After having to really explain my beliefs for the first time, I was shocked to find myself thinking, I believe THAT?
My grandmother had been a fundamentalist since a conversion experience in her early twenties (before which she claimed to have drunk and "cussed like a sailor"-which I could never quite bring myself to believe). She always claimed that she "loved children," while being completely heartless and unloving with me; but I think she would have been a cruel person with or without her religious beliefs. Somehow, my mother had grown up to be a loving, kind, compassionate and open-minded individual in spite of her own mother's influence.
My father was never a Christian, but he saw no reason to make an issue of his lack of belief, even though my grandmother felt the need to try to evangelize him-and absolutely every stranger she met-at every possible opportunity. Fortunately for me, he got a job in Southeast Asia and my family lived in Singapore during my whole childhood (which meant that my contact with my grandmother was limited to summers).
Throughout my childhood, my mother pursued her faith with an easygoing optimism, and we wandered from church to church, leading to experiences which were almost all positive for me. I enjoyed what I learned in church and saw no reason to doubt any of it. I led a number of my friends to Christ at a very young age, and felt that I was destined to be a missionary of some sort. I enjoyed the allegorical "film strips" that were popular at that time (during the mid to late 70s), and loved teaching Bible stories through whatever forms of multimedia were available. My mother led Sunday school classes at several of the churches we attended and I had a great time helping her with flannel boards and puppet shows. I was baptized both "in the Spirit" and by immersion in water, and was quite happy and confident in my faith.
Then, when I turned 13, financial tragedy hit my family. My father lost his job and we had to return to Oklahoma, and move in with my grandmother (she had been living in and taking care of my parents' house while we were overseas). My father was unable to find a job for more than six months, meaning that we burned through all of our savings. This was the first truly horrible experience of my life. I was forced to share a bedroom with my hateful and obnoxious grandmother (who snored so badly that I was never able to sleep unless I could sneak out to the couch). And, to make things truly unbearable, my mother decided that she would send me to the cheapest Baptist school she could find in the phonebook (since public school would have been out of the question for her).
This school-Moody Christian Academy, in Tulsa, Oklahoma-was a nightmare of backwoods fundamentalism. The girls were required to wear dresses at all times, while boys could wear whatever they wanted. Corporal punishment was practiced, and the teachers were barely educated enough to teach anything useful to even the youngest children. Not having grown up in Tulsa (even though I was born there), I was considered a foreign freak, and was lucky to have made any friends at all. My seventh grade class was taught (I'm not making this up) in the garage of the pastor's house by an insanely zealous Amway salesman.
Finally, after two years of this torture, my family had a little more money and I was allowed to go to a school that was a step up: Victory Christian School, affiliated with Oral Roberts University. It was still pretty awful. The kids were mean, unbelievably materialistic (which, believe it or not, was preached as a virtue, since you could supposedly ask God to make you rich and He would oblige), and obsessed with social castes. This, of course, is normal for kids anywhere, but the school was set up in such a way that even the teachers validated their snobbishness by pointing out, in one way or another, that if you didn't fit in it was because God didn't love you as much as He loved the popular kids. That is not an exaggeration. Once more, it was a struggle to find even 2 or 3 decent friends.
Because I was encouraged to believe that God favored certain people (the rich, the attractive, the socially inclined) over others, I found that it was easier to just accept this than face up to the fact that I might be trapped in a hotbed of hypocrisy.
I "worked to show myself acceptable unto God," by praying constantly, reading the Bible all the way through three times, fasting, listening only to Christian music, and going to church every Sunday. Nevertheless, I couldn 't bring myself to face the weekly "youth group" meetings (which afforded me endless guilt) because I knew I would be shunned and mocked by the "righteous" kids. I learned to loathe myself as much as my peers seemed to loathe me, and could only comfort myself with thoughts of suicide, or-since that wasn't allowed-with constant fantasies of sudden and violent death.
Things had improved a bit by my senior year because I had a car, a couple of very good friends, and a boyfriend. I was part of a "mission trip" to England as a member of a performing group, which was the most amazing experience of my life. I never managed to bring myself to do much witnessing, but the opportunity to travel with such a clear and uplifting sense of purpose was awe-inspiring. I knew that I would have to find a way to get that type of experience again.
I took the SAT when I returned, and bombed. I had been a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist (placing in the 98th percentile), but had made an 1190 instead of the required 1200 to get a full scholarship to college. Thus, instead of going to Oral Roberts University, I made due with a junior college. Throughout this period (including my eventual magna cum laude graduation from a 4-year college, a brief stay in a job I loved, and an even briefer experience with graduate school), I did a lot of reading. Curiously, all my favorite authors were atheists, agnostics and/or secular humanists (Vonnegut, Rushdie, Beckett, Rand, Irving, and many more), but nothing I read or heard strained my faith anywhere near the breaking point.
However, I got further away from the church, and did a lot of things that conflicted with what I had been taught. But I still believed that the Christian God was one of love and forgiveness, who was involved in my life and cared about me and my eternal fate.
This hit home for me dramatically when I met a guy named Chris in New Orleans (where I had been living since I left graduate school). He was a recently converted Baptist who was eager to do the work of the Lord through writing music and performing in a Christian rock band. I believed that God had miraculously sent us to each other to work together in serving Him. In spite of some misgivings about his very bloodthirsty and anger-filled interpretation of the Bible, I was overjoyed when he asked me to marry him and join him in his "ministry."
I was happy and trusted God that He would get the ministry off the ground. For three years, despite endless prayer and a constant struggle to "get right with God," it went nowhere. Even though God supposedly wanted us to go out and evangelize for Him, He was making it pretty much impossible. Still, I never lost faith.
It wasn't until my husband decided to move us to a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church that I began to seriously question what I believed. The pastor of this church preached hellfire and damnation exclusively, constantly pointing out that he was afraid that even he himself might not make it into heaven. His God was not one of love, but one who possessed a gleeful determination to cast every single one of his creations into eternal pain and suffering unless they found the magic combination of faith and good works to get them into heaven.
I was disgusted by this, and found it abhorrent that my husband delighted in telling other Christians from different denominations that they were going to hell. Finally, after having all but maybe 10% of my beliefs shot down by this fearful and guilt-ridden pastor, I had to ask myself whether the remainder was worth holding on to. I began to read both Christian and atheist apology (and was particularly impressed by Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor). One by one, my beliefs left (though not without a fight). I just couldn't believe in the Christian God any more.
If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God.
I'm still with my husband, who knows now how my beliefs have changed. We're taking things one day at a time, but I have no idea how it's going to turn out.
where I've been: Baptist, Pentecostal, Fundamentalist
what I am now: Atheist/agnostic
why I joined: "Inhereted" my faith from my mother.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)