My name is Jack Lawrence. And I am an atheist.
Speaking for myself, I’m not sure I really know what it’s like to believe in god.
I wasn’t raised in a non-religious home, but I was young enough when I dismissed the existence of god that I’m not sure I can count my childhood acceptance of it as really believing.
When you’re that young you accept what you’re told, and because you really don’t have any other choice than to trust those things. And this is often enough to trap a person permanently. At that age once you’re told something is true, that becomes reality to you.
My family is Roman Catholic, but of a very loose variety… like a lot of families are these days. My siblings and I were all baptized, taken to church on Sundays (at least for a few years, before it became inconvenient), and we celebrated all the Christian holidays. But god wasn’t generally talked about around the house, or injected into everyday conversation. Christmas was mostly about Santa Clause and gift-giving; Easter was bunny-eggs. It was that sort of household.
But I don’t think it takes firm indoctrination in order to blindly believe in god or a religion. All three of my younger siblings accept Christianity. And if anything, my parents have become looser about religion with each child. It doesn’t take indoctrination. It only takes being told it is true.
So how did I come to disbelieve? Well, I’m not claiming to be more intelligent, or even less gullible than anyone who believes, or even who came to disbelieve at an older age. Not at all. But I was what you might call “an inquisitive child”. It wasn’t quite skepticism… I was just by nature curious, and I liked to be given answers for the things I didn’t understand. I was that child who couldn’t accept answers such as “because” or “I said so” or “that’s just the way it is”. I was that kid. “Why, why, why, why, why?”… I needed an answer for everything.
But I do admit to having a bit of an early rationalist mindset. And the irony of that is that my reasoning abilities were actually what allowed me to accept it for as long as I did. As a child I understood that I was being infantilized when it came to the things I was being taught. I wouldn’t have known to call it that, of course. But I understood what was going on. There was a more sophisticated version to all of this which I “wasn’t able to understand yet” that was being withheld from me. And this understanding allowed me to accept these things on authority.
But I got a little older. And the lack of justification for these things weren’t holding up the way they used to. It was when I was put into CCD (Saturday Catholic religious instruction) that I really began to question religion. Now, this wasn’t necessarily from a position of doubt… not at first. Rather it was the inability of my religion teachers to address those natural questions I had which started my doubt. And every flaw I see within religious beliefs today, I immediately started seeing then. My questions were of the kind which any regular-school teacher encourages and takes delight in from their students. And this started becoming an area of hostility from my Saturday-school teachers. There was much that simply wasn’t making sense to me, and I was merely trying to better my understanding.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long until my parents were being called in for private meetings to discuss these matters. I found myself in a position of having somehow unknowingly done something wrong. I was an unwitting trouble-maker. How did this happen? I came to find out that not only could my teachers not answer my questions (some of which I later learned are among the most common arguments against belief in god), but that I wasn’t even supposed to be asking some of them.
It didn’t take long from here for me to begin to reject these beliefs entirely. It became clear that none of this stuff made any sense whatsoever. And the flaws were so TRANSPARENT and OBVIOUS… at THAT age… that it is still difficult for me to understand how intelligent adults are capable of believing this nonsense, and feverishly at that.
By my second year in CDD I was actively making arguments against the existence of god, IN class… even “converting” some of the other children in the process. I was of course removed from class quite frequently, and suspended several times. But somehow I was forced to go through with my communion before they eventually gave up on me, told my parents I was an atheist, and was asked to leave the school permanently.
This was actually the first time I ever heard the word. Ironically, it was Christians who gave me the label which I proudly wear today.
After all of this, and some early on resentment from my family, it wasn’t an issue in my life, and for most of my life. I grew up in a very secular part of New York. Like the way my own family was, most people I knew weren’t very “religious”, despite their beliefs or religious affiliations. It was very easy to go about and never know what people’s religious beliefs were, even though they had them. Of course it came up from time to time, but the most apprehension I really received was “disbelief” of my disbelief. But mostly, if anything, it would be “Whatever… if that’s your thing”. And if I’m being really honest, I did spend years basically assuming I was the only sane person in the world. Or at least one of just a couple, as my best friend growing up was also an atheist. But even between us it was never a major discussion-point, aside from the occasional religion-bashing now and again, mostly of the variety of “these people are so stupid” whenever the absurdities of religion happened to pop up.
It wasn’t until high-school, when the events of September 11’th occurred, that I really started paying attention to more than just the absurd nature of religious beliefs. The harm and the danger of religion became un-ignorable after that. I lived 40 minutes outside of NYC, in the Hudson Valley, and I had skipped school that day. I was up at Bear Mountain, with a clear view across the Hudson of the city skyline. And saw it happen. We noticed the smoke bellowing out from the first tower, and then saw the second plane crash into the other.
But the religious connection wasn’t of immediate importance to me then. I’m a native New Yorker, and to me this was first and foremost an attack on my beloved city… and the motivations for it was aside from the point to me at the time. It simply got me paying attention in a way I hadn’t in the past.
It quickly became apparent that the harm of religion wasn’t just old wars, or the crusades, the inquisition, or the Salem witch trials… it was new wars, encroachment upon civil liberties, modern theocracies.. oppression, mistreatment, poverty, and death — perpetrated by dogmatism and fundamentalism… not to mention scientific hindering and the hindering of societal progress.. garbage taught in the classrooms…
Now, I wasn’t entirely ignorant to these things… I was aware these things existed. But they didn’t penetrate my personal bubble. It was fairly secular where I grew up, and I was a teenager and was preoccupied… with getting laid. With learning to make films, with my own shit. …I didn’t need to care.
In my early twenties I moved to Texas, the buckle of the bible-belt. Now, I was always an “out-atheist”.. I never hid it. But it was different now. Back home you could at least mention it to your peers without much judgment — they didn’t hold whatever their beliefs were the way their parents did. There was a generational gap when it came to tolerance. In Texas I learned differently. Here I suddenly had to know someone well to let that cat out of the bag. I never retreated into the closet, but for the first time I experienced the ability of a person to become offended or disgusted at the mere fact that I believed differently than them. For the first time I experienced first-hand discrimination based on admitting the fact, and for the first time I’d actually lost friends or had people disassociate with me because of it… and for the first time I directly experienced for myself the way in which religious belief causes divisions amongst people.
Until this point in my life I’d never known people to whom god plays a daily role in their life, who spend their existence entirely concerned with god and with worshiping him, or who base their every action — even clearly immoral ones — upon these beliefs. Sure, I’d known families who were obviously religious.. from the icons on their mantles and the pictures on their walls. And whom I knew prayed daily… but I never had to hear a word of it. These were private practices. Faith where I grew up was a personal matter. But here… here people wear their faith with pageantry. Here I’ve met people who cannot hold a conversation without god showing up somewhere. Here there are mega-churches, and billboards. And those moronic TV preachers… they LIVE here. The United States is NOT a Christian nation.. it’s not. But Texas? Texas IS.
And so I found myself tucking away my atheism a little more than I was accustomed to. Not out of shame, or fear – and I’ve never lied or pretended to be Christian — but I tucked it away, to get by. And you know, to not lose work (which I have).
I got by this way for a few years, mostly venting my frustration and disgust of religion to those few friends who I could openly discuss it with, but mostly I just kept it on the back-burner. It was only fairly recently that I started becomingpublicly vocal about these matters. And by sheer incident at that.
I’m an independent filmmaker and videographer by trade. And last year I happened to have been hired by Greydon Square, an atheist rapper who I’m sure many of you are familiar with, to shoot some footage of him performing at the 2011 Texas Freethought Convention in downtown Houston. It had been a while since I really paid much attention to the secular and freethinking movement. And like I’ve mentioned, I had spent most of my life as merely a de-facto atheist. And though I’ve watched the debates, and read pieces written by Ricard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others, this was all just among many things that interested me… but never something I really considered throwing my card into that hat with.
Now, you may think I’m about to go into the whole experience of being at that convention and how it changed my perspective, or how it motivated me to join this cause… but there is no such story to tell. I arrived just in time to shoot the performance I was hired to film, and this was at the end of the evening, and I believe on the last night of the convention. I didn’t get to listen to any of the great speeches, or participate in any of the events of the weekend, and barely had time to get into any discussions with like-minded individuals. In fact, I was quite unaware of the whole scope of the thing. By the time I arrived most everything was over. And I felt quite disappointed by this. Because I was overwhelmed just by the sheer number of people hanging around still. I had never in my life looked around, seen hundreds of people, and knew they all shared with me that one thing which had separated me from almost everyone I’ve ever known. Just being there I felt something eager inside of myself. But I left that convention entirely unsatisfied. I’d missed it all.
Later that week I started watching a ton of videos from the convention… everything I’d missed out on. And it was the speech made by a frail Hitchens which really struck me. I felt as though I’d just missed something incredible. And it was specifically his words, which I must paraphrase, that made me feel I must begin to add my voice to this growing movement…
Speaking about his impending death and the importance of this war on delusion, “At this present moment I have to say that I feel very envious of someone who is young and active and starting out in this argument. Just think of the extraordinary things that are happening to us.”
And it was those words to which I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of this. As one of our greatest voices was about to leave the conversation, others must rise and continue it… and I wanted to be one of them.So here I am. Jack Lawrence, yet another voice among many for reason. And I am in great company.