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Those Who Influenced My Thinking

Though The Decision Was Of Course My Own

Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2015.02.10, Updated 2016.01.14



Intro


When I first set out to write about my journey from religion to reason, I did not initially intend to list those who had influenced my views. When I first considered listing influences, my first instinct was to say there had been none — and this was an honest mistake. Like most people, I prefer to believe I make every decision independently and come to my viewpoints rationally, but in my most honest moments, I know this is not the case.

While much of my journey did occur when I was alone with my thoughts, there is no question that I was helped along the way by several factors, some of them people.


Science Fiction


Perhaps the first was science fiction. I don’t refer to today’s fairy-and-magic “sci-fi”, but to the older books that I was reading at the time, primarily by Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

Heinlein was raised Methodist and claimed that as late as 1954, but was otherwise private about his own religion. In his books, though, his characters often had strong opinions. Here are some of them, from several different books:
“History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.”

“Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other sins are invented nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not sinful — just stupid.)”

“Theology is never any help; it is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there.”

“Faith strikes me as intellectual laziness.”

“I've never understood how God could expect His creatures to pick the one true religion by faith — it strikes me as a sloppy way to run a universe.”

Asimov, on the other hand, was a scientist first, an atheist second, and a science fiction writer only because it was easy for him. He was very open about his atheism, and I remember reading in shock a foreword he wrote in someone else’s book, which overtly preached evolution, a universe without God, and anti-religion. I don’t have access to that exact text, but here are some of Asimov’s quotes:

“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

“[Creationists] make it sound as though a ‘theory’ is something you dreamt up after being drunk all night.”

“I prefer rationalism to atheism. The question of God and other objects-of-faith are outside reason and play no part in rationalism, thus you don't have to waste your time in either attacking or defending.”

“If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul. I would also want a God who would not allow a Hell. Infinite torture can only be a punishment for infinite evil, and I don’t believe that infinite evil can be said to exist even in the case of Hitler. Besides, if most human governments are civilized enough to try to eliminate torture and outlaw cruel and unusual punishments, can we expect anything less of an all-merciful God? I feel that if there were an afterlife, punishment for evil would be reasonable and of a fixed term. And I feel that the longest and worst punishment should be reserved for those who slandered God by inventing Hell.”

“I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.”

At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to this. I was concerned with the worlds of the future that their stories described, the human interactions, and — like many young fans of sci-fi — the really cool gadgets: rocket ships, space stations, futuristic weapons, and so on. But it had to have affected me on some level. The stories often portrayed atheists as learned, scientific, and unencumbered by superstition. When a religious character appeared, which wasn’t often, they tended to be malicious, especially Heinlein’s character Nehemiah Scudder who appeared in several stories. Or they were mere dupes of the Scudder types — sincere enough people who followed the creed that their leaders handed down.

At the time I was reading these stories, my ideological tendencies were actually becoming more solidly fundamentalist Christian. But I remained interested in science, math, cosmology, and so on, and therefore continued to read science fiction. There can be no question that the thoughts introduced by these writers rolled around in my brain for years, eventually coming to light.


Greg U. — ‘The Great Atheist’


Greg (last name withheld), a classmate of mine in high school in the late 1980s and the first half of 1990, was mentioned in my high school journal only as part of a list of people I talked to during the school day. A year after high school, I recorded his name once more, describing him as the “great atheist” (the quote marks are in my journal). He was only mentioned because he was dating someone on whom I had a small crush.

But in my memory, he was the first avowed atheist with whom I came in contact. I remember discussing various proofs of God’s existence with him. He was the first person in my life who wasn’t just a lackadaisical Christian that needed a little nudging, but an actual non-believer. Though I didn’t think much of it at the time, this had to have affected me as well, since for the first time I was considering actual “proofs” about deity, and how a logical person who didn’t previously believe couldn’t possibly be swayed by them.

I knew him from 1984 through 1990 or so; we were often in the same classes but never became close friends.


Matt W. L.


Matt (last name withheld) was my friend the last two years of high school. He was a self-described ex-Christian agnostic. His father had been a Methodist minister before becoming an abusive alcoholic. Matt and I were friends because of shared interests — music, silliness, philosophy. We talked much about religion, but rarely in a personal sense. Late in his junior year, he came to me and wanted to talk specifically about being “born again” and later said he had gone through with it.

His influence on me came during our Study Hall, when he and I — and another student named Dallas — invented a religion, purely by accident. We weren’t allowed to talk during Study Hall, but we passed notes. It began with a discussion of fast-food service and how to get a fresh burger. Before we knew it, we were deep into creating a new theology, in which a Pickle was the primary deity, the Avocado was the enemy — but also Father and Mother of the Pickle.

We began using phrases like “Praise the Pickle” around school, enough that other people would ask us about it, and we would pass along the Good News. Within a week, more than a dozen of our school chums were using Pickle-derived phrases and suggesting new tidbits to add to our growing scriptures.

The point isn’t how silly it was (very), but that it happened organically and without really even thinking about it. In later years, when someone would suggest that Christianity was — like all other religions — invented, I almost always thought back to The Great Pickle and how it could easily have grown into a viable religion had we actually pursued it.

(Perhaps fortunately, the texts we wrote regarding the Pickle do not survive to this day. I know I had them at some point during my adulthood, but cannot find them now.)


Ms. M. — Senior English Teacher


Ms. M. (first name unknown, surname withheld) was the first authority figure I ever knew who professed to be an atheist. At the time, I made it my mission to get under her skin, and made sure many of my assignments had a religious flair to them, including my research paper “Is There Really An Afterlife?”, a fictional short story “The Fourth Man”, and my poem The Evolutionists — I was careful to fit each one within the given parameters of the assignment and Mrs. M was careful to grade me fairly.

Had she been the epitome of the godless heathen that my Bible had warned me all atheists must be, I likely would not have been surprised, or given it much thought. Instead, she was a normal enough adult who was competent in her job, fair, polite, and had a better sense of humor than many of our teachers.

It was this — her normality, her complete lack of depravity — that stuck with me over the years. My research paper about the afterlife, which I remember being so proud of, did not stick with me. I have manuscripts for everything else I wrote in that class, but not that one.


Dr. D.O.


Dr. D.O. (name withheld) was one of my professors at Bible college, and later became director of a Ph.D. program for “Biblical Interpretation and Theology” at a theological seminary. Incidentally, he’s also one of many translators for two English versions of the Bible. He is a highly educated and thoroughly religious Christian man.

It was he who challenged my fundamentalist, literalist belief that Noah’s Ark could indeed fit all of the animals necessary. I still remember the daring expression on his face as he asserted that perhaps I should research the math myself instead of depending on the “study” I had cited.


Movies


Until 1995 or so, movies could not have been much of an influence on my thinking, because I rarely watched movies until after Bible college. Once I left, I bought my first VHS player and began renting and watching movies regularly, both old and new. In later retrospect, I realized that some of them must have influenced me.

One film that did influence me as a child was Star Wars (specifically, Episode 4). All the talk about good and evil, balance, “the Force”, and other mystical lines were decried at my church as a bad influence on children. At the time, I couldn’t understand what they were so worried about — it was a fictional movie. Years later, I recalled that friends and I had tested to see if the Force was real. We would set a toy on the kitchen table, concentrate on it, and see if we could move it — like the Jedi characters in the movies could do. Of course, it never worked. Perhaps this is what the preachers at my church were worried about, that we children would eventually make the connection that religion is fictional too, and could be tested for veracity.

Movies that could have influenced me later include From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) — there’s a scene in a diner early in the film in which Kate (Juliette Lewis) asks her father Jacob (Harvey Keitel), a former pastor, “Don’t you believe in god anymore?”, and he answers, “Not enough to be a pastor.” Of course, when I saw this film, I was only one year removed from studying to be a pastor, and had given up, so the line hit me hard. Then, a few lines later, Jacob adds: “Yes, I do believe in Jesus. Yes, I do believe in God. But do I love them? No.” That so closely reflected my own thoughts at the time that it was comforting somehow, perhaps because I felt slightly less lonely knowing that someone else (if only the script writer) had thought similarly to me.

Another one would be Dogma (1999). Despite some of the main characters being angels, and even God (Alanis Morrisette), the movie itself was decidedly anti-religion. At the time, it was shocking for me. But it was funny at the same time, which made it easier to accept. There was a scene where an angel claims to be an atheist and convinces a nun to leave her work. There are two angels complaining that God isn’t fair for kicking them out of heaven (for an act of mercy on their part), and trying to get back in. It pointed out that rules of sin change over the centuries (“How can you even be sure what incurs the Lord’s wrath these days? Times change. I remember when eating meat on a Friday was supposed to be a Hell-worthy trespass.”) They were talking about things that I wanted to think about but had been afraid to approach.



The Internet


Like anyone my age, the advent of adulthood coincided with the internet becoming commonplace and accessible to most. And because I was never extremely comfortable in social situations, it was natural that I would develop online friendships in place of in-person social circles. Like many people, I felt more comfortable expressing certain opinions online than I did in person. And of course, this gave me access to friends I would not have met in person, partly because of where I lived — the Bible Belt. Yes, there are atheists and thinkers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, etc., but they’re often not very vocal about it. Online, you can cast your net more widely.

So in my early days on the internet, I ran into a number of non-Christians, including Wiccans, agnostics, and atheists, not to mention Muslims and adherents of other religions. The comfort and familiarity that characterized these interactions was eye-opening. Further, the sheer number of these people was heartening as I continued to question my own beliefs.


Richard Barron


I hesitate to list Richard here, because by the time I met him and learned he was an atheist, I was already most of the way through my journey. Perhaps it would not be correct to list him as an “influence” on my actual beliefs, but his openness and thoughtfulness were certainly an encouragement to me when I began thinking about writing these pages.


This is the updated version of this page. To see the original version, click here. Known edits are listed below.


Edit, 2015.03.17: Added The Internet section.

Edit, 2016.01.14: Added link to original version of this page. Added internal anchors to each section, including this edits section. Added internal links to the More menu. Modernized the html code (not visible to readers). Reworded intro to reflect that I actually did think at first there had been no influences. Added a final sentence to the science fiction section. Reworded first sentence of Dr. D.O. section, to remove the “currently” part that would have to be regularly updated. Added the word “literalist”. Added Movies section.




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