Opening Words from Sun. February 1 by John Whittier

The following is my journey from Christianity to atheism to the Ethical Society.

As a child I followed my mother’s New England Protestant religiosity. I bought into the whole God/Jesus/heaven/hell story.

At the age of eight I prayed for Jesus to save my sinful soul. I had heard plenty of testimony about the transformative change this act was supposed to make in a person’s life, but a funny thing happened: the sun didn’t shine any brighter, the birds didn’t sing any sweeter, the flowers didn’t smell any more fragrant and I wasn’t any more popular. I figured I must have done it wrong. So I did it again. Still nothing.

Already doubt began to set in, but I stayed with the program, having faith that the promised transformation would occur. By the way, I now consider “faith” to be the F-word.

In my early twenties I took an evening class in Introduction to Philosophy. It was clear from the conversations in the class that the professor wasn’t a believer. This made an impression on me; that a smart, educated, thoughtful individual had just shown me that it was OK to not believe.

I lived the next couple decades simply not dealing with the question.

Then in 2002 I moved to the Midwest. As I acclimated to my new environment I gradually became aware of the extent to which many mid-westerners internalize religious belief. A watershed moment was when a parent expressed the opinion that vandalism that had occurred to a local church building was a worse crime than vandalism to, say, a school or town hall, because God had been watching the vandals and they would soon receive holy justice. It was at that moment I realized they didn’t have the same questions I had.

Over the next year I struggled with the implications of this realization. The religionists claim that their religions give meaning to life. I knew that my former Christian belief was unsupportable, but without it, what is the meaning of life? Late one night I was awake in bed tussling with this question when it suddenly hit me: there is no life-long to-do list assigned from above. We are not here to fulfill any grand purpose handed down from God, any supreme intelligence or the universe. We are the chance result of the Big Bang and evolution. Period. Suddenly, so much that didn’t make sense before now made sense.

Troublingly, I also knew that I could not discuss my newfound clarity with my wife, asleep next to me. She wouldn’t have understood, and worse, she wouldn’t have cared. This was one of the tangible moments in the disintegration of my marriage.

One fall day shortly after this I was in the front yard raking leaves. I saw them coming, wearing their white shirts and neckties and carrying bibles. When they asked if we could talk I said we probably wouldn’t have much to talk about because I’m an agnostic – for that was how I described myself in that era. We ended up talking for 45 minutes. These people were delusional. It was then that I knew I was an atheist.

Not long after that I heard a piece on NPR about Julia Sweeney and her conversion from religion to atheism; I found it inspiring.

Internet searching found the Rationalist Society of St Louis and I soon became a member. Many members of the Rationalist Society are – or have been – members of the Ethical Society, which is how I first became aware of our welcoming home for humanists.

The aforementioned marriage ended and I now have a profile on a dating website. This profile includes “I have recently joined the Ethical Society of St Louis and am excited about the beginning of this new chapter in my life.”

I started visiting in October, 2013 and joined in April, 2014. When Kate introduced new members at the next platform my answer to the question “Why are you joining the Ethical Society?” was “I want to be able to say ‘I am an atheist’ without feeling that I have to lower my voice.”

Thank you.