The word mastodon means “breast tooth.” You would think it means something different, perhaps something to do with chewing because of the words “mastication” and “orthodontics,” but you’d be wrong, because apparently Georges Cuvier, the so-called father of paleontology, thought the conical cusps on the teeth of Mammut americanum looked like nipples, hence “breast tooth.”
The library of the town I was born in has a mastodon skeleton on display over the checkout desk. Almost exactly half a skeleton, the female specimen has no head or teeth or tusks; she is simply a leftleaning slab of burnished bones. Her original home (by which I mean the place she died) was in the marshland that is now the parking lot for the local grocery store. She was discovered by a dentist, who kept her suggestive molars as a doorstop for his home.
Every time I’d check out a book, I’d look upon the cinnamon-glaze of the preserved bones and wonder. One of my favorite books at home was a guide to prehistoric beasts, illustrated with mastodons, megalodons, pteranodons, all of the -dons. This book was never far from a copy of Evolution Exposed.
“Dinosaur bones are from the animals that didn’t make it on the ark,” my dad would say.
This made sense to me. Years later, in middle school, I watched a documentary explaining how the high oxygen content of the early earth allowed insects to grow to monstrous sizes. This was the same time I was taking confirmation classes at my church so I could participate in Holy Communion. That night we were holding a discussion on why the Old Testament claims some humans lived up to 900 years old.
“It’s because the oxygen content of the atmosphere was higher,” I proudly explained, teacher’s pet even in church. My pastor congratulated me on finding a rational answer to a theological question. I think I was too naïve then to feel the seeds of doubt.
Blockbuster night: the premium family event for any child born in the 90s or earlier. My parents would let us loose into the blue and yellow building and allow each of us to choose one VHS to take home. I was young enough to still be in Sunday School.
A bright orange poison-dart frog caught my eye, my father’s favorite color. The title? Genesis.
“This one, daddy,” I said. I was going through a frog phase.
My dad examined the VHS’s synopsis. “Are you sure?” he asked.
It was a movie that combined the Bible and frogs. What wasn’t to like?
The next day, I watched my very first evolution documentary.
“Look at this guy, he has no idea what he’s talking about. 1 plus 1 equals 3? You’re smarter than this,” my dad said as an African man explained the fertilization of parental gametes to create a zygote. Watery cells floated across the screen. I felt nauseous and ran off to play
My sister is calling.
“Have you seen the news? Did you hear there was a fire at our church?”
“Yeah, I did. It was probably something mundane, like an electrical fire,” I say, bored and wanting to get off the phone.
“Something mundane. Alright,” my sister says.
We find out that night that it was arson. Two kids from my middle school—Jaren Moore, my first kiss, the boy who left lip gloss on my desk, and Alexander Williams, the boy my mom caught throwing rocks at the school windows—broke into Living Savior Lutheran Church to steal the tithes and set the newly built sanctuary on fire to cover their tracks. They didn’t count on the security camera surviving.
This causes me to doubt my doubt. Earlier that year, I decided I was a committed (albeit closeted) atheist: no wishy-washy agnosticism for me. But now I was experiencing something so targeted, so unmistakably God-related, that I was shaken. Perhaps I was wrong about His nonexistence? How much more damage could my doubt inflict?
My father turns down the radio as we sit in traffic.
“Do you think gays should marry?”
“Huh?” I’m Sunday School age again and the concept is alien to me. “Gay” is the word my siblings throw around when they try to hurt each other’s feelings.
“If a man is attracted to a man, and wants to get married the same way men and women do, should they be allowed to?”
I think about this for a while. Married men and women become one flesh; I had seen enough Discovery channel to know this meant they had sex. But a man and a man…why, there’s no way they could have sex, I reasoned. To think, of a relationship so pure and unfettered by the sins of the flesh! It seemed almost superior.
“I don’t see why not,” I said.
“But the Bible says it’s a sin.”
My father had tricked me! “Oh, well of course not, then. No!” I said, blushing, feeling primitive for not being able to intuit what was a sin and what was not. I shuddered with revulsion, making a show for my father.
In high school, I tell my sister I won’t let our dad know she’s been living in sin with her college boyfriend if she doesn’t tell him that I am gay. She tells me she already has and I deflate.
It’s less than a year after the divorce, and I’m in a bookstore with my dad. Earlier that day I watched him cry as he confessed that he still loved my mother, and that he blamed the divorce not on her or himself but on Pastor Brandt for not giving enough godly advice. He’s told me I can pick out any book I want.
I’m drawn to a book about the neurological origins of belief. It claims that the delusion of God is simply a pan-cultural phenomenon facilitated by certain brain structures, and that religious experiences can be triggered by electrodes. I’m fascinated, but I don’t want to insult my father. So instead I pick up a copy of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking, which sounds biblical enough, as well as a work of fiction that has the outline of a small naked woman on the cover, which I try to hide with my thumb. My dad looks pale and lymphatic as he pays for my selection.
I later wanted to slap myself for ever pretending that I didn’t know what was in Hawking’s book. As my certainty towards eschewing intelligent design grew, so did my guilt.
My sister is calling.
“How are exams going?”
“Pretty good. All A’s. Except in Genetics and Evolution—”
“Oh, that heathen class!” my sister mock-hisses.
I laugh. She makes this comment every time she calls. My dad doesn’t comment, partly because I just call it “Genetics” and partly because he never calls.
Confirmation class. Just weeks before, I was standing in front of the congregation in the newlybuilt sanctuary reciting the Sixth Commandment: Thou shall not commit adultery.
Now the sanctuary is blackened and burned, and we are holding our last meeting at the local Presbyterian church instead of our own. Pastor Brandt is going through the final review.
“Last question: can evolution and creationism coexist?”
The chorus of no’s drown out my single, blasphemous yes.
“Good. Evolution and creationism are incompatible. We could not exist without intelligent design. We’re not monkeys.”
I stare across at Joshua, the other smart kid in the class. I hope he didn’t hear my mistake. He looks smug, but he always looks smug, so I can’t tell. How could I have gone all three years without ever once realizing I was the odd one out? How did I never realize how delusional I was for envisioning a beautiful perfect God making Man from protocells in 7 days like a Protestant time-lapse photography montage?
“Now, listen closely,” Pastor Brandt says. “I once had a student who told me, ‘Pastor, I don’t believe any of this.’ We talked and she ended up leaving the class. Now, if any of you are feeling any 5 doubts, or if you don’t believe in anything we’ve talked about in these past three years…” He searches the eyes of every student except mine, since I am sitting directly beside him.
“…don’t show up tomorrow.”
My entire family comes to watch my confirmation, which takes place in a gym instead of the church, which is comically un-sacrosanct. The confirmed are each given a crucifix and a framed photo of the burnt timbers of our church against a backdrop of purple sky. I feel sick to my stomach.
I respect my pastor. I love my family. But I don’t know what would hurt them more: knowing that I no longer believe, or knowing that I pretended to believe to make them happy. They are all so proud, sitting at the same table even though the divorce has splintered them. My father already lost me in the battle for custody. I don’t think he could bear to lose me again.
My copies of the Holy Bible, both family heirloom and Lutheran confirmation copies, have been shelved indefinitely. Instead, I’ve been on a science history kick, especially the history of evolution. I’m enraptured by the naturalists’ godless divinations; I follow their confusions and controversies like reality TV reruns, rehashed in book after book. It feels illicit: like sex, evolution is taboo and undeniably biological. You can’t talk about it in school.
My dad stopped taking me to the Lutheran church after he moved away. Its replacement was a non-denominational church with a hip pastor who didn’t wear robes but played the guitar and sang hymns of the rock genre.
One day I stood up too fast during worship, and, having skipped breakfast to make it on time, I nearly blacked out. I was swaying, blood gone from my head, unable sit down. Because if I sat down, my father might have noticed, might have seen it as protest against God’s wishes, and his wishes. I stood there, head pounding, vision receding, praying as my consciousness sunk out of reach and my limbs went numb, God, please God, please don’t let him find out I am an atheist.