The way I remember the moment, it must have been within a year of 1971, making me 7-9 years old. My family was riding along the freeway across Knoxville, Tennessee, where we lived. My brother and I were in the backseat, and my parents were up front. My brother was two years older and thus hardwired into the very center of grooviness, or so it seemed to me. My parents, at best, were dongles hanging from hippiedom.
Those were the days of the generation gap, which meant that it was our duty as cadres of the ongoing youth revolution to question everything openly. My poor folks had to put up with frequent challenges, often apropos of nothing. Thus, my brother chose a ride along the highway to announce that he didn’t want to attend church that Sunday.
Almost certainly it was my mother who asked why. Or maybe she anticipated his complaints by saying, “I know it’s boring, but …” (My dad would have simply said, “Tough.”)
I expected this to be a repeat of the already familiar arguments, in which I had played a part, over how boring church was. Back then, churches had no resemblance to theme parks, and on most weeks Sunday school was only slightly less stultifying than the main service.
But my brother said that he didn’t want to go because he didn’t believe in God.
At this moment my cosmological consciousness shifted irrevocably. In an instant, my subterranean mind raced through the implications, redid the calculations, and decided the world looked clearer. The best analogy is the way optometrists shift among different lenses; I suddenly felt, thrillingly, like I saw the world with lucidity. Even now, such moments are difficult to describe. Back then, all I said was that I didn’t believe in God either.
(By the way, even though I had hung around hippie-ish teenagers and adults, I had never heard anyone just come out and profess atheism. All I had heard were complaints about godless Commies and the like.)
The ensuing argument was predictable. My parents thought that my brother was just copying older kids and that I was just copying him. Probably he doubted me too. I had to go to church that Sunday and for years afterward, even though my parents knew my unwavering position.
This abrupt shift in my existential understanding led to many others – for example, everything living really, fully dies; other religions are equivalent to Christianity; on the scale of the universe, we’re not even big enough to be specks; plants and bacteria are our cousins; and so on. And the adventure continues, so I can’t claim that the god-free lens that I developed forty years ago, or the one I use now, is without distortion. But since then spiritual explanations, when carefully considered, have seemed like a much greater distortion.
In short, I had an epiphany.