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Thursday, March 27, 2014

The toughest thing ...

It was the evening of Sunday, 2nd February, 1975 and I was about to perform the most difficult act of my life.

I was sitting at the kitchen table at my parent's house. That morning I had performed my last public act as a member of the Salvation Army (the Army) by participating in the dedication service for my baby daughter, Catherine. (A dedications service in the Army, is the equivalent of a christening or baptism in other churches .)

My mother must have noticed the look of dread on my face as she asked me, "What is wrong, son?"

I took a deep breath and then said, "I no longer believe in God, so I am leaving the Army".

During the next 30 minutes, through the tears, I tried to explain my decision. I don't think I did a good job of it. This is the first of a series of posts that rectify that lack of clarity, explaining how I came to that momentous decision and how my thoughts on the topic have developed over the last 39 years.

Later that evening, in the privacy of our room, my then wife (Christina) asked me why I could not just pretend. The point was that the pain of "just pretending" over the previous 3 or 4 years had eventually forced me to make my stand.

_______________________________

I had been raised in a very religious family. Many of my earliest memories involved the Army and Christianity.

I remember watching my father take on tasks that went against the grain of his personality, all because of his devotion to God and the Army.

In 1955, when I was five, we shifted to our new home in Glenroy, (a northern suburb of Melbourne, Australia). We still attended Kensington Corps (church) about eight stops down the local railway line. We attended Kensington because my mother's parents (Senior Majors Frederick and Irene Goold) were the officers (Ministers) there. Sundays were long days. We arrived in Kensington before the 11:00 am service and did not leave for home until after the evening service which finished at about 8:15 pm. One evening I remember getting off the train at a dark Glenroy station and watching dad starting up a conversation with another man wearing a Salvation Army uniform. I remember my irritation (I was tired and wanted to get home) while I observed the seemingly interminable conversation. The other person, I later discovered, was Envoy Goodinson, and he and my father hatched a plan to start up a Salvation Army corps at Glenroy during that meeting. The corps is still operating today, with my brother, Phillip, in the role as Sargent Major (the equivalent to Senior Elder or Vicar's Warden in other churches).

Churches need money to operate and I remember my dad coming home from work, eating his evening meal, donning his uniform and then heading out into the night to knock on doors asking for donations for the Army. He was not an outgoing person, and did not enjoy these evenings collecting, but he did it because he saw collecting as part of his religious duty.

Glenroy corps was a fairly small one, so particularly in the early years, tasks fell to dad that he would have avoided in a larger setting. One of these was the Salvation Army athletics day. As a kid, I enjoyed the athletics day, but it fell to my father to organise Glenroy's contingent. He was not at all interested in sport. He had very few days off. He worked on week days and Sundays were always very busy, so Saturdays and public holidays were precious to him, as a means of recharging his batteries. He was depressive with limited energy resources. I remember one athletics carnival morning, I was excited to be going to compete but was very aware that my dad was struggling with the burden of organisation. Happily others saw his difficulties and another man said that he would take over which allowed my dad to go home and rest. As we drove off to the athletics oval I was very pleased that my father had been relieved of this task that he found so onerous. The same man who took over the task currently visits my dad in his nursing home every Friday afternoon.

These and similar memories of my parents devotion to their God and their church made my non belief announcement extremely difficult.

So why did I make the decision and abrupt announcement?

_______________________________

I first "gave my heart to Jesus" at age 7. I had heard others (including my father's brother, Bill) talk of their childhood conversions, and thought that it was the appropriate thing to do.

The Army held yearly meetings (services) for all members in my state. These meetings were called Congress. I remember when I was 16 sitting in an evening Congress meeting listening to the music, singing the songs (hymns) listening to personal testimonies of God's grace, and the sermon. There was the usual appeal for people to make their commitment to Jesus and I found myself walking to the front of the hall to be counselled. In my youth and teen years I was surrounded by believers and tried desperately to find the God that so many others claimed had transformed their lives. During my late teens and early 20s doubts grew in my mind. More of this in the next and subsequent posts.

I was twenty-four when I made my final stand. Why did it take so long, if my doubts started six or seven years previously.

There are two explanations for my tardiness, other than my reluctance to hurt my parents. The first was that the doubts and uncertainties grew slowly and the second was that announcing my ideas publicly would cause serious difficulties. I needed to get an education - secondary and tertiary - and the cheapest and easiest way of financing this was by staying at home with my parents. My father helped me purchase my first car which made access to the University across town much easier.

It was also surprisingly easy to pretend. I played in the Glenroy Salvation Army corps band. On one occasion we were to play at a combined Christian service at the local Anglican Church. As is usual with Salvo bands we met before the service for the band master to give final instructions and to pray that God's work would be extended by our playing. The Anglican Archbishop was in the room with us as the band master asked me to pray. At this stage my doubts were starting to solidify and I was not at all sure that the God that I was praying to, really existed; but I knew what a prayer in that circumstance should include so I gave a perfectly acceptable prayer with my fellow bandsmen and the Archbishop.

After graduation I was posted to teach at a school in Mildura - about six hours drive from Melbourne. This should have been my chance to make my stand but I didn't take it then for a number of reasons. I was not strong and decisive and had a number of other issues on my plate. The first year of teaching - even in a relatively easy country school - is very difficult and that was one of the major issues on my mind. To tell the truth, I was quite afraid that I would make a mess of my career. The other reason for my lack of action on the religion front is that we were going to a town where we knew no one. I would meet people at school but the only ready made social group for my wife was the local Salvation Army corps.

So through a lack of decisiveness, other more important issues on my plate and concern for my family I found myself playing in the band at the Mildura Army Corps and participating in services and Army activities, even though by then I had pretty well given up on my belief in God. My time at Mildura Salvos was made more difficult by a piece of recent corps history. Some years before I arrived, a Salvationist teacher had been appointed to the the school. He was very committed to God and the Army, and was very capable. He had a significant impact on the Mildura corps. He had transferred back to Melbourne a few years before I arrived, and the members of the Corps thought that they had found a replacement for him when I arrived. How wrong they were.

By December 1974 I had all my ducks in a row. I was totally fed up with the sham and hypocrisy of my pretence at religious belief and I was now financially and occupationally independent. I realised that I could not quietly glide out of my religious predicament. When a Salvationist stops wearing uniform it is a very big statement. I also thought that my parents deserved an explanation of my decision. I made careful plans. Before we left Mildura for the summer holidays in Melbourne, I gave my musical instrument (a tenor horn) to the band master stating that I would not be using it in the next six weeks and that he would likely have a better use for it than me. Actually, I did not intend to play it again.

I decided that it would be best to make my big announcement on the evening of the last Sunday of our holiday in Melbourne. If I had made an early statement it would have been followed by weeks of earnest and emotional discussion that I wanted to avoid.

Another reason for delay was that my wife (Christina) was very pregnant and Catherine was born on New Years Day 1975. We were all very busy with the new baby for most of our stay.

_______________________________

While I was unleashing my bombshell, that Sunday evening, my two girls, Beth (2 years old) and Catherine (less than a month) were asleep in their room. Naturally they are now adults and interestingly are both Salvationists. Catherine, who I dedicated that morning, is now a Salvation Army officer, and although I disagree with her on matters of religion I am very proud of the work she does in caring for damaged and desperate people who have been outcast by the rest of society.

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What were the gains and losses in my decision?

The major gain is quite clear - a sense that I had regained some integrity and honesty. I no longer had to pretend to believe ideas that now seemed absurd to me. Unlike some churches, the Salvation Army can be quite direct with the question "Are you saved ?" and it can sometimes be quite difficult to avoid a direct answer.

When I was a believer (or when I was trying to be one), I scrutinized all of my actions or thoughts, no matter how trivial, with the question: "Is this what a Christian should be doing?". One Christian believer, who was close to me, went to see the musical Hair, which has a famous mass nude scene at the end. I thought that it was not the sort of show that a Christian should be attending, so I did not see it. It might well be that in my uncertainty and doubt I was applying a higher standard of Christian behaviour than necessary, and that people who were more confident with their Christianity could take a more relaxed approach. One change that I noticed when my beliefs became public was that I no longer applied the level of scrutiny to my behaviour that I once had. That was seriously a relief.

Some people who came to reject their (fundamentalist) religious beliefs have stated that it was a relief to now accept basic and clear science. This was never an issue for me as I had always found a way to reconcile religious belief with scientific fact. More on that issue in a later post.

One loss for me was not playing in the band, but the fact that I did not even consider joining a secular band indicates that this was not a major loss. Some people who reject their former theisic beliefs note a loss of community as many of their friends were in the Church. This was not a major problem for me as many of the religious people that I knew had been annoying me, for some time, with their narrow mindedness and thoughtlessness.

A quite devastating loss that some newly minted atheists report is rejection by their family. This was not an issue for me as I contemplated my options leading up to my big announcement. My family members were extremely disappointed with my choice but there was no decline of their love and concern for me. I have only become aware that rejection by family was a possibility while reading deconversion stories in recent years.

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These posts are an attempt to explain the reasons for my religious (or irreligious) opinions.

In the words of one of the most famous men of history - Here I stand, I can do no other ...

_______________________________

Here is a link to my next post called The Witness of the Holy Spirit .

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Dad,
I'm looking forward to hearing more.
Love you xxxx
Catherine

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