I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, in Tennessee in the 1980s and 1990s. Although I was only dimly aware of it at the time, this was a period when the virulently fundamentalist wing of that church slowly began to take over from the more moderate members, systematically driving them out of the Southern Baptist convention altogether. What this meant in terms of my religious upbringing is that I was exposed to more liberal and rational people – like my parents and some of their friends – and I was exposed to more conservative, dogmatic people – like a Sunday School teacher who once read us a “story” about how we would all have to march to heaven with all our sins visibly marked on our bodies, making us repulsive, until we got to the gates of Heaven, where Jesus would wash us clean. (You can only imagine the effect this had on ten pre-teen girls, already insecure about our bodies and our appearance.)
As a result, I was exposed to a variety of religious perspectives. I can remember once watching a teenage boy in my youth group vigorously object to a visiting preacher when he spoke about the evils of homosexuality. I can also remember hearing another teenage boy tell a group of girls that one particular girl, whom he liked but who didn’t reciprocate his feelings, was “chosen for him by God” so if she objected to his advances, she was actually opposing God’s will. We were lectured endlessly about the evils of premarital sex, but when once asked about whether or not masturbation was evil, my mother (a Sunday School teacher at the time) told a group of girls that she didn’t feel it was a sin. The common thread running through all of these experiences, however, was the constant message that God was watching me – he judged my every behavior and thought, he insisted I worship him and pray to him, while at the same time requiring a “personal relationship,” which was often explained to me by other Christians in such a way that made it sound like Jesus was supposed to be my controlling, neurotic boyfriend.
Being a young girl in this environment, I was also given certain information about my gender’s place in this environment: women were not allowed to be pastors or deacons, we were supposed to work in “women’s missionary organizations” to support male missionaries and their families, and do charity work while waiting for the man God would send us to be our husbands. I have a lot of stories about this period that now amuse and shock my non-Baptist friends – for example, I was at one point a state champion in the Tennessee State Bible Drill (how many atheists can say that?) and I participated in something called “Acteens” which is a bit like a more hyper-Christian version of the Girl Scouts, except instead of badges, we had a ceremony at the end of the year in which we wore white dresses, processed down the aisle of the church, and received a tiara the first year, a scepter the second year, a satin cape the third year, and a white Bible with our names embossed in gold the final year. (Sounds like a really creepy mash-up of bridal and beauty queen rituals, doesn’t it?) Throughout all of this, the fact that we would be obedient to God, and by extension, the male pastors and leaders of the church who interpreted his will on earth, was the undercurrent running through everything I learned about my life as a young Baptist girl.
Meanwhile, my life at home was very different. I had two parents, both college educated, who valued art, science, education, history, intellectual inquiry, tolerance, and curiosity. I was never denied access to any book I wanted, including many sci-fi books (whose contents would probably have been deemed blasphemous by some in our church), books about other religions, books about science, and in one particularly fond memory to me now, my mother allowed me to buy a pack of tarot cards, despite her vocal admonition that “this is not Christian.” My father, whose own religious upbringing was much more casual, often seemed indifferent to church altogether. Of course, the hallmark of the Baptist church is that they allowed you to choose to be saved (I’m not certain but I think the phrase “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior” comes from the Southern Baptist lexicon) and because I was an adolescent being constantly “worked on” by peers, youth group leaders and church leadership, I not only capitulated to this pressure but I spent many a sleepless night worrying that my father was going to be damned to hell, because he had never “accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior” in quite the strenuous way that Baptists seemed to require. Looking back on it, this is one of the things that I resent the most about my religious upbringing – I shared this fear with youth group leaders, and instead of comforting me that God would never do something so cruel to my father, they assured me that this was a real risk, and I should use my faith to try and bring about his conversion. That adults would saddle a young person with so much shame and fear is shocking to me now, but at the time, all I could do was stuff down my nagging doubts and try to do as they suggested.
I credit two things with helping me to escape that world and learn to start thinking for myself: my parents and my education. My parents, although they might be reluctant to admit this, were the kind of people who seemed to accept the teachings of our church in public, but in private expressed their own doubts, disagreements and even occasional rebellion. They also insisted that I get a college education, made great sacrifices so that I could go wherever I wanted to, and were very supportive when I chose a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, as far away as I could get from the bible colleges and Baptist universities that many of my peers would attend. I made one token attempt to attend a bible study my first semester in college, but when I realized that I was free to choose for myself, I abandoned all observance of Christianity entirely and I have never returned to it.
Unfortunately, it took me another fifteen years to shrug off all the emotional and intellectual remnants of a theistic upbringing. I went through many stages – ignoring religion altogether, flirting with other religions, retreating back to the “there are many paths to God” line, all of these approaches designed to assuage my guilt about “disobeying” God by abandoning the tenets of my upbringing. The impact of this upbringing was so hard on me that I transferred a lot of my shame and guilt about being a sinful, disobedient woman to my personal relationships. When a relationship with a man would fail, I would often punish myself, because clearly I had been unworthy. It took me years – and much therapy, much suffering and one tragic hospitalization for depression – before I realized that I connected my relationships with men to my relationships to God, because this is what I was taught to do from an early age. When you have a relationship with a (male) deity that fails, clearly you are to blame, because how can a perfect being be the one at fault?
Finally, I began to realize that the problem was with the presence of the deity in the first place. Remove God from the equation, and there is just me, and I haven’t done anything wrong. I have the right to live my life, have sex when I want to and with whom I want to, I have the right to object to authority, particularly when I feel it is illegitimate and used to oppress people, I have the right to speak up (in fact, embracing atheism made it more imperative to me that I speak up, to defend the women being bullied by right-wing Christianity), I have the right to enjoy and learn the facts that science has brought to us, about the age of the earth and the wonderful life that existed on it before we evolved, and most importantly, I am still a moral and good human being without a God. When I realized that the presence of God was not a requirement for me to be good – that, as Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “human decency does not derive from religion, it precedes it,” – it was the most liberating and vivifying realization I’d ever had. Believers like to claim that a lack of God makes life meaningless, but I have found the opposite to be true. My life has more meaning to me now than it ever has, now that I’m focused on the here and now instead of suffering and torturing myself to earn my place in an afterlife.
What is most amazing to me is that, now that I am an atheist, I can enjoy the Bible again, as a work of literature and an expression of what it means to be human. The world’s religious narratives are nothing more than our attempt as human beings to understand the world around us, to find a way to overcome our fear and connect with the universe in which we mysteriously find ourselves. These narratives may be outdated, untrue and misguided, they may attract people who exploit them for power and mastery over others, they may be twisted to justify torture, oppression and slavery, but there are also moments in these narratives that are beautiful and very human. Being an atheist has made it possible for me to appreciate the complexity of the human story without feeling compelled to compromise myself. It has given me what any good story needs – a sense of resolution and acceptance.