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When I Began to Quit the Church

18 November 2011

Out of curiosity, I’ve been reading through comments on Greta Christina’s What Convinced You? A Survey for Non-Believers post.  (I haven’t shared my story there.  I’m not sure if I will, mainly because I like to keep my comments at smaller blogs and I have this thing about reading all comments before adding my own.)  I figure since Jeff posted something similar here and I can blab on and on forever on my own blog, I might as well share one of my stories.  Note that the story is presented as I recall experiencing it at the time (with possible changes to irrelevant details in order to protect those discussed, blah blah) and doesn’t necessarily reflect my views now.  In other words, there’s no point in arguing with the me that existed in the 1990s.  

Some background, because historians and sociologists know that it matters: Every Sunday of my life for the time period in question, my mom took me to her Lutheran church. My appraisal of that particular church is that it’s fairly center right–a bit of old-school brimstone here, a dash of nice Jesus there–and generally ‘traditional’ in presentation. My mom has been heavily involved with that church for decades, and despite her ideological problems with churches, pushed her kids into it with vigor.  My dad never went; I was an adult before I learned that he can’t stand church, hates religious ‘arguments’ against science, and is probably a straight up atheist.  Between my parents and siblings, I am the tie-breaker, meaning whichever side I pick wins, forever.  Anyway, on to the confession!

I remember parts of the incident vividly, which is notable given how few long-term memories I’ve retained.  I was nine years old. Within the last year or three I’d read 67 Ways to Save the Animals.  (That book was one of the things that began to Change Everything in more realms than religion, but I digress.)  My mom and I were at the church’s post-adult/pre-child indoctrination coffee-and-cakes break.  In one form or another and to no one in particular, I asked how it’s moral to kill and eat animals when we don’t have to.  A middle-aged woman I barely knew, one of the brash and impatient inner circle types, leaned toward me and snapped, “Because God put them here for us to eat.”  There was a smug vitriol to her response that hit my typically shy and reticent kid self in the gut.  The feeling of the words echoing in my head blurred the memory of what happened next.  I vaguely recall my (meat-eating) mom challenging her on her harshness and Biblical literacy.  After that, I knew on some level that I was supposed to keep my questions and opinions to myself.

I don’t know if I knew at the time that that incident would be the beginning of my escape from religion.  As I put on a few more years, I kept drudging up the memory, unpacking another level of significance, and putting together the ways in which one exchange was a perfect example of many massive problems with church culture and religion: Incorrect facts.  Cherry-picking and misreading.  Appeals to authority.  Intolerance of challenging questions.  Aggression and closed-mindedness behind all that loving-kindness talk.  Cliquey behavior.  Hypocrisy.  For one reason or another, I didn’t have the word ‘atheist’ in my brain until long after I stopped going to church–but I don’t think I ever really had the word ‘faith’ either.  I went from too young for real understanding to uncertainty and doubt to extreme discomfort before I was finally able to leave at 14 (after Confirmation: my mom’s weird plan to get me to like the church was to force me to stay with it despite weekly protests).  Though I liked science and there was probably some scientific thought influencing me, too, it was Christians that initially drove me away from Christianity.

So there’s my story.  It wasn’t hard to leave that community.  The other kids who were still around had never cared much for me anyway.  Public school friends who were religious didn’t really bother me about it.  Maybe they didn’t know about my apostasy either way.  We shared other interests.  The only difficult thing has been the paranoia.  That’s how they get you.  They get some part of you to believe you’re damned for all time even when you realize that you aren’t.  Over a decade later, I still feel these flecks of paranoia landing on me at random times like so much gull poop on Brighton Pier.  But my anti-theist stance has been expanded and refined so significantly over the years that there is no evidence that could convince me to reconvert.  It’s not hidden faith that causes this paranoia.  It’s the lingering effects of ongoing emotional abuse during developmentally vital years.  I don’t use the word ‘abuse’ lightly or metaphorically.  Constantly reminding kids of their inevitable fiery damnation if they fail to believe in something they can’t see is abusive, even when done with the best of intentions by otherwise gentle and compassionate people.

Parents, teachers, folks of all sorts, please keep that in mind.


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