At one point near the turn of the century I decided I wanted to find a death row pen-pal because I wanted to learn more about the psychology of criminal behavior. I searched the internet for prison pen-pal listings, but decided I wanted to find an atheist, assuming that since all the major religions claim that God guides people toward goodness, there must be quite a number of atheists in prison, because there was no conceivable way an institution as respected as the church could make a claim like that without evidence.
So I started looking through prison pen-pal listings, searching for someone who thought similar to me. My search returned many pages of results. I started looking at the religion entry for each listing, surprised that almost every prisoner listed their religion. We had Catholics, Christians, Muslims, native-American religion, one or two Hindus, a few Buddhists… and… well… I searched through page after page after page, each time expecting to see the word “atheist” or “agnostic” somewhere. I searched for an hour or more, through what I remember to be about three hundred results and the closest thing I could find to an atheist was a couple people who had left the field blank and one person who wrote “it’s complicated”. I finally wrote to one of the people who had left the field blank. After a couple letters he began insisting that I accept Jesus as my personal savior, saying “just look at me. Look at how much Jesus has done to help me.”
We wrote a number of letters to each other, and each time he became more and more forceful in his insistence that I needed to become a Christian, as I was a bad person if I didn’t. Then one day he wrote to me to tell me that he was being transferred to a regular prison as he was no longer on death row. Apparently some 19 year old law student spent a few weekends working on his case, basically as a hobby, and enacted a special clause that says that you cannot get the death penalty if you killed someone in self defense, as apparently this guy was on death row for an act of self defense that went too far. I asked if he had sent a thank-you letter to this law-student, and he replied that no, he didn’t need to because he could just thank Jesus instead, and Jesus would pass his thanks down as good fortune, like a spiritual, trickle-down theory.
Then there’s several people I have known who have issues with panic attacks, migraine headaches and unmanageable stress. Every one of them believes in spirits and ghosts. It’s no wonder they have panic attacks when they think all these invisible spirits are controlling the universe and there’s nothing they can do to affect the world. Same thing with depression. It’s natural for someone to become chronically depressed when they believe there are all these wonderful angels and spirits, but then they see their own life going nowhere and instead of blaming their own decisions, they decide, either consciously or subconsciously, that God or the spirits or the universe just doesn’t like them. Same thing with the anger-management issues I’ve seen in certain believers. They think the world was intelligently designed by a perfect creator, but are constantly inundated with problems and become frustrated and helpless because the world doesn’t function the way their beliefs say it should. They’ve ingrained the concept of these spirits so far into their subconscious that they can’t control their own thoughts and emotions.
Then there’s my friend who is one of the few people I know who really believes in the power of love spells, that these spirits guide our passion and love for each other and can be affected by the spells we cast using magic stones and little trinkets. Why was I not surprised to find out she was still a victim of domestic abuse?
Then there was Josh, a guy with no job, no interest in getting a job, who had a daughter he never saw, and who jumped off a bridge because Jesus told him he could fly.
So these are all things I’ve seen in my life, and I understand that my experiences are probably not typical. The reason I’ve met so many crazy believers is because I gravitate toward either true believers or atheists. I obviously identify with atheists, but somehow the true believers–the ‘crazies’–are much easier for me to identify with than the moderate religious individuals because at least they’re consistent in their beliefs. If they say they take the bible literally, they actually take the bible literally. One of the most frustrating things for me is to hear a religious individual say that we always need to follow the word of God, but then hear them call my friend Josh crazy for following the word of God, and say that Isaac Zamora is a monster because he followed the word of God. Somehow they never recognize the hypocrisy.
I have all these stories of other people going crazy because they believed in spiritual, religious or supernatural entities, but the ones that are most convincing to me are the ones that happened to me.
When I was in school, for some reason I decided I would be happier if I was stupid, and I began trying to train my brain to run slower. I wanted to be able to get excited about football and fart jokes and I wanted to be able to have silly conversations without being frustrated that we weren’t discussing something more important. When I first thought of the idea to make myself stupid, I thought it would be dangerous, but then I decided that there must be some kind of God or universal force that keeps everything in order that would ultimately protect me from the consequences if I did anything truly stupid. I tried this off and on for years, though fortunately never went full force on the idea, simply because I did not have enough faith in my spiritual safety net. Sometimes I think I see this same process in others, though they seem to have more faith than me.
There was also a time around the turn of the century where I experimented with faith and God again for a couple years, and surprisingly went quite far quite quickly with the idea and before I knew it God was talking to me regularly and leading me down increasingly strange paths that didn’t always make sense. It’s those experiences more than anything else that make me an atheist now.
So I guess my point to all this is not really to convince people to become atheists. The average person probably hasn’t known as many crazy believers as I have, but what I hope is that people will at least understand why I am so terrified of religion and supernatural beliefs and won’t allow them to be a part of my life. How could I support something like the concept of God when I’ve seen it literally kill people, when I’ve seen it destroy lives, send people into deep depressions, and cause them to wish for death? I don’t believe I could be a good person unless I spoke out about these things.