Up From Atheism

Posted: Feb 02, 2004 12:00 AM

Shortly after nine a.m. on March 7, 1996, I hopped off a bus on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador.  A man named Pedro was waiting for me just inside the main entrance of the prison. He was arrested at age 21 for allegedly forging a passport. Three years later his trial began. A year later he was acquitted.

The relatives of the prisoners stood outside holding buckets collecting money for the rent. Even after paying rent to be in prison, each prisoner had to pay a separate fee to be released. It did not matter whether they were acquitted. Within three weeks, Pedro?s family would have enough money to set him free. He had just turned 25.

Pedro led me through the first set of gates into the office of the warden to submit my request to tour the prison for a couple of hours. The warden didn?t object to a brief tour. He even offered two guards as escorts. That was generous since there were only ten of them watching over a thousand inmates.

When they opened the next set of gates leading to the prison cells, I was almost floored by the smell of the living quarters. It smelled like urine, fecal matter, and body odor all mixed together. Later, I would smell rotting meat ready to be boiled in the prison kitchen.

I will never forget the looks on the faces of the prisoners in the downstairs cells. There were dozens packed into the one cell I entered that was only 36 square meters. The prisoners were dirty. Some had clothes nearly rotting off their backs. But they made room for me when I came into the cell and smiled warmly as they answered my questions. Before I left, I noticed a butcher knife sitting on an old broken TV set. Some of the prisoners had fresh scars on their bodies.

Just before we entered the kitchen, we saw a guard beating a young man savagely with a large club. A few minutes later, we were upstairs talking to the prisoners in the nicer part of the prison. There were only about 20 inmates in the upstairs cells. The rent was higher and prisoners were allowed to keep personal effects in their own bunks. A man I spoke to had several pictures of Jesus and his own Bible in the lower bunk.

Pictures of Jesus look different in South American prisons.  They often portray a painful expression, a crown of thorns, and blood. Not the peaceful look of the ones at home.

I talked to the man with the pictures for quite some time. He had been waiting for trial for over two years. He told me that he had faith that everything would be all right and that he would see his young children again before long. He also told me a lot about the system of justice in Ecuador. The absence of juries, the killing of ?escaped? inmates who had been told they were free to go. There were 25-year sentences for drug possession and 16-year sentences for murder.

Before I left the prison, he shook my hand warmly and thanked me for coming to visit. I had already passed through the gates when I realized that I had forgotten to ask him his name.

As soon as I walked outside, I looked up at a giant statue of the Virgin Mary perched upon a hill above the prison. I realized that I had been wrong for a number of years. The man in the prison was right. How else could a prisoner be so happy? And why are so many ?free? men miserable?

Looking back, it?s hard for me to believe that nearly four years would pass before I met John Paul Penry. He was on death row awaiting his execution for the rape and murder of Pamela Moseley Carpenter. That was nearly twenty years before but Penry?s case was very complicated. He had an IQ somewhere in the 50s and had come from an extremely abusive background. Yet he was a dangerous killer who knew right from wrong and chose the latter.

As Penry stuttered and stammered his way through our interview inside the Ellis unit, I experienced a wide range of emotions. It was fascinating to be talking to the appellant in a case that I had been teaching for nearly seven years. I had always told my students that Penry v. Lynaugh was among the five most important capital cases in the history of American jurisprudence. But it was also sickening to look into the eyes of a convicted killer and rapist. It was the same face his victim saw as he raped her and burst her kidneys with a barrage of savage blows to the body. That was before killing her using the very pair of scissors she had used to try to ward off the attack just minutes earlier.

We mostly talked about what led up to the murder and what had happened with his case since. We talked for nearly three hours.

Just before I left death row Penry recited John 3:16, getting most of it correct. After our hands met at the glass, I promised I would write, even if I could never come back.

No one should ever visit death row thinking that they will walk away the same. Penry would intrude into several of my dreams turning them into unforgettable nightmares over the next few nights while his execution date approached.

The nightmares were all the same. Everyone had abandoned Penry. His few relatives would no longer come to see him. His lawyer had abandoned him. Even his spiritual advisor had betrayed him. Then the phone would ring and I was asked to witness his execution.

It seemed like I was really there inside the death chamber. And so was the entire family of the victim. I couldn?t see their faces, but I could see Penry as they inserted the needle. I was asking him to look at me the whole time and to recite that verse one more time. I thought that if I kept asking him, he would get it right. Somehow, in these bizarre nightmares, I was convinced that I was responsible for saving his soul.

Not long after I was on death row, I learned that Penry had been given a stay of execution. I haven?t had a nightmare about the death chamber since.

A few days later, I snuck into Barnes and Noble at about 10:45 p.m., just before closing time. I didn?t want anyone to see me when I went to the counter to purchase a copy of the King James Bible. I had given my old Bible to my next-door neighbor in college. That was eight years earlier.

It took me about eight months to read the King James Version. It took an additional two years to read four more translations of the Bible (the NRSV, GNT, NIV, and NASB).  By then, I had found satisfactory answers to all of the questions that led me to atheism in the first place.

One of the things I learned was that those nightmares were never about John Paul Penry. I?m just glad that I had the chance to renounce the things I had said about Christians and Christianity during my years as a radical graduate student and later as a professor. I don?t think I would have said any of those things or held any of those views if I had just read the right things earlier. I should have read the Bible, C.S. Lewis, and Chuck Colson before I went to college to read Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner.

Ever since I became a columnist, people have been asking me to explain exactly how I abandoned atheism. I think it would be better to talk about how I could have avoided it. I also think that the right reading list for high school seniors would make a lot of teenagers less susceptible to the anti-religious influences they encounter in college.

That will be the subject of next week?s column.

Mike Adams is an associate professor at UNC-Wilmington and a contributing columnist at Townhall.com. He can be reached at www.DrAdams.org.