My name is Mason Myatt. I am a 63 year old gay man living alone on a quiet, pretty street in a neighborhood on the eastern side of Birmingham, Alabama. I am a non-theist and have really never given serious consideration to any of the supernatural facets of religion. I was "raised in the church" and even gave thought to becoming minister-----like so many Christians abroad in the land who go through some personal trauma and then turn to a mythical heritage derived from the minds of a bunch of illiterate, nomadic goat herders as they looked to the night sky for answers to the many questions that surely came to them as they lay amidst the sheep and the goats wondering where the hell that star with the long tail came from, I too took that religious digression following my first episode of clinical depression when I was 16. Religion ought to be listed in any book of pathological deviations from the rational world view that is both our recent heritage and the basis of most of what we call civilization. Religion is either a personality disorder or the thoughtless affectation of those too lazy or too indifferent to care what they claim to believe so long as they can get into their country club and get the promotions that would be denied them if they did not claim to be children of god.
I have lived in Birmingham since 1967 but my first 20 years were spent in Boaz, AL, a town of fewer than 5,000. To most of us in Boaz in the 50s and 60s, anyone who was not either a Methodist or a Southern Baptist was by definition exotic and vaguely threatening. Hell, we talked about the Pentecostals as though they were from a parallel universe sent to us by some quantum quirk. Of course we did not even know the term "quantum" as we were more concerned with that extraordinary story of Jonah and the Big Fish and whether or not Jonah could have lived that long in the colon of some Noachian survivor of the briney deep. The concensus was that of course Jonah could have survived that or anything else....if god wanted him to. Or, as one sweet little old lady opined, "I know that Jonah could have survived because if God could cause a Virgin Birth, he surely could handle a Big Fish." Mattie Ruth was something of a scholastic in Boaz. No logic could have been more tortured than hers. A thousand years ago she could have given you the number of angels.
It just hit me that I began that rant to explain to you that my years in Boaz had a dramatic impact on me but given what I have written, I am sure there is no need to say anymore about whether or not I was influenced by all that dribble.
My salvation came when I got enough money from the Methodist Church to attend Birmingham-Southern College, what I still consider to be the very best liberal arts college in the state and certainly one of the best in the southeast. Contrary to what the wags in Boaz said to my Mother about why I turned into a heathen (Mom's endearing pet name for me), the wonderful profs at 'Southern were not minions of Satan who had managed by nefarious means to give us "ideas." They did, however, force us to read books and, yes, there were ideas in them, and that activity raised eyebrows all round. At 'Southern I majored in History because I wanted to become a teacher---and history can be a a wonderful vehicle for provoking people to think--and in Education so that I could graduate with certification. While most local universities' education departments encouraged their students to major in Education with an emphasis in their content area, 'Southern required us to major in our content area as well as the Education requirements. That detail completely changed my learning experience and made me a better teacher.
Before graduation occurred, I began teaching in a local High School and stayed with that system for 17 years. In my 2nd or 3rd year of teaching, I began working on an MA in education so that I could raise my salary by several thousand during a time when annual salaries were far less than $10,000. My school's community was all white, almost all red-neck and to a parent, extremely conservative. The Baptist preacher of the town had enormous power and he took it upon himself to name me from the pulpit in a prayer asking god to remove me from a position of satanic influence on their youth. I tried to laugh it off and described my thrill at being in such a Socratic Situation. Then the John Birchers took after me for honoring the Moratorium against the War in 1969(It was Vietnam that time that we were determined to save by bombing their monkey worshipping asses out of existence.) Most folks around here would have sworn that Jesus was riding on our bullets and bombs. The fundamentalists did not seem to have much to say about turning the other cheek or about loving one's enemies. Their very selective committment to the "literal truth" of the bible would have caused any thoughtful person to be tormented by the inconsistency but those on the Right were not especially burdened by the demands of introspection. It was in that school and community that I realized that my function as an educator in the Deep South would be as an advocate for equal rights for all people and as a force in the battle to replace ignorance and religious superstition with a scientific and rational world view. In this part of the world, my statement of purpose was tantamount to a declaration of war and for the rest of my 30 year career the battles came one after the other. I never once backed down but that level of stubborn resolve has its effects on one's own world view. It made me tired---and no matter how great her line was, I could not say as Rosa Parks so courageously did that my soul was rested.
After 17 years in the trenches of the public schools, I finally found the nerve to go to a real graduate school and try for a terminal degree in history. I had remained so incredibly naive that I thought those with Ph.D,s were so evolved that they could have the certainty about life and a sense of selfworth that I so craved. Off to Emory University I went----another Methodist institution that was generous enough for me to be able to live and attend school without the need to work to finance my education. At Emory---when I was nearly 40---I had a grand time being a student again and having such a great bunch of young minds with whom I could argue the age-old questions that are the the lifeblood of all graduate students. For me it was a lark--even the most demanding classes were fun regardless of the work or difficulty. I had the great luck to work with Dan Carter, author of Scotsboro: An American Tragedy, a heartbreakingly sad account of the trials of the innocent African-American men charged with the rape of two white women with whom they had been found bumming a ride on a freight train near the north Alabama community of Scottsboro. The women had been working the streets of Chattanooga and were on their way home. The fact that the women and the men were in the same train car presumed a rape situation for at least two reasons: 1) African-American men were so driven by their jungle-like urges to have sex that the sight of those white women would provoke a rape without their even having to make the decision. 2) If southern white women were found in any situation remotely compromising, a declaration of Rape! was required to mitigate the damages that would have accrued to women in the postbellum South found in that situation by their personal choice. Despite proof of innocence in several of the cases and huge discrepancies in the others, the men were convicted and sentenced to death.
Dan wrote with the competence of a great scholar and the grace of an artist and produced one of the finest books on History of the 20th Century. He was a wonderful mentor and helped to both educate and refine me and my thinking. The worst thing Professor Carter did while I was there was to give his approval to my request to write my dissertation of the on-going battles between scientists and rationalists and their opponents, the self-styled "Creation-Scientists." I hadn't the sense to realize the difficulties that attend the efforts to write the history of a movement before the outcome of the battle has been determined.. The research was amazing and the extent to which the creationist leaders granted me access to their "archives," usually a stack of boxes with news clippings about weird happenings in rural America---usually about some teacher whom they were attacking for being an atheist because he teaches about evolution or about a cucumber that looks just like the Blessed Mother. It was as funny as it was frightenning.
After Emory I returned to Birmingham to accept a temporary fulltime contract to teach in the history department of the University of Alabama at Birmingham for 18 months after which I would be an adjunct professor---part-time teacher is what it was but I thought saying "adjunct professor" sounded so much more important---I was that naive still. I loved the work at UAB and especially loved the graduate seminars. I taught a graduate level course on the culture wars being fought throughout America, usually involving either prayer in the schools , bible reading or the teaching of evolution. Most every student came to the class to argue the position they already supported and I do not think that my efforts led to too many conversions to a rational worldview on the part of the creationist students and I was not intellectually honest enough to make any real effort to get the pro-science students to question their own suppositions. A better teacher would have worked harder to do that, perhaps.
Then in 1990, after my UAB contract expired and I had exhausted every source of income from Emory as I continued to procrastinate on the writing of my dissertation, I had to have a full-time job so I went to work for the Birmingham City School Board. I was hired to teach in a quite large inner-city school whose population had recently exploded as a result of consolidation. Without any consideration of the consequences, the Board brought together in one school students from various neighborhoods across the City who represented every major gang in the larger community. Teaching there amounted to little more than triage. We were essentially either a day care center or a holding cell for them as they awaited their first incarceration, which was almost a given from their point of view. I had gone into that situation with the paternalistic attitude that I could be the Great White Hope, the dedicated , liberal teacher who could shower the kids with my inter-racial dedication and so inspire them that despite grinding poverty, lives lived amidst nightly gunfire and abusive parents, the kids would decide to go to college and quickly join the middle-class that had denied them inclusion for generations. Have I mentioned my naivete? To that we can now add my ignorance and my stupefying arrogance. Before my 6 years there came to a violent end, I had become a part of the problem because I was never able to access the context of or the worldviews of the kids I had intended to help---to save. I finally surrendered.
My next phase offered me the ideal job of my career in many ways. I was transferred to the Alabama School of Fine Arts which also included a state established school for kids gifted in math and science. This inspirational job came the same year--1996--- that I finally completed my dissertation, a task that I stretched into an 11 year ordeal! The students were wonderfully gifted in either the arts or the sciences. I had the best of both worlds. Most of the faculty were well aware of our good fortune in being able to work in such a safe, stimulating and productive environment. We had some problems occasionally but compared to virtually all the teachers in the public schools, we had dream jobs and rather than having to spend time on disciplinary issues, we were afforded the opportunity to work with and get to be friends with a few hundred of the finest students from around the entire state. It was okay to be a liberal, it was okay to be gay, it was okay to look different and it was expected that we would be exposed to and learn about numerous cultures, many world religions, many different points of view--including the right to be an atheist. We non-believers were still in the minority but for the first time in my life I was around people who tolerated non-theists and rather than attack us or work to take out jobs, they were more likely to ask us questions about how and what we believed. God, it was great---so to speak.
After 5 years in that academic paradise---or as close to that as is likely to occur---I reached the point of mental and emotional fatigue that my abilities failed to measure up to my standards and I had always sworn that when that time came, I would not be one of those teachers who stay on the job long after they were doing little more than sitting at their desks reading their magazines while the kids did work-sheets that were never graded or discussed---in other words, they become dead weight without much if any engagement with the kids. I was not close to that stage yet but I was no longer as sharp as the kids deserved so I retired. That was in 2001.
As it turned out, my retirement was fortuitous because a series of major family illnesses along with terminal diagnoses among several of my friends became the focus of my life as I learned the skills of caregiving. Because I had the reputation of being a really demanding teacher as well as a man with little sense of self-censorship, many of my friends and family stood back in awe of how good I'd become at taking good care of the very sick. In the past 3 years I have been holding the hands of three of my best friends as each of these women succumbed to the ravages of breast cancer. Nothing else equals that experience in terms of affecting one's sense of his mortality and her powerlessness in the face of terminal illnesses. It continued to be the case for me that even when I sat with these loved friends for many hours at a time day after day, I could not allow myself to read or watch TV. It seemed to me that if they could lie there staring death in the face even as they struggled to control their pain, the very least I could do was to respect their journey toward death with my attention and with whatever tiny bit of energy my love and attention might afford them. These years have been instructive in ways that formal education cannot even attempt.
It will thrill me if my exposure to this site stimulates me to get off my depressed, reclusive ass and rejoin life as I also reengage the battle for rational and free thought. I do hope for that.