There are two important pieces of background information crucial to understanding this story. The first is my religious background. My mother came from a more traditional, stricter Irish Catholic family than my father's. He was more passive in our early exposure to religion as a result. (UPDATE: I have edited this paragraph to remove some spurious information.)
The first big blow to my eldest siblings' attitudes towards religion was that they ended up having a traumatic experience in the Chicago parochial schools to which they were sent. Like totally evil nuns, horror stories which are not mine to tell, etc. When we moved to Arizona, we all attended public schools. We still went to Catholic church every Sunday, but the church in Tucson was... different, less stern, more liberal. This was the early 70s, after all: my earliest church memories contain neither fire nor brimstone, but felt banners with doves and daisies and, oh no, folk mass, which made me hate Bob Dylan forever. To me it was boring and, worse, corny. It never held even the slightest appeal to me. One by one, each of my siblings dropped out of church activities, and since I was a bit of a caboose baby, by the time my mother made a last-ditch attempt to get me to go through confirmation, my brother and sisters openly derided her "indoctrination" efforts as I rolled my eyes. Poor Mom! I'll give her credit: she was never, ever overbearing or mean with her religious guidance. Perhaps this prevented her guidance from being effective, but at least it left no scars. She ceded without much drama.
The other piece of background information is this: I am so into Dinosaurs! Endlessly fascinated! My first exposure came in first grade, when I found a book about Dinosaurs in my school's library and became instantly hooked, utterly beguiled and awestruck by these crazy monster animals. Soon enough, I found more books featuring prehistoric beasts in my father's library (I grew up thinking all houses featured a room called "the Library."). I'd stare for hours at reproductions of the famous Yale Peabody Museum dinosaur mural (see above), or at the Life Nature Library "The Reptiles" and "Evolution" volumes. I think I was in fourth or fifth grade when I started seriously cross-referencing what I was learning from science and what I was learning from religion, and the former was winning out in every way. Religion was boring and corny; astronomy and paleontology were thrilling! I had come to a fork in the road.
I never would have guessed it would be Rolf (not his real name, but that's his picture up top), of all people, who would inadvertently show me which path to choose. I believe this was in sixth grade. Rolf lived in my neighborhood, a new kid I think. He was kind of marginally accepted by my circle of friends, but seemed a little off, a little hot-headed and violent. I liked him OK, but remained wary. One day after school, Rolf sort of tagged along to my house; I guess he was bored and didn't have anyone else to hang out with. I remember thinking that I didn't know him that well, and wasn't all that comfortable having him in the house, and didn't know what to talk about, so I brought up dinosaurs in some context or another. And then Rolf did two simultaneous things which blew my mind.
First, he marched over, uninvited, to the refrigerator, opened the door, and grabbed a milk carton and drank right from it! Let me tell you, manners were very important in my family, and this was shocking, incredible behavior to me. Second, as he was doing this, he stated, "There's no such thing as dinosaurs."
"W-what?" I stammered.
"There never were any dinosaurs," he replied.
"What about fossils," I asked, probably with my hands on my hips.
"Fossils were put on the earth by the devil to fool man," he said matter-of-factly.
Oh wow. wow, wow, wow. Really? It cascaded through my brain, and I'm convinced to this day that several crucial synapses were connected and completed at that moment. I think I quizzed Rolf a little about the source of this belief, and he said that his family was 7th Day Adventist, and that they believed the universe was young, just like Genesis said, and that Noah's ark was real and there weren't no dinosaurs on Noah's ark, etc.
And that's the day I decided the Bible was totally, irretrievably stupid, a wrong old corny fairy tale with a dud ending.
Not good enough.
I asked my parents about Rolf's views, and they basically laughed it off as ridiculous, nutty fundamentalism. My father explained that "most people" didn't really believe that Genesis was literally true, but that it was allegorical. It really bugged me, though. How could people believe such things? And how could you tell which parts of the Bible were "allegorical" and which were true? If one big chunk of it was a fairy tale, what did that say about the rest of it? Frankly, I decided the answer was too boring to pursue.
Meanwhile, my dinosaur passion continued unabated. New dinosaurs were discovered all the time, and they weren't allegorical. They were real. I could go to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and see their remains right there in front of me!
A little later, in junior high, after a few years "off" from religious indoctrination, my mother made a last-ditch effort to get me confirmed as a Catholic and back I went to Sunday school, which was actually on Wednesday evening, and I was pissed. I thought this had been settled. In class, I was bored and obviously reluctant to be there. Unlike the ones my brother and sisters endured, the nuns who taught my classes were really nice, which didn't make it easier. The classes were mostly about Jesus' love, etc., but I kept trying to bring it back to the Old Testament, about things I thought were ridiculous, like Noah's Ark and the Garden of Eden. The nuns didn't really like talking about the Old Testament, and they, too, tried trotting out the "allegory" excuse, albeit in a more timid "Let's talk about Jesus again, instead" way than my father. Finally, though, something clicked, and I challenged the nun:
"So, you're saying that we can think of the Old Testament as allegorical, but not the New Testament."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Well, I don't think the story of Adam and Eve can possibly be true. There's too much evidence against it."
"If it makes you more comfortable to think of it as a story, Peter, then that is your choice."
"But if Adam and Eve is just a story, then "original sin" is just a story, too."
"Do YOU believe all the Bible is true?"
"Yes!" she replied, indignant.
"So if everybody gets to pick and choose which parts of the Bible they think are literally true...."
That was usually the point when the nun would tire of my obstruction, and she'd change the subject and we'd move along to some other sappy Jesus platitude illustrated with felt doves 'n' daisies. For this I was missing Charlie's Angels!
I had figured it out: if Adam and Eve was a fairy tale, then so was "original sin." And if that was a fairy tale, then so was Jesus' supposed sacrifice: he died on the cross for an allegory. It was only logical. Or, rather, illogical. The whole thing fell like a house of cards. And even though my parents implied, in response to my question about Rolf's creationist beliefs, that Catholicism was a "normal" religion, while 7th Day Adventism was a "weird" one, the nun at my class made it clear that Catholicism was only as normal as you made it, and that it was, as its core, just as weird and stupid as any other ancient belief.
I can still picture Rolf standing there in my kitchen, as clear as if it had happened yesterday, drinking milk straight from the carton and decrying dinosaurs as tools of Satan (see above), and from that day on I conflated religious belief of any kind, sincere or not, with rudeness and stupidity.
It's almost as if Jesus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex had a duel in my brain, and the T-Rex won. It sounds like just about the best episode of The Flintstones ever.