I grew up fundamentalist Protestant in the deep South. Church three times a week, Bible reading and prayer most nights at home, the whole nine yards. Looking back on my childhood, though, I think religion’s grip on me began to slip at an early age. The problem was, I simply didn’t feel guilty about “sins” such as swearing, petty gambling, and such. (I mean, seriously, how many real sins does your average eight-year-old commit, anyway?) I felt pangs of conscience when I hurt somebody, but not when I committed a victimless “sin.”
I also discovered at an early age that authority figures were sometimes wrong. I remember, for example, episodes as early as the first grade when teachers made mistakes — not just trivial slip-ups or memory lapses, but errors in judgment. I don’t know, maybe everybody has those experiences, but they made a strong impression on me. Such episodes, as well as encounters with outright dishonesty, gradually convinced me that I should rely on my own judgment and not take anybody’s word at face value. I came to believe I was at least as smart as most other people, and could figure things out as well as they could. I also learned that devoutly religious people often behaved just as badly as the “unsaved.”
Even though I decided to be baptized sometime around the age of ten (my people didn’t believe in infant baptism), I don’t remember ever feeling a strong affinity for the church or religious activities. By the time I was 15, I had serious doubts about religion and especially about Christian fundamentalism. When I was 16, I spent the summer in Connecticut at an experimental summer school program, where I was exposed to many new experiences and ideas. That summer changed my thinking about the civil rights movement, among other things. In the church I attended back home, the preacher condemned civil rights leaders and activists from the pulpit. If the church was on the wrong side of that issue, maybe it were wrong about other things, too. Another thing about that summer was that nobody made me go to church, so I didn’t, and I didn’t miss it.
At about age 17, I started going out with a girl who was a member of a different Protestant sect. It was in some ways more fundamentalist than the one in which I had been brought up, but it seemed to take a more rational approach to studying the Bible. Its members shared my skepticism about some things that other churches believed in, such as faith healing, speaking in tongues, and apocalyptic prophecies. Those aspects of it appealed to me. Mostly, though, I was just really hot for that girl. I even became a member of her church.
After graduating high school, I (stupidly) joined the Army. I hated Army life, but at least it took me far away from the Babble Belt for extended periods of time. I spent my 20th and 21st birthdays on the other side of the globe, learned to drink and indulge in other “sinful” pleasures, never went to church, and felt not the slightest guilt about any of it. Then I came home and married my high school sweetheart, who was still as devout as she had ever been. By this time I didn’t really believe in an afterlife or anything supernatural, although I had never explicitly admitted it even to myself. (Failing to admit things to myself was to be a great source of misery for me.) In spite of everything, I settled back into churchgoing life.
Then I went to college. Looking back, I think that although I had completely lost my religious faith by that time, I had nothing with which to replace it. I was skeptical about creationism and curious about evolution, but I didn’t know much about it; likewise with other scientific subjects. As I learned about science and the experimental method in college and graduate school, it gave me a new way of understanding the universe that made a lot more sense than the religious way.
Sometime in my senior year of college, I had a panic attack accompanied by obsessive thoughts about my death. I had lost my youthful illusions of immortality, and I didn’t know how to live without them. For the next two years or so, I had increasingly frequent panic attacks and insomnia. I entered psychotherapy and began taking tranquilizers. My condition evolved into clinical depression. I was constantly plagued by obsessive thoughts about dying. I could not talk to my wife or family about what was going on inside my head, for fear of revealing my unbelief. Meanwhile, my wife and I had two babies and continued going to church. I began taking an antidepressant, and by the time I finished my graduate coursework the depression was subsiding.
I began working on my dissertation, we moved to another city, and I got a job. The medication was keeping the depression at bay, but I finally faced up to the implications of my dishonesty with myself and everybody else. I was angry at everything and everybody, especially my wife, even though I was the one responsible for my predicament. After ten years of marriage, I told my wife for the first time that I didn’t believe in God, and that I couldn’t go on pretending that I did. I quit the church, and a few months later I moved out of our house. She moved to another state and filed for divorce. At the age of 33, at great cost to myself and others, I was finally free from religion.
The divorce cost me a lot financially, but I’ve recovered from that. My greatest regret is that it made me a long-distance father. I’m now 26 years into my second marriage and living my life the way I choose, out in the open, unafraid and unapologetic. Looking back, I don’t even know what I was so afraid of.