Autonomy: The Greatest Gift

Sent in by Katie

I apologize in advance for the length this will probably reach. I tend to ramble. Also, as an extra but probably superfluous warning, I do not censor myself. If my language offends you…well, tough shit.

Let's start from the beginning.

I was born in August of 1988 in a smallish burg in northwest central Arkansas about sixty miles from Little Rock, nestled cozily in a river valley amongst three hills (I think there are about 30,000 people in it now). There are no shopping malls, but there is a Wal-Mart Supercenter (complete with Mickey D's) along with about seven major churches and countless small ones. Most are Southern Baptist (a.k.a. "I love Jesus and my .22") or evangelical charismatic (a.k.a. "He must have the Holy Spirit in him! Listen to him babbling nonsensically!").

Needless to say, my upbringing was quite religious.

My mother was and is still devoutly Christian, as was my father to a somewhat lesser extent. I was raised and coddled in an almost exclusively Christian environment, sheltered from the evil atheistic viewpoints that might have endangered the "childlike faith" needed to believe in an all-loving God. I even went to a tiny little Christian private school from kindergarten all the way to seventh grade, and in that kindergarten class the teacher led all of us in the Acceptance Prayer ©, even though I’m quite positive not one of us knew what the hell that was supposed to mean. I still have a pair of old textbooks written by A Beka Books, a religious publishing company that provides God-centric textbooks for home schooled children — a science book and a history book, eighth grade level. They're good to look through for a laugh.

I was a very rationalistic child. I never believed in the Tooth Fairy, Santa, or the Easter Bunny. There were never monsters in my closet. I never had an imaginary friend. I devoured nonfiction the way my peers devoured cartoons. If I were ever confused about something, I would look it up, or on rare occasions ask my parents. I was not content to remain ignorant, and that aspect of my personality has most certainly contributed to my de-conversion.

Unfortunately, all the information that was available to me was from the Christian viewpoint. My mother even took out a subscription to Creation magazine—a publication dedicated to stories exploring the fantastic designs of nature (and how they provided evidence for a divine Creator) and about…rock formations that formed really fast, thus showing evidence for a young earth. Sure. I wonder if any of those are still around… At any rate, because I was never exposed to an opposing viewpoint without first filtering it through the dorky-looking designer shades of Christianity, I had no idea what evolution really meant, or the mind-blowing things that scientists have theorized about the origins and nature of the universe. Thusly, my mind was narrowed to the acceptance of all things Christian, and no things else.

Entering public school in eighth grade was an enormous culture shock for me—I had been taken from a class of maybe twelve students, three combined grades, and shoved into a sea of people, a class of '06 that numbered almost 500. I was stunned, and scared. I struggled with a severe social anxiety, and with new ideas that started entering my brain after being exposed to people with different viewpoints. At first I just thought of people who didn’t believe in God as poor lost souls, but as my public school education went on, somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered.

I don't think I was very conscious of this wondering for quite some time; in fact, I’m fairly sure I consciously avoided it. Doubts are a natural part of the Christian’s life in the faith, after all—perhaps if I ignored them, they’d go away.

I was just beginning to face these doubts for what they were when, a year and four months ago, the sudden death of my father shattered everything in the little world I had built. The last time I saw him was on my parent’s bed with a thermometer in his mouth, the victim of a case of pneumonia. The next morning he was rushed to the hospital and succumbed to an enlarged heart shortly before I left for school.

His wake made me feel physically ill. I had to deal with the endless onslaught of hugs and sympathy from people I barely knew or didn’t know at all and probably hadn’t known my father that well either—I only stayed out of concern for my mother, who was going through the same thing. A small group of CSU kids that were on speaking terms with me but had never bothered to make friends with the quiet nerdy girl doodling or reading in the back of the class came, presumably to offer Christian support. It was, altogether, a very uncomfortable situation. If it hadn’t been for my best friend (another catalyst of my de-conversion, by the way), I would never have made it through that ugly event.

His funeral was interesting in that, instead of concentrating on the idea that my father was in heaven and presumably enjoying himself, the people who eulogized him told specific stories of the way he had made the world around him a better place—the pranks he had played on his coworkers, his ability to assess a situation and come to a good decision almost instantly (a good thing when you work in a nuclear power plant), the joy he had brought people. I slowly came to realize that his life had not been an effort to glorify God, but an attempt to better humanity, if only in some small way. That seemed to make much more sense to me than trying to do the will of an invisible being in the sky that had never really done anything for me anyway.

Christians are stubborn in their convictions, though, and I was no different. Some part of me wanted to hold onto something—anything—that would give me comfort in my grief. I held onto that last scrap of belief for a long time.

Several months later, I found myself lying on the floor in my bathroom after a shower and sobbing helplessly, wanting to die. I finally just said, "God, if you're there, give me some relief from this emotional pit I’ve worked myself into. If you're there, please, please help me."

Nothing. Not even afterward, not even slowly. I felt no spiritual comfort, no sense of the Father's arms around me, not even the sense of a rejection.

That cemented it. I realized I couldn't rely on the invisible. I would not get help from some being that supposedly lived in some alternate plane of existence but loved me no matter what—what God would bring his children such torment and leave them alone to fend for themselves? I had to start doing things for myself, or I would never be able to live the kind of life I wanted to: full of meaning and possibilities and the love of other human beings.

My father was a compassionate, intelligent man with a fantastic sense of humor and a healthy disrespect for authority that contributed much to my perception of the world. He was also Christian, staunchly Republican, and homophobic. That doesn’t change the fact that he affected my life greatly, and in his death did more to free my mind than he ever could have in life. Autonomy was the greatest gift he gave me. Were he still able to see me, I think he would be glad to know that.

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