This is one of a series of autobiographical stories of how people became atheists. The inspiration for it was the idea that one of the reasons we’re America’s least-trusted minority is that many see the label but not the person behind it. These narratives are intended to show the human face of atheists to those who currently have only a stereotypical and probably negative image of us to go by. Guest writers are encouraged to contribute their stories. Contact me via my Facebook page for more details.
Today’s essay is by Christine Brean, 71 years old, a mother of two children and grandmother of six, living in Gardena, California. Before she retired, Christine owned her own woodworking and furniture-manufacturing business.
How I became an atheist – Christine’s story
Sometimes something is said and it immediately changes our views on life. Most of the time though, we change our minds slowly. Someone voices an idea and we take it home, mull it over, and add it to our file of interesting things. Later, another thought is ingested and gets added to our mental filing cabinet. If enough of those ideas and thoughts happen we may find ourselves changing our minds. For example, my father supported the Viet Nam War. He was a retired Gung-Ho Marine. It took many, many comments, news reports, demonstrations, and conversations, but eventually he said to me, “I don’t think we should be there.” I was a college student at the time and I was overjoyed but thought to myself, “What took you so long?” Our worldview may change over time but it hardly ever changes in an instant. Atheism came slowly to me, but I had a worldview change in an instant. It was traumatic and it eventually led to my atheism.
I was born and raised in the South. Charles, a relative, was a railroad fireman (he shoveled coal into the oven which made the heat that ran the engine—that was a long time ago.). Twice a week, from the time I was a toddler to about the age 7, I accompanied my sister (19 years older than me) on a trip to the railroad station to drop-off or pick up Charles. Inside the station were 4 bathrooms and two water fountains so that blacks and whites didn’t have to share facilities. As we drove to and from our home to the station, we had to pass by the black section of town too.
In this part of town many of the windows of the homes had cardboard or newspaper on them instead of glass. Others were just holes—no newspaper and no glass. The yards were just dust and dirt without a single green plant although occasionally a house had a tree in the yard. Most houses were built up off the ground (to prevent rain from washing in) so that there were four or five stairs to get to the front porch. Some had wooden steps, others steps of brick. Whether wood or brick the steps were either crooked or broken. I remember wondering how the heck people got up those steps to get to their houses.
There were often old cars and old car parts in the yard along with broken furniture and trash. The paint was pealing off the clapboards and some houses looked like they never had been painted. I can remember hearing my sister say, “How can people live like that?” It was so very different from our home. We had plants in the yard; a large weeping willow gave us lots of shade and there was a playhouse for the kids. None of our bricks were broken and every year some part of the house got painted or oiled. Everything worked and the car was always parked inside the garage. In fact, our garage was ten times in better repair than any of the houses I saw in that “shanty town”.
I went to an all-white school and all my friends were white. I remember a conversation the adults had when a black man was accused of some horrible crime. The adults spoke of lynching him and I remember that they concluded that the “Klan” would handle it. The adults figured that “one example would keep them in their place.” I was confused by this because they seemed to say it didn’t even matter if the accused was guilty; any black man they grabbed would do the trick. They said that “Henry (who was he?) would bring it up at the meeting.” Most adult conversations I overheard when I was 6 and 7 I’ve forgotten, others are vague in my memory, but for some reason, this one “stuck.”
I also remember the adults talking about those “idiotic Northern States” (any state not in the South was a Northern State even if it were in the West—so California, Oregon, Arizona, et al., were all Northern States). These states allowed inter-racial marriage. That alone made them idiotic!
This was my childhood. This is what I lived. This is all I knew. This is what structured my worldview. Me and hundreds of thousands of others growing up at the same time all thought alike.
In 1947 my parents and I moved to San Diego while the rest of the family stayed in the South. Entering the elementary school, I went through “culture shock.” I was surprised to find that blacks and whites attended the same classes though in the whole school there were only 3 or 4 black children. There were no separate drinking fountains, and blacks were not required to go to the back of the bus. When I questioned my mother about the difference, she told me that “They do things differently here in the North and we have to follow their rules while we’re here.”
But in some ways California was not all that different than the South. At that time, at least in San Diego County, I saw no black professional people, no black teachers, no black administrators and no blacks in any supervisory jobs. Blacks were the janitors, trash haulers, or maids. As far as I was concerned this was all they were capable of and the people of California seemed to know it. They were just nicer about it by hiding their prejudices.
I entered High School in the 1950’s–a time when the Civil Rights Movement was starting and was discussed in Social Studies. My classmates had trouble understanding why the South was so discriminatory. “What was wrong with a black man eating at a white man’s cafe?” What did they know–they hadn’t lived there. They all assured me that here in California, blacks had equal rights, rightfully so.
Sine I did well in school, I was upset when a black girl–Helen Quigley–constantly got better grades than me. I didn’t dare tell my mother that I was being bested by a black girl so I continued to try harder to outdo her.
Helenand I sat next to each other in the Chemistry class. I hated Chemistry—it was so hard and it seemed to come so easy to her. I’d get a 84 in a test and Helen would get a 90. I’d get a 90, she’d get a 92! I was irritated but remained competitive. I was not going to be outdone and, as much as I hated Chemistry, I studied hard to prove I was better than her. It became harder and harder.
The mid-semester Chemistry tests were given. And it was the day that we received those test scores that Helen and I had a conversation that changed my life. After we compared scores and I was once again outdone, she told me she was dropping out. “Why? You are at the top of the class” I responded. She said she had a chance of getting a job where her mother worked—as a maid for a hotel. Then I asked, “You mean you are dropping out of High School?” She confirmed it. That was ridiculous and I told her so. She was a shoe-in for a scholarship. I told her “Why in the world would you want to quit now when college was within reach?” And then she gave me those fateful words—words that hurt as much as if I had been punched in my stomach; words that took my breathe away; words that shocked, dismayed, and destroyed all that I had believed. She said, “Even if I go to college, I will never be anything other than a maid.”
I was unable to answer because I had no breath—it was as if I had been punched in the abdomen. It hurt. It hurt so badly that I was speechless. And it hurt because she was right! She was right and I was wrong. I was completely wrong. Wrong in what I thought; wrong in what I had been taught; wrong in what I believed. Here was a black person who was smarter than me—in fact smarter than most–and she deserved a chance. She deserved to contribute, to participate, to enjoy everything as much as everyone else. Yet because of the color of her skin she was to be denied? That was just plain stupid. Stupid. With that one sentence I realized how I and and so many others had condemned a whole group of people for no good reason. Some of us were outright prejudiced; others disguised their prejudices. Obvious or covert, we were wrong. 100 percent wrong. Helen, who was on the receiving end, deserved better– much, much better and it was my stupidity along with millions of others that kept that stupid idea alive. I was wrong. And I had been wrong all along. The words rang in my ears: “Even if I go to college, I will never be anything other than a maid.” How could that happen? This was America. At the start of school each day I repeated, “. . . with liberty and justice to all.” . This was wrong. Was the whole world nuts? Does everybody say one thing and do another?
My worldview changed in that instant. And it hurt. But it was such an eye opener that I starting thinking, “What other things have I been believing that aren’t true? What has been drilled into me, besides Santa Claus, that just isn’t true?” I started examining my beliefs.
Because my prejudice disappeared, I was open to new thoughts and the barriers to atheism had been lifted.
Within 10 years California adopted Affirmative Action. It was very necessary then. I have often wondered what became of Helen. I could not have offered her any advise when she dropped out of school. There were no Black Study groups. Although I may have known of George Washington Carver I had no idea how he achieved his fame. I’ll bet that even Helen didn’t know. Universities started teaching Black History and it gave hope and encouragement to people who were no longer destined to be on the bottom of the ladder. I often hope that life has been better to Helen than what she envisioned back in 1957. At least, I hope her children got to go to college. And I hope her children know of her struggles and her pain. She had been caught in a loop that she felt was fatal. Change was around the corner but we didn’t know it yet.
I’ve tried locating Helen to thank for teaching me such a very important lesson. It’s strange how deeply we can affect someone’s life with just a few words and never know we made a difference. I can never thank her enough. It’s a shame she doesn’t know how grateful I am.
The following year I was helping my mother with the annual waxing of the furniture. While working I asked her, “If God knows the future, what good is prayer?” She answered, “Stop asking foolish questions and get back to work.” By the time I married I had given up the personal-god idea, much to my family’s dismay. That idea didn’t make any sense at all. But I still pondered how the world got here. It didn’t just pop into existence, did it?
Because I gave up the personal-god idea, my family called me an atheist but I was actually an agnostic. And when my baby was born my sister tried to convince my Mom to help her get the State to declare me an unfit mother. “After all,” she said, “how can you raise a child without God in your life—the child won’t feel the love of Christ.” She wanted to take my daughter and raise her along with her other five god-fearing children. fortunately, it didn’t work. I kept my baby. Later, when my daughter was 8 years old, I had an eye-opening conversation with a Rabbi. I inquired, “There must be something that started this universe, yes?” He asked me if I believed the statement, “God always was and always will be.” Well, “Yes,” I said. He suggested if I could believe that then I could believe “The universe always was and always will be.” I walked away from that conversation an atheist. I converted. With the help of a Rabbi , no less!
It was a long struggle but at last I was free. I was free of all the things that were pumped into me because of “tradition” or “custom” or because no one knew of any other way. I was free to think for myself—at long, long last.
I became the black sheep of the family: an atheist that believed in “justice for all.” And I’m proud of it.
Other essays in the “How I became an atheist” series:
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