Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Too Heavy

I haven’t included anything personal on this blog yet. That doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t love talking about myself, but I’ve been trying to remain “pure” to “my mission.” Still, a few people have asked me recently when and why I happened to decide that there was no god. I’m not really sure how to answer that, but maybe the following snippet from my memoir will do.

Dad was an atheist, not so much because of any deeply held philosophical convictions, but because he was suspicious of perfection. In his worldview, an omnipotent being was impossible. And he could prove it!

“Listen,” he once asked me during dinner, “if god can do everything, can he make a rock too heavy for himself to lift?” Dad sat back, with his hands smugly folded across his chest, and watched in exultation as five-year-old-me struggled with metaphysics.

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

“But if he can’t lift it, then he can’t do everything. Can he? Hah? Can he?”

“Umm. Ok, I guess he can’t make a rock like that.”

Dad was triumphant. “Then he still can’t do everything. Right? I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Well,” I challenged, “who says he can do everything? Maybe there’s some stuff he can’t do.”

“And what kinda god is that to have?” Dad asked. “You want a god who can’t do everything? He’s god, f’Chrissake. You hear me? That’s his job. He oughta be able to knock off whatever dumb task you can think of. Otherwise, he’s just some shmendrick in the sky.”

I wasn’t willing to give in. “Well,” I said, “maybe he can make a rock that’s really, really hard for him to lift, but if he doesn’t give up, and keeps trying, over and over again, maybe he can finally lift it. What about that, Dad?”

Dad didn’t buy it. “You’re getting god mixed up with your little engine that could. I’m telling you, there’s no god. Believe me, nobody’s that perfect.”

I have to confess that I wasn’t completely won over to his point of view, because my mother interceded with a session of heavy eye-rolling.

“Put your eyes back in your head, Honey,” my father pleaded with her. “I’m trying to teach the kid something important here.”

But at our kitchen table, Mom’s facial expressions always trumped Dad’s words. Still, instead of chomping on her inedible meat loaf, I chewed on what he said. Silently, of course.

At this time in my life, I was already a trouble-maker, and I had gone up often against my kindergarten teacher, Miss von Steuben. This neo-Nazi was particularly hot on the concept of “good citizenship,” and, apparently, I was not a good citizen. Maybe this was because I chose not to color between the lines, or it could have been that I just didn’t think skipping to music was a worthwhile activity. Notes went back and forth between Miss von Steuben and my parents. If I didn’t learn to behave, she told them, I might be forced to repeat the grade.

Mom and Dad both pleaded with me to mend my ways. “Just do whatever the old bag tells you,” Dad said. “Is that gonna hurt you so much?”

It took a lot of doing, and a parent-teacher meeting at which my mother cried, but eventually I improved my citizenship. After that, Miss von Steuben went out of her way to commend me whenever I was sufficiently brain-dead to suit her. “Your conduct was perfect today,” she would say. Having lived for over five years with Dad, I found that impossible to believe. But I’d smile meekly and answer “Thank you, Miss von Steuben.” This went on for about three weeks.

So I guess I caught everyone — Miss von Steuben, Mom and Dad, and even some of my classmates’ parents — by surprise on the day that I dropped the burden of perfection with a permanent plunk. It was early in the morning, and Miss von Steuben, as she did occasionally, was reading a psalm to the class. This was back in the days when religious indoctrination was considered patriotic, and not just by theocratic right-wingers.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Put your hand down, young man, until I’m done. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth ... I see you waving, but now is a time for the pupils to just sit and listen. Do you need the hall pass?”

“I have to ask you a question, Miss von Steuben.”

“This is the bible. Is your question more important than the bible?”

I thought it was. “If god can do everything,” I blurted out, “can he make a rock too heavy for himself to lift?”

I don’t remember Miss von Steuben’s exact response, although her horrified look is still burned indelibly into my mind. I do know that Mom bawled like a baby during her subsequent chat with my teacher. Dad, oddly enough, never said a word to me about it. He must have known that I’d suddenly become a fellow atheist.

7 comments:

Mike said...

That's a cute story, and having been raised by an atheist, it's not that big a deal if that was enough for you, but if your teacher was any kind of of apologist, she'd have been ready with the accepted counter about logical paradox.

I guess what I'm saying is I hope there's more to your story than your dad's use of wordplay on a five year old.

Sarge said...

Oh, yes, I remember those high and far off times very well.

My parents were (mother still is) baptist, the favored flavor is Southern. I realised about the time I was five that the whole thing was, as a later girlfriend used to say, 'a pound of smoke.' But, being a person who knew the value of the low profile, I kept my own counsel.

I made one mistep, though, when I was seven. In Sunday school I repeated a joke I'd heard, and my parents were not best pleased. It was on the order of what's the heaviest thing in the world? And the answer (which I tailored for Sunday school) was: Turds! Even Samson dropped them!

I was given to understand that this bit of levity was just not on. This was reenforced by application of a wooden spoon when we went home.

My father was in the army, and in 1955 we had to go to Germany. I was eight years old then, and while we waited for housing to be available, my mother, sister, and I stayed with my mothers parents. I don't know why I did it, although I didn't believe I went through the motions of pledge and scripture reading, and prayer. But I ceased to participate. Probably I just missed my father, was just uprooted, generally mad at the world.

My teacher took me aside and counseled me a couple of times, never seemed to have an answer about who told on me. How anyone knew I wasn't praying when everyone was supposed to have their eyes closed was not explained. Why weren't they being punished, too? No answer.

Finally, she had to turn me in to the principal. Didn't want to, but she had to. Mother was humiliated and disgusted. Wooden spoon (grandma had one) and posterior were reunited. Wooden spoon found its way to the furnace, but I found that fly swatters, belts, razor straps, and slippers were viable substitutes.

I was still recalcitrant, and my mother and I were told to see someone in The Administration. My mother was lonely, back in her parents house and catching flack from them, and her religion was being mishandled. Plus, she wasn't a particularly mature in her outlook.

We went to see a 'Mr. Camel' (probably actually Campbell, but I was just eight) and this man was big, about four times my size and very angry. My mother couldn't even look at him. He demanded why I wouldn't pray, and it just popped out, the truth: I don't believe in god.

My mother actually screamed. He jumped up, came around the dest and slapped me out of the chair, snatched me up and yelled "I'LL teach you the luvva gawd!" and started shaking and hitting me. My mother joined in. I didn't shed a tear. My mother finally said she thought that was enough, and we left. She didn't talk to me for two weeks.

People had "Heard Things", and I went to school next day with a black eye, damaged shoulder, fat lip, and bruises and gouges. And I still wouldn't do what they wanted me to do.

Teacher asked if I was going to start praying to the approved diety and flag, I said, "No ma'am." Bless her heart, she never said another word about it, and I knew I was right.

Adam said...

When I was an atheist, I dated a young woman who was like-minded. I asked her one day if she would marry me, and she consented.

Two weeks before the joyous occasion was to take place, I caught her cheating on me.

Devastated, I offered her forgiveness. I told her to come back and to stop her offenseive, negligent actions, and that would be enough for me. She did not agree; instead, she had decided (apparently at that very moment) to leave me for the other man.

I found myself, about a month later, sitting on a rock on a beach near my house. I was a strong swimmer back then, but there were rip currents around which I knew would drag me out to sea, and away from the pain of having to exist every day.

I began to disrobe to enter the water, but when I felt the sea lap up against my feet, I stopped. I knelt for a moment and, as I know now, prayed. It was mostly wordless, mumbled, upset... but something happened. For the first time in more than a month, I felt a calm that was greater, steadier, and more real than any psychotherapy. I put my clothes back on and went hom.

Slowly, over the course of a year after that, I began to study and learn about religion. Then, I woke up one day and cast off atheism all together. I entered into the shroud I once used to pillory, and have never looked back.

The Exterminator said...

Sarge & Adam: Thanks for leaving your own stories.

Mike: My teacher was not any kind of apologist, at least as far as I know. She was just an old biddy who followed her traditions blindly. And of course there's more to my story, although I experienced no other anti-epiphanies; I just didn't believe. No matter how much I tried to wrap my mind around the concept of god, I couldn't make it work for me. It seemed unbelievably stupid. Still does, too.

Miss Mickey said...

Good story there, Extermie. Dad sounds like a pip. And I'm imagining your teacher with a big bouffant hairdo and cat-eye glasses, ala a Gary Larson cartoon.

I never had one ounce of parental religious training as a kid - either for or against. Religion simply was not a factor at all in my world. But I remember deciding early on that I was not a believer.

Mary Catherine Balkin was the first person to ever tell me I was gonna go to hell for not believing. We were in 3rd or 4th grade. It didn't scare me at all. It just made religion all the more unattractive.

I'll bet she's got a ton of kids by now, all with heads pumped full of garbage. Sad.

The Exterminator said...

Miss Mickey:

Mary Catherine Balkin is probably working in the Bush administration.

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