Sunday, December 28, 2008

Escaping The Overseer (How I learned to doubt) originally published 7/28/08

I am neither a scientist nor a theologian. I have no doctorate in anything. I am no different than millions of other Black men in America. I was once a Christian. I once bowed and scraped and prayed as I had been taught by my parents and grandparents as they had been taught by their parents and grandparents who had been taught by their ancestors who had been taught by their slavemasters.

I accepted Christian dogma and mythology without question as I had been conditioned to do. I accepted both the authority of the church and the efficacy of prayers with the blind trust and faith of all young children. I felt it no more possible to question the existence of God than that of the sun or the moon. I internalized guilt as I had been taught to do and worried incessantly about which of the many sins I had already committed and were still likely to commit in the future would be the one that would ultimately damn me to eternal torment. No matter how wretched my living conditions or those of the other Black people around me, no matter the sting of racism nor the burning shame of poverty, no matter how many times I was robbed or beaten or teased or bullied, no matter how many prayers went unanswered, I never questioned God’s goodness or his wisdom or his love. I never questioned that all was in accordance with his plan. I was seventeen before the illusion finally shattered.

There is an old cliche' that everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. I was perhaps the exception to that rule. I was anxious to die and go to heaven and the wait was killing me. I didn't understand what the purpose of life was. Why did I have to suffer here on earth if God ultimately wanted everyone to join him in heaven? Why couldn't I just kill myself and go join him? I began studying the bible trying to find a loophole that would allow me to kill myself without going to hell. I read the bible over and over again with a critical eye, rejecting everything everyone had told me about it, determined to find the answers myself by going in with a completely open mind, free of all preconceived ideas. This was relatively easy because I had never found it easy to rectify the reality of the streets with what my parents and pastor had told me about the bible. It had never made sense to me, so I had always formed my own opinions about it but I had been doing it from a point of total ignorance, never having read the bible before. When I finally did sit down to read it, what I found horrified me. But more of that later.

I grew up struggling for the meager commodities of happiness available to me on the streets of Philadelphia at a time when designer jeans were a mandatory fashion accessory, when expensive sneakers and sunglasses first became symbols of social status and excessive amounts of gold jewelry the measure of a Black man’s worth, which is to say, at one of the most materialistic times in American History. Crack cocaine was the currency of the street and it was worth more than human life.

I could not afford designer clothes or sneakers or a neck full of gold necklaces. It was against my morals to use or sell drugs. Even amongst other poor people this made me an outcast and often an object of pity and disgust. My sense of humor was my saving grace and the one thing that allowed me to eventually overcome my social obstacles. Still, poverty was not my only handicap.

Prince, Michael Jackson, Ray Parker Junior, sallow-skinned androgynous mega-stars whose racial composition was as ambiguous as their sexual preferences were the standards of beauty for African American males at that time. I was neither light complexioned nor androgynous. By ‘80s pop-cultural standards, I was ugly. Too black. Too strong. This, along with my conspicuous poverty was enough fuel to feed years of ridicule, scorn, and abuse from other young kids. Every day I was teased and bullied and picked on. Every day I fought either in the streets or in the schoolyard and sometimes both and every night I wept, praying to God to make it all better and though Jesus had said “All that you ask for in my name shall be granted.” My prayers went unanswered and my suffering unabated.

Like most young kids I began to speculate on my condition and the condition of the other Black people around me, trying to rectify it with my faith in god. Having not read the bible yet, I began to form my own opinions about why there was so much suffering among my people. I speculated that perhaps I had been some horrible person in a past life for which I was now being punished in this one. Obviously, I was unaware that Christianity had no belief in any sort of reincarnation. I further speculated that perhaps all Black people were reincarnated sinners.

I wondered if perhaps earth was really hell and we were all suffering in eternal torment for sins we had committed while alive and just did not know it. I listened to preachers talk about freewill and accepted that God was perhaps powerless to predict what people would do even though at that young age I already found most human beings to be fairly predictable. I accepted that perhaps God was just not as smart as I was or perhaps, with so many different people to keep track of, it was too difficult for him to predict what all 6 billion of them would do. I accepted this despite what the preacher in the church had said about God being all-powerful and all-knowing.

As I grew older, I began to think that perhaps God was like a scientist and we were all just an experiment in a lab somewhere and that God was just out there watching it, amused by it but not particularly interested in the individual lives of his creations, merely fascinated by it all the way we would be fascinated by an ant farm or bacteria growing in a petrie dish. I even began to suspect that God had been there at the very beginning of the universe to set the ball in motion and then had left to pursue other, more interesting things and perhaps had not thought about us since. Perhaps the entire universe was sitting on a dusty old shelf in his closet like the toys I had long ago grown tired of playing with or perhaps tucked away in his closet. I wondered if perhaps God had simply forgotten about us or grown bored with us or perhaps this was a toy that he didn’t even like and wished he had never made, after all, he had tried to destroy it once with a great flood. Perhaps he had died after creating the universe. In a sense, I had never really been a Christian. I had always been more of a Deist, believing in God as more of a first cause and nothing more.

I learned fairly early on that a God who answered your prayers was pretty much a fairytale right up there with Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. I think I had stopped believing in a God that intervened on man's behalf even before I had stopped believing in Santa Clause. I had more empirical evidence for the existence of Santa than for Christ. At least Santa did leave presents and drink the milk and cookies I left for him. Jesus had done nothing to make his presence known unless you count a nightmare I once had in which the rosary that hung on my mirror turned into a vampire bat.

Everyone I knew prayed to Jesus Christ and none of them were doing any better than I was. When I was twelve or thirteen and there was a rapist terrorizing our neighborhood, I was pretty sure that all the women he had raped prayed too. But God hadn’t intervened to strike down their rapist before he could attack any of them. My friend Ed had a mother who was a drug addict who had a string of abusive boyfriends who often abused him as well. I was fairly certain that he prayed to god every night to help his mother but still black-eyes and fat lips were fairly common sights on both of them.

So, the possibility of us living in hell or having been reincarnated into these horrific lives to pay for the sins of a previous life, or God having died or forgotten about us all, made infinitely more sense to me than the things the preacher was saying about God. I could not, even then, force myself to believe in a being who was all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving and all-good, who still allowed my people to go hungry and homeless, die of diseases and addictions, get murdered in the streets, enslaved and then oppressed, robbed and beaten, denied adequate education, adequate healthcare, adequate housing, equal job opportunities, and equal treatment before the law.

It made more sense than the idea that God has the power to change all of this but doesn’t because that’s just not part of his plan. His plan was for me to have to fight much older and bigger kids every other day and sometimes three or four at a time? His plan was for me to get robbed at knife point twice by age twelve? His plan was for me to watch my mother get beaten every night by her boyfriend when I was only five-years old and too young to defend her? His plan had been for my father to abandon the family when I was born because he was too lazy to get a job and for my mother to have to do it all on her own? His plan was for me to have to hear my mother cry every night because the bills were piling up and she wasn’t sure she could make it? It was much easier to think that God had just died or forgotten about us completely than that he was up there controlling all of this and the oppression, rape, murder, and enslavement of Black people for the last 400 years and my own suffering was somehow part of his plan.

I was enraged at the preacher's suggestion that God would put the Black man through such torture merely to test the depths of our love. If God is all knowing then why would he need to test anyone? He would already know who would pass and who would fail. It seemed cruel, capricious, self-centered, egotistical. This God that everyone loved so much seemed to possess some of the most reprehensible human qualities. I began to question every notion I’d ever had about God. I began to wonder if God really loved us after all.

I couldn’t understand why we gave thanks to the overseer that kept us enslaved. Why we thanked him for the strength to endure the whip. I thought about all the times I’d heard my Grandma say how blessed we were to have food on the table and wondered if we were then damned on the many nights when we went hungry. I wondered if we were blessed on the nights we laid awake listening to the big sewer rats rumbling through the cracked and water-stained walls and ceilings, afraid to let our hands or feet dangle off the side of the bed at night for fear that one of them might gnaw off a finger or toe while we slept. Afraid the entire ceiling might come crashing down on top of us from where the floor joists had warped and rotted from the leaky toilet above that was constantly overflowing. I wondered if we were blessed when we couldn’t find a single piece of food in the cupboard that wasn’t infested with roaches. I wondered if I was blessed all those times I was teased for wearing hand-me-down clothes that barely fit. It made no sense that we would praise God when things went well or when we merely survived when things went bad but not condemn him for the many evils of the world. Why would we thank God for giving us the strength to survive horrible atrocities we should have never been asked to endure? It seemed ridiculous, meek and cowardly and reminded me of the happy slave mentality of house niggers. I was shamed and embarrassed by it.

These were my thoughts as I grew up on the streets of Philadelphia trying to make sense of my life. This was the climate under which my own understanding of man’s place in the universe was being formed. I was eight years old when I realized one evening, as I lay crying myself to sleep, that I could not remember a single day that had not ended in tears. That evening I decided to keep track of how many good days I had each year and by good days I meant simply one in which no one purposely set out to hurt my feelings. It would take another six years before I would have my first good day.

By age ten (two years without a single good day) I resolved to murder myself if life ever grew too painful to bear. Knowing that I could end it at anytime and go to heaven was the one thing that made life tolerable. I sat up nights trying to decide how best to terminate my existence when the day inevitably came that it no longer made sense to live. Then one night, I was watching a late night movie on TV, an old black and white flick from the forties or fifties. The movie was about a man who had reached the end of his rope and was contemplating suicide. He was standing on the rooftop of some old tenement building when an angel came to him. The angel tried to convince him not to end it all, first by telling him that suicide was an unforgivable sin for which he would burn in hell. I still remember how I shot upright in my bed, astonished by what I’d heard. Burn in hell for committing suicide? That couldn’t be possible. I suddenly felt trapped. I felt as if I had no way out. I looked around the ghetto and saw it finally for what it was, a dungeon, a torture chamber from which there was no escape, not even death.

This was what first drove me to pick up the bible and read it. I was just searching for a loophole. I read about God creating the earth and the universe and all the animals and finally man in some six days after I’d already read about dinosaurs that had existed hundreds of thousands of years before the first man. I read about how God called his creation good and then later flooded the entire thing in a fit of rage after deciding that it wasn’t as good as he had first thought. God’s startling idiocy in putting Adam and Eve in proximity to the forbidden and then his childish tantrum when the curiosity he’d imbued them with quite predictably led them to eat of the forbidden fruit. I read about how he then capriciously condemned generations of man for what was quite clearly his own error. I read passages in which the bible condoned the enslavement of strangers and their children and even the brutal beating and murdering of those slaves so long as they did not die immediately of their injuries. I read about God’s hatred of homosexuals, the subjugation, dehumanization, and humiliation of women, the beating and murdering of children by their parents, all gleefully condoned in the bible. My mind reeled. This was not the God of love and mercy I had been told about in church. This was a childish, insecure, unstable, mentally defective monster! Is this the God my people had so foolishly worshipped since their enslavement? Still, I found nothing that would have allowed me to escape hell were I to flee this world which was so clearly flawed and imperfect yet had been supposedly created by a perfect deity.

In desperation, I turned to the New Testament. God may have been a lunatic but Jesus had at least come to save us from his insanity. Yet at every turn I read of Jesus condoning his father’s behavior and exalting and holding him up as an icon of peace and virtue. I could understand a son’s love for his father, but even at that young age I could distinguish the failings in my own mother and the man who I’d once thought to be my father and no matter how much I loved them I knew when they were full of shit. Yet apparently Jesus was little more than an apologist for a father who was clearly self-centered and abusive even to the point of demanding the life of his own child, watching as Jesus was tortured and murdered in order for him to change his mind about sending all of us to hell for our sins. This didn’t jive at all with what I’d been told up to that point. If Jesus was God, as my pastor had told us all then what was the crucifixion all about? God sacrificed himself to himself in order to convince himself to change his mind about sending all of us sinners to hell thereby saving us from him? It made no sense. Then, there were the many false promises and outright lies. To me, only an asshole would offer hope to a suffering people and then fail to deliver.

Mathew 7:7 “Ask, and it will be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock. and it shall be opened unto you.

Mathew 7:8 For everyone who asketh receiveth; he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.

Mathew 7:9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?

Mathew 7:10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?

Mathew 7:11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?”

It floored me, because I had been asking for bread for as long as I could recall and had usually received stones and serpents. As I looked around at my people I saw that most of them had likewise learned to subsist on stones from heaven.

As I grew older and read more and more of the bible, my perspective on God and race began to change, seriously eroding my belief. I saw Black preachers driving brand new Cadillacs while their congregations walked, car-pooled, or arrived on public transportation. I heard them echo Jesus’ words about praying for relief and receiving it when every day I saw even the most devout Christians crushed beneath the weight of racism and poverty. I began to wonder if we were all cursed by God. I wondered what type of God would allow the horrors I saw everyday perpetrated against my people. What had we done? And what type of God would hold an entire race accountable for the actions of a few? What type of God would damn an entire race for the sins of generations long past? None of it made sense.


I began to read the bible more and more critically, shocked and appalled by what I was uncovering about our supposed savior. I tried to forget about all the things people had always told me about God and read it with a completely open mind. I wanted to see what the Bible was really saying and not what others said it was saying. Every word I read shook my faith further. Worst of all was the bible’s condoning of the institution of slavery.

“…And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. Genesis 25:23”

I thought of all those white power groups that used the bible to justify their prejudice and was shocked to find that again and again the bible does just that. It blatantly stated that Christians should make slaves of the heathen races. It was absurd to me that black people, who had suffered these fates, should worship the God that engineered it all. I could not help but to lose some respect for my own race. It was like they were all blind.

Despite all the begging and praying black folks did and all the millions of dollars they dumped into collection plates, God seemed to avoid the ghetto like the plague. Children got killed every day, and every day the pious were drained of wealth yet none of that ever seemed to shake their faith one iota and not once did I see any of them rewarded with a single oxen let alone a thousand the way Job had been. No sheep. No camel. Nothing. Yet still they believed. It was like God had better things to do than to fuck around in the ghetto with a bunch of poor helpless niggers. He was too busy smiling and tap dancing for the white folks who lived in the nice clean neighborhoods with white picket fences and brand new BMWs. In my mind, God took on the persona of every other criminal and con-man in the ghetto getting fat off the desperate hope and naivety of the under-class.

The story of Job haunted me more than any other. I kept hearing Job’s impossible declaration: “…Though he slayed me yet will I trust him.” How? Why? Why would God persecute someone who loved him so dearly just to prove to Satan how much he loved him? How could he merely replace all the wealth and children he destroyed with twice what he had before and think it excused the senseless suffering he needlessly allowed Job to endure? It seemed so cruel and insensitive to me to kill someone’s children and then say, “Oh, don’t trip. I’ll make sure you have twice as many kids to replace those.” I wondered if that’s what God thought when he saw little black kids gunned down in the street? But when Black kids were murdered, when our wealth and our health was blown away by the wind, despite our refusal to curse his name, we didn’t get so much as forty acres and a mule.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I cried myself to sleep wondering what we had done to make God hate us so?

I envisioned God as one of those white business men looking down on the ghetto from one of those towering office buildings downtown, aloof and immune, wondering how he can suck more profit from our misery. In my young mind, God was white and powerful and he hated us just like I believed all white folks did. I later learned that not all White people were prejudice and out to keep the Black man down. I wasn't so sure about God.

My Mom started dating this Muslim brother that tried to tell me that God was Black. I laughed in his face at first but he persisted. He said that we were all God’s chosen people descended from the tribe of Shabazz. He was trying to make me feel better, I know. But all he did was piss me off even more. If God was black than why the hell wasn’t he doing anything to help Black people?

I thought about all the bourgie Blacks I knew: the doctors, lawyers,
businessmen, and politicians, who talked a good game to gain black support and achieve their positions and then promptly turned their backs on us once they achieved their desired status. They would put as much distance as they could between themselves and the people who helped to make them what they were. I thought of all the big-time players and pimps, the hustlers and gangstas who leeched off the black community and exploited their own brothers and sisters worst than any white man ever had. If God was Black then he was just another bourgie nigga who got large and forgot where he came from. Somehow the idea of a sell-out, house-nigga god, was worse than the idea of a racist white one.

I was eighteen years old before I finally accepted that the God I had heard about all of my life had in fact been as much of a myth as Santa Clause. What did it for me was the simple realization that I had no actual reasons, evidence or arguments to support my belief. I had believed simply because my mother had believed and her mother before her and her mother before her and everyone else that I knew believed. It seemed then the most ridiculous reason to believe in anything. I was ashamed of myself and embarrassed by my faith. I felt like a fool. So I decided to start over.
I decided to abandon every belief I had held up to that point that I had never questioned. Every belief that I had accepted solely on the authority of my parents, grandparents, and church leaders, every idea that I had accepted because of the overwhelming popularity of it and the pressure to believe placed on me by my peers. I examined every moral claim from murder to thievery to incest. I examined every scientific claim and every religious claim and while most of my moral views remained intact. I found that I could not find a single justification for any of the religious beliefs I had held all of my life. I realized that I had asked more questions and been more skeptical buying my last BMX bike then I had when I adopted Christianity, when I took on an entire way of life. True, like most religious adherents, I had only been a child when I had been indoctrinated into the Christian faith and had lacked the cognitive resources to question what I was being told and resist the efforts of my family and friends to convince me of their beliefs, but it still embarrassed me that I had held these beliefs so fervently and for so long. I had once told my best friend that his mother was going to hell because she did not believe in Christ. I had condemned and ridiculed homosexuals because the bible had called men who lay with men as with women abominations. I was ashamed of myself.
For all the freedom I felt being rid of such an oppressive ideology, I also felt a great sense of loss. I went through a period of great existential malaise. In my mind, if God did not exist then life was completely without meaning and thus all of my suffering and all the suffering of my people, unjustified. I sank into a deep depression. I began to read anything I could find about the meaning of life. I read everything from the Greek philosophers to the Existentialists. I picked up book after book trying to find something with which to replace my lost faith in the Christian god. I found a lot of very strong arguments against the existence of God in the writings of Bertrand Russell, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Arthur Schopenhauer, and even Voltaire and Thomas Paine. None of them went quite far enough for me though and I was always left with questions the author had either not anticipated, did not have answers for or often appeared to not have the courage to ask himself. So, I began answering these question on my own. Recently, my quest for answers has been aided by modern day atheist thinkers such as Daniel Dennet, Victor J. Stenger, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris who have had the courage to take on religious thinking head-on without apology and without shying away from unpleasant or unpopular conclusions. Their books have reinforced many of the conclusions I had already reached on my own and sparked even more questions, particularly in regards to the arguments against Intelligent Design. Now, my goal is to bring the things I have learned to others and help them to answer the questions I have found answers to and to enlist their aid in finding solutions to the mysteries that still remain unsolved. My goal is to be that Underground Railroad my people so desperately need. To help them to finally escape the great overseer in their minds as I have.

5 comments:

  1. Great post. Im curious, are you still a deist or are you an atheist now?

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  2. What a wonderfully enlightening and emotional story! Keep up the work of being active in your community.

    "My goal is to be that Underground Railroad my people so desperately need."

    We need people like you more than ever.

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  3. A brilliant post, powerful, eloquent and moving. Keep them coming. Like the previous poster said, they're more needed than ever- by everybody.

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  4. An excellent post. Chalk up another atheist to the bible. No wonder the preachers pass out tracts these days.

    Inspiring story. More of the downtrodden, whether by race, poverty, or religion who rely on God should read it.

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  5. I am so glad that you saw that old movie where the angel said suicide will send you to hell. As a Black atheist myself I feel we need people like you and I'm happy you are still here. I was born in Phila but raised in South Jersey. I did live in Phila with an Aunt for year back in the late 60s. I remember the gangs were really bad back then. Every block had a gang. I was about 12 or 13 then. Anyway keep up the good work. ~eddie

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