5/10/2009                                                                                       View Comments

Childhood Experience With Atheism,
or
Who Says Atheists are Bad People?

By Mriana

When I was little, I had a great uncle who was in WW II, and is not to be confused with the great uncle that was a Free Methodist minister. He was a medic, who decided which fallen soldiers they could medically saved and who could not. It was not an easy job; I am sure, and probably traumatic enough to cause PTSD. Of course, back then, they called it Shell Shock. However, I do not believe for a minute that lovely man was suffering from anything, not even anger with God, as my grandparents had insisted. This dear man returned home, but he could not continue in the medical field. As to the why, I never was privy to the information or if I had been, I do not remember. The reason did have something to do with the military though.

Therefore, he became a schoolteacher and even married a schoolteacher. He dearly loved children and enjoyed teaching. What little experience the other adults in my life allowed with him, was a marvelous and, dare I say, divine intimate lesson with nature, his other love. This was not a theistic experience I am talking about, but rather a connection with nature in which you were truly part of and one with nature. His love of life was not exclusive to humans, but all that was alive and living on earth, so much so that it was almost a worshipful experience.

Granted, I am playing with words to describe a non-theistic experience, but it was truly an encounter of love for all things living. Love of life in its totality, in the here and now with no expectation of an afterlife. Life here on earth was a heavenly experience cherished most by this man. Given his love of the English language, I believe if he were alive and read this, he would not take offense to my use of such words to describe our brief times together, because I truly mean no religious intent, but attempting to paint a picture with words.

What I feel from them is terror, complete and utter terror. ...but my atheist great uncle never gave me such feelings. In contrast, my grandfather had a love of nature too, but it was “God’s creation”, he lived in “God’s Country”, and while out in nature, he also taught me a lot, but it was not quite the same, because animals are inferior to humans. Very little was the same, except with one vivid experience I have never forgotten- the wolf. “Don’t move,” he said softly with no gun or weapon of any sort. “Stay quiet and perfectly still.” For a brief, exhilarating moment, I stood motionless as I gazed from several feet away into a wolf’s eyes. He stared at us as he observed us carefully, but it was a most awesome event of my childhood that I can remember and for a brief moment, it was like the wolf and I connected on a mental level. Once he saw we were no threat and apparently not dinner, he went on his way without saying a word to us or coming any closer.

As I child, that was God. No, the wolf was not God, but the mental connection, the experience in its entirety, that overwhelming sense of awe and wonder with the universe. When I mentioned it to my grandfather, I was wrong, in his opinion. In a sense, he was right, because that was neurology kicking in at its very finest, but I loved it and would not trade that incident for the world. However, he was unarguably right that it was a potential danger. I still would not trade the overwhelming awesomeness of that experience though and if given the chance, I am sure my great uncle would have explained it to me much better than my grandfather did.

I do not know if my uncle was a vegetarian as I am, but this tall thin man was very much a joy to be around, but the encounters were rare, due a great feud between him and my grandfather. This hostility was sadly over religion. The two had terrible shouting matches about God and eventually Uncle Lawrence hit his fist on the table and left, only to sequester himself in his house. As he left, we gave each other a look of sad empathy.

Uncle Lawrence did not scare me even then though. Instead, my grandfather was the one who scared me, because what I felt from him was overwhelming anger that under any other circumstances and from any other man might have been lethal. The sort of anger that felt like someone had hit you in the face. Even my aunt remembers what she recalls as “the two of them having the most awful arguments” stating it was because “Uncle Lawrence rejected God”, “not right”, and “he was so angry with God”, as well as all the other verbiage a Christian usually states about an atheist they attacked first.

What I sensed from my uncle was pain, emotionally searing pain, not caused by any god, but by man. I do not recall the exact words during the violent verbal tirade, but I remember it was about God. I also remember that their dispute scared me, and I remember the distressingly hurt look in my uncle’s eyes.

As I look back as an adult on that incident, I remember sitting on the floor, surrounded by toys, much like the little girl in Poltergeist when the preacher man came to the house and the mother snatched her out of the yard. My great uncle probably saw a little girl completely paralyzed with fear and maybe thought he knew what was in store for me. Thus, the feelings of empathy were probably mutual at that moment and it grieved him sorely. Like the mother, he probably wished he could remove me from the situation, but it was not possible since I was not his child.

Days went by and I wanted to go over to his house, which could be seen from my grandparents’ home. My grandmother said I could not go because Uncle Lawrence was having one of his spells, bad stuff going on with him, poor Aunt Millie, a Christian, having to live with that, something about the two unequally yoked, the need to convert him to Jesus, and told to stay away from him. It was not until years later that I heard he was an atheist, but as a child, I looked out my grandmother’s kitchen window and wondered what was so bad that I could not see him. From a distance, the windows of his home looked gloomy, but I had to know.

One day I ventured over to see what was so bad. They both lovingly welcomed me into their home. I was laughing, listening to them tell me stories, answering my questions, and basically just having fun like a child should when my grandmother knocked at the door. Turned out she wanted to retrieve me and take me back home again. As we walked the short distance back to her house she told me that I did a bad thing by going over there and something about my uncle not being right. In comparison to her anger, my uncle seemed perfectly harmless and I wondered how a teacher, who taught kids like me, could be “not right”. She never answered me. Instead, she continued to scold me.

When I was maybe a pre-teen, they told me he was an atheist, became an atheist sometime during or just after WW II, was mad at God, and sinful because of it. He refused to accept God in his life and therefore I was to stay away from him. I could not comprehend why because when I saw him, he gave me the warmest smile and I felt so much love radiating from him when he looked at me. It felt so good being around him, unlike being around the great uncle who was a minister. That uncle frightened me as much as the preacher in Poltergeist did. I had no problems watching Poltergeist until that minister appeared and then I was scared to tears, especially for the little girl. To this day, such preachers give me the heebie-jeebies, so much so that when the one in Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Time’s Arrow” episode) appeared I got the creeps and I was an adult by that time. It is not too much different with real life ones either. Those ministers are real, not some superstition, and come a dime a dozen here in the Ozarks. However, “Stigmata” and “End of Days” were nothing! They had priests.

While I hear such movies creep out most victims of Evangelicalism, such ministers, who dress and/or behave in such a manner as the Reverend what’s his name in the movie that scare the hell out me. Those people do not exude love and compassion. I do not know what they exude, but it is not love. What I feel from them is terror, complete and utter terror. Paralyzing terror, but my atheist great uncle never gave me such feelings.

Oddly, a common occurrence where my relatives lived was copperheads and a common theme my minister great uncle preached on was “brood of vipers”, besides “hellfire and damnation”, and “The Path to Salvation”. Almost every time a copperhead was spotted while we were gardening in my grandparents’ garden, my grandfather said firmly, “Don’t move” as he went to get a hoe. I stood fixated on that snake as I watched its every move and heard the sound it made, until my grandfather came with the hoe and chopped off its head. Just before my grandfather chopped off its head, its threatening hiss seemed like the loudest sound around as it made cleared that if I moved I would be in trouble. Just like if I moved in church when my great uncle preached an altar call. You cannot run from them and you cannot move toward them.

One of the deadliest snakes in the Ozarks is the copperhead and I learned that at a very young age. Even the young are so venomous that a child who thought they were fishing worms died from the bites they gave him- so the story goes. I researched this many years later, only to find that if the young boy truly did not know any better, he was doomed to death in such an isolated area that was far from the city. Evangelical ministers, as well as their congregation are not much better, in my opinion. They can be just as lethal as copperheads and if you run from them, you are surely doomed to vile words and inhuman isolation, just as my atheist great uncle was. If you run to them, you will surely be bitten and the end result, from what I have seen, is just as horrid.

I did see my atheist great uncle again as a teenager and before he died. When I did, I once again received the warmest smile and a hug that exuded nothing but compassionate love for me. The feeling I received from his hug was overwhelmingly heavenly right here on earth. For me, he was a ray of sunshine, which benevolently caresses one’s skin on a warm summer day. There was nothing to fear, except our Christian relatives, but at the same time, I felt something was wrong with me, because I did not view the world as my other relatives did. I just went along, giving them lip service, professing to something I questioned, to keep from experiencing the same hateful rejecting behaviours my great uncle received. However, I could not reject my great uncle though, not even give him the cold shoulder.

The one private moment we had together, I voiced some of my thoughts, asked questions, and even mentioned how I felt, but I cannot recall the actual conversation or his response. All I remember perceiving is a good feeling from him, not a bad one, and for one brief moment, we seemed to share a common bond. Maybe one of these days his words will come back to me, but I do know the word atheist or any other label never came into our conversation. I do believe he truly cared about me as a person and one who has a mind of my own. He was a teacher and encouraged kids to think on a daily basis, but I do not believe it was just because he was a teacher though. He truly cared about others, including me and I often long for that feeling again, even relish it when I do feel it.

To this day, even though he has been dead many years, I cannot see in him what our relatives insisted was in him. In fact, I still feel the total opposite of what they said of him when I look back at the few times I saw him. However, his deathbed statement, according to my relatives, was “Maybe there is a god” and my grandmother became excited as she retold it, because to her and all my relatives that meant he might have a chance to get into heaven. I was not there to know the truth of what his last words were, so I do not have a clue as to what they really were or if words even existed upon his death, but the brief statement was good enough for them. All I know is that people say Christians make up deathbed stories about atheists. Whether or not the statement is true, this kind, gentle, compassionate, loving man lived to be almost eighty years old and as far as I know, he lived a good life in tune with nature.

Remember you are dust
And dust you shall return
Back to nature
Which you loved so dearly
With all its splendor and glory

You gave to me a gift
Which I will never forget
A ray of light
That shined so brightly
Even amongst disdainful humans

Just as you loved the earth
It loved you back
Even in death
Welcoming you
Just as you did me

In my heart and mind
I’ll always remember you
As a good person
Filled with so much love
Kindness and compassion







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