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8/20/08                                                                                       View Comments

I became an atheist as a 13-year-old

Sent in by Tressa

My dad was born to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother. They raised him to have a marginal belief in a monotheistic, omnipotent God and the existence of an afterlife, but other than that, for the purpose of compromise, he was not brought up under any definite religious doctrine. To this day, my dad holds vaguely deist beliefs, but is fairly distrustful of organized religion. My mom was born to a devout Anglican mother and a Seventh-Day Adventist father; keep in mind that in these days, the Adventist church was not as well-integrated into mainstream society as it is today, and was still quite a bizarre Christian offshoot along the lines of the Jehovah's Witnesses. My mom was baptized Anglican but raised in the United Church of Canada, as it was the dominant religious institution in the small Ontario town her family eventually moved to.

The United Church of Canada is a uniquely Canadian institution. Despite technically being founded as an evangelical Protestant denomination, it has always been fairly mainline to liberal in its theological teachings; that said, its members come from all across the spectrum of Christian thought, so it is still prone to plenty of spats and threatened ruptures, sort of like the Anglican Church. And just like the Anglican Church in England, it has historically been the dominant Protestant church in Canada, and throughout the years has had quite a strong impact on Canadian culture and politics.

Like most children growing up in small towns in the 1950s and 60s, my mom was deeply involved with her local church, very keen on her religion, and still looks back on the experience fondly. However, for reasons unknown to me, she became less interested in organized religion as soon as she left home to attend university, and stopped going to church. When I was born, she did not even want to have me baptized, but was pressured into it by her family. I was baptized into the United Church as an infant.

Though I was raised with very basic Christian beliefs ("God loves you and you'll go to Heaven when you die"), my family was not devoutly religious; we were the typical "Easter-and-Christmas-only" church-goers. My first major exposure to religion was when I was hospitalized for pneumonia for an extended period as a seven year-old. I was watching the bedside TV when The Ten Commandments film came on. I was quite enthralled with this tale of plagues and rivers turning to blood, and I asked an attending nurse about it. She was horrified that I thought it was just another fantasy movie and did not recognize it as a Biblical story. She returned the next day and presented a Gideon Bible to me. I was a voracious reader as a child and, due to the blandness of my hospital stay, wound up reading the entire thing cover-to-cover. I cannot understate that it absolutely terrified me. God seemed like a psychopathic tyrant who would horrifically murder you for the slightest misstep, and since my parents had told me that this was all true, I was sure that it had all really happened and that God would get around to wiping me out any day now. I can't remember how my parents managed to calm me down about Christianity after that.

My lazy Christian existence came to a screeching halt when my mom's mother passed away. In her grief, she ran back to religion, and we were suddenly attending services every Sunday and becoming active members of the church community. I was now signed up for Sunday school, studying the Bible, and participating in church youth group activities left and right. My Sunday school teacher/youth group leader was an ex-Catholic who had only left the church because he married a Protestant and didn't want to upset her by giving into church pressure to baptize his kids Catholic. He always wanted to be "down" with the kids, so we would watch movies, eat ice cream, play sports, or go bowling, but with long discussions on Jesus worked in. Of course, his Catholic leanings were prone to slipping into lessons, like a fixation on sexual prohibitions. We were always being lectured on the evils of birth control and abortion, or how only sluts get HIV and/or unwanted teen pregnancies. I remember this one time, he was giving the lesson on how we are all sinners in the eyes of God. His example was "You might think that most of God's laws don't apply to you, but they do. For example, look at the incest prohibition. You might think 'That's gross, I would never break that', but then, remember that hot cousin you're always fantasizing about..." That was one of the first times I ever thought "Man, Christians are kind of messed up." (This was before Arrested Development too!) I was not much of a fan of participating in these youth church activities, because my peers were your typical cliquey, "holier-than-thou" bunch who had known each other since they were infants, and as both a latecomer and not the world's most devout Christian, they were just not interested in socializing with me.

I became an atheist as a 13-year-old, pretty much just on the spur of the moment. I was reading through the Bible and it just hit me that none of this really made sense based on what I was being taught about science in school. Additionally, though the church tried to moderate its beliefs, the Bible itself was too vicious a book for me; I had friends from many religious backgrounds and could not buy into the idea that they were all destined for Hell just because they were born into a different culture than me. I informed my parents of my newfound opinion on religion, and my mom proceeded to flip out and lecture me on how atheism was a symptom of selfishness, that atheists were all bitter, emotionally unfulfilled people with massive personal problems who wanted to wipe out everyone else's religion, that I was threatening her own shot at Heaven with these beliefs, and that I was too young to know anything about religion and would eventually come crawling back to Christianity. I stood my ground and told her that this was not just some little teen rebellion stunt; I had come to understand on my own that Christianity was not compatible with what I knew about science and, though the Bible did say some good things, when taken as a whole, its overarching message ran contrary to my own worldview.

I refused to continue attending church, and on the odd time that I was forced to go, I would just sit passively in on the sermon and avoid the Sunday school lesson. My mom was particularly outraged because I was only a year away from confirmation, and she was insistent that I needed to get confirmed regardless of my own personal beliefs. I was sure that I would be forced to go through with it, but luckily she eventually gave up on me and I was able to wiggle out of going to church forever.

In particular, I'm really glad that I got out of organized religion before I fully comprehended that I was gay, because I think it would have been too much for me otherwise. I remember that one of our junior youth group leaders was a beautiful young woman who I could not stop having "unholy" thoughts about! (In my defense, she was gorgeous, so I'm sure I wasn't the only one.) Despite my atheism, I still had to spend many years working through a lot of inner guilt thanks to all of the unnecessary sexual hang-ups I had beaten into me by Sunday school. It's been seven years since I became an atheist (I'm now 20), and I have never even once regretted leaving Christianity. I feel a newfound sense of privacy and freedom, since I no longer have to worry about some sky-being judging my every little thought, and I'm able to devise my own ethics based on logic and reason. Though I've since extensively researched world religions, I could never return to being religious, even if I tried with all of my might, because I find that once you leave (and read up on all the relevant science), it's near-impossible to ever mentally "buy in" again.

P.S. I didn't know where to cram this in to my story, but one of the most hilarious church moments that I ever experienced was when the minister gave a sermon in which he recounted a "harrowing" incident in which he had seen some vicious-looking goth teenagers coming down the street towards him and had raced the other way! Since I lived in the most bland, white suburb ever, I just had this visual of this 50 year-old man spotting a bunch of awkward 15 year-olds in ill-fitting Slipknot hoodies and their moms' black eyeliner, and still being terrified out of his mind and having to run off like a scared child.