From Worship Leader to Atheist Activist
From Worship Leader to Atheist Activist
By Steve Dustcircle
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Columbus, Ohio, USA
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Publisher’s Cataloging-in-Publication data
Leaving Worship / Steve Dustcircle.
ISBN-10: 1481875701 (Amazon)
ISBN-13: 978-1481875707 (Amazon)
ISBN: 9781311260543 (Shakespir)
1. Nonfiction » Religion, Philosophy
I. Dustcircle, Steve. II. Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
For Dr. Stenger,
for giving us the antidote for the god virus
From Worship Leader to Atheist Activist
This book is part autobiography and part philosophy.
When I tell people that I’m not a religious person, they either assume I’m mad at “God,” want to live an evil life, or am just going through a phase.
No, I was a real Christian. I had real faith. I did real Christian things and had real Christian experiences. I’m not in rebellion, and I’m not wanting to live an evil lifestyle. On the contrary, I feel I may have become even more ethical and moral since leaving Christianity.
I did Christian things. I spoke in tongues, I prophesied, and I felt “the Holy Spirit.” Also, I helped lead others into these experiences. They were real experiences. If they weren’t, then any religious person could possibly be misled.
Going from leading others in praise and worship to leaving worship, and killing the fear I had of “God” wasn’t taken lightly. My deconversion was like seeing a loved one die, the “relationship” that I had with my god.
May you read this book with an open mind. May my candid story and views be respected, as some are vulnerable to share.
IN THE BEGINNING
I’ve always considered myself a Christian, even from a young age. When asked one time what was the one thing I’d pull from my home if it ever caught on fire, I answered, my Bible. Not that I read the book at the time, but I revered it. It was yet holy. An icon.
I’ve always had early memories. I remember being in a baby carrier or car seat as an infant, looking up at an overpass from a parking lot. We moved from that apartment into our home after I turned one.
I remember trying to climb into my brother’s playpen. I must have been around 2 years old.
I remember specifically turning 6 years old, and that my dinner selection for my birthday was McDonald’s.
I remember being in trouble at times, but I thought I was a decent kid. My family’s friends thought we were “just good little boys.”
Sure I did stupid things, like disobey my parents. And when I got to my preteen years, I started to steal. Nothing big: a comic book here, loose change there. Nothing too big.
I remembered my Sunday school lessons about the Ten Commandments. I knew them by heart, in order. If I can get each of those commandments down, I would be more pleasing to God.
Stealing was an occasional hobby, one I’d stop doing eventually. If only I can obtain all Ten Commandments before I died.
I never killed anyone. I didn’t use the name of God “in vain,” whatever that meant. I didn’t even really cuss. I went to church every Sunday, and when my mother was alive, we went 2 or 3 times a week. I didn’t covet my neighbor’s wife, as she was old. Her daughter wasn’t too bad looking though.
In my mind, I was half way to God-approved, and needed to only get half my life in order. At 10 years old, I felt I wasn’t doing half bad, and that maybe God would understand if I fatally got hit by a car.
I also knew some of the Bible stories, at least the watered down ones, accompanied by a pretty pastel picture of white Jesus holding a lamb, or crossing a body of water to a well-crafted boat of scared fishermen in a downpour. But not everything is this pretty.
There was also paintings at the Christian bookstore I’ve seen as a child, of the end times. Bodies falling out of buildings, others flying into the sky in white linens. Planes crashing into buildings, cars crashing, supposedly unmanned. The gruesome future were depicted in my own renditions of copyright-violating doodles.
Salvation, death, the Devil, the Shepherd, my sin, Hell, reward. Many ideas—some ambiguous, some beyond comprehension—clouded my conscience. I had to chew on all of this before I hit my double-digits in years, and at the same time, try to maintain a suitable grade point average, try to keep my dad from spanking me, and not get also beat up at school.
Basically, I needed a mental break. I went on sabbatical. I watched movies with nudity at friends’ houses. I started to steal. I started to grab girls’ boobs. I started to cuss. I started to be a normal preteen. And I felt a bit at peace.
You know that moment when you release something into the air, realize that it’s about to land on something or somebody, and you hunch over hoping the inevitable won’t happen? And as it’s happening, you’re trying to figure out what to say to make everything better, when that falling object lands on the thing or person? I have had moments like that all my life.
I do something, and hope there’s no repercussion. Remorse, I think. Once I do something, I immediately realize it’s a bad idea, and I hope that it doesn’t have serious consequences. I did that with a rock one time. I was about twelve years old. Small rock, dark red, and barely heavier than a piece of wood. I hurled one time on the way to church, aiming straight down the tree line, to land on the sidewalk way down in front of us. Where it went, I didn’t know, but I was about to find out.
We got to church, and the next thing I know is someone from the church escorting two Chicago police officers toward me. They wanted to know if I threw a rock. Sure, but not at anyone. I’m not a criminal. Well, a windshield was cracked, and the person inside the vehicle saw where we went, and called the police.
Horrifying. Not that I threw a rock, or even got caught. But where we were at. Church. God’s house, God’s people. Even when I not trying to do something wrong, punishment will find me. The ever watching eye. And you never forget the feeling that you’re being watched.
I don’t think I got a spanking for this twelve year old experience, but I had to return the brand new stereo I had just bought that weekend with my paper route money. Two months of income, to pay for a cracked windshield. My timing is impeccable.
I wasn’t dumb though. I knew that rock was too light to crack anything. I pleaded my case to my dad. The rock I used was light, and the windshield was probably already cracked and I was getting the shaft. The reply: Anything can crack a windshield.
I had no choice. Many hours of bagging, delivering and invoicing neighbors for newspaper delivery went to some conniving jerk who was trying to take advantage of a young boy. Somehow my dad returned the stereo for me and paid the man or woman.
Did the window break from my rock? Probably. But my suspicion of adults and superiors was starting to creep in.
Not long after that, my dad said that we can stop going to church if we wanted to. I was a teenager now, at thirteen, and that we can make up our own minds about church and God. I appreciated that, and might have even continued to go for a week or two, but then stopped completely.
Unknowingly, my dad had been done with God. He even remarried several months after my mother’s death to his high school sweetheart, a Catholic. In my Wesleyan Church, he might as well have married a Hindu, a Shaman or even an Atheist, whatever those 3 things were!
I didn’t know much about Catholicism, and I don’t think my dad took on a new religion, but his lack of encouraging us to participate in church was great. I hated getting dressed up. Slacks, tie, undershirt, dress shoes. I felt like a freak walking the 2 blocks, rushing across the busy street, hoping no one would see us in our Sunday Best, especially a fellow schoolmate. I thought I was picked on enough at school, but I’d never hear the end of it if a friend from school saw us in our slacks and ties, and plastered Richard Cunningham haircuts.
The guilt of not going to church lasted quite a long time, though I cannot recall when it subsided. We moved to the suburbs, and that was that.
New beginnings. New home. New phone number. And none of the old church folk visiting.
I didn’t think I was that bad of a kid, though my father would probably tell you differently. I stole occasionally, of which I was only caught twice, both times because of an oversight of another. How? Well, let me explain.
Once, my brother was with me and he pocketed a cassette single in front of a record store customer or clerk. We were followed through the mall, and were apprehended outside.
The other time, I stole a pack of smokes for a friend—why I could never tell you, as I didn’t smoke—and he’s been watched for suspicion of stealing since we entered the store. We were apprehended exiting the store. Those are the only two times that my father knew I had stolen something that I know of.
I really wasn’t that bad of an early teen.
I didn’t cuss much at all, let alone in front of my father and step-mother. I didn’t drink but maybe twice in my teen years. I never used drugs but for once—I didn’t like it. I didn’t have a crazy hairstyle, as I had a dress code to uphold. But my brother and I were always getting a beating for something.
I could never remember what we were getting punished for. When I was very little, my brother—who’s nineteen months younger—and I got spanked pretty badly for playing too loud on the back porch, our playroom. I got licked badly for the aforementioned stealing I did. I remember getting it many times before school. But I could never remember what it was for. It seemed as if it were a deterrent spanking, to prevent a low offense from turning into something bigger down the road.
My dad’s job at a factory caused him to shift schedules at times. For several years, he’d work second shift, but a couple of years later, he’d be on midnights. So, if we played too loud as children, or fingered around with our food, we would get it in the morning.
Now for me, this is late night, as you can imagine how easy it is to sleep when you’re dreading a spanking. You lie there in horror, knowing the inevitable. Sometimes I’d fall asleep right away, only to have my internal clock wake me up. I remember long hours in the dark, feet away from my brother’s light snore, wondering if my mother had forgotten, or how mad he’ll be. Most of the time we got it good; but once in a while, nothing would come of it. No spanking for playing loud. Inconsistence.
Spankings were what most children got, at least in my neighborhood, but I had no clue there were varying degrees of swatting or paddling.
In my ignorance, I thought all children got the spankings we got. My dad had one of those paddles with handles, about an inch thick. Conservatively, I’d guess we got about 10 to 20 hard whacks with the paddle, us squirming around, trying not to fly all over the place. Our buttocks, thighs and lower back would be bruised.
Not that my dad was trying to hit us just anywhere. It was just that he hit us so swiftly between yelling, that we couldn’t help but convulse. Discoloration was the norm, shifting buttocks in class was torture, and the knowledge of neighbors overhearing our screams through open, Spring windows was an embarrassment. Somehow, my brother has very little recollection of these weekly sessions.
I tell you this story, to lead to this one: God is called a “father.” Cliché, I know, but I felt that God was like this in some way. Forgiving, yes; but if I lived in sin, and died without asking him for his forgiveness at the last minute, I would face Hell.
Awaiting a disobedient boy, in addition to spankings, is a hell-fire beyond imagination, where the death you wish for would never be granted. Like dad, but worse.
Sure, my dad had tender moments. He took us places. I received good birthday gifts. Meals were provided. He worked long hours to give us a decent neighborhood to live in.
He loved us, as God does: in his own way.
DEATH BE NOT PROUD
Death came home to me at 10 years old.
My mother caught cancer the year previous, and though we were told—and my dad being gently honest with us—she would eventually die, I held hope that prayers would be answered by the faithful and that my mother would always be there.
When she finally died, I realized as best a 10-year old can that death will eventually come for us all. It was just a matter of time.
You figure this out when you’re little, though death really means little to you unless you lose a close relative. All you know is that at one point something is alive. The next, it’s not.
You can do this with an ant hill and a magnifying glass. Utilizing science beyond your vocabulary, you’re magnifying the sun’s rays into the pile of ants, patiently, until a few of them start to cook.
You can actually see the smoke start to billow off of the ones on top, as ones nearby take off running in this direction and that. You have no clue what it feels like to the ants, nor do you really care.
If you’re not the patient type, you skip the magnifying glass, and simply scatter the ant mound across the sidewalk in a bloodless sweep, imagining screams of torment in your head.
Essentially, this is rather sadistic: Killing something because it’s fun. But it’s what boys do. We don’t know any better. We’re only entertaining ourselves, perhaps as a deity does. Watching, playing, torching?
You can’t really wrap your mind around the concept at a young age because your brain is still developing. Hell, even as an adult, we still don’t fully understand death. Nations go to war and kill each other because we don’t agree on what happens after death.
No one has ever died and come back. I mean, really die. Sure, there is the occasional crazy lady that dies, goes to and fro in an imagined tunnel, and comes back to life.
Or the old man, returning from leaving clouds and people dressed in white. Or that child who went to Heaven and returned, only to have his story written and soon to become a film. Sure, there are stories, but that is all they are.
I don’t buy these stories. But I used to. Why would so many people have similar stories? Floating above your physical body (astral projection?), walking down a dark tunnel into a bright, welcoming light, and then entering a cloudy Heaven where you see loved ones. Who else do you see? Jesus! Caucasian Jesus, usually. But sometimes it’s Nigerian Jesus, if you’re African-American. Or maybe it’s Mohammad? Without a face, of course, because no one can draw or describe him and not die for doing so.
I used to believe that Jesus once died and rose again (which we’ll touch on in another chapter), but even this is hear-say, as the accounts about this resurrection were written by non-eyewitnesses a generation or two after the time period Jesus supposedly been alive. But I didn’t know that at the time, when I was a child.
I was told something by an adult because they knew more than I did, and I believed them. Why shouldn’t I? Track record.
“Don’t touch the stove, it’s hot.” Ouch!
I don’t remember anyone close to the family dying when I was very little. I did know a couple of classmates who had no father or mother, and might remember one girl in school going through the loss of a family member.
When I was 8 years old, my mother was complaining about a lump in her neck. Sheltered from most of the details, my mom and dad eventually sat my 7 year old brother and I down to tell us that Mommy was sick.
Sick? No biggie. I’ve been sick. Everyone’s been sick. Take a load off, Mommy, I’ve got cereal. Relax. But what was I to know? I’m only 8. I can barely see over the kitchen table, let alone being to help out with good advice.
One and a half years, my mother was in and out of the hospital, going to doctor’s appointments, sometimes in ICU or the ER. Sometimes she seemed fine. Honestly, I don’t recall many details. Only confusion. Concern. Loneliness.
I didn’t know what was going on really, nor can I bring to mind the order of events. Just a trickle of memory here and there, in no particular order.
Some things I can recall: Church people bringing groceries, religious friends of the family coming by to visit, eating alone with just my dad and brother, my grandparents always being over (sometimes sleeping over), babysitters being hired, meals not tasting the same, being pulled out of class for a hospital run, people praying for healing for my mother, etc.
Time progressed, and I watched my mother wilt. Winter of 1987, she was very frail. Tubes came out of various holes to help her breath and feed. She had lost her long, straight hair, and now she wore a curly wig. My father had to carry her to the toilet.
My tenth birthday, I invited two school friends to come over for my birthday, but neither showed. My mother was bed-ridden, but she was home. I enjoyed my favorite meal, per annual request: fried chicken. My mother could barely eat a chicken wing. But she watched me open my gifts, probably smiling inside.
Two weeks later, she died.
That school day started out fine, but felt odd to me. A cloud above sort of thing. Some time during school, my brother and I were removed from class, brought home, my dad told us we had to go to the hospital to say goodbye to our mother.
The word, goodbye, slipped right by me. But I remember it being said.
We got to the hospital, our seemingly second home, and my grandparents (and my uncles and aunt) were either already there, or got there after we did. We were at my mother’s bedside, and I had no clue that this was going to be the last time I saw her. I said a few words, as did my brother, and we headed down to the cafeteria.
Everything seemed normal, as normal as you can expect, having a mother dying, but it was consistent, you know? My aunt came down to get my dad in a hurry, and my uncle (I think) stayed with Jason and I while we ate. “It’s…now,” she said to my dad.
What happened next, I don’t know. But walking out to the car, I said to my dad, “I thought something had happened today, when we were pulled out of class.” I was relieved that the day seemed normal. But it wasn’t.
He stopped us outside of the car, and told us what he told us a year back would happen. Mommy had died. She’s gone, and I didn’t think it would happen. I remember hearing it. I remember him and my mother saying it was inevitable (one to three years, I think I recall the doctor giving, nineteen months back).
And here it is.
How does a ten-year-old wrap their mind around death? The death of a parent. Seems so damned permanent. Like a divorce, kinda. But more permanent.
At home, everyone as there. More and more people showed. It was a crowded house, and my dad being a quiet guy, I can’t imagine what was going through his head.
The loss of a wife. A crowded house. A job to hold. Kids to feed.
Music has always meant a lot to me. As far back as I can remember, I always sang, hummed, or air-guitared. I even have a cassette my parents had saved for me, from when I was about one or two years old, singing along to an Elvis record.
Music is powerful.
While I have never quite understood the hysteria that watching sports does to people, I know the emotions that certain songs, verses, guitar solos, and even rests can evoke within the soul. I’ve smiled, I’ve sang along, I’ve danced, and I’ve cried—all along with the music, usually during the hours and hours I’d spend in the basement of my childhood house playing pool by myself, while playing my records.
I always felt called to the stage, performing music as a lead guitarist or lead singer. Probably both. Needless to say, I’m not a popular singer or guitarist, but as all dreams are, this calling felt real.
When music affects you the way it affects me, you realize what works and what doesn’t, emotionally. Some songs are bland in the beginning and then enter an ecstatic chorus. Some start off strong and feel like they’re going somewhere they never go. Even if you can’t write a song, you learn how to play one. You know when to quiet down, when to up the crescendo, when to slow it down a bit, and when to rise the tempo.
Essentially, music is like telling a story without talking.
When you love music like I do, you collect and you organize. Then you acquire more, and then you have to reorganize.
Shortly after I had re-Christianized myself at eighteen years old, I had a small collection of tapes. I recall feeling convicted about my music collection and felt the need to get rid of some of the more darker music in my collection. I can’t remember if I got rid of everything non-Christian, but in halves I broke the heavy metal and alternative rock cassettes, feeling like I was breaking apart the evil that lurked within.
I wouldn’t say necessarily that I felt like God was telling me to do it, but I felt like he’d be pleased with my re-dedication to him. It wasn’t easy either. Some of these bands were some of my favorites. It’s heart-breaking, really.
The cassettes that remained—mostly Christian artists and adult contemporary music—I began to cluster into two groupings: blatantly Christian and secular. But this task isn’t the easiest.
Where do you put the tapes that kind of fall in between? You know, the bands that have Christians in them, or bands that have spiritual undertones but aren’t on Christian record labels. Where do you put bands like U2, Elvis, Collective Soul, Live, Creed, Depeche Mode, MC Hammer, and other artists like that? Many of these artists have spiritual songs, religious albums out, or are Christians themselves.
People in general like to categorize. We like to label everything.
These are the political books, but these are history. These are religious books, but these are philosophical. These are rock CDs, but over here is the blues. Country music over here, but here are the folk CDs.
But where is the line? Surely there are blues-rock bands, as there are folky-country singers—and there are performers that do blues-based country songs on acoustic guitar. What section of tapes or CDs do those fall under? There are religiously-minded books on thought, and there are political books that contain history—and there are books that can fall into more than two categories.
Is there a clear way one can organize without having what they’re looking for to become lost in the multiple groupings?
I’m not just talking about music or book collections. We group people, also. Christians and non-Christians, religionists and apostates, atheists and disillusioned, leaders and the led.
When I was a Christian, I did this with people, too. There were two groupings: the saved, and the unsaved. But there was an area also where there was a fence, where people on either side were straddling it. Christians on the fence could fall off, the ones that were “easily deceived” or “weak,” in which they would backslide. Non-Christians on the fence were people that just needed a little nudge to “find God,” in which they would convert into being a Christian.
Nowadays, my music isn’t categorized. It is in order, however. Alphabetized by band or artist name, with a section apart for compilations. Nice, tidy, easy, and less judgmental.
I liked to work.
I also liked to bike, or run. I liked to play my guitar. I liked to be productive.
I liked my hobbies, even if it was sorting out my baseball cards and placing them into binders and sleeves based on production company, then by year, then by condition (if I had duplicates). My comic books, I sorted out by character, then by series title, then by issue number. Organized. Just how life should be.
But life is not always organized. Not everything fits together. Sometimes you get punished severely for a tiny mishap. Sometimes you got hardly any reprimand for a serious infraction. Sometimes you got away with everything. Sometimes, you catch in the face what others are throwing.
I never knew where I stood with my dad. I just assumed he didn’t like me. Didn’t like my music. Didn’t like my hair. Didn’t like my curious questioning. Didn’t seem to like anything, actually.
He was mad about his factory job. He was mad that it took 6 tries to finally get the daughter he wanted. He was mad he lost his wife, his second marriage—the first being a divorce. He was mad that his 2 previous sons didn’t want to talk to him at the time (he is now in touch with the eldest). He was mad that God abandoned him. And I caught the brunt of it, no matter how tedious the offense was.
“Why did you marry your first wife, Daddy?” I asked one time. “Because we got drunk.” Try to sort that out, reasonably, when you’re a small child. I didn’t ever want to get drunk, because when you’re drunk, you marry someone you don’t like. And then you beat your kids. Skip that.
I found refuge in doing what others tend to dislike: Working.
The last time I got in trouble for stealing (cigarettes for a friend), I decided that if I wanted something, I’d go out and get it. But to get what I want, at minimal hassle, I was going to have to get cleverer, or get a job. Not much one can do at 14 years old, but maybe do what you know how to do at home, but actually get paid for it.
So, my then buddy and I started going around to various places, asking them if they needed anything done. Lawn-mowing for the carpet place? They had a crew that did it. Need someone to wash dishes at Red Lobster? A year too young. Clerk at the card shop? Have to be older.
We couldn’t find anything that a 14 year old can do, no matter how willing we were to take a price cut, or work off the cuff.
Finally, my friend Eric told me about the job he scored. You go into this restaurant with limited windows and ask for a busboy job. Tell the manager, Barb, that I was sent over. No application, no age restriction, just a reference and request.
And the money was good.
Folding napkins, pulling plates, throwing down tablecloths, running food trays, filling water and coffee, sweeping the carpet, and learning Spanish. I was walking out of there with $30-70/night in tips. Not bad. I had to wear dress shoes and a tie, but I can handle that for that kind of money. I might even be up for church-type activities for this kind of pay.
It got me out of the house. The manager was a bitch, but I was used to that sort of thing at home. I was making money to buy myself what I used to steal: Music, baseball cards, comics and candy. I was working hard, but it was air-conditioned, and I was building muscle on my tiny frame. And the waitresses thought I was adorable. I almost wonder if they were tipping me higher than I was actually supposed to be earning, now that I’ve been on the other side of the server/busboy roles. It wasn’t awesome, but I was content.
Anything to avoid a factory job.
I hung out with different people in high school, but mostly with 1 friend or small group for a year or two, and slowly move to another “best friend” or circle the next year. Some of the kids I was hanging out with claimed to be gang-affiliated, but you never know.
Their “gang” was never around, but I was. So, whatever allegiance they had didn’t show up much, but I tended to be sympathetic and even intrigued by it. Something about Belonging, as the professionals would call it.
Whether or not I thought I was something, I wanted to not be the guy the other kids picked on. I was short. I was dorky. We weren’t a rich family, so I didn’t have all of the cool trends, but I had just enough name brands to fend off some critique. In retrospect, I think the kids mostly made fun of me not by my attire, but how I carried myself.
I was insecure, inexperienced, sheltered, short, thin, quiet, had bigger eyes and teeth than my head would allow. I felt I looked like Gordie from “Stand by Me,” and didn’t like it.
And I’d let the classmates know. I’d call them names. I’d threaten them. I’d call their mother names. I’d suggest they do things to their fathers. I’d draw disgusting pictures in front of them. I’d show them fresh scars on my arms. All my pain, I’m willing to give to you in a beat-down. Just give me a chance.
And I bought a knife. And a second one. Then a pellet gun. I’ve been jumped twice, and in a couple of fights, and I wasn’t going to lose another fight to someone several inches taller than me.
But that day never came. I never stabbed anyone. Never shot at anyone, though a pellet gun would have to go through an eyeball to probably be fatal. What did I know? I wanted it for intimidation, to scare away from the bullies.
There was one evening, and I can’t remember what had happened, but I walked silently into my dad and step-mom’s room, held the pellet gun above my dad’s closed right eyeball, and thought about what would happen if I suppressed the trigger. Those 20 seconds seemed like 20 minutes. I didn’t breathe. I watched him breathing. My step-mother snoring. I could hear a ticking; maybe a watch. I felt like I could hear the carpet crunching under my bare feet.
I inched out of the room, and closed the door, knob turned until the door was flush with the frame, and I again turned the knob. I think I held my breath until I reached my room.
Seeing my dad in that vulnerable of a position was enough for me. I didn’t have to shoot him. I had control, at least for that one moment. I felt empowered.
I wouldn’t have known where to get a real gun. I had the finances, but not the resources. I’m sure the right people were in my life to purchase a real life firearm, but it would’ve been found by my father. He was always finding stuff I find thrown away on the ground: pages from a ripped up porno magazine, or unused smoke bombs. I’m surprised he didn’t find the pellet gun.
But he didn’t. I lost it to the cops one day when I was walking down the street. I loaded it in plain view on an early Saturday morning while walking down the street, and someone called it in to the dispatcher.
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This candid autobiography of Steve Dustcircle's is focused mostly on his deconversion over the years, what led him to leaving Christianity, and the problems within religion itself. Told in narration style, he tells of the contradictions in the Bible, the errors of the Christian church, and how the people within religion could see things differently.