Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Life Before Atheism


I sincerely doubt anyone is born an atheist, but if she were, her parents would quickly see to it that she accepts such supernormal entities as the Easter bunny, Santa, and the Tooth fairy. This leads to indoctrination into the deeper mysteries of one of an assortment of so-called "faiths" (a word that says it all), and to a certain extent I must provide as an answer to what is my religious preference, " the since that I protest." I am an apostate, but not an uneducated one, not one who has sampled one or two religious "beliefs" or "spiritual paths" and seized upon some inconsistency or illogicality in the holy writ of the faith; rather, I spent almost sixty years searching religions and paths before concluding there is no god but the one between your ears.

My parents were social religionists, which is to say, they went to be seen. It was not uncommon for business deals to be closed at the end of "services" on the front steps, which became a de facto marketplace. And there I'd been taught, in "Sunday school," that Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, thereby infuriating the rabbis, who depended upon that boodle for their livelihood. Which was a good thing in a way because, being totally ignorant of science (the microscope hadn't been invented, or if it had, it was not available to these desert nomads), the rabbis could save the flock by outlawing pork. Too many had died. It took centuries to figure out it was due to worms, not Yahweh-Jehovah.

I may have implied that both of my parents were big on church-going. Not really. I think my father was a skeptic: he'd fought in a war in the Philippines and didn't like killing. He was a lifelong anti-capital punishment person. I think he also wondered why a good, all-powerful, all-knowing god would allow World War II. But he deferred often to my mother's wishes when it came to Sunday mornings: he took us to church, perhaps because this made it easier later that morning to go out to "collect rents," which meant drink beer with Hispanic tenants. He dabbled in real estate.

My mother was religious enough to have turned to it as she entered her last illness and died, mercifully -- yes, it's still a good word, but it needn't mean divine intervention -- in her sleep, of heart failure. I do think my parents chose their particular church for social and political reasons. It was the Episcopal Church of the Good Savior, but some local wags called it "the Church of the Good Cadillacs." (That was then, now it's BMW's and Mercedeses.) In any case, we three boys were told that if we did not go to church, we would not receive our weekly "allowance." We went to church. But as we grew older, we found ways to skip Sunday school and head a couple of blocks away to a drive-in restaurant only to magically reappear as the classes ended.

My impression of our Sunday school teacher was that he was a thorough-going hypocrite. I am unsure today why I formed this impression, but something about his manner suggested as much. Lay readers are nothing on earth but wannabee preachers; it's embarrassing to listen to them stumble over that old faggot King James's Booble with all its "thou's" and "thy's." There ought to be a law. Betcha you become a lay reader by sucking up to the preacher and making sizeable thithes to the church.

I soon enough learned the politics of the pastorhood. We would see "ministers" rotated up (or down?), all vying for the ultimate prize: bishophood. It was entirely political. The pastors who brought in the shekels were moved up. Being a small city, Nueces mightn't collect from passed plates with as much moola as, say, San Antonio or Houston or Dallas. So when one of "our guys" moved up, it was an event. Let me tell you about one pastor who moved down.

Reverend Key brought a handsome son and attractive daughter my age when he moved from his former parish. I started enjoying church. I dated the daughter but soon learned she was a manipulative girl interested in having guys spend a lot of money on her. Her brother was childish but sly, fun to be with, a laugh a minute. When I broke off with the daughter she found a way to inform me that Rev. Key was of the opinion I lacked maturity and was obviously an unloved child. It delighted me when, months after the Keys moved on, I was told he'd been involved in a scandal that ruined his chances for advancement.


It was the practice of certain upper middle class families to send their children to summer camp. For several weeks each summer, off we'd go, first to a camp for grade-schoolers, then one for middle scholastics. My grade school camp was Camp Tancahua, named after one of the indigenous groups who camped on the Gulf prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquest. Like most summer camps for boys, Tancahua was located in the Hill Country near Kerrville, Texas, and although it was owned by a wealthy family, they delegated the operations each year to a middle-aged couple with "hardshell" Baptist notions of morality. I hated the place.

For one thing, I was inept at all sports. When I rode horseback one afternoon in a blazing summer heat, my steed got it into his head that he didn't much care for me. He took off in a near-gallop toward a corral at the bottom of a hill. Just before he reached the corral, he stopped in his tracks, throwing his burden high across the rails of the corral. It so knocked the wind out of me, I soured on horseback riding for the rest of my days. I fared better at swimming, and in fact, this was always my optional post-nap time activity.

I met a smart but amoral boy named Paul St. Paul, a moniker both inapposite and comical under the circumstances: there was nothing saintly about him. In fact, he went out of his way to be cocky, daring, and self-assertive. I had a crush on him. He was the exact opposite of the greybeard headmaster and his pale Galilean. In later years, I would look back at the friendship as somewhat akin to that of Jean Cocteau and his childhood idol, "Dargelos."

Paul and I soon found ourselves in a pickle. During one of the afternoon activity periods, we broke into a cabin used for storage only to find nothing inside but a pile of mattresses. We ended up peeing on them and, as luck would have it, getting caught.

We were duly punished by being sent to separate rooms, left alone for what seemed many hours, and lectured extensively about how what we had done was a sin and that God would punish us with eternal damnation. Oh, and they also planned to tell our parents. This was the only part I feared. I mean, my Dad was all in favor of sex, mind you, but he exemplified rather quaint attitudes toward certain sexual practices some of us take for granted, such as his observation concerning cunnilinctus: "If you'd suck the hole, you'll suck the pole." I kid you not.

Instinctively, I knew that any adult condemning so innocent, completely amoral a thing as taking a piss on saggy worn-out mattresses that in all likelihood would never see sheets again, was a hypocrite of the worst sort. To this day, I do not believe that anything consenting adults do with themselves sexually is not only nobody's business but their own but perfectly natural. The sexual minorities have equal rights with those who only screw in the missionary position, and only then to procreate more mouths to feed. Religion can go to hell if it says otherwise.

I think that by then I'd had all of Christeranity I wanted.


In the fall of 1965, I entered Texas Christian University as a freshman. I did not "choose" to go to a church subsidized institute of higher learning: it was the only university that would accept me. (I had lousy high school marks and a low entrance exam result.) To pass the first year's required subjects at the time, you had to have six hours of religion. I not only made high marks in these courses, I went on to take electives, and I owe to this my exposure at a relatively early age to Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. I made a high mark in "World Religions" as well.

It soon dawned on me that each religion has its very own god and that this is what really characterizes all religions; even Shintoism in effect deifies ancestors, and although Theravada emphasizes that Gautama was a perfected being, they do not pray to him or think him a deity. Arguably, the Mahayanists have gods, but they're only deities in a euhemerist sense; that is, the Boddhisattvas are really "saints": perfected people who chose to be reincarnated to help others on their paths.

It also dawned on me that the moral demands made upon persons by some religions are both unrealistic and unnecessary; that most "religious" people wouldn't know the founder of their faith if he appeared before them, and that few people practice what is preached. The Oriental religions appealed to me, however, for ontological and non-moral reasons. I thought, for example, that karma and reincarnation made more sense than the Judeo-Christer concept of "Heaven and Hell." Today, I admire most in Marlowe's play on Dr. Faustus the line, "But surely this is hell and I am in't."

The Buddhist concept of "error" also appeals to me, even today. The Christer concept of "sin" is so inherently hypocritical -- who is to decide? -- and so illogical in its concomitant, expiation, I've gotten to the point today when I can't understand why anyone would fall for it. I mean, let's say you've sinned. You confess and get salvation. What's to keep you from going out and doing the same thing or something worse? William S. Burroughs had it right: "When you're dealing with a Christian, get it in writing!"

It so happened that one of my dormatory classmates was the son of a preacher from my hometown, Richard S., who one day engaged me in a debate about "God." Already, I was a doubter, an agnostic, albeit a somewhat naive and unarmed one. I told the preacher's son I could not believe in anything not subject to proof by scientific method. He said, "You have to accept some things on faith."

"Faith?" I asked. "You can only have faith in yourself."

He came back with the argument that one might have faith in a lot of things. He avoided the example of having faith that the sun will come up in the east each morning, perhaps to avoid discussion of astrophysical phenomena, and instead pointed to the light switch on the wall next to the door to his room. "When you throw that switch, you have faith that the light will come on."

In my naivete, I was nonplussed. It never occurred to me that Richard, who was a year or two older, had made no argument at all for the existence of "God." Years later, reflecting on that conversation, I thought: Sure, you have faith that the light will come on, but you also know that it only comes on when electricity, a natural phenomenon, is produced by burning coal, a geophysical substance, to turn generators that produce the electricity, and that it is routed through power lines to electric companies, then to homes, schools, and so forth. During a power outage, "God" doesn't deprive one of electricity; some failure of the system does.

It also never -- at that age, and with limited education -- occurred to me that if Richard had countered with the observation that "God" caused the power failure because all eventualities are reducible to the whims of a deity who creates and destroys all things, the question nevertheless remains: who created "God"?

At T.C.U., only second year students were permitted to enroll in Philosophy 101. In retrospect, I now suspect the university wanted incoming students to undergo six hours of Bible study prior to taking a philosophy course: the truth, after all, shall make you free. Brainwashed in Christerism, one would be much less likely to be exposed to such dangerous ideas as those of Baruch Spinoza and Bertrand Russell. In any case, I duly approached the department head toward the eend orf my first freshman semester and obtained permission to take the course prematurely.

The cards were stacked, as the head of the small philosophy department was the brother of Swedish metaphysician Nels S. F. Ferre. In fact, metaphysics appeared to be the only area of philosophical inquiry and discourse that interested this clown -- and I do mean clown: his teaching method, which of course endeared him to some students, included such methodology as mounting his desk like a Hyde Park orator and going "Swoooooosh!" in a falsetto voice when declaiming some esoteric ephiphany.

He was a huge time-waster. Unable to actually "teach," he found some means of turning each lecture back to his favorite subject: metaphysics. As the semester neared a close, he began one morning's session with the candid observation that there was no way we would ever finish all the topics covered in the remaining chapters of our text, so we would have to skip over some of them in order to reach the "important part," which of course was -- guess what? If you said existentialism, you guessed wrong. That was one of the chapters he said we would skip.

Somewhat foolishly, Parzifal-like, I raised my hand and, when called upon, asked, "What about existentialism? Aren't we going to discuss that?"

"It's not that important," he answered.

Not important. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers, Unamuno, Buber, Ortega y Gasset, Marcel, Shestov, Camus, Berdayev, &c. -- the list goes on and on, the most important philosophers of the late 19th and 20th centuries: "unimportant." On my term papers, I disparaged metaphysics and argued what little I knew of existentialism and made a "C" in the course. (In Ferre's favor, I must also add that I didn't understand half of what I had read in the first place. Philosophers dive into the deep end of the pool.) Nevertheless, I managed to attain a high enough grade point average to get myself into graduate school at U.C.L.A.


Los Angeles in the 'Sixties was a "happening" place. It seemed as if everything important in the U.S. was occurring in L.A. or New York. I'm told that historians see time as cyclical to the extent that we wax and wane between periods of relative freedom and enlightenment and those of constriction and narrow-mindedness. L.A. in the 60's was the full flowering of the former. I studied film at U.C.L.A. for a couple of years, read scripts at studios for a couple, edited a monthly magazine for a couple, and freelanced as a writer and editor for about 11 years in all. I met everyone from Andy Warhol to Billy Wilder, with dozens of rock stars, movie people, and other artists and celebs thrown in.

My spiritual inclinations most of this time were what might best be described as "Vedantic," since Vedanta held a special place in my head (well, "heart") and I thought its ontology just as reasonable or more so than Christianity or the other main two monotheisms. The closest I got to debating religion with those I met was an exchange in an interview with Lou Reed (of Velvet Underground and solo fame), who informed me that he does not believe in evolution. As I admire Reed -- to put it mildly -- I shall do no more than agree to disagree.

But the most enlightened person I met during this period was the late composer, John Cage. I had not intended to interview Cage personally, as my depth of knowledge in musical lingo and things technical was minimal. I just know that I know what I like. (I am beginning to sound like Sarah Palin.) Cage was a composer of what is called aleatory music. He wrote a piano piece for pianist who sits quietly at the keyboard doing nothing while the audience supplies sniffles, snoring sounds, catcalls and the like, which to Cage was the "music."

A Buddhist to the end, Cage had to have had special regard for the Book of Changes, or I Ching. By manipulation of the yarrow sticks in a "yi" oracular working, one might find correspondences to other portals to wisdom, an idea that could easily be borrowed musically, letting the random hexagrams and trigrams trigger particular notes, clusters, &c. I asked a young music teacher to accompany me to ask most of the questions, but I found Cage more interested in mine, and at one point the discussion went:

Me: What are you working on now?
Cage: It's..... (gives title and description of the work in progress)
Me: By telling us its title and so forth, aren't you worried some other composer will steal the idea?
Cage: Good, then I won't have to write it.

It was the most perfectly Buddhistic statement I ever heard: pure zen. It profoundly impressed me. The egolessnes of it is something some people see in Obama. In Cage, I felt I had met an amazing man. We put him on the cover of Coast, the magazine I edited, perhaps the time in his life that John Cage graced the cover of an American monthly general interest magazine.

At that time, I had little understanding of Buddhism and only knew the silliness one hears from some Christers to the effect that its only reward is "nirvana" without the slightest inkling of what nirvana "is." It, nirvana, certainly is not fact (if you do not believe it, read the Heart sutra at:

Buddhist ontology, too, depends on speculation and metaphysics, especially apparent in later Mahayana, with its implications of sainthood and other accoutrements alien to Hinayana and more in common with organized, indeed Western, religious practice outside the monasteries. (Unlike Sunnis and Shias, these two Buddhist strains get along just fine. Nevetheless, there would appear to be prejudice in the division of a religion into "Greater" and "Lesser" Vehicles.)

((To continue.))

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