By Caroline Singer
This is a story of how I am finally able to shed the last of the xian brainwashing that was inflicted on me as a child. It's long, it rambles, and it's almost 3000 words. But it helps me to write it, and I hope that some of you will have the patience to read it. Any words of encouragement from a fellow nonbeliever will be welcome.
From as far back as I can remember, I was taken to sunday school and then church by my mother. My mother was not especially religious herself -- I think she brought me there because it was the "right" thing to do and to give me something of a social life. My church was Northern Baptist, more or less the same vanilla Xian of all the other Protestant churches around -- the Methodists, the Congregationalists, and so on. Our town was maybe 3/4 Protestant and 1/4 Catholic. As far as I knew, my church was "Protestantism Lite." The emphasis was on living a good life. The mystical stuff was there, but I don't remember them stressing it much, and I never got exposed to the hell and damnation stuff favored by other sects.
When I was 6 or 7 I remember the Catholic neighbor boy down the street, with whom I used to hang out some, telling me, out of the blue, that only Catholics went to heaven. I didn't say anything -- I've always had trouble expressing myself verbally, especially when confronted with that crap. But I did ask my grandmother and mother if it were true. They said no, don't worry about it, or something like that. But I could just tell, without knowing it, that they went to the neighbor kid's parents and told them to tell little Johnny to cool it, because I didn't see so much of Johnny after that.
I was raised mostly by my grandparents. My father and mother divorced before I was born, and my mother stayed and worked in Boston during the week, coming home on weekends. She was normally a quiet woman, but when my grandparents went out for the evening, she was given to hysterical rages that scared the crap out of me. Somehow I couldn't tell my grandparents about it, but one day in church, after another round of hysteria the night before, I told someone about it, the mother of one of my friends and a pillar of the church. I thought for sure she'd say something about it to my grandparents or my mother. At last, I thought to myself, someone will get my mother to stop. My mother didn't stop, however, and I realized that the lady I'd confided in had said nothing to anyone. That was a huge disappointment.
Life went on. When I was 11 or 12, I was invited to spend the weekend at my cousin's house. She was about my age, and I always wondered why I hadn't seen more of her, since they lived not too far away. After that weekend, I was just as glad, not to have anything to do with them. For one thing, everything was regimented. My cousin insisted I had to brush my teeth with her, first thing in the morning before breakfast. Do you know how bad orange juice tastes with toothpaste? But more than that, they seemed to be going to church ALL the time. I mean, I thought one service a week was plenty. But they had Saturday church activites and Saturday night church and Sunday morning church and Sunday evening church. I couldn't believe all the long sermons I sat through in just 2 days.
The culmination of the weekend came when my cousin's father took me aside and asked me if I believed that everything in the Bible was literally true, like the earth being created in 7 days. I'd never really thought about it before. To me, our Sunday school was basically a bunch of stories with some life lessons thrown in. Like I said, Protestantism Lite. After hearing my cousin's father's question, I thought a little, and then I said I thought the creation tale was an allegory. I'm not sure I used that word, but I said something like that. He looked at me a bit oddly. I asked him if he believed the creation tale was literally true. He said yes, but let it go at that. Sunday night someone came and got me and I was never invited to my cousin's place again.
At age 13, the beginning of my high school freshman year (9th grade), I came under attack, for lack of a better expression. It's too long and boring to go into here, but basically a "friend" of mine did something unethical and I ended up getting the blame. The "popular" group of girls would see me in the halls and say things like "Speak of the devil" and so on. For weeks and weeks I had no idea what they were talking about, and nobody would tell me. Finally the girl behind me in homeroom said she'd find out. She did, and told me about it, and I realized there was no way at that point I could convince anyone I hadn't done anything wrong.
Anyway, during those dreadful weeks, I kept saying to myself, "Trust in God and it will work itself out." I realized long afterwards that I had picked up this mantra through all my exposure to church, week after week. I kept hoping that something would happen to exonerate me, just like I had hoped the church lady would make my mother stop her rages. But nothing happened, and I was regarded with suspicion by most of the students for the rest of my high school career. That incident really had a bad effect on me. I think that if I hadn't put my faith in a supernatural power during that time, I might have been able to figure out how to make the rumors and the harassment stop, perhaps by going to the injured party and telling her the truth. In any event, after that was when I stopped trusting people and I stopped trusting "God."
When I was 15 I started attending Sunday school classes for the junior class. At this point they had stopped separating the girls from the boys. There was just one class and it was taught by the minister's wife, a somewhat odd lady who liked to order hot water as a beverage in restaurants and who thought kissing before marriage was a sin. From my readings on this board, I think the junior year in high school is, in general, when they start hitting the kids with the hard stuff in Sunday school. This was where I found out that that all non-Christians will be going straight to hell after they die. It was little Johnny come back to me, only the Protestants were including themselves in the going to heaven category. Naïve me, I thought I had heard the last of that b.s. when Johnny moved away. I asked the teacher the standard question, what if someone hasn't been exposed to Christianity, it doesn't seem fair to send them to hell. She replied that it didn't matter.
Like so many of you, when I hit the hard stuff, I couldn't buy it. I stopped going to Sunday school and I stopped believing. My mother insisted I go to church, however. Before my senior year in high school, I told my mother I wanted to try different churches, to go to a different service every week. I think she talked it over with my grandmother. (At this point, my grandfather had died and my mother was now a full-time resident where I lived. I still regarded my grandmother as the person raising me.) I think my grandmother said, oh that will look bad, and my mother told me I needed to stay at the same church, and I could do what I wanted when I went to college.
The end of my senior year the church held its annual essay contest for seniors. I wasn't planning to enter -- there were too many godly teenagers at my church who were just chomping at the bit to win that $50 prize (this was 1963). However, the night before the essay was due, I got inspired and wrote a page on how I wanted to go off to college and investigate other religions. I turned it in the next day and forgot about it. In a few weeks the winner was to be announced at the weekly service. All the godly teenagers were sitting in front waiting for one of their names to be announced as the winner. I was sitting in the back with my mother. Suddenly I heard my name called as the winner. I remember my fellow classmates looking at me with disappointed smiles as I went up to accept the check. I do have to give those church people credit to this day. They could have easily picked someone else's essay.
The funny part came when I had to read my essay in front of the whole church. They asked someone else to read his essay too, a much more conventionally religious one, and the man helping us prepare for our delivery was clearly no fan of mine. He kept glaring at me. I read the essay and nobody came and lynched me afterwards, so I guess that's good. But what hurt was when one of the teenagers, I guy I had respected, later told me he'd read my essay on the sly, because his father was one of the judges. He said something like, you were just spouting b.s., weren't you. Well I wasn't, but I froze and found I couldn't disagree with him (it's that inability to respond verbally coming up again).
In college, sleeping in after a Saturday night date, during which I usually had at least a couple of drinks (screwdrivers were my favorite), became a lot more important than going off to some church to find out what was out there. (In the early 60s, the minimum drinking age was 18. I was able to drink at 17 and not even have to present a fake i.d. Years later, I was carded at age 38…But I digress.) Religion didn't come back into my life until I moved south and got married. If I'd had my choice at the time I would have done neither of those things.
It's yet still more of a long winding story as to how I got caught up in fundamentalism for a time, but here goes. My husband had been raised in a Southern Baptist church and rebelled against it as a teen. I think that the more fundamentalist the church, the stronger one's rebellion is and the more antagonistic one becomes. My husband was anti-religion, anti-christian, anti-church, you name it. His parents were church-goers and his mother was very devout, however. My views of religion at that time were (1) it was irrelevant and (2) I didn't like the people -- I had always tried to follow xian precepts such as the golden rule and to be kind, and I noticed that most of the people who went to church didn't do that. My husband was a fan of Bertrand Russell and thought of religion as an abomination. At the time I thought that if someone wanted to believe, well fine, that's their right. I still think that, but I get really angry when someone tries to shove their religion down my throat, either personally or politically.
Anyway, before I got married, I had thought my husband would be fun to live with. I believed that we had a lot in common. But after the wedding he changed a lot. He was critical of virtually everything I did, always claiming I was the one at fault. Part of it was that since he was 31 and I was 20, it was hard to argue with him. Another part was that he had a congenital, chronic, debillitating condition, and after a while I realized that if I caused him stress his condition would kick up and he would become very seriously ill. At other times he could fall on the floor and nothing would happen to him. Well, one day we're riding along with our two-year old son in the car and the thought came to me, how happy I was to be free of religion, heaven, hell, the whole nonsense. So I expressed that thought. And my husband starts getting on my case, saying don't be so negative! This after listening to him rant for hours on end about how horrible religion was. I learned right then to keep my thoughts to myself. Who could understand this guy? I guess he could insult the faith of his parents, but I could not.
I left my husband after 5 years of marriage, in a state of such depression that I was afraid I'd harm my little boy if I stayed. My husband begged me to let him keep our son. Actually he said, if you take him I'll die. I had no financial resources, either my own or from my parents. Nobody would rent a place to a single mother with a child. There were so many reasons I left without my son, but it doesn't matter. I regret it to this day. Two years later my husband died. Within a week his parents told me I was in no position to take care of my son, and they wanted to adopt him. I agreed. My father told me they would hound me until I gave my son up, and they certainly had the money to do it.
While my husband was sick, but before he died, I went to a campus religious group meeting. It turned out to be my first encounter ever with fundamentalists, or Pentecostals. I had heard of them, of course, but otherwise knew nothing about them. The atmosphere of the meeting was so emotionally charged that I broke down and cried for the first time in a very long time. From then on I was hooked. I started going to services at the campus Episcopalian cathedral. After a couple of times I got completely turned off by the "we are undeserving scum" litany and looked around for someplace else to go. My new fundie friends suggested a Protestant church in town, I forget which flavor. I have to say, one of the woman from that church helped me a lot while my husband was dying. She went to the "viewing" with me, went to the funeral, and listened to my story. She was continually non-judgmental and kind, and she didn't proselytize.
After my husband died, I kept on going to church. I saw the minister a few times, and he advised me never to see my son again. (I'm glad I ignored his advice. It was difficult to see my son at his grandparents' house, and our relationship has been through some tough times, and he has been through some tough times, but now my son and I are great friends.) Anyway, as the emotional wounds began to heal a little, I started to think more clearly about what I was hearing at church. I remember distinctly one Sunday hearing the stuff about Jesus dying for us and the resurrection and thinking, oh wow, I cannot bring myself to believe this. The defining moment came when I started reading C.S. Lewis. In one of his books, he presented two arguments, pro and con, for the existence of God. After reading them, I realized I found the "con" argument much more convincing!
I stopped going to church. Later in my life, twice in a 5 year period, I would happen to attend a service and get sucked in by what seemed to be the kindness of it all. But intellectually I realized I could never buy it, and I'd stop going. I also discovered that if I followed xian precepts in this world, I got kicked around like a soccer ball.
My current husband's parents are devout Catholics and my sister-in-law is a devout Lutheran of the in-your-face variety. Once she told my husband and me that we were not fit to be her newborn's godparents, because we were not religious and because we had lived together before getting married. The presence of her in our lives has again caused the religious guilt, that I realize has been part of me all my life, to come to the fore. I have lately come to realize that it's all voodoo and that I need to shed the remains of the brainwashing of my youth, even though it was "only Protestant Lite." The more I shed it, the more content and less conflicted I am. I am finding it easier to shed now that I have found a community of non-believers here.