A recurring dream I’ve had for the last three years – I am forced, for unfinished reasons, to return to my alma mater, a small Christian University. I am told that I have to think a certain way, act a certain way, go to Chapel and pretend that I believe when I pray. If I don’t do all of these things, I will not be allowed to graduate into adulthood.
I am a 34-year-old agnostic atheist. The dream would not be so terrible if it wasn’t for this fact. It would even seem kind of fun to go back to school. It wasn’t a bad place, and I really enjoyed my time there, especially my studies.
A friend of mine said, that it seems like most people that are raised in the church eventually wizen up and leave faith behind. Quite the contrary. Judging from what I have seen in my Christian high school and college, I would say 5% have left the church. I have no way of knowing if they have grown out of faith altogether, and on that count, it may be more like 1% (I might even be the 1 of that percent). I am intrigued to know if there are any others.
The theology of my education was indoctrinated into me from the time I was born. It began with my mother who was at the height of her “Jesus Freak” phase, when I was “miraculously” conceived after years of trying for a second child. My young life was immersed in Bible stories, songs, memorized verses. Then Sunday school, Vacation Bible school, Praise Night, tent revival meetings, Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, The Gospel Bill Show, Tammy Faye Baker on the PTL club, Christian school from third grade through my senior year of college. I was not allowed to go to a Buddhist friend’s house, I was spanked for asking what the word “witch” meant, and Disney movies were all of the devil. Every influence around me was a Christian influence. There was nothing else.
From my religious perspective, as a child, it did not seem strange, or even wrong, that God supposedly commanded the Israelites to commit genocide at Jericho.
It seemed normal, at least in the Bible, for Lot to offer up his own daughters to be gang-raped, protecting his houseguests from a similar fate.
And when Noah’s son Ham saw his father’s drunken nakedness, and told his brothers about it rather than covering him up right away, it was normal for God to condemn Ham’s descendants to be “The lowest of slaves (Genesis 9:25).”
In The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, he writes, “Shouldn’t a literalist worry about the fact that Matthew traces Joseph’s descent from King David via twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty-one generations? Worse, there is almost no overlap in the names on the two lists! In any case, if Jesus really was born of a virgin, Joseph’s ancestry is irrelevant and cannot be used to fulfill, on Jesus’ behalf, the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah should be descended from David (Dawkins, 120).”
In a study of 168 Israeli children, the kids condoned the well-known story of Joshua’s act of genocide. But when all the names and places were changed, they condemned it.
“Religious leaders are well aware of the vulnerability of the child brain, and the importance of getting the indoctrination in early. The Jesuit boast, ‘Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man,’ … In more recent times, James Dobson, founder of today’s infamous ‘Focus on the Family’ movement, is equally acquainted with the principle: ‘Those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience – what they see, hear, think, and believe – will determine the future course for the nation (Dawkins, 206).”
Though religion was ingrained in me, at school I often wanted to ask questions. But there was an unspoken rule that it was inappropriate to ask. If you asked questions of the Bible, your faith was faltering, you were weak, you were a failure, you lacked virtue.
“Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe. If somebody announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith, or another, or of none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to ‘respect’ it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings (Dawkins, 346).”
The idea that question equals failure permeated my entire consciousness to the point that I was afraid to ask questions in all of my other subjects as well.
Judgment was a huge fear for me. Everyone was always watching. So rather than falter in front of them, how about, just do nothing at all. Sit in a corner, and pretend you don’t exist. For eighteen years, that’s exactly what I did. I was not an exemplary student, to say the least.
Women barely exist at all in the Bible. I clung to the stories of Ruth and Esther for dear life. They were all I had. Mary, the mother of Jesus, certainly wasn’t worthy of admiration. She is described as being more like a vessel than a person. Jesus treated her poorly. He directed his followers to leave their families behind to join his hippy movement. Reading the Bible, it’s difficult to figure out where “Christian Family Values” came from.
When I was twenty-one, I chose to walk away from the church. I decided that I no longer wanted to battle against my own human nature. I longed to fully accept who I was so that I could find happiness. I didn’t think about my departure much beyond that basic need. For the next ten years, I avoided the concept of faith and religion completely.
Instead, I spent that time doing the basics. I had to rebuild my life and deprogram my brain (not an easy task). I put myself in uncomfortable situations so that I could learn, grow, and figure out my own path. I went through an inter-faith phase, and had a year or so of being enamored with mumbo jumbo, third eyes, magickal practice, and shamanism; but I never explored what I came from.
Three years ago, I was finally ready to face all of my fears surrounding the culture of faith. At first, when I started my research, I was horrified by the realization that all of my life I’d been lied to by people who actually believed the lies they told. I was extremely angry. I couldn’t pick up the Bible without feeling disgusted and repulsed. I expressed my rage in some of my past blog posts which (going viral) attracted the ire of some very hateful Christians. One accused me of wanting to be gang-raped by five guys on a pagan altar. When you come from Bible culture, this is not an “out there” thing to think.
As a woman (according to the Bible) I am a descendant of Eve (no matter that so are all men). Therefore, I am an evil temptress who can’t be trusted, and I need to remain under the protection and the thumb of my husband or father, who will keep me in line. I am not a man’s equal (since I come from his rib, and he was there first after all), so it’s okay to take me down a few notches and skewer me as a sexual deviant to take away the blow from my viable arguments against religion.
You can teach a normal, healthy human being the practices of religion, but the fact that they subscribe to blind faith makes it positively unhealthy. The more extreme the faith and the acts behind it, the more the rewards in heaven multiply. Thus, suicide bombers abound.
I had a good talk with my brother in-law last week. He and my sister are Bible translators in Papua New Guinea, though they are home on furlough. He gets sick of being judged that he is going to act or feel a certain way on the basis of his beliefs. I get sick of being judged by Christians that I am selfish and evil simply because I do not live by faith.
Unlike the Christian faith, I don’t believe that we only subscribe to morals for fear of punishment or hope for rewards. I don’t believe that I am a hopeless, fallen soul with no control over myself. I take full responsibility for all of my actions, for my well being, and the well being of those around me. I don’t believe my dreams will be handed to me on an answered-prayers-platter. I believe in working hard to make my dreams a reality.
A friend was visiting not long ago and said to me, “I forgot that you are an atheist, because you are just so spiritual.”
I’m not sure what this means exactly. I am in awe of the universe. Is that spiritual? Is my spirit separate from my body? There is no evidence that supports that.
Scientists believe we have discovered the origins of the universe. Though the theories make a great deal of sense, I wasn’t there, and I will never know what actually happened. And that’s okay, because I am merely a collection of matter, ever-changing, and living on this marvelous stage of life, lucky to be here, honored with the magnificence of it all, never ceasing to be intrigued and amazed by my journey through art, life, words, loves, dreams, and actualizations.
Could it not be, that we have come into existence by the actualization of atoms, which create the same feats in our own lives? From particles to beings, from beings to mass movements. If you believe something enough, it will come true. That is why I still believe that prayer actually does tend to work. In prayer or meditation, you have set your mind to something, and will (hopefully) lay the groundwork to fulfill that need.
I no longer feel angry when I pick up my Bible. For the first time in my life, I can enjoy it simply as a piece of literature. Well, on second glance, maybe not. That is wishful thinking in my case. It could only remain as a piece of literature to someone who was not affected by its life consuming goals. Such as, the way I was not affected personally by learning about Greek mythology. No one ever told me I had to live by the commands of the great and all-powerful Zeus.
In Philippians, Paul’s words remind me all too well of what I have left behind:
“… I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-3:11).”
According to Ignatius, Paul was eventually decapitated as a martyr under the rule of Nero. He is not the first martyr or the last. He is not the first to give everything up over his lame powers of perception – believing in the great white light, spirits, visions, what have you. As I read the words now, I feel sorry for his loss. I admire that he lived his life with passion. But his blind love cost him his head. It also cost him the chance at finding truth and happiness in the one life he lived.