From: Clark Davis Adams
Subject: Here’s My Story…
Date: 29 Dec 1995
Okay, my turn. A couple of years ago I won an honorable mention prize in FFRF’s college essay contest for my essay, “Growing Up an Atheist in the Religious Mid-South.” In 1994, I gave a similar speech at the Fourth of July Lake Hypatia Monster Gala. Of course, I can’t find the electronic version of either (I just moved), so I get to shoot from the hip :).
Here is the story of my intellectual development, and the consequences which followed. I apologize for the length, but I think all of the information is important to the story. I also apologize for the informal style, as much of the stuff here is very emotional to me and nobody besides myself proofread it before I submitted it:
I was born in July, 1969 (Space Baby) in Louisville, KY, USA, a typical Midwestern town to a typical Midwestern middle class family (with two kids instead of two-and-a-half). My father was, and still is, a non-practicing Presby-Methodist who never attends church. My mother was a Roman Catholic who saw fit I be reared as such. FWIW, she now attends a liberal Methodist church because the minister, a female, is a close friend of hers.
I was carried to church and “CCD” classes (that’s what we called catechism classes) from the start. I didn’t mind them at first, because it was just “play time,” and when you are a toddler, toys rule. When I was 6, we moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. I still was treated to weekly, and sometimes, semi-weekly doses of religious instruction. I gradually began to dislike them because it appeared to me that they were becoming more indoctrinating, and less playing. I remember my first hint of skepticism: We learned of the bible fable of Sodom and Gomorrah (not in any detail as we were quite young). When I was told that Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the city, my first reaction was that god was like a “bully.” Even at a pretty early age, I knew that bible-god’s punishment did not fit the crime.
When I was 8, my family moved from the comparatively progressive Midwest to archaic, Catholic, New Orleans, Louisiana (a great place to visit, but I’d rather live in Bosnia, Somalia, or Iran than there :). As I aged, I really began to dislike going to church. A few times, I was able to get out of it by turning my mother’s alarm clock off. I was successful two or three times (she thought she forgot to set it), but one time I woke her while turning it off (damn Big Ben!). I was busted. I had to go to church twice :).
When I was in fifth grade, two critical things happened to me: my parents separated and it was decided that I would go to parochial schools beginning in sixth grade. More on the separation later, but my parents believed that to get a good education in Southeast Louisiana, you had to get out of public schools. To a large extent I would agree with them, and as an honors student, did not mind leaving public schools. The good non-parochial schools were very expensive, and my brother (3.5 years my junior) and I began attending Catholic schools with nuns. To this day, I loathe nuns–I even hated “Sister Act.” I am sure that there are benevolent nuns out there, but I have yet to meet them. The nuns at this school had the personalities of pit bulls. They were like drill sergeants with PMS. Most students at this school feared them severely. (Note, I am not proud of the following, but I was a pre-teenager. Forgive me.) In the Summers, my brother and I, along with the other kids in our neighborhood, frequently tended to find mischief as unsupervised kids our age tended to do. This was before my voice changed and I was often mistaken as a female on the phone. This usually pissed me off, but I found a way to use it to my advantage. My brother and I would call the convent of the school and ask to speak to one of the nuns we didn’t like. We would speak as women about getting our son/daughter enrolled in the school. Midway into the conversation, we would shift the conversation to something extremely sexual or vulgar. Thank god Caller ID hadn’t been invented :). I am the only person I know who can honestly say he talked dirty to a nun and lived to tell!
I attended this particular school for sixth and seventh grade. Religious education was now daily. This daily instruction increased my skepticism, and it was probably here where I first vocalized doubts about Christianity. I was involved in Academic Games, and one of the games was called “Strange Bedfellows.” One part of Strange Bedfellows dealt with the major religions of the world–atheism, agnosticism, and humanism were, of course, omitted (I know, they aren’t religions). I read some things Confucius wrote that I found insightful. Interestingly, for about a month or two, I said I was a “Confuciunist.” I then read some stuff he wrote about keeping women subservient. My feministic leanings helped me realize that it wasn’t “The Way.” I then said I was an agnostic or atheist. At the time, I didn’t really know what the terms meant. I was “agnostic” because I couldn’t prove that there was no god, but I was “atheist” because I knew this Judeo-Christian-Islamic beast sure didn’t exist. At that time, I “chose” atheist because at that time “agnosticism” signified “just having doubts,” and I felt I was beyond that.
My parents weren’t that happy to have an avowed atheist in the family. My mother was almost offended at first, and told me I really couldn’t make such a claim until I had studied Aquinas and other Catholic theologians (I later read them and that helped make me a much stronger atheist). My father always championed an individual’s right to his opinion and didn’t really care what my religious opinions were. He did, though, once tell me something to the effect, “You are just an atheist to be different. Everyone knows Christianity is the right religion, like they know General Motors makes the best car. You’ll probably buy a Volvo to be different.” Two years later, my father traded in his Pontiac for a Lincoln.
In New Orleans Catholic school systems, boys can begin high school in eighth grade, but girls must wait until ninth. I am not 100% sure, but I think the reason has to do with football eligibility (really). I don’t think any of the Catholic high schools in New Orleans were co-ed 🙁 🙁 :(. In 8th grade I enrolled in the same High School which Richard Simmons attended (what a claim to fame!). Academically, this was a very good school. There were three things I didn’t like, 1) Religious instruction (you saw that one coming); 2) It was all-boys–it wasn’t until I got to college that I really knew how to act around females; and 3) we had to wear that most disgusting khaki (almost a vomit shade) uniform. I wasn’t vocal about being a non-believer, but the topic of religion got brought up in conversations with my classmates a few times. I remember a couple of my classmates telling me that they, too, were agnostic or atheist. One of these became salutatorian of the class. I attended this school for eighth, ninth, and the first half of tenth grade, but then some other things happened.
As I alluded to above, my parents separated when I was 10 and divorced when I was about 15. Some advice to anyone reading this, if you ever have to get divorced, leave your kids out of it. It’s been over 15 years since the separation and our family still isn’t all the way over it. My brother spent 3 months in a mental hospital for manic depression because of this, and I (getting the worst of the deal) would spend a year and a half in a Catholic boarding school. To steal a line from atheist comedian Rick Reynolds, the first ten years of my life were out of a Frank Capra movie, but the next six or so were out of a Franz Kafka novel.
The separation devastated my mother. She changed dramatically and grew to loathe my father (and frequently told my brother and I how and why she loathed him). In many ways I am like my father (appearance, personality, intelligence), and my mother and I grew to have a very bad relationship. When I was in 10th grade, I wanted to live with my father. Just before this, my father received a mammoth promotion at work to his company’s headquarters in Gulfport, Mississippi (about 70 miles East of New Orleans). For quite a few months, he maintained a condominium in Mississippi and a house in New Orleans. He was in the process of purchasing a home in Gulfport and selling his home in New Orleans. My father wanted me to live with him (and his wife who I have always had a good relationship with). The same order of clergy that control the high school in New Orleans also have a school in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi which is about 20 miles West of Gulfport. This school has both boarding and non-boarding students. My father suggested that once he was awarded custody, I be a boarding student for a month or two so he could get a house in Gulfport, I could better learn to drive to commute to the school, and to help with the transition. I wasn’t opposed to the idea and thought it would be a preview of college. In the middle of my tenth grade year, my mother said she was going to give my custody to my father and brought me to the school in Mississippi for enrollment. At literally the last moment, she, without reason, changed her mind. She kept my custody and still had me enrolled in the boarding school. To this day, I still believe that her primary motive for this was to spite my father. Alexander Pope was right, “Hell knows no fury like a woman scorned.” My father then filed suit for my custody.
The court date came to trial in the Summer between my tenth and eleventh grade year. My mother had a brilliant attorney. He used my atheism as evidence that I was “arrogant” and needed the discipline at the boarding school. While my father’s attorney questioned me as to my grades, future plans, and what not, my mother’s attorney attempted to make me look like a juvenile delinquent. After being questioned by both counselors, the judge then questioned me. Virtually all of the judge’s questions had to do with my atheism! No, church and state are not separate in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. This all happened just before the family courts there were overhauled. The judge who heard this case also heard all kinds of other cases, civil and criminal. The judge awarded custody to my mother and ordered that I remain in the boarding school and go to weekly counseling. The judge agreed that I was “arrogant.” I am accused of being a little arrogant as an adult, but at that time I was just the opposite. I was a “late bloomer,” a little nerdy, and had a pretty low self-esteem. I was a good kid; I was an honors student; to this day I have never smoked a joint or even a cigarette or taken illegal drugs, and didn’t drink until after I graduated high school. Needless to say, the decision devastated me. I almost took my life (planning to slit my wrists and write “thanks, mom” with the blood before I expired), but reason prevailed and I persevered. After my junior year of high school, my mother relinquished my custody to my father for a variety of reasons. But I still had to spend another year in boarding school, where I would once again see the intolerant side of religion rear its ugly head.
In my junior year, I lived in the junior/senior dorm. The brother (like a priest) who ran it and I had a good rapport. You see, most students in this boarding school were there because their parents could afford to keep them out of reform school. We had a few students from Latin America, who were most studious and a few others who were serious students, but most in the dorms were, for lack of a better phrase, problem students. One student there in my grade, I learned only last year, was there as part of a settlement with the Archdiocese of New Orleans after he was molested by a priest who video taped the acts. This student (who grew up near my step-brother) never graduated, and is now serving time in jail, for what it’s worth. I was an “A” student who never got into any trouble to speak of.
One night I was studying history in the common area with one or two of my classmates. The topic of religion was brought up and I mentioned that I was an atheist, without thinking much about it. I was obviously the first “out” atheist one of these guys had met. He began announcing to those in the area, “Ya know, Clark’s an atheist.” These two seniors were walking by and they were told of my non-belief. The next night, as I was walking to the drink machines, a couple of people said, “There goes Clark, the atheist.” I just blew it off, but these two seniors grabbed me, pushed me against a post, and one put a knife to my throat. The other held a lighter above my head as others shouted, “Inquisition!” and “Burn the Infidel!” Needless to say, I was scared shitless, though I wasn’t physically harmed. I went back to my room closed the door and cried. After I regained my composure I decided to report the incident to the brother in charge of the dorm. To his credit, he didn’t try to convert me or anything and only told me not to burn any bridges. He summoned the two seniors and only gave them an oral reprimand, though. The next day another senior told me that my turning in the perpetrators was “uncool.” The experience was anything but cool for me.
Enough bad stuff. A few years ago in college in Mobile, AL, I took my first philosophy class. It was there I got to read Russell, Hume, Darrow (yes, that Darrow), and even a little Nietzsche. When I first arrived in Mobile I sent off for information from American Atheists, getting their address out of my almanac. Although my current opinion of American Atheists is mixed at best, reading their information (the same quarter I took Intro to Philosophy) was a very eye opening experience for me–it was the first time I read stuff about religion that I agreed with. I became a pretty hardcore atheist. Unlike most atheists I know, I am not an avid reader, but for a few months I read tons of information on atheism, mostly by Russell and American Atheists. Also about this time, I saw an ad for the Freedom From Religion Foundation placed in a Mobile newspaper called the Harbinger (a liberal/intellectual paper geared toward Mobile’s university and art community). I sent for information and joined them also.
In the Spring of 1990, I received a postcard invitation to a “Freethought Blitz” weekend of activities in the Birmingham/Talladega, Alabama area as Dan Barker of FFRF was in town for a debate and concert. This weekend was truly one of the most monumental weekends of my life. For the first time, I met atheists and agnostics live and in person (about 30 or 40 of them). To this day, many of the people I met there are among my closest friends in the world. I became active with the Alabama Freethought Association, FFRF, and later the Atlanta Freethought Society. My main current activism is that I am the primary organizer of the LOLLAPALOOZA OF FREETHOUGHT each July at FFRF’s Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall. This event has each year featured over 100 freethinkers (with an average age much less that most freethought/atheist/humanist gatherings) and is truly an event.
I moved from Alabama to Georgia to attend the Univ. of Georgia. I became active with the Atlanta Freethought Society and even got on CNN Headline News. My first roommate at UGA worked in the Macintosh Lab at the Library. He first showed me the Internet and alt.atheism. He and I had a lot in common; we were both atheists, pretty liberal, antismokers, who were big fans of Rush (the Canadian atheistic rock band, not the human dirigible) and Jimmy Buffett. I think if we had been gay, we would have married. Reading and later participating on alt.atheism during “the golden age” really meant a lot to me. I thought I knew a lot about atheism until I read the writings of some of the posters there (unfortunately most of them are no longer posting regularly ):. I have organized three alt.atheism.* Meet ‘n Greets, and got to meet many folks I had “known” on the Net. I am an Internet Infidel and now moderate alt.atheism.moderated. I think the Secular Web on the Net will become the worldwide hub of godless information. I am indebted to the other Internet Infidels for providing this incredible service.
This has gone on too long, so let’s wrap it up. Well, time heals most wounds and most of my family accept my beliefs. My brother is also an atheist, though not as active as I. My mother and I have a good rapport, even though she married a man I’m not too fond of. My current job and the fact that I am living in Mississippi again prevent me from being the kind of activist I would like to be. Most of my activism is organizational, and I am a pretty content heretic.
Clark D. Adams -=Internet Infidel=-
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