I Came to Atheism by Accident, and I Decided to Stay
I CAME TO ATHEISM BY ACCIDENT, AND I DECIDED TO STAY
By Rook Hawkins
Looking back from where I am at now, my life has always been one of luck. I am one of only three brothers to survive past one year of age, I have the most caring and understanding—if not down right supportive—family a guy could ever hope for, and I’ve really never been denied anything I’ve sought after save perhaps a full career serving my country which is something I think I’ll never get over. My parents did divorce when I was four years old, and even among the normal bickering that parents do when they think they know what is best for their child, I never really felt like I was in a bad place, even if my childhood was something other then what would be considered ‘normal.’
I ended up living with my mom until I was a teenager, and since she was working three jobs to support us at the time, I ended up being alone after school until late at night. Even still, those were some of the most educational times of my life. For example, I learned when I was seven that baby-powder was fun to turn upside down and shake all over the house; it made white smoke and was great for when I wanted to play war with my action figures. This was the way of things until the time I stood at the top of the stairs, looking over a half-wall section in which you could seed the first floor, and dumping an entire container of baby-powder onto the carpet just to see the effects of the powder as it fell through the air. I also learned that cleaning up the mess before my mom got home from work was not something I enjoyed doing and that effectively ended my baby-powder escapades.
I want to say that I was brought up in a religious household, but really I wasn’t. Perhaps I would best qualify my mom as spiritual, even a little New Age. She never vocally expressed her beliefs about religion until I was much older, but I recall going to church practically every Sunday growing up. My dad, who I’ve affectionately called ‘Pop’ for as long as I can remember, was a deist for quite some time, and always lived his life very practically and I witnessed a lot of this when I moved in with him when I turned thirteen. He always told me that the world was full of limitless possibilities, and I’ll never forget the lectures when I was in my early teens, “You know, son, you have the world by the horns. Decisions you make now will affect the rest of your life.” Perhaps it was precarious youth, because I hardly ever took what he said seriously. Or perhaps I thought I did, but misunderstood what he meant to the extent that I made a lot of pretty bad decisions.
One good decision I made was attending Valley Forge Military Academy when I turned fourteen. The first week I was there I didn’t think it was such a good idea, and kicked myself for what I thought would be the worst few years of my life. In the end, I’ll never be able to repay that school for what it taught me about myself, and I’ll never forget the many friends—brothers—that stuck by me through some tough challenges. But another thing VFMA did for me was establish the groundwork for my faith that I carried with me the whole time I was there. It also helped that the best way to get out of afternoon drill and Physical Training was to attend church classes on your particular faith twice a week, and it was great. In fact, it seemed that theology was the only course I really excelled at there, as I was routinely ignoring my other classes with perhaps the exception of science and history—two of my favorite courses. Because of my poor grades in other classes, I was generally ‘grounded’ on campus, which meant my parents didn’t really make the trip up every weekend, leaving me time to continue my studies. Even still I never really felt my questions concerning the Bible were answered effectively enough by the chaplain’s at school. Instead, I found more answers in the library, which was quite extensive at VFMA.
After a year there I decided that it was time for me to leave, and although I had my doubts as to my decision, it turned out for the best as I attended a Catholic High School the next school year. Finally, I thought I might be able to gain more answers, more perspectives. In fact, I asked Pop if we could start attending mass regularly on Sundays which of course he supported even though he never agreed, a fact I would find out much later. I even attended morning masses at my Catholic School, and it helped that my mom lived right across the street from it. So getting up at the crack of dawn and walking to school in the morning was pretty simple for me, and I especially loved helping the nuns and priests set up the alter and the liturgical books that they would read the verses from. One thing most people don’t know is that the Catholic Church doesn’t read from the Bible at the pulpit, instead they have a book with all 365 days of the year, and each day has three verses; one from the Old Testament, one from the epistles and one from the Gospels. So each day had specific verses picked out already, in advance, which meant that you never actually got the Bible in sequence, and only the good parts or the parts that went with a specific theme. Even still that never bothered me.
It was also around this time I felt what I saw at the time to be a calling of God. I can recall the event easily. I generally stayed after school because I was a snare drummer in the Marching Band and so I hung out with all of my friends and my girlfriend at the time, there was never a rush to get home for me and it was easy to wait and wander the halls for the four hours after until practice started. I was walking past my locker, which stood right outside my homeroom, next to a bulletin board which had never been changed as long as I had been there. I had probably walked by the thing over 500 times since the beginning of the school year, but never really stopped to look at it, but that day I did. It was odd because a ray of sunlight from a window at the end of the hall, a mere 10 feet away, illuminated a specific area of the bulletin board, and as if God were pointing his finger at it, and as I saw what the light shined upon my jaw dropped. There it was, clear as day; a recruiting poster for the diocese. The poster was simple yet very direct, as it was just an image of a clerical collared shirt with the notorious white collar of the priesthood, and in white letters it asked, “Do You Have What it Takes?”
Of course, it wasn’t my thing at the time to pass up a call from God. At this point in my studies I was reading the book of 1 Samuel, so my response in my mind was that this was indeed something I needed to follow. Here I am, Lord! Your servant is listening! I remember it very clearly, and the feeling of calm that came over me when I felt I had found my purpose. Ironically enough the very next thought that crept into my mind was, “What the hell am I going to tell my girlfriend?” So, I decided to keep the ‘calling’ to myself for a while until I found a way to approach my family about it, which I did eventually do, and I told Michelle and all my friends my intentions. Michelle understood, if for any other reason than because I think deep down, if the Catholic Church had let women into the priesthood, she would have signed up for Seminary too. My other friends thought I was crazy, and I shrugged off the comments. In my mind I was doing the work of the Lord, and I was more then comforted in that fact.
For the next year I was the librarian’s worst nightmare. Every day I was after school before band practice in the library reading whatever early church father I could get my hand on. I definitely had more overdue book fees then anybody else in the whole school, which I think out of respect for my thirst for knowledge the librarians ignored and generally let me take the books out knowing full well I’d return them, even if they were late. Additionally, and this is something I’ve come to notice, most Catholics at my school had no interest in reading anything outside of their required curriculum. That included the Bible, something I never understood. (It’s your faith and eternal salvation; you should want to understand it, right?) So there was never a high demand for Augustine’s confessions, even if I returned them a week later nobody seemed to care.
Of course my studying didn’t stop there. One of the diocese priests who always happened to act like a former hippie saw me a few times in the library and used to sit down with me and we had some great discussions. I truly believe the guy got his calling when he was in a euphoric state of some kind, tripping on some kind of drug. His name: Father Lamb. I kid you not. (I also had a theology teacher whose last name was Christ—pronounced differently—who sometimes grew out his beard and mustache.) Father Lamb was a very down-to-earth sort of priest and we had a similar background growing up, so we had tons of things to talk about. He even lent me his five volume edition of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, which I devoured in a week, something I have always been very proud of. So amongst my visits to the library, private studying, and theology and philosophy classes I never came up short on questions for Father Lamb. But again, to my dismay, as much as I respected him—and I can only say that about two clerical figures and mean it—he still left me without real answers.
That really left me in a position to just read even more, and hope that somewhere amidst all the research I was doing I would find the answers. But it wasn’t until one day during my final year at that Catholic School that I realized I would never find the answers I was seeking as a Christian. This event came rather abruptly for me, and it involved the man I have always respected most in my life, my Pop. You should know first that I have always tried to the best of my ability to live my life as honestly as possible; mostly I try to remain honest with myself, which means I’m harder on myself then on others. So when somebody accuses me of something, the first thing I tend to do is look ‘inside’ to see if there is any inkling of truth. The old parable of plucking the thorn from your own eye, before you pluck it from your brothers, seems to me appropriate.
This is really what happened that day or really that evening, as Pop drove me back to moms. I had another mass the next morning, and I wanted to get to bed early. Somehow the topic of me looking to check out the Seminary sparked a conversation, and it lasted for a few hours. I recall sitting outside my moms’ house in my dad’s car debating him on religion for a very long time. He was hard on me, but not in a verbal way—his arguments pinned me down, and I didn’t have the ability to come back with anything substantial. Worse yet, he knew it and continued to press me with questions. I think that was the worst of it; that he wasn’t really presenting any positions but rather he just kept asking me questions. With all my reading and studying, I had tons of comebacks, but none satisfied me as effective answers, and what sucked yet is I heard my own hollowness reverberating inside of me as I spoke them. Some of the same questions he asked me, I had asked others and not received any sort of effective answers, but I heard myself saying those same poor answers, and I knew they were just as empty as I was starting to feel. My whole world collapsed about me and I don’t remember a time that I hated my father other than that night. I hated him for exposing me, showing that my faith was really void.
That night I turned the pages of the Bible for a different reason then I had previously. I was searching for something, anything that would help me rebuild what my dad had just knocked down. My rage drove me and I didn’t sleep at all, I was like a machine just reading page after page. Praying, hoping. I was up when my alarm went off, just in time to start a full day of classes. I had just read the Gospels, parts of Romans, and Hebrews, but even in Paul I could not find my salvation. I think it was at that moment, between the annoying sound of the alarm going off and the weight of my bible in my hands that I had decided to leave theism. And I recall something very odd following that initial feeling of despair. It was freedom.
To explain it would take too long, and the message of this journey would really be lost. But to keep it short and simple, I had been reborn. No, not as a Christian, and I certainly hadn’t found any other spiritual revelation. Instead I saw the world differently. I saw life anew, natural, physical. And when I sat through mass that morning, I’m still not sure why I still attended; I couldn’t even focus on the traditions because my mind was still in a daze, still wondering about all of the possibilities out there for me. I think the fact that I was remaining seating during the mass caught the attention of Michelle, who generally attended too, and when I told her about my decision to leave theism, she thought I was joking at first. In fact, everyone thought it was some very bad joke. Here I had just come in the previous day with a cross on my collar with the hope of becoming a diocese priest, and the very next day I was without it, professing that I had deconverted to atheism.
I think at some point I decided that my questions could be answered, or they couldn’t and I would have to live with that, but I felt as if I could find the answers now because I wasn’t bogged down with the fear I had previously had. Before I had left theism, I felt that thinking outside of dogma and doctrine was sinful, and even dangerous. Atheists were those druggie public school kids that nobody liked; delinquents and drop outs. That was the atheist to me when I was a Catholic. But when I realized that I had in fact deconverted to atheism, my opinion of course changed. And wouldn’t you know it…I wanted to read more because of it.
That evening I told my dad, who thought at first I had gone from one extreme to another. (He has since been deconverted to atheism, as well, praise nothing!) My mom said that she would disown me, at first. However, after a while I think she realized that I was her only son, and that if she wanted to keep that relationship she’d have to accept it, even if she never really cared to understand it. In a way I have learned to love her for that, because I think she still feels that atheists are what I used to view them as. The rest of my family hasn’t ever really understood my decision, but nobody really complains or tries to pull me back in, which in a way I regret because I want to share with them my experiences more then anybody else. My friends have also been supportive, which I can’t be happier about. Some even watched The God Who Wasn’t There with me, a feat in and of itself!
A lot of people ask me about how I came to atheism, and how I learned so much about history and Christianity. Well, I never really had a venue at telling my story like this, but I would say, bluntly, that my story is true for a lot of apostates: I came to atheism by accident, and I liked it there, so I stayed.