One Full Year as Fully Realized Atheist

10 January, 2009

One year ago (on my 42nd birthday (I turn 43 tomorrow)), I realized that I am an atheist.  Long ago, I had transformed from a theist to a deist to a universal deist to an agnostic universal deist and stalled out there.  About a year-and-a-half ago, I discovered blogs.  Then I discovered atheism blogs.  I lurked about for about 3 months.  Then I began posting (initially as “Billy (A Liberal Disabled Vet),” then as “Billy (ALDV),” then as “Billy the Atheist,” then the parentheses were added (I think by SI, but I’m not sure) for some strange reason).  And, thanks to the conversations and posts on the atheosphere, I realized that I really am an atheist.

Many different experiences during my life have contributed to this realization.  My experiences in the military are a good example.

I joined the US Army in 1990 as a 98GL (Signals Interception Linguist) and processed through the MEPS in Boston, Massachusetts. I swore to defend the Constitution of the United States of America from all enemies, foreign or domestic. I was not given a copy of the Constitution (though I did have one with me (carry it everywhere)). I was, however, offered a Bible.

An older gentleman wearing in pseudo-military dress (dark green jacket and trousers, light green shirt, black tie, a cross on one collar and a book on the other, an embroidered book on his shoulder) offered me a Bible. I said, “No thank you. But if you have a Book of Hopi on you, I’d love a copy.”

He considered me for a moment. “Are you joining the Army?”

“Yes sir. Intelligence,” I answered.

“Don’t you have a plane to catch?” he said as he offered a Bible to the next recruit.

In Basic (at Fort Lost In The Woods, Misery), the only publication we were allowed to have was our training manual (our Smart Book) and a Bible. My copy of the Constitution went into storage with my civilian clothes.

While processing through at Leonard Wood, I got my dog tags. When asked, “Religion?” I said Unitarian (still am, though am now an atheist). The civilian looked up and said, “And they let you in?”

The proselytizing was very heavy. We were encouraged to go to Church. Those who chose not too got extra time on the obstacle course. I went to church and relaxed. I enjoyed the singing, though.

I blew my knee out in training and, between surgeries, found myself in holdover. Other than the hospital for physical therapy, Sunday service was the only way to get out of the barracks. I spent about six months alternating between surgery and holdover before the army gave up on my knee.

After one of the services, the pastor asked me to stay behind. I agreed (he was a full bird colonel and I was a PFC who had not completed training — of course I agreed). He said, “I’ve heard you singing out there. Good tenor.”

“Thank you, sir,” I replied.

“Would you like to be in the choir? It’ll get you out of the barracks for a few extra hours a week.”

“Yes, sir, I would.”

“What church do you attend at home? I’ll send a letter to your pastor.”

I considered how to handle that one. Well, honesty never hurt anyone. “Well, sir, I’m a Unitarian but have never really attended church regularly.”

His face changed. The paternal smile was gone. A frown appeared. “Get out. When you accept Jesus as your saviour, you will be saved. When that happens, not if, but when, you can come back here and admit your error. And don’t expect a delay note for your sergeant.”

I saluted and left. I got bawled out by one of the sergeants for being late from chapel. And, though I missed the singing, I did not go back. I was unsure how the colonel would react to a Unitarian in his service.

I do not have a specific problem with non-governmental organizations handing out free literature at MEPS. I do have a problem with selectivity (will we ever see an Imam handing out copies of the Q’uran?). I especially have a problem with the pseudo-military attire of the man who offered me a Bible. I also have a problem with the inability of certain members of the Army to understand that a Unitarian agnostic (as I was then) can still be a patriot. The conflation of righ wing pseudo patriotism and evangelical Christianity in the military (then and now) scares the shit out of me.

Now that I realize that I am an atheist, I can look back at experiences like this with an entirely new viewpoint.  It’s not that I am outside of religion (I think it impossible to be outside of religion in today’s America), rather I have a better feel for the motivations of right wing religion, along with a new found discovery of the depth of the politicization of conservative Christianity.

Here’s to another year of reality.



  1. Hmm… Interesting experience in the army, I don’t understand how not being a Christian is… oh well.

  2. IBY: Thanks for stopping by. Enjoy looking around. No minimum to buy. I could never understand (during my stint in the army) why non-evangelical Christians were automatically assumed to be suspect.

  3. This is interesting. I live on a base overseas and have actually met a few atheists (all officers too) and have yet to meet a far-right evangelical. I know they are out there (we live near the Chapel), but I guess I just got lucky in my ability to avoid them. My work (a US government organization) has many atheists and the one fundy I know (my boss) is far-behind in promotions during his 20 years, and I think it is due to his hard-core Conservative Christian attitude. He is cool because he knows I am not an atheist and treats me awesomely, though he constantly tries to recruit me with his Discovery Institute arguments for creation. But I suppose this atheism-heavy atmosphere is due to the college degree/advanced degree requirement all positions have. You know what they say about edumacation!

    Anyways, I am glad you found your way out of that darkness. I always wonder how many of my work friends are on the fence and just don’t say anything (at least to me because I am “out”).

  4. When I was a kid (army brat) there was a very strong chapel culture, I’d guess you’d call it. My parents were part of that, and in those days, what the next guy higher up thought went. If you wanted to be on his good side, you kind of at least gave a nod to his hobby horse.

    During the draft years no one cared particularly, although there was a born again swell starting to rise. I survived a thing over Thanksgiving 1967 and a chaplain took me and some others to task for not thanking his deity for letting us live.

    My oldest son was in Gulf War I, was a Seabee. He said that a chaplain came by for “charactor guidance” and really talked down to the men. They did a bit of kidding and he got mad and went to the battalioin commander who told el chappo that he’d heard all about it and was going to take action.

    Well, what was he going to do? The commander told him that #1, he was informing the chaplain and his superior that if said chaplain EVER, EVER talked down to and patronised his men again he would personally take the chaplain by the seat of his pants and collar, toss him in the air, and kick his ass so hard that people in Ryad would wonder what that thing was that hit the ground and bounced back into the sky.

    I’m guessing that it really depends on the command and its culture.

  5. And, I’m told that quite a few people in the army think of it as a neat command tool and identity aid.

  6. Cheers to many more years!!!

  7. Happy Anniversary! Happy Birthday, too.

  8. I too realized I was an atheist a little over a year ago. I was raised a Catholic, then became agnostic and finally realized (yet somehow already knew) that I was an atheist. I work in local law enforcement in South Carolina and I can relate to your military experience. I deal with prayers before tours, prayers before dinner, and many other overtly Christian and right-wing ideas and indoctrination.

  9. It took me a long time to learn how to ride a bike. When we moved, my new neighbor said he could teach me to ride instantly. So I followed him with my bike up a big hill. At the top we sat on our bikes and I asked, “so how’s it work?” He said, “like this” and pushed me down the hill.

    Yeah, I would have eventually learned on my own, but I’m glad I got the push. Sorry you never had anyone give you that push, but at least you finally learned how to ride. Here’s to many more years riding! 😉

  10. Happy birthday and happy blogaversary. I’ve dedicated a little something to you over on my site…

  11. DB: I strongly suspect that the amount of evangelizing allowed on a base is directly related to the willingness of the commanding officer to tolerate the proselytizing.

    Sarge: Again, I think it really is the CO’s attitude. My company commander in basic was of the opinion that if you were not Christian or Catholic (or, in a pinch, Jewish) you could not be a soldier.

    Poodles: Thanks. I hope to be a pest for many more years.

    Chappie: Thanks. One more anniversary coming up — my blogiversary.

    Scatatheist: Thanks for stopping by. An atheist in South Carolina? Damn, you must feel welcome. I was at a forest fire down in Georgia a few years ago (the big Okeefenokee fire) and one of the local fundogelical preachers could not quite understand why he could not give a three hour service at the base camp. Sheesh.

    Philly: The push that moved me from agnostic to atheist was the atheist bloogers — you, vjack, Poodles, Spanqi, John Evo, the Lifeguard, the Ordinary Girl, and others. And though I fear the crash at the bottom of the hill (I am afraid of the pain of death), I’m not concerned about the non-existence which follows.

    Julia: Thanks. This is my atheoversary, though (also my birthoversary). My blogoversary is February 3.

  12. Happy atheobirthiversary, then!

  13. Yunshui: You and your Englishisms. Thanks.

  14. I’ve heard the bible-thumping in the military has gotten steadily worse, and it’s all branches, not just the Army.

  15. Nan: I tend to hear two different versions from people I know who ar in the military — some say it is huge problem and others say that there is no problem at all. It seams (in most cases (not all)) to depend upon the observers politics — I have yet to talk to a conservative who thinks that military bible-thumping is a problem.

  16. Happy Freedom Day, Billy! Sorry I’m late.

    I was not the one who gave you the parentheses, you did that yourself, though I may have encouraged it by noting and admiring your myriad and frequent uses for them.

    I’ve always thought that religion and the military had a nice symbiotic, if not incestuous, relationship. They both have a hierarchy, they both insist on blind obedience, and they both attract money like flies to honey.

  17. Spanqi: I seem to remember, during one comment thread, you started calling me (((Billy))) or some such. May be wrong (I frequently am (just ask my daughter)).

    I’m always amazed that people are willing to spend billions on weapons which are,for today’s world, virtually worthless. We (as a nation, not as individuals) are also willing to fund multi-million dollar churches, private jets for preachers, and solid gold mitres for the pontiff. The military and religion are like boats — large holes into which one pours money.

  18. Mark 16: 16 He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.


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