Atheism has been on my mind a lot lately. Partly because it keeps popping up in SPAN (stuff-passing-as-news) and in some part because it’s an interesting distraction from aspects of life that have me at a standstill. In brief, here’s how I came to be an atheist.
My mother occasionally raised my brother and I in the non-Southern Baptist church and my dad didn’t care as long as he wasn’t expected to participate. I have a few early memories, like being dunked — blessed — in the Truckee River at the age of seven because, apparently, I had agreed to give my life to Jesus and was ready to be Born Again. I remember getting a little New Testament of my very own as a reward for memorizing Bible verses and thinking that Jesus was just about the most handsome man ever.
As I got older and my still forming brain began to develop the ability to reason, some things didn’t seem quite right, but since my mom was driving, I was still going to Sunday School. Throughout Junior and Senior High my mother and I would go through spurts of church attendance, my brother having joined the If Dad Doesn’t Have To Go camp. My belief in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Heaven and Hell, the existence of demons and angels was quite sincere. My feelings that other church members were benign tumors to full-blown human cancers were also firmly in place.
It was in high school that I encountered the power of prayer. It has none. As I hoped and prayed for the need of a bra, I endured severe bouts of depression with vaguely suicidal musings. (Something that many people may not realize, is that the combination of religion, low self-esteem and OCD is not a cure for teen angst. Or elder angst for that matter.) I graduated high school, with ease if not excellence, and that day was literally the best of my life up to that point. I was out of prison with nothing but the gaping maw of the future ahead of me. College had never been presented to me as an option, just as my getting a job at J.C. Penney’s wasn’t up for discussion, my mother just dropped me off and told me to fill out an application.
So at 18 I was still going to church, still living at home, and still feeling acutely inadequate. I did enjoy making my own money and had discovered the joy of eating lunch by myself, but my life was headed down a pretty bleak path. Then the Evangelism Corps came to our church and talked to the youth group. Here were some independent young people who had real purpose, traveling around the country, leaving the Good News in their wake. I was very impressed. So when I got a call from the Director himself, asking if I would like to join them for their next year, I felt special and chosen. My life finally had a positive direction; I would get out of the house and do good work to prove my good faith because everyone knows that faith without works is dead.
I went to my parents and explained that while I would need a little spending money, the Corps would take care of my food, lodging and travel expenses. One of my father’s dearest wishes had come true that day: one of his kids was actually leaving home at 18 and no longer be his problem. I don’t recall my mother trying to talk me out of going either.
Our group of 12 or so (I don’t remember) was merely a traveling microcosm of my high school: boys I liked who didn’t like me, boys I didn’t like who did like me, and girls who were more attractive and fun than I would ever be and probably didn’t like me either. From California to Idaho to Oregon to Washington and British Colubmia we sang (pretty badly), did puppet shows (the most fun), and performed humorous Christ-approved skits for the amusement of the church members. We were broken up into teams and stayed with church families. Some extremely sincere and kind, some a little weird, but all welcoming.
Before I go any further, I need to tell you about the personality tests that we had to take at the beginning of the year. It gave the director and his wife (or as they liked to be called, Mom and Dad) some idea about our individual strengths and weaknesses. Turns out I was an introvert.
Our job was to canvas neighborhoods, going door-to-door peddling our version of redemption. It was a horrible experience and I won’t bore you with the uncomfortable details. Let me just say however, that The Job showed me what true Christianity is all about. I have been bedridden with the flu only three times in my life. Once when I was seven and camping, once while I was in Seattle with the EC, and once just before I got pregnant with my son. The first flu taught me that camping is terrible. The third one proved that some guys really do like skeletal women. But it was the second bout with the flu that taught me that Christianity in action is not a thing.
We girls were staying with an elderly woman who was also sponsoring(?) a Latino man who didn’t have a strong grasp of English. I became horribly ill and probably could have used a doctor, but I had the next best thing: people who cared about me remembering me in their prayers. My roommate didn’t want to get sick, so she moved into another room where she could more easily write letters to the young man with whom, against all odds, she was in love. Everyday, the girls dutifully got dressed and walked to the church to get their neighborhood map of the day. The ONLY person to offer me any comfort was the other houseguest, a man whose name I didn’t even know. He peeked his head in and asked me if I needed anything. None of my teammates had bothered to ask.
Anyway, over the course of the year I went from an enthusiastic, albeit introverted believer, to a very depressed and, according to a second test possibly suicidal believer. I had not developed self-confidence, but I certainly built character. The experience did help me to find, eventually, the courage to accept the unknowable, to turn away from church-endorsed misogyny, and to an understanding that kindness is more important than belief.