What Made Me Turn To Atheism

    By Carl Zimmerling | April 2000
    Freedom From Religion Foundation

    It really started over sixty years ago in (Nazi) Germany where I was born and where I spent my childhood and youth, while I was raised by moderately Christian (Lutheran) parents. Already in grade school, we were told that the Jews were evil because they did not believe in Christ and that they were “Jesus killers.” I can still remember the “Kristall Nacht” (Crystal night) when synagogues were burned to the ground along with Jewish department stores. Other Jewish businesses were ransacked and the show windows smashed. I asked my mother “Why?” and she could only confirm what I already knew from school and she really didn’t want to talk about it. As far as I was concerned there were only two “good” religions, Protestants and Catholics.

    One of my teachers was a member of the “Waffen SS” and I can remember when he came to school in uniform with the imprint on his belt buckle, “Gott ist mit uns” (God is with us). He was very strict and attendance of the Wednesday afternoon Hitler Youth meetings were just as important as school attendance. That is where I had my first experience in brainwashing, just as American children are brainwashed today in bible school and the like. It seems to make little difference, whether brainwashing through politics or by religion, children are most vulnerable.

    Going through secondary education, I chose natural sciences and astronomy and my skepticism about religion became increasingly stronger. It just did not add up: what I was taught about creationism vs. evolution, the importance of our planet according to religious teachings versus what it really is, an insignificant, imperfect speck in a vast universe which happens to be able to support human life somewhat for the time being.

    For most of the time after 1956 in North America, I was involved in my own business in the electronics industry and had the privilege to travel on business to more than 50 countries in over 20 years. I made friends in places such as Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt, Peru, Columbia, Mexico, Venezuela, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Korea, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Kenya and so on. Whenever the subject “religion” was touched I was very careful with my comments. After all they were my customers.

    As one example only, I experienced the ultimate in (religious) hypocrisy in Kuwait, one of a number of nations with severe religious restrictions. Religious police here and in other Islamic nations censor imported newspapers and magazines, searching for illustrations of sparsely clad pin-up girls and the like. Any such illustrations are either blacked out with marking pen or the entire page is cut out. Alcohol and magazines such as Playboy or Penthouse are strictly forbidden and illegal importation is heavily punished. Extramarital affairs by wives could almost cost the offending female’s life, while married men openly have girlfriends. It was in Kuwait where I was invited to one of their weekly social gatherings outside of the city in a type of stone weekend cottage. After having traveled through several far eastern countries before where I usually had dinner and alcoholic beverages with my hosts, I did not expect to even see alcohol in Kuwait. This time, not only did the Kuwaiti and Saudi men bring married female girlfriends to the party, smuggled Scotch Whisky was available in abundance and the walls were covered with Playboy centerfolds. I do not remember how I got back to the hotel that night; the Arab hospitality was overwhelming and I was more than slightly intoxicated. Upon careful questioning of what would happen if the police would find out about these apparently regular Thursday evening parties, I was assured that there was nothing to worry about; Kuwaiti law enforcement officers were doing the same thing somewhere in the neighborhood, maybe right next door!

    When I saw the results of religious divisions in Lebanon and Northern Ireland during their armed conflicts, I was turning more and more to agnosticism. My visit to Israel confirmed my feelings ever more—how can a so-called merciful, loving “god” allow so many people to kill each other over “him,” over differences in illogical religious views and traditions? Why did he not show up at the town square in Beirut, show his powers and force the adversaries to stop the killing and destruction over religion?

    Some of my travels had taken me to the former Yugoslavia during Tito’s days and even then “cultural” rifts were noticeable and were obviously instigated by religious traditions. While talking to locals, it was emphasized that “I’m Christian, not a Moslem,” or vice versa (did I really care?). Which brings us to Bosnia a few years ago and Kosovo today. One could almost foresee “ethnic” (religious) military conflict, considering that about 600 years ago Turkish Moslems forced the Christian Serbs out of Kosovo, if they were not killed or the women raped. Now the good “orthodox Christians” had to take revenge and do the same to the Moslem Albanian inhabitants of Kosovo. Yet, none of today’s generation had been involved in what happened 600 years ago, they just happened to be born there into an ancient Moslem society. Now the whole world has to pay for it, first when we paid for guns and bombs and now to re-build the economies of both sides.

    One other “turn off” on religion was my own dear mother. She converted in later life from a moderate Lutheran to a Jehovah’s Witness and tried to convert me too. She assured me that only 40,000 selected Witnesses would be allowed to go to heaven and she hoped and prayed to be one of them. Fortunately, she never needed a blood transfusion, she most certainly would have rejected it, as she was taught by the Witnesses’ version of the bible.

    Is it any wonder that I gradually accepted atheism as the only way out? After seeing the “Green Line” in Beirut, with Moslems living in West Beirut and Christians on the east side and while over 200,000 were killed during the “civil” religious war. After seeing the same in Belfast, after visiting Islamic extremist nations such as Libya and Iran, and after seeing how the “Christian” white South Africans treated their black African “brothers” (were they not created equal by God?).

    How can I have any respect left for any of the hundreds of religious teachings? Maybe the Christian Coalition would prefer to see this country turn into another Lebanon, Northern Ireland or Kosovo? In Nazi Germany, we were not allowed to listen to the Voice of America or to BBC News and now school boards in Kansas have voted that evolution cannot be taught any more, it is forbidden. Is this a sign of things to come? When will they start burning antireligious books? Religious dictatorship is not so far from political dictatorship.

    I consider my overseas travels a privilege and only wish that more Americans could have gone through similar eye-opening experiences. Unfortunately, religious tradition obviously still is by far too powerful, even though it is only based on ancient hear-say, hundreds of different interpretations of scriptures and usually is totally contradictory to scientific reality.

    The writer is a Freedom From Religion Foundation member living in the state of New York.

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