event, they set up in me the conditions ripe for a conversion to highly moralistic Christianity, which is what happened. I fell, and I fell hard. This lasted me through High School and about half of college and a marriage based on something like desperation.

I was also attracted to that “plate of shrimp” stuff about how the Mayans invented television and all that crap. That, however, was not entirely my fault. It was the 1970s, and it was all the rage. In school, we were subjected to the Propellor Beanies of the Gods nonsense and had a field trip to see a woman who claimed to be able to communicate psychically with pets. In the words of Frank Zappa, Pheeeeuw!

What I think kept me from being destroyed altogether consisted of two things.

First of all, it is a peculiarity of my brain that with respect to everything of the mind, including intellectual pursuits, I am either completely clueless and incompetent or an expert. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Intelligence affects the rate at which someone can work through the process, and I’ve been extremely slow and retarded about a lot of things that almost everyone finds easy and accessible. It’s just that the whole range of the average seems excluded to me. I can bang my head on a problem, sometimes for decades, without making any apparent progress at all, and then it all just falls into place. Many people report this experience, but for me it is overwhelmingly dominant. This has caused extreme unhappiness in my life, not simply with respect to the way other people treat me, but to the way I have viewed myself. Employers and potential employers either fail to understand me completely or think I’m the best thing since sliced peanut butter. This has resulted in long periods of unemployment and desperate poverty punctuated by fantastic and fascinating jobs.

It does come in handy, however. I think it is one of the reasons for my long-standing love affair with mathematics, where every problem is either impossible or trivial.

Another is that, due to my technical background and scientific bent, I had a healthy distrust of authority. Richard Feynman writes about this. My first exposure to Feynman was when my father gave me a copy of Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and wrote in the overleaf “This reminds me a lot of you.” He also once became angry with me when I said, “I’m just a kid, what to I know?” I was nine years old and was hooking up vacuum tubes to power supplies to see what they would do. He told me never, ever to think that. He was a jerk in many other ways (especially once I surpassed him in knowledge and intelligence), but this was good for me. Many years later, in something like despair, he told me that I was physically and intellectually superior to him. I therefore know why he tried to destroy me and once said “I should have worn a condom,” but it does not make it any easier.

So, when I read the Bible, I really read the Bible. When I came across Bible study groups, and they all tried to tell me this and that and nodded simultaneously, I had an annoying tendency to laugh. I did see the Bible as a complete and coherent hole, and I now have the terminology to describe that in one sentence: The God of the Bible has borderline personality disorder. I was like 15 at the time and pretty messed up in the head, so I actually empathized with the god-character.

Specific events that got me away from Christianity and theism are as follows. I saw Cosmos, and it hit me on the same emotional level that Christianity had, but for good this time. I was exposed to a peripatetic preacher by the name of Brother Jed with his wife Sister Cindy, and they seemed to me ridiculous. This was the heyday of televangelism, with Jim Bakker and cronies running rampant. Pat Robertson had a specifically anti-Cosmos episode, and I saw it as unutterably stupid.

The final straw related to the fact that I previously had some expectation of a creator God. I did not reject evolution (fortunately, I had a great teacher in High School who taught good classes and sometimes called them Sex and Gambling), but I was familiar with thermodynamics and information theory, and I thought that the rate of information increase to produce a human being was too large to be accounted for without at least occasional tweaking by a Creator. I had probably been influenced by 2001, the whole point of which is much the same, and I was able to find justifications in the Torah.

That annoying curiosity got the better of me. I had just learned about computational analysis, and I thought it was way cool. So I made some assumptions and modeled the process of evolution on a gross level by a field of non-deterministic Universal Turing Machines. This is similar to the way people, including myself, have tried to tackle the Continuum Hypothesis (where it fails is that the aleph-1 counting part of the proof manifestly overcounts numbers in C, and it turns out not to be possible to count the number of numbers it overcounts, if that makes sense or even if it doesn’t). However, as a broad approximation, it works just fine. What I found was that evolving something like a human in about that number of generations only requires a reasonable and even unimpressive change in information, easily within the range of random fluctuation.

So that was pretty much it. It wasn’t a happy time, as my marriage was falling apart, and I was to face a two-year period during which I thought that no woman would ever touch me again, but my brain was telling me something, and I could not ignore it.

Anyway, the theism went away. The next couple of decades involved a stint as a research scientist, the Skeptical Inquirer, Lake Hypatia, some groups who actually payed me to speak (!), a masterwork called SciAn, some limited fame, some bad experiences with women, some not-so-bad but still not-so-good experiences with women, a long-standing program to overcome my crippling shyness, watching an institute I loved self-disintegrate, retraining for a new career that didn’t work, a second marriage that didn’t work, the death of my father, friendship with almost everyone here who is a friend, breast cancer of my mother for whom I cared when I was unemployed, eventual moves for work, much more unemployment, pancreatitis and a cholycystectomy, a sort of snapping of my mind that eliminated my mood swings but made me numb for a couple of years, and so on and so forth. All of which brings us to about two and one-half years ago, when things really came together for me.

I know this will come as a surprise and shock to some of you, but I have changed my beliefs dramatically. In terms of all particulars, however, I haven’t changed a thing. I still don’t believe in a god or gods. I still have little patience with paranormal junk. I don’t believe in the supernatural, and I don’t even know what people mean by “spiritual,” though as a famous Rabbi once said, it seems to be something for the sexually frustrated.

What has happened is that I learned how to be happy. I stopped, inasmuch as I found it possible at the time, listening to what other people thought, though “listening” isn’t exactly the right word. I pay attention, but I don’t buy it, and I always see more important truths behind the statements. I started paying more and more attention to the entire universe and to what I feel in my bones.

Things have been happening which I can feel, to the point where I don’t even have time to recover from them. It’s getting so common it seems unlimited. I do not know what to call this, so I will call it “mojo.” I do not know what it is, or why it happens. Other people have tried. There’s the concept of synchronicity of Jung and Pauli. There is paranormal junk. There are, I think, all the religions of the world. I’m not going to believe in any of them, nor am I going to say more than what I am reasonably sure of. I’m a good little skeptic, and I am very sensitive to confirmation bias, the sheep/goat effect, and all those other things that make it difficult to understand the universe. As Newton said, I frame no hypotheses.

I am not going to try to communicate this. I don’t think I can, and I certainly don’t have much of an idea of how to go about it. There is no vocabulary for it even if I had a good understanding, which I do not.

I can, however, say what I think at the present time. I could always be wrong, and it is always subject to change.

I think it has a lot to do with sex, or rather the concept mythically described as Eros, a place where the distinction between sex, love, life, health, joy, beauty, and happiness becomes meaningless.

I think a lot of people get this stuff in flashes, and then they sober up or go home to their families and make up stupid religions so that they can go to sleep at night.

I think it has something to do with the fact that sex has been an essential component of the evolution of multicellular organisms, including us. It may be a sine qua non as it has the ability to couple conscious choice with evolution. It may not be the only way in the universe, but it is what we are.

What we are is, everything else put aside, the part of the universe that appreciates and enjoys the universe. Alone amongst all the life we know of, we can look back into the farthest reaches of time and space and to the fundaments of reality. We’re not completely there, and we may never get there, but the point is that we can go through the process. If there be others in the universe who can do the same thing, then they be in the same boat.

I think that the universe really is very different from what we mostly perceive by the classical means of organizing sensory information. When people learn how to juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time, they throw the balls in the direction of travel, expecting to catch up. It doesn’t work. This is a fairly trivial example of how our expectations are not particularly good at modeling reality. I don’t know what the right model is.

I think I’ve seen something like this happen to other people before, most recently and notably science fiction writers Greg Bear and Philip K. Dick. They seem always to become religious nutters or grind their gears without oil. I hope that I’m not that dumb, but I have no way of telling. It doesn’t seem to last more than a couple of months in other people. With me, it’s been going on at an exponentially increasing rate for more than two years.

Physically as well as metaphorically, the top is down, the Scissor Sisters are playing, and I’m burning the blood of the Earth. I don’t know where I’m going; eventually to my death, I suppose, but isn’t that always the case? In the mean time, perhaps I’ll see some new scenery. No fear, no need, no shame, no guilt, no worries. What else is there? Madness, perhaps? Been there; done that. Got the T-shirt, showed off my tits in it, left it to mildew on the front porch. Sometimes it rains or the engine overheats, and ozone and glycol tang wrinkle my nose. That’s part of it, too, and it’s all good.

My Testimonial; or Why I Don’t Love Jesus – by Alethias

Alethias (otherwise known as Sword of Truth) has kindly agreed to kick off what we hope will be a new regular column here at Nexus: a place to share our stories of deconversion or growing up atheist. In fact, it was his story that was the impetus for our new feature!

It all started on a dark and stormy night…

Well, not necessarily, but I’ve never started a story with that line whether true or not, and it was fun.

I imagine a little back story might be nice so y’all can understand what I’m coming out of.

I grew up in a church of Christ. Notice the lowercase ‘c’ in ‘church’? That isn’t an accident. A very fundamentalist group that makes all sorts of rules that often seem to strike outsiders as just plain weird. With many of them there seems to be no such thing as a rule that is too strict to be worth making; no sunday school or musical instruments in the church service because the new testament doesn’t have them. The list of rules they can come up with just goes on and on.

I spent the first 19 years or so of my life as cofC. I had a fairly strict upbringing, but my parents loved me intensely and I had a happy childhood. I left home when I was 18. I went to a Bible training work and was going to be a cofC preacher (can’t call it pastor, after all, since pastors are ‘elders’ and preachers aren’t elders. Another weird cofC rule). And it had to be a Bible training work and not a college, because that particular cofC thinks it unscriptural to fund colleges from church funds.

I got to about a week away from graduation to be a preacher-boy, and quit. I decided that didn’t really know if I agreed with all of it, and so I felt that I couldn’t morally justify being a preacher of something I didn’t know if I even believed.

I went to church irregularly for a time, and ended up falling in with a group that was into the charismatic stuff. I ended up getting ‘baptized in the spirit’ and speaking in tongues and all that. I loved it. I had a renewed faith in Jesus, and hope in heaven, and a new mission on life.

My parents were of course less than thrilled. I wasn’t that far away from condemning myself to hell in their eyes, if i hadn’t already crossed the line, but they still loved me.

It didn’t take me long, maybe about 3 or 4 years, to become known in the charismatic churches I attended as having prophetic gifting. That is, oftentimes when praying for a particular person, I’d get a sense of what god wanted for them, and I wasn’t shy about speaking it outloud.

In charismatic circles, you are both treated with respect and feared if you can be good at that, and I was terribly good at it. Some people would constantly seek me out for ‘words from the lord’. Others would painstakingly avoid me while being polite for fear of offending me. I liked it, I confess. It gives you a power to influence people that can be both used for good or ill.

A side note: My fan and constant companion thru all this was my wife. I met her at one of the charismatic churches I attended (I regularly attended 2 or three). We fell for each other very fast and married after a year long engagement. It’s weird, but she was oftentimes the skeptic of my ‘prophetic gifting’. It’s strange now that I don’t even believe anymore and she goes to a very popular charismatic church in this town. Ironic.

What did I do with my time? I did all the normal things, but I also went to biker bars and witnessed, and passed out tracts on Friday and Saturday evenings, and passed out tracts and witnessed at rodeos(we lived in Texas), and I preached, and I gave prophecies, and lots of other stuff along that time. I even had a successful ministry for casting demons out of people.

When I hit about 30 or so, I threw Messianic Judaism into the mix. I became very interested in the Jewish roots of christianity and wanted to be part of that.

Every thing was going great. And then my world fell apart.

Lotsa stuff happened in the early and mid 90’s that had a profound impact on how I look at life.

One of my daughters had a window fall out of its frame on top of her. We were living in military housing and the frame of the house had sagged. The window was loose in its frame and just fell. It sliced her back open and the cut came within a millimeter of puncturing her lungs, which probably would have killed her. It was traumatic and really shook me, but I decided that it was God’s mercy that she lived. But it still bothered me.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She ended up having a full mastectomy and radiation and chemo, and was proclaimed cancer-free. I decided that it was God’s mercy that she lived, but I was bothered. If God can have mercy for her to live, why can’t he have mercy for her to not get cancer? No good answer for that one, and the question didn’t go away easily.

Over half a million Rwandans were massacred by other Rwandans because they belonged to the wrong tribe, or they were a little too liberal. I saw a picture of the inside of a church with bodies piled up and brown stains all over the church that were the dried blood of the victims. I was horrified. Then it got worse: I learned that the priest and nuns participated in the killing.

So where is God’s mercy in that?

I started having chronic migraines in 1997, and have had them since. sometimes I’ll go a few months without a headache, sometimes I’ll get them every other day for up to months on end. Sometimes I’m not all that good a person, sometimes I’m not all that bad a person. I started thinking “What is God trying to perfect in my by giving me these headaches?”. That progressed to “Wait a minute here. Even if the goal is to perfect me, God is sure pretty damn cold-blooded to do it this way.” That progressed over time to “Exactly why do I want to believe in a God that will do this to me for no apparent reason?” That progressed to “O wait. How is this different than there not even being a God at all?”. I was distinctly scared of going down that path. Remember that I was someone that believed that God talked to him about things. Going through this process of questioning stuff, I started questioning other stuff. Could I really be sure that when I thought I heard God’s voice that it wasn’t me just talking to myself, being crazy? Even though some of my prophecies seemed extraordinary accurate, why did I have to jump to the conclusion that they were accurate because of God? I could think of lots of rational explanations other than God.

My mom’s cancer came back. In fact, it came out that she had bone cancer, and had for years. The breast cancer was real, but it came from the bone cancer. She was in intense excruciating pain pretty constantly for the last several years of her life. My mom and dad were big fans of the book of Job in the Bible. Sorry, but I wasn’t. I, to put it bluntly, fucking hated Job. He was prissy and righteous and got everythign restored and then some. My mom was the saintliest person I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. She suffered excruciating agony for years and died. Um, hello? God? O wait. I remember. You are not really real, are you?

I went from that to, in August of 2003, asking God to reveal himself to me in a way that I couldn’t deny was him. I set a personal time limit on it, and decided that if he revealed himself to me in an undeniable way, I was going to serve him regardless.

That was the last prayer I prayed. I told my wife in January of 2004 that I couldn’t serve a God that didn’t exist. I have gone from the argument from evil to believing science is actually accurate in describing the Theory of Evolution. I have gone from being a libertarian to being a determinist. It is apparent that even though we have a deterministic universe, we have freedom of choice. If you don’t believe me, read Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett and see if it doesn’t convince you.

My how things change.

The Power of Magical Thinking – by Brian P. Hudson (Writer@Large)

On the day that my daughter was born, my joy was tinged with anxiety. Dawn was a healthy baby, if a bit small, and she had no problems in the days following the birth; but because of an unplanned ultrasound four months earlier we knew that she had a kidney blockage, and if it hadn’t resolved itself in the womb she was going to need surgery. My little girl, barely 5 pounds at birth, was set to go under the knife before she was six months old.

Mutant or Miracle? You decide...

Mutant or Miracle? You decide...

I’ll spoil the ending for you now: she did not end up needing immediate surgery. Through a series of fortuitous events, her blockage has become a manageable condition that has put off surgery for a couple years or more. What fascinated me during this whole experience, though, was the magical thinking–that torturous logic the deeply religious use to find God in everyday events–reared its head in those around me.

In order to see “God’s hand” in events, I’ll have to flesh out the story a bit. I work for a college that trains ultrasound technicians, and as part of the training our students must scan an actual pregnant woman. My wife volunteered for scanning, and during the course of the training scan, the student discovered that our baby’s bladder wasn’t properly draining. The instructor in charge assured us that it was probably some sort of temporary ureter blockage, but that we should alert our midwife about it anyway. We did, and a subsequent professional ultrasound confirmed the blockage. We were informed in no uncertain terms that if it was a permanent blockage our baby would need surgery after birth.

At this point, people said we were “lucky.” It was lucky we had that second ultrasound, they reasoned, since our first hadn’t caught the blockage. After all, a blocked kidney can lead to kidney failure; better to know about it ahead of time and not when the baby got sick.

So the birth comes and goes. A few weeks later we take our little newborn in for a postnatal ultrasound, where they confirm that the blockage is still there. They also note that our daughter is a mutant; she has an unusual anomaly called a double ureter, having two tubes draining the right kidney instead of one. The blockage is in one of the doubled ureters. A complete blockage could have shut her kidney down, but because the blockage is in one of the double tubes there’s still drainage in the kidney. Surgery was still necessary, but the need was no longer urgent.

It was an uncommon mutation that helped mitigate an unfortunate condition, which meant my little girl’s kidney wasn’t going to fail anytime soon. The doctors wil wanted to remove it, but the urgency was diminished. Again, friends and coworkers told us that we were lucky, and they were right.

Of course, blockage still meant improper drainage and risk of kidney infection, which meant my little girl still needed to go under the knife. They sent us to a pediatric urologist to determine when the surgery should take place. He put her through more tests, one of which involved inserting a catheter into her bladder. During the course of this test, the catheter slipped up the blocked ureter … and promptly punctured the blockage.

A one in a million chance? Not exactly. The doctor told us that catheters can easily slip up the ureter during insertion. He also told us that she would still need the blockage removed at some point, because it was sure to return. But in the short term, the puncture meant that urine would flow more freely through the blockage. Better flow meant a low risk of problems, which meant that we didn’t need to rush a newborn infant into surgery. We could wait until she was a stronger, healthier toddler or pre-schooler.

This is the point where I had my encounter with magical thinking. What had up until now been “lucky,” all of a sudden became divine. “You should thank God for that one,” a coworker told me. “God was definitely looking out for her,” said another. Some of the comments were just in passing, the sort of “thank God” reactions one gets when anything unexpectedly good happens. But some were definitely more involved then that. One woman told me that she had said a prayer for my daughter, as if she’d somehow commanded God’s attention to my daughter’s plight. I had it suggested to me that the deceased family member that my daughter was named for must be “watching over her from Heaven.” One person who knows I am an atheist even said to me, “It kind of makes you reconsider, doesn’t it?”

The people I know and work with don’t normally come across as very religious, so this sudden spike in magical thinking caught me off guard. How was it that “lucky” had suddenly become supernatural influence? Detecting a condition early was just lucky as was having a useful mutation; heck, even the punctured blockage, by itself, they might have seen as happenstance. But somehow, the sequence of events—detection, mutation, and puncture—was not just a dodged bullet for my family, but some sort of divine guidance. I should be thanking Him for letting her avoid infant surgery.

At this point, I wonder: which part should I be thanking God for? For causing the catheter to puncture the blockage? That seemed to be the point that many people stopped seeing “lucky” and began seeing “God.” The doctors clearly stated, though, that catheters in this process routinely slide up the ureter, so can we really attribute it to supernatural influence? I think not.

Maybe I should be thanking Him for giving her a double ureter to minimize the danger of the blockage in the first place? I don’t see why, since fully 10% of the population has it already. And from what I’ve read since learning about her condition, a double ureter brings a higher risk of blockages anyway. If God wanted to help her avoid a kidney-damaging blockage, this generally pointless mutation would be a poor way of doing it.

What about thanking Him for “blessing” us with the additional ultrasound? After all, without that second scan, the blockage might have remained undetected until she began having health issues. But since that was a purely coincidental happenstance that resulted from my place of employment, I don’t see how a deity could have his hand in it.

Perhaps we should be thanking God for blocking her ureter in the first place, so we would be made aware of all his other little “miracles”? Somehow, I don’t think my religious friends would agree with that one.

In the end, it seems I should be “thankful” for the whole process—the miracle, in effect, of my daughter avoiding kidney failure. But if some meddling deity didn’t want her to get sick or die, why didn’t he just give her a normal, blockage-free ureter in the first place? After all, my son has never gone into kidney failure, either, but because there’s no dodged bullet in his medical history, no one’s attributing his survival to an interfering spirit.

In reality, my daughter caught a break, plain and simple. According to the National Kidney Foundation , one in 500 babes are born with some kind of kidney or urinary tract problem. Many of those problems are not detected until the baby becomes sick; many of those babies go under the knife; some even die. Due to fortuitous happenstance, my daughter was not one of them. That wasn’t any sort of divine intervention; it was luck, pure and simple, helped along by modern medical care.

If I should be thanking anyone, it should be the student whose sharp eyes noticed it in the first place. Or perhaps I should thank her instructor who taught her that a distended bladder was something to look for during an ultrasound. Or maybe I should thank the college who bought the ultrasound machine and allowed the class to offer free scanning. Or I could even thank George Ludwig , the man who founded the field of medical ultrasonography in the first place. Without his pioneering medical work, we wouldn’t have even been able to look.

But that’s the power of magical thinking for you: take fortuitous happenstance and apply its occurrence to a benevolent outside agent. I could just as easily say that the “miracle” occurred because being born a Scorpio on the cusp of Sagittarius blessed my daughter with luck and health in life, and have the same amount of evidence to support my side. Both explanations carry equal weight, and that weight is nil.

The honest truth is that my kid just got lucky–really lucky. Statistics tell us that in the same time frame as my daughter was being diagnosed, there were probably a lot of other newborns who were not; some of them probably even died from their undiagnosed kidney conditions. And it’s not like my daughter has avoided troube altogether. She’s currently on a nightly “therapeutic dose” of antibiotics to reduce the risk of kidney infection, and she still needs to have the blockage removed at some point, and no matter when that happens it’s going to be nervewracking, and it will carry the risk of complications or even death. She’s a healthy, happy little infant now, but at some point in the future she’s going to have a bad day. No amount of magical thinking will ever change that.

Atheist Cop – by Steve Schlicht

“Fear not the long arm of the law…”

That was the contrite title of my introduction post at IIDB way back in 2002 to try to quell any misgivings lurkers may have had for those in my chosen career path (a rather well-intentioned but flawed forewarning now that I have the benefit of hindsight).

Looking back over the intervening years I have to say that I’ve changed a bit. One remaining constant has been not being able to fully reconcile being a police officer who is also an atheist in a predominantly religious society; or being an atheist who is also a police officer, at a non-religious website. It is a constant refrain and one I know seems very much like a man tilting at windmills, but “me” nonetheless.

Clearly, it is a position very difficult to explain fully when trying to find camaraderie and support in either world. One I’ve learned to cope with and one I really hope to clarify within this venue that Octavia was so gracious to offer me. To be forthright, I know cops can be narcissistic jerks just as I know that I can’t fix that. I also know that I won’t be able to convince many people (atheists or otherwise) that there are those in my profession who are really in it for the best of intentions. But what I can do is not be that jerk on the street when it counts and regardless of the fact that no one even notices. There, that’s a distracting tangent out of the way for some who know me and so, I’ll move on to the topic at hand.

My own personal perspectives regarding human liberty and religious refutations have become stronger and more confident over the past six years. To be sure, I’ve learned that to really get a point across to those of an opposing view one must remain civil and rational and charitable. Of course, actually refuting religious claims can be perceived as automatically heretical so there is really only so much one can do to be considered “polite and civil”.

Now, this doesn’t mean I accept the same level of appeasement as reflected in my original introduction at IIDB from “way back when” which you will read shortly, as my current view is a bit more steadfast when it comes to countering claims and being motivated to do so. Naturally, it can also be said that I’ve learned that a dash of satire and sarcasm does help to dispel some of the topic redundancy as well, but I digress.

For now, let’s turn back the years and check out my old introduction post found at the welcomed extraction from the matrix:

“I’ll begin with a personal confession as a law enforcement officer. At times I get this feeling that I am a misfit among misfits when I correspond with other freethinkers/atheists/humanists/naturalists. My experience has been that we are by nature individualists and wary of anything authoritarian. It is my hope that this brief intro will reduce any possible rancor and engender a more open level of contact.

I have lurked for awhile and have never met a more comfortable board brimming with personality and honest character. The SecWeb has been like a warp engine of rational thought, humor and debate.

As an eleven-year veteran violent crimes detective for a relatively small (100,000) community, I do not have to argue the atheist ‘morality’ issue often. If it is brought up, my record as a happily married, father of three well-behaved and loving children is ample ammunition against such attack.

My personal experience with the ‘only god can judge me’ christian criminal offenders may also make its way into any morality or behavior argument. But, as I have been told by my, obviously omniscient fundie sister-in-law, they were not truly christian and may still find salvation for their horrendous acts and be accepted into heaven if they sincerely accept Jesus into their hearts (Just like Dahmer, I often suggest. Have a nice time.).

Of course, I like my paycheck, so I do have to allow for some of the more superstitious rituals in order to keep the boat from rocking. Oath-taking comes to mind initially wherein my honesty is equated with the magic incantation “so help me god”. Search warrants also require me to end the underlying facts portion with “affiant, therefore, hopes and prays that a warrant will be issued”. Since these words are non-issues to the case anyway and the judges seem to go for it, my feeling is that the end justifies the means (gathering of evidence and removing the offenders from the community).

I further make the distinction that since the term ‘god’ is not specific, it can then be aptly applied to the power of the active natural universe in plain view. You may then infer that this grants me the label “pantheist”. I have no problem with that at all. I also find silence, stillness and inner contemplation is useful to maintain a healthy mental state and relationship with others. I do not think that anything supernatural is occurring during this meditative non-action and do not ascribe to any particular method or zen school of thought regarding the matter.

Oh, yeah, my great-uncle was the late Roman Catholic Bishop Robert E. Tracy of Baton Rouge, LA of the Vatican Council II. My mother was a nun who left the convent, had an affair with a married man and became pregnant, fled to California where I was born, then returned me to her mother where I was raised in the staunch Roman Catholic milieu…not much else to report from that angle, though…

Thanks to all for being out there.”

Yeah, reading that post again, I do relive the excitement of finding “others out there” who were intelligent and clear in their views and vocal in expressing them. It’s nice to think that people have found similar enlightenment thanks to internet communities like IIDB.

Now, becoming vocal was initially problematic both personally and professionally and it took quite some time to attain the skills necessary to actively refute the religious assertions so prominent within my community and family. These claims are vast and vague and dependent upon “interpretation” and, as I have come to say, very much like trying to juggle water with those who have quite obviously no problem with promoting unsupported mystical-magical thinking. In any event, there were certainly many failings in my temperament early on which led to further misunderstanding and communication “black outs”.

Risks, some even unintentionally reckless, were definitely taken with close relationships at first because that was where my own experiences with “outing” were made. Truth be told though, it was worth the risk and life has changed for the positive since taking the stand and being pro-active.

Beyond my personal experiences with family (many of which are recounted at the IIDB in assorted threads if one is bored enough to look them up) I took it upon myself to begin the long and difficult journey of refuting religious claims when they arose in public and at work (only when necessary) as a representative of city government.

To be sure there is a vast minefield of general orders and policies in place that prevent full expression as a law enforcement officer who has no belief in God(s)ess(es). Many of which I wholeheartedly agree with, by the way, for everyone with strongly held socio-political views in this line of work. The issue is sort of like a “Prime Directive” for me which is purposeful, though exceptions can be made under certain highly refined circumstances.

That said, for me it became apparent that very few of these policies and orders were going to be applied to those officers and employees who used their position and city equipment to represent religious dogma and claims while on duty.

Well, to make a long story even longer, it was against my principle to remain silent in light of these transgressions and not return considerate point by point refutations via email or even in settings while decked out in the finest of police regalia.

It was oftentimes that my practice of doing so became one of consternation from upper management who would consistently allow leeway to the practitioners of their own particular worldview aka “religion” (being Christianity in South Mississippi, for those unaware) while being critical and even coercive toward my own which only really became known in response to some prayer request, touted faith-based jail program or some deeply flawed and bigoted claim regarding atheism/atheists.

These meetings were kept polite and civil and each time my case was made I found new support among other employees (mostly Catholics or “nominal” Christians) who had been, up until then, satisfied to just roll their eyes and scoff at religious email spam or requests for officer prayer meetings, etc. Over the years it even became an ever exciting experience for others to receive these emails as they awaited my timely and well-articulated response.

To this day I receive a vast majority of positive comments regarding how the refutations are framed and, for want of a better term, how courteous I am for the person while making my points very clear.

Of course, there is still a dark foreboding that I have to be more “careful” as an atheist in how I deal with public displays of expression because, as was true then as it is now “I like my paycheck, so I do have to allow for some of the more superstitious rituals in order to keep the boat from rocking.”

The story of the Emperor and his clothes has never been as personal as now.

I also have to say that the compartmentalizing of life has been the most difficult, but most necessary, practice in my view. Certain relationship areas are off-limits and city policies don’t apply to my proactive practices everywhere. I must use care when I do make published comments and it must be crystal clear that all views expressed are not representative of the city I work for nor the community in which I live. Still, it is necessarily topical to actually identify as a police officer as behavior and “morality and ethics” are so often the case du jour against atheists.

My own views are as a person and not an employee. The trouble can be that as an employee I am still a person and where that line is drawn is very critical. I am not often so linear, however, the job really requires it and it doesn’t come easy.

Interesting situations also often arise in real terms for me that put principle to the test.

Am I required to follow my principle to be vocal in refuting the concept of a supernatural being beyond space/time, an afterlife or a mysterious “Plan” in the context of notifying a family member of the brutal murder of a loved one?

The short answer is “no”, but not because it can be considered “rude” or “uncaring” because I do care for both people who are suffering the immediate loss of a loved one as well as those atheists who are so often misrepresented, mischaracterized and mistreated by the core of religious adherents who don’t mind using death as a tool for advertising their bill of goods.

There is a time and a place for everything obviously and we each must gauge our own situational limitations.

Most importantly, my responsibility as a police officer in the line of duty is to protect and serve and collect evidence, facts and circumstances. Whatever religious or political claim someone wants to make is irrelevant to my job, when I’m “on the job”.

Now, when it comes to court testimony and oath-taking, my views are different than the 2002 representation I once had. To be sure, I will request a secular oath or affirmation and, if required, express my perspective on the issue and address the issue of applicable state and federal statute.

In closing, I just want to openly, clearly and sincerely state that the most important lesson I’ve learned over the past years as an “out” atheist and as a police officer is that it is so very important to build and maintain a community of support for atheists. That’s right “atheists” and on that element alone because, yes I am fully aware, we all have an assortment of other views, positions and perspectives regarding socio-political issues that may differ…but we honestly do need the foundation and commonality that bridges those gaps and provides a comfortable haven.

We must meet, share and help each other in this world so that others can experience the knowledge that they are not alone, not despised and are equally valuable members of the human family.

Expression is key to that goal and I will leave you with some links to personal examples of how this has been and can be accomplished:…es-comment.htm


Now, I just have to find a way to feel accepted as a vocal atheist in an overtly religious community that applies the broad brush of their own raw generalizations to what that means and also be accepted as a vocal police officer in an overtly non-religious community that does so as well.

Thanks for your interest in my perspective and please take care of each other.

Steve Schlicht