March 21, 2020

Atheist Stories Pt. 4: Bullet And Belief

​New Year’s Eve on the last night of 1999 was a date that I will always remember as one that did not go very well for me. It was the first time in my life that I remember someone predicting a major cataclysm would occur on a certain date. Y2K turned out to not really be a problem, obviously. I bet the preppers stocking their basements with canned peas felt as silly as Harold Camping’s followers felt in 1994 when he predicted the rapture (a prediction that I was not aware of at the time,) and again in 2020 when the same man wrongly predicted the rapture two more times. I image those who think the world will end on the 22nd of December in this year of 2020 when the world keeps right on spinning will likewise feel silly, especially as their very last minute Christmas shopping on the 23rd will be quite rushed.

​Anyway, while machines didn’t turn against humanity as they did in the Simpsons, my life went downhill very fast. I had my friend Kathy over for a sleepover, as was a common thing for us to do when there was no school. My father was off at the home of a friend of his, as he often was. And mom was bored at home while off work, as she often was. She asked us if we would like to go to a park on the hill, overlooking the Centennial Bridge spanning the Mississippi between Illinois and Iowa, from which new years fireworks would be shot.

Somehow, it fell upon me to decided whether or not we should go, and I just loved fireworks. It was also left to me, for some reason, to decide where we would sit. I picked an open spot in the crowded park full of people with the same idea. Then I laid down a blanket for us all to sit on so we could be out of the snow. I decided where I sat myself. As I, being stubborn, did not bring a coat, I sat on my mother’s lap for warmth. It’s not hard to think that what happened next was somehow my fault considering how many of the choices were made by me.

At midnight, the fireworks display began. We had a good view of them from the hilltop, even though they were quite a distance away. From my mother’s radio, music played. I began to lose myself in the sight and sound, thoroughly enjoying the show.

Within moments, I felt something hit my shoulder. It felt like a rock. I wondered if some classmate had recognized me, and decided it would be fun to harass me while I was distracted. I decided that I would ignore him, not allowing any bully to ruin my night. Then the sensation started to feel different. Now, rather than a small stone, it felt like I’d been hit with something larger and rougher, like a chunk of concrete broken off a sidewalk. Well, what was done was done, so I continued to ignore it. Then the pain hit. It burned. And I felt a cool trickle of what must have been my own blood. Yes, my blood felt cold on the wound.

I screamed. My irritated and embarrassed mother, who was now the focus of everyone who was able to hear me, demanded to know what was wrong. It took me a few moment to be coherent enough to shout“My arm!”

“What about your arm?”

“I don’t know!”

In the light of my mother’s company truck, we investigated the problem. A concerned bystander, a woman who had overheard, joined us. She took one look at my shoulder and whispered to my mother, loud enough that I was able to hear, “It looks like a gunshot!” Even though it hurt me to move my neck, I had to look. I’d never seen a bullet wound before.

What happened? Probably some fool, who gun control laws evidently weren’t strict enough to prevent owning a firearm, and who was as unaware of local gun ordinances as well as basic physics or just didn’t care, had been celebrating by firing lethal projectiles into the air. Bullets fired from handguns do not just fly to space. They come back to earth, traveling in a high arch. And where do they land? Maybe harmlessly in an empty field or large body of water. Maybe in someone’s home or car. Or maybe in a city park full of people, specifically in the shoulder of a child unaware of the danger.

Does it bother you at all to know that while you’re washing your car, walking your dog, climbing a jungle gym, or pumping gas, some jackass, over a mile away, could end your life in an instant? Your family would never know what happened or who did it. And the jackass? He won’t have even noticed and will carry on with his celebratory fire, perhaps injuring or killing even more people, never caring that he’s putting others in danger. Remember that the next time someone complains about simple gun laws, especially when restrictions on such aren’t nearly as strict as they are for automobiles, machines most people actually need and which aren’t designed with the intent to be used as weapons. He could as well be so very unlucky as I was as he attaches his NRA bumper sticker to his car.

It’s easy for us to explain way bad things happening to us as god’s plan. There has to be some kind of conspiracy because the explanation that “shit happens” isn’t emotionally satisfying. We consider bad things happening in our lives to a big deal, so they need big causes. What’s more, believing that bad thing’s happen as part of a god’s plan makes things seem like there must be some unseen silver lining somewhere, that it’s not all bad. And it seems that imagining that death is not death, but leads to heaven, is something that comforts those who can’t cope with the looming possibility of an untimely end. It’s not the truth, but it’s easy to see why people believed it. Why I believed it.

At the hospital, I got a lot of questions. The nurses were all asking me if I got to see the “waterfall,” a cascade of fireworks off the bridge that was either part of or near the finale. “No, I didn’t see it.” Thanks for reminding me. Those, sadly, were the least annoying form of questioning that I was subjected to.

I spoke with many police officers as well. Apparently, none of the officers were talking to each other so I had to keep retelling the same story, which even I was sick of hearing by the time my stay was through. And that wasn’t even the height of police incompetence. Yes, we had that kind of police force.

The police officers were sure that my non-gun-owning parents were to blame. One of the officers accosted my mom, telling her that in his many years of experience as a cop, he knew gunpowder when he saw it and had found it on my clothes, indicating that I had been shot at close range. Actual forensic testing did not back him up. It may have been a bad idea to assert theories until the evidence is in.

The police were also convinced that my mom’s boyfriend was involved. This was a bit surprising to me as  my mom not have a boyfriend, nor was there any male accompanying us that evening apart from my 9-year-old brother. Apparently, somewhere along the way as the police dealt with each other, one of the characters in the story was radically changed. My 11-year-old clearly female friend, Kathy, was recast as an adult male involved in an illicit relationship with my mother.

My friend, by the way, must have been interviewed by the police, making it all the more ridiculous that her character was so radically re-written in the police story. We were each interviewed individually in our turn. My mother told me afterwards that the police had accused her of coaching us kids, as well as that bystander mentioned earlier who later came forward. She told me that the police said to her that it was “suspicious” that we all told the same story. That we all told the same story was “suspicious.” Just writing that sentence makes me want to bang my head against my desk.

You might now be thinking that I must be making this up or just exaggerating. This all sounds like something out of a comedy, some police satire. Truly, I wish that I was making all this up, but I haven’t the imagination for it. This really happened, and it all still amazes me to this day.

Apparently, the truth of the matter wasn’t interesting enough. No, it wasn’t a big conspiracy like on the TV show CSI. They needed a bigger, better explanation. One with more sex and drama. Unlucky celebratory fire from some nobody wasn’t satisfying for them, so they came up with their own explanation, one where everything was planned. Gee. Where does that sound familiar?

the police were sure that my parents were culpable. It was all a conspiracy. Maybe my mother’s boyfriend shot me out of jealousy? Maybe my mother shot me at his request or to impress him? Maybe my mother shot me to demonstrate to her boyfriend that she was no longer connected to my father. Maybe my father shot me, aiming at my unfaithful mother. Maybe my dog did it because she was upset that we didn’t invite her to come to the show (this is a joke one of my exasperated siblings told me.)

Never mind that neither of my parents own firearms. Never mind that my mother didn’t have a boyfriend. Never mind that my father didn’t even know we’d gone to the park that night. Never mind that my mother couldn’t have possibly shot me at that angle if I was sitting on her lap. Never mind that shooting someone sitting in your lap is monumentally stupid. Never mind a shoulder is not the ideal place to shoot someone you mean to kill. Never mind that a park full of people is not the ideal place to shoot someone. Never mind that it’s unwise to bring your own witnesses, my siblings and friend, along when you intend to shoot someone. Never mind that it makes little sense to voluntarily rush someone to the hospital after intentionally shooting them without provocation. Never mind any critical thinking, or any evidence that invalidated the police’s hypothesis that my family was at fault.

Scientists, don’t get mad at me. I’m about to talk about the scientific method in the simplest terms that I know how. To put things very basically, the scientific method is a body of techniques for knowing, really knowing things. All conclusions must be based on solid evidence and must be changed if falsified by the evidence. If you think you know something, you have to demonstrate it’s veracity. You have to show your work.

Again, I’m putting things very, very simply, but when we use the scientific method, we use these steps. First, we first make an observation. In this case, what is observed. Next, we form a hypothesis explaining what we observed. Next, we make our predictions, and conduct our experiments, checking to see if the evidence supports or falsifies the hypothesis. If it doest work, the hypothesis is failed. If the evidence fits, you have a theory.

In my case, what we have observed is an 11-year-old girls with a bullet wound. Everyone agrees that this is what was observed. The police then made various hypothesis to explain the observation. One of these was that my mother shot me. One was that my father shot me. And one is that my mother’s boyfriend shot me, or was involved in some way.

Here are our predictions, tests, and results.

If my mother’s boyfriend was involved in the shooting, that boyfriend would have to exist. We can test that by looking for him. All witnesses to the observed event deny that any adult male was present. We find no evidence that the boyfriend even exists. Upon further investigation, we discover that the person who we had labeled an adult male is actually a fifth-grade girl. Any hypothesis that the mother’s boyfriend was involved is therefore thrown out. If my mother, father or father shot me, it’s likely that a gun could be found on the person of one of those people, disposed at the site of the shooting, in a vehicle owned by either person, or in the house. No gun was found in any of these locations. Furthermore, neither person had any weapons registered to them. All witnesses deny that either person owned a gun. This test is not conclusive, and does not necessarily prove that neither party could have had a gun, but it is not evidence in favor of the hypothesis the required that one party must have had one. The hypothesis is not supported by the evidence.

If my mother shot me, and all witnesses are correct about my position on her lap at the time, the shot would have had to have been fired from close range. We would expect to find gunpowder residue on the victim’s clothing and skin. One police officer went so far as to insist that there was before any forensic tests were conducted. When said test was actually conducted, no gunpowder residue was found. This means that the shot could not have been fired at very close range, but had to come from at least a few feet away. This does not prove that my mother could not have shot me, but it does prove that the shot could not have come from close range, where all witnesses who observed the even agree that she was. The hypothesis is not supported by the evidence.

If my father shot me, we should be able to demonstrate that he was present. No witnesses claim that he was on the scene. Upon investigation, we discover that he was at a friend’s house, the friend confirming his alibi. No evidence was found that he was on the scene at the time. We have not proved that he couldn’t have been there, but we have no evidence that he was. The hypothesis is not supported by the evidence.

Then, I had my idea. What if the shot was fired by a stranger, someone far away, who was just firing up into the air? If the shot came from above, I would expect there to be no gunpowder residue, at least none sufficient enough to show a close-range shot. There is none found, which means the shot came from at least some distance away that is greater than a few feet. If the shot came from above in a high arch, I would expect the wound to be at a high angle. It is, the entrance wound being at the top of my left shoulder and the exit being in my armpit. Additionally, the entrance is slightly forward of and left of the exit, indicating that the shot came from high above and from ahead of me and to my left. This high angle is not explained by anything else, as there was nothing above me to my left from which anyone could shoot down from. I also have a plausible explanation for why there might be bullets coming down in high arches: celebratory fire for New Year’s Eve. The evidence supports my hypothesis. For the sake of simplicity, I call this conclusion my theory.

A real scientist might argue that, while the evidence does support my hypothesis, it hasn’t quite graduated to the level of theory, as my evidence doesn’t conclusively prove my hypothesis and I haven’t found the shooter to support my conclusion.

Another explanation that fits the evidence might be a shot was fired from an aircraft. This explanation is not probable, but is possible. My hypothesis would be falsified if any evidence was found for the aircraft hypothesis.

In any case, I think we can all agree that I, at 11 years old, was being a bit more scientific that the police were. While I formed my conclusions based on evidence, ready to modify or reject my conclusion should the evidence demand that I do so. The police proposed their conclusions without evidence, which is bad enough, but even tried to force the evidence to fit their conclusions by declaring an 11-year-old girl to be an adult boyfriend and by testifying to the existence of gunpowder residue when none was present.

As my family was, apparently, full of the least competent attempted murderers ever, my siblings and I were sent to separate foster homes. I wasn’t bothered by this at first. I figured the police and child protective services were just following their due diligence and we would be returned home in a few days, at most. A few days turned out to be a few months, during which time, we got very little visitation with each other, were forced to attend counseling in order to see if we would have anything to say that might be used against our parents, and our parents were forced to shell out for lawyers fees, were judged on the condition of our home (my sister’s room had a bad smell to it because she still wet the bed, which is a fault on our parents’ fault, somehow,) and were forced to go to completely unnecessary parenting classes, even though they acted rightly in a tough situation.

One day, after having been in a foster home far longer than I ever expected a child services agent mentioned the possibility of remaining in the custody of the state until I was 18. This upset me greatly, and I had some choice words for him. By then, I’d been in foster care for so long that I was actually given my own room at my foster home. I had also been removed from my usual school and transferred to a new one. At my new school, once the novelty of having a new student in the room wore off, my classmates mostly forgot that I existed. I was lucky if I had someone to sit next to in the cafeteria.

I wasn’t getting on well with the older foster children at my foster home because I was becoming increasingly angry. One day I managed to unintentionally upset the foster mother, because while we were out shopping, she planned to buy me something but I kept insisting that I wanted nothing that she could purchase. At the foster home, I spent most of my time in the yard, when it was warm enough, or reading, or playing a video game. I wasn’t interested in knowing these people.

One day, the foster mother took me with her to church. This church wasn’t at all like the one I’d been to. Looking back, I realize it’s because this new church was Catholic and they did things differently. At my old church, the children were brought to a special room with games and toys, there would be a lesson, and we’d watch Veggie Tales or some other Christian children’s video. On the few occasions that I’d ventured into the chapel to hear the pastor, he was usually performing music with drums and guitar at the altar. When he spoke, he wasn’t just reading from a book, but was actually speaking with the audience as in a conversation. And then he would lead the congregation in prayer, which was also not read from a book.

This Catholic Church was different. We all sat in the pews of the chapel, which was much larger. The Priest never spoke a single word candidly, but only recited from books. There was a lot of getting up and getting down, which was tiring. I wondered how everyone knew when to stand, sit, and kneel. Every once in a while, when he would say something, the entire congregation would give a response in unison. I wondered how they knew what to say and when. Then they’d sing. Their songs weren’t like the Christian rock ballads my pastor had performed, or like the energetic and joyous gospel singing of the Baptist church I’d later visit once. This singing was mechanical and mournful. It was lifeless. I tried to sing along, but I could never tell which song in the songbook was supposed to be next. I wondered how anybody ever knew. With all this, I began to wonder if I was surrounded by zombies rather than living, breathing human beings. Then the priest started talking to a cracker. Apparently, it was the flesh of Christ. My pastor never did that. Then the congregation lined up. For what, I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to be the only one left seated so I joined them. In the front, people lined up in a row across the front of the stage, each receiving a cracker and small among of juice a the priest went by. When it became my turn, I held out my hands like the other’s did. Then the priest stopped and said to me, “have you been confirmed?”

“Confirmed?” I had no idea what that meant. He left me empty handed and went on to the next person, as I returned to my seat both dumbfounded and embarrassed. Confirmed? What does that even mean? It’s not that I wanted the stupid cracker anyway, but still, being left out is rough. Clearly, I was not as welcome at this church as I was at mine.

I had no family. No friends. And no church. I was well and truly alone, I thought. My arm was slowly healing, but I had a worse pain take its place. I had never known such true despair before in my young life.

Why did this happen to me anyway? Was I really so bad that I deserved it? Is god punishing me? I can’t recall doing anything especially terrible? Am I such an awful sinner that I can’t even recognize what I’ve done? My whole family is suffering because of me. This is what my sin has wrought. Was god trying to teach me a lesson by punishing me? Or was he using me as an example to teach someone else? Was it a test that I was failing by feeling this miserable?

I begged for forgiveness and cried myself to sleep every night. Religion can see you suffer, cause you to suffer more, feel guilty for suffering, and blame yourself for every suffering in the first place. I was made into the instrument of my own torment. How messed up is that? What kind of “salvation” is this? Sometimes people claim that god spoke to them, or even that an angel appeared to do the speaking. People claim personally experiencing god this way, and go on to tell everyone else about it. I had often wondered what it would take to get god to appear to me, to speak to me. Then maybe I could get some answers. However, it never happened, no matter how much I prayed, pleaded, and wept. Surely appearing is a small task for the creator of the universe, and such an appearance could do wonders for faith and answer many of my questions. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask. So why wouldn’t he just answer me?

What of those people who claim to have personally experienced god? Well, if the Bible is true, it makes sense that at least a few people would be directly spoken to by god, considering how much he’d done that in the history presented in the Bible. Why should he have stopped speaking to people? But it was still weird how selective he was about who he spoke to, and it was similarly strange that it was so rare for two people to claim to have been told the same thing.

Maybe they’re all lying? That surely makes sense for the ones who tell other people what to think, who to vote for, and how to spend their money (donations, of course.) But what of those believers who aren’t in leadership roles of any kind, nor are part of any money-grubbing scheme? What of those who privately believe, and claim to have had a supernatural experience reinforcing this? Were they just making it up?

One night, while in the bedroom I’d been given, I hit a low point. I had been feeling alone, sad, angry, and irrationally guilty for so long that I was losing hope. That’s when It appeared to me. I didn’t question how It got into the foster home without any means of entrance or without alerting anybody, or why It would choose to do so late at night. I didn’t care. I sat up in my bed and watched it where It stood at the foot of my bed. Of course It was here. It didn’t make any sense to question that.

It never identified itself, but I knew exactly who It was. Of course I knew. How could I not know who It was? We had a conversation. It spoke audibly, just as I would have expected It would, and I answered. I’m surprised I didn’t wake anybody up. I asked at one point if It was there to take me away. It wasn’t  I don’t remember much of what was said, but I know It meant to comfort me, communicating that I should be strong and patient, and that everything would be OK.

When It said “OK.” I nodded and echoed It, “OK.” Then It slowly vanished right before my eyes. I sat there on my bed, alone again in my darkened room. I sobbed. The human mind can be a cruel thing.

I now knew what those people who aren’t intentionally lying experienced when they say that they were met by god or by a ghost. Had a few details of the supernatural encounter been different, had it been a figure that I would have associated with Jesus or an angel, I might still be convinced to this day that it was all real. But it wasn’t.

It was my mother, who wasn’t even dead to be a ghost. And there was no possible way that she could have actually visited me. For one thing, she didn’t know where I lived. For another, I’m pretty certain she doesn’t have the power of teleportation.

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The truth, I immediately realized, was that I’d imagined the whole thing. I’d had such a vivid dream that I had sat up in my bed, maybe even had my eyes open, and spoke in my sleep. As far as I knew, I’d never been prone to somnambulism before. It makes sense that it might have been brought on by the anxiety and stress I’d been feeling. Nowadays, I am not convinced by anyone’s personal supernatural experience anymore, no matter how certain that they are that what they described really happened to them. Seeing might be believing, but that doesn’t make it true. I’ve experienced things that didn’t really happen too, the difference being only that I am aware of it.

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I wish I could say that this was the point in my life when the curtain crashed down and I saw the full truth on the matter of religion, where I realized that people claiming to be witnesses to miracles were either lying, simply imagined the whole affair, or were honestly mistaken. I could have escaped the cave of Plato’s allegory and found real answers.

No. I failed to connect the dots here. I did, however, cease going to church not long after being returned home. My excuse was “God is everywhere, so why do I need to go somewhere special?” The truth of the matter was that I was lazy and didn’t much care to continue waking up so early on a weekend.

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