Why I Left Atheism--Another Chapter

A majority of the readers of this journal have probably heard, to one extent or another, the story of my personal journey from atheism to belief in Jesus Christ. If you have not, it is available on our web site (doesgodexist.org) or free from us by mail. On February 28, 2005, at 12:45 PM I held the hand of my 93-year-old mother as she quietly passed from this life. With her passing comes another chapter in my life, and in the life of this educational program which we call Does God Exist?

My parents came to disbelief in God from very different experiences. They came back to belief in very much the same way. My father's father was a Methodist preacher from the old school. My father used to talk about getting a whipping because he bounced a ball on the floor as a child, and you did not do that on Sunday. My father chaffed under that kind of religious legalism, but his father died when he was a teenager and his mother remarried a doctor who did not have such austere concepts of God or church. Ultimately my father graduated from college with a degree in philosophy and went to Columbia University in New York City where he got his Ph.D. for his work on the teachings of John Dewey. Dewey's philosophy had many atheistic concepts involved in it, and my father became an intellectual atheist from an academic approach. He did not go to any kind of church service, lived a very moral and constructive life, but was highly critical of churches in general from an intellectual standpoint.

My mother was raised in a family that was very well-off financially when she was a child. Much of her early childhood was spent in Australia where her father was the head engineer in a steel factory. She rarely, if ever, went to any kind of church. When she was about 12 or so, her mother died. The father (who was a strong businessman but knew little about raising children) sent his son to a military school and his daughter to a relative. Within a few years, he also died. My mother was well cared for by family, but her inheritance was taken from her by people who told her God wanted them to have the money her family had acquired. When she met and married my father, she had virtually no money left, and she was bitter at God for the deaths of her parents and for the loss of her fortune.

My early childhood was saturated by comments by both of my parents at the stupidity of organized religion. My father's first college teaching job was at Talladega State Teacher's College in Talladega, Alabama. It was an all-black college, and I attended an all-black elementary school. As a child, I remember crosses burning in our front yard as a child as people objected to this white professor teaching in a black school, and I remember my mother taking me to the window of our house and saying, "See, John, this is what Christians do." I had a tonsillectomy when I was eight or so, and the doctors and nurses refused to clean me up after the surgery due to my father's job. I was wheeled out to an angry mother who saw her child completely covered with blood and with a nurse who said something to the effect of, "Here, lady, you clean up your nigger-loving son." I also remember my mother and the dean of students at the college, a lady who was a light skinned Afro-American eating in a restaurant in Birmingham and getting into an argument. The lady finally ended the argument by kiddingly saying, "Betty, if you don't shut up, I will tell the waiter I'm black." She knew that both of them would be booted out of the restaurant immediately if people found out that she was black. It was one of the few times I saw my mother back down, but later she made it clear to me that it was believers in God who did these kinds of things. When civil rights violations, immorality on the part of a religious figure, or violence by religious people took place, I was told by my parents that this is what religious people do. With this kind of indoctrination, I was claiming to be an atheist by the time I was eight years old.

My life as a child was a good one. After moving to Bloomingtoon, Indiana, on Sunday mornings we went swimming at the Brown County State Park swimming pool. Everyone was in church so we had the pool to ourselves, and my parents laughed about how much more we got for our money than religious people got for the money they paid in church. I never went to any kind of a church and had no contact with anything religious.

During my teen years with normal teenage rebellion, things got more complicated. My parents were very honest and moral people, and they did their best to teach me right from wrong. However, I had no reason to obey anybody's rules as far as I was concerned, and my parents even caught me stealing from them. My parents were appalled. When I would ask them why something was wrong, the response was that "civilized people just don't do these things," but that carried very little weight with me. If there was no one to answer to for what I did, then anything I wanted to do was acceptable. With no belief in God, this was true as far as I was concerned--unless I happened to get caught, and I was sure I could avoid getting caught. I remember my mother's final words on sex education one evening. when she said, "I just want you to not have to marry someone; I want you to be able to choose who you marry." In the 1950s, if you got a girl pregnant, you married her. A single mother was virtually unknown, and society put full financial responsibility on the male. My parents desperately did not want that responsibility to come to our family.

I hit bottom in my college years after I had run away from home several times, an attempted suicide, and a stint of activism in organized atheism--all of which have been described in the Why I Left Atheism material mentioned earlier. When science forced me out of atheism and my studies of various religions led me to Christianity, my parents were incensed. Every argument that ensued would find them saying, "You were a nice person before you became a Christian," which was of course not true, but got to me because I was struggling with the Christian concepts of love, compassion, and turning the other cheek that Jesus taught.

Eventually I married the Christian girl of my dreams, with my parents opposing the marriage but realizing there was nothing they could do to stop it. When we took a child with multiple handicaps to be our son, my parents objected violently and even called and threatened the adoption agency. Our Christian beliefs that caused us to take on a situation that obviously would bring hardship to us was beyond their comprehension. We had moved 200 miles away, and contact with my parents became less and less frequent.

Eventually my father retired from Indiana University where he was a professor. They traveled for several years, and then he became ill with leukemia. All of a sudden everything changed. I was welcomed and encouraged to be a part of the family struggle. My father endured chemotherapy and I made visits and we talked about God and faith. One night after he was released from the hospital, I stayed beside him all night and put water in his mouth as he fought dehydration and the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy he had received. I asked him why he was so moral when the teachings of Dewey and others in the intellectual community deemed religion as an invalid basis for morality. After a long silence he said, "I guess it was the way I was raised." His admission that his religious teachings had a sustaining effect upon him even as an atheist adult shook both of us. I was reminded of the atheists who started a town with no churches in Liberal, Missouri. Later they abandoned it because they could not control crime and vice, and the leader said he never again wanted to live in a town with no churches (The Story of Liberal Missouri, by O. E. Harmon, Liberal News, 1925, reprinted in 1995 by Liberal Area Civic Group). My father came back to his childhood faith that God is. While he still struggled with Christianity as he continued through the last year of his life before the leukemia returned, he went with me to lectureships and to a measure of faith. He died during his second chemotherapy treatment while I was in Black Hills Bible Camp, and so I never got to discuss his final views or response to God.

My mother survived the loss of her husband surprisingly well. She was an incredibly strong person, and she moved into a university retirement home and lived there until she was 90 years old. She was active in the groups of retired people associated with the university and started being influenced by many of the older university people who had some church connections. She never went to more than two or three church services, but her attitude softened. A year or so after her 90th birthday, she started having small strokes; and before her 92nd birthday, she had a severe series that forced her into nursing care. Her worst fear was that she would end up in a nursing facility unable to manage her affairs, and that seemed to be what was happening. I was allowed back into her life and took charge of her affairs, ultimately moving her to the South Bend area where I live. She had repeated mini strokes and ultimately it became obvious she was going to have to relinquish more of her independence.

Mom on her 93rd Birthday
Mom on her 93rd Birthday

After a significant hospital stay, she was moved to a retirement facility a few miles from my home where she could have her own room, but where she could have constant care. The administrators and nurses were people who had strong Christian beliefs, and some became close friends with her. The friends back in Bloomington that kept in constant touch with her were those friends who were very religious people. One of her nieces who is a devout Christian made constant contact with her. In less than six months, Hospice became involved in mother's situation, and the nurses in their group were all strong Christian people. We were able to have her at the house to eat several times a week; and at least once a week I would take her to a local restaurant. One night she had suffered a toilet accident, and I was cleaning her up. She said something about hating the situation where her son had to wash her rear end, and I told her I was glad to do it, and that I was just glad that we had been able to get back together and have such a positive time together at this stage of her life. There was a silence, and then she said, "You know, I want to be a Christian. I can't see not believing in Jesus with what I have been through."

My mother died peacefully and quietly as I held her hand on February 28. Both of my parents came to faith in God and in Jesus as God's son at the end of their lives. Their disbelief had come from very different sources, but their return to faith came from a common evidence--it is the Christians who are there to help when there is a problem in life that is bigger than you are. It is the Christian who takes care of you when you cannot take care of yourself. When all the things that had meaning to you in life are gone, it is the realization that there is still hope and joy and laughter for those who look beyond this physical world that speaks the most eloquently of the existence of God.

I have regrets that my parents did not find and obey God in their youth and vitality. I think the productivity of their lives could have been much greater than it was. Still, they have fostered a family with great potential and strength, and the example and strength they showed to us will have an effect on the generations that come after them. Hopefully their positive traits can be enhanced by the faith of their children and ultimately much good will be done indirectly from their lives and examples. My book is not finished, but my parents taught me in special ways right to the end of their own physical existence how vital and necessary Christianity is.

--John N. Clayton

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