I was born into a Southern Baptist family in west Tennessee, the second of three sons. (That’s me on the right.) My mother was pretty religious and pressured me into getting baptized when I was around 10 years old. My father, a WWII veteran, wasn’t very religious, but even so he would sometimes refer to the “Old Man Upstairs” and would say prayers at meals.
I went to church only occasionally (and never as a family) because my mother said that churches were full of hypocrites, in that they professed the values of Jesus but did not live by them. I was a believer growing up, in high school and through four years of the Navy, serving during the Vietnam War era.
I attended high school in Camden, a rural west Tennessee town, and was in the Navy from 1968 to 1972. After leaving service, I took advantage of the GI-Bill to attend the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, starting in the fall of 1972. There I met Hilda, a pretty young girl from South Carolina whom I immediately fell in love with.
Hilda, it turned out, was as an atheist, the first I had ever met. She was 17 and very intelligent. So much so that she had skipped her senior year in high school to go to college. She was also very far ahead of me in knowledge and understanding of the tenants of Christianity. (Her father was a deacon in the Southern Baptist church back home.)
I was amazed that she, an atheist, knew my religion better than I did and rejected it. We had many long conversations about Christian beliefs in general, and mine in particular.
I had never been a strong believer, but had never doubted that God existed. At that time I believed that I would eventually have to “turn to Christ” at some time in the future. But here was this little slip of girl telling me that she didn’t believe it, that there were GOOD reasons not to believe it.
Although I believed in God, I didn’t know that NOT believing was an option. I never really “took” to religion, I didn’t like it. I guess I shared my mother’s distrust for church people. I mainly felt that religious folk were far too eager to claim goodness as their own property; but that claim always seemed to turn out to be shallow and brittle.
Hearing Hilda talk about atheism was like a breath of fresh air to me. I didn’t have to fear hell? I didn’t have to live forever in a heaven that I could only believe would be the most boring place in the universe? I didn’t have to place myself in the power of some preacher, whom I had an instinctive distrust of? There was no one monitoring, and judging my every thought? Wow! This was heady stuff!
Around Christmastime 1972, we had one particular conversation that lasted all night. The points that she made about Christianity, and indeed most religions, got me to seriously reconsidering my Christian beliefs.
Since this took place during my first quarter in college, I used the rest of my college career to study different religions, different mythological beliefs, as well as the sciences: anthropology, astronomy, biology, geology, physics and evolution. By the end of my sophomore year of college I was pretty much an atheist myself. The entire transformation took around two years of study and introspection.
For the next 30 years I was an apathetic atheist (apatheist?), and in the closet about my atheism. I wasn’t concerned very much with what most people were doing with their beliefs. I felt they were nonsensical, but that they didn’t really concern me. That is, until September 2001 when followers of Islam flew planes into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon. That, and a few other things that happened around that time, brought me out of the atheist closet, and turned me in to an activist for freethought and humanism.
When the 9-11 attacks happened, I was reading Carl Sagan’s book A Demon Haunted World, which among other things vividly outlined some of the atrocities that religion had perpetrated upon the world throughout history. This included the 300 years of torture and oppression during the Spanish Inquisition, the harmful effects of religion’s opposition to the advancement of science, and how spiritualism and pseudoscience were moving to the forefront of everyday conversation and media coverage.
It was also about that time that President George W. Bush used a presidential decree to introduce his “Faith-Based Initiatives” which took a portion of MY tax dollars and gave it directly to religious institutions. This was in direct opposition to the constitutional separation of church and state. His Faith-Based Initiatives forced me, and other atheists and freethinkers, to support religion. I knew the history of religion, and how horribly it had treated mankind (especially non-believers) wherever it was given power, and I did NOT want my tax dollars, collected with the force of government, to aid such enterprises, no matter how much they claimed to do so under the guise of “charitable work.”
I had been reading on the internet about atheism and about a couple of the “new atheism” books that were in the works but had not come out yet. I had also just found The Infidel Guy podcasts, and other atheist podcasts and freethought internet resources, that were starting to become available at that time and I knew that I had to get involved.
I had just recently discovered a Freethought group in Knoxville called the Rationalists of East Tennessee (RET) that provided support and camaraderie during this time of transition. It was a great group of high thinkers, consisting of college professors, authors, scientists and others from Oak Ridge and Knoxville. I found their Sunday presentations and discussions to be very refreshing and edifying.
However, after a couple of years of attendance, I became impatient with RET’s lack of community outreach, and their reluctance to self-identify as atheists, although virtually all of them were. They thought the term carried too much baggage, even though that baggage was the result of centuries of unjustified vilification by the religious community. I felt that we needed to accept and redeem the word itself. It is an honest, fitting appellation, and it represents one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.
I was (and still am) very proud to have challenged and succeeded against a religious upbringing, the collusion of large segments of society and the bigotry against those who question religion. To have actually come to understand the reasons why the great thinkers past and present have rejected religion was wonderful and liberating. I would not water it down by denying the label just because it might offend the very people who had made it a curse in the first place.
By 2002 I had decided to start a group, The Knoxville Atheists, which eventually turned into the Atheists Society of Knoxville (ASK). I placed a small ad in the local paper to announce a monthly atheist group meeting. After a few months of basically sitting alone for an hour at various coffee shops, I found a few people who would join me. When MeetUp.com came on line I turned it into a MeetUp group (Nov. 2002) to take advantage of their tools for recruiting members and scheduling meetings.
It was very slow going for seven years, trying to get people to remember the particular date of the month for the meeting, and to actually come out then, but eventually I had a group of 12-15 people coming to Panera’s or Starbuck’s every month.
That monthly meetup venue was changed one Sunday during the summer of 2008 in Knoxville. A man carrying a shotgun in a guitar case entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, in Knoxville, and started shooting its members. He was quickly taken down by the congregants and arrested, but the damage was done.
Unitarian Universalist churches have policies that are friendly to gays and atheists and encourages them to join that religion, and this shooter was a conservative extremist who was angered at the very liberal stance of that particular church. Attendance at our atheist gathering dropped to 3 people the month after the shooting, and to 2 people the next. I believe that after that shooting, my members were literally afraid to sit next to an “Atheists of Knoxville” sign that I had sitting on the table.
So I changed the venue to Tuesday night Happy Hours after the example set by the Atheist Experience group of Austin, Texas, whom I’d been following on the internet for a while. That changed everything. Members didn’t have to remember the date anymore, it was every Tuesday. I got rid of the sign, and replaced it with a recognizable book standing on the table. Membership really took off after that! I like to joke now that “Atheists like beer, who knew?!”
Now we have an on line membership of over 800 people (as of June 2018), and still growing, with 25-30 people coming out every week! As of this writing, ASK and RET are doing fine. Between them we offer Knoxville and East Tennessee 8-12 opportunities every month to meet with other atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and humanists. We’re collaborating on a weekly Atheist call-in show on public-access TV called Freethought Forum, and a Radio Show called “DigitalFreethought Radio Hour” on WOZO radio.
There is also a Skeptic MeetUp group in Knoxville, as well as the Secular Student Alliance who has weekly meetings on the UT campus.
At the time of this writing, I’m happy to be able to report that freethought is alive and well in east Tennessee.