I know a lot of people who have been “converted” to one religion or another. I, on the other hand, was raised in a solidly Southern Baptist family and, for want of a better word, eventually de-converted from Baptist to Atheist. Far from preventing me from straying from religion as they hoped, my family’s ideas, actions, and attitudes made me less of a believer over the years. I have always believed that the only reason most of them ever did the “right” thing is out of fear of otherworldly reprisals.
My earliest memories of going to church are of crying when I didn’t get to go to Sunday school. I now know that it was the social aspect that attracted me, even though I was often treated badly or ignored by my classmates. Their families had moved up, financially, faster than mine and I was often ostracized for not dressing as well as the others. I now realize that an undiagnosed hearing loss, which left me clueless to the nuances of things around me, also contributed to my lack of conformity.
In an attempt to fit in, I was baptized around age 10 or 12. I knew even then that I didn’t really mean it. I only vaguely remember deciding to be baptized. My recollection of it may be hazy, but I know that I did it mostly out of peer pressure. I was still something of an outsider among the kids in both my school and my church (many of whom were the same people) and I somehow thought being baptized would bring me more acceptance. Despite my need for acceptance, the process left me feeling like a charlatan. The whole thing went against my logical side. Long before the whole “intelligent design” movement, I asked several people including my parents and my Sunday school teacher, who was also one of my teachers in public school, if it wasn’t possible that there was a compromise between evolution and creationism. My inquiries were met with a resounding “No!” That rejection of any possibility of free thought opened my mind to the possibility of being free of my family’s delusions. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t go straight from wannabe believer to atheist with no steps in between. I started out as a questioner.
My initial salvation from religion began when I was a teenager in the form of my best friend’s freethinking family. Though she and I drifted apart many years ago, I still think of the good they did for me. In fact, I still think of her mother very fondly and visit her on occasion. If it weren’t for that family, I don’t know what I might have done when my mother, who was the center of my world, died when I was barely fifteen. Everyone in my family except my father had spouses and children to rally around them and Daddy, well, he had his church – the same church I already felt out of step with. My friend’s family served as my anchor when I felt everyone and everything else had set me adrift. Without their support, I believe I would have gone into a serious downward spiral.
The other thing my friend’s family gave me was permission to question, to wonder if what I had learned was based in fact. Questions that were met by my family and church with “No,” and “Don’t question, just believe,” were met with discussion and encouragement when posed to her family. With them I was exposed to other religions, specifically Catholicism, which was their family’s “official” religion. With them, I attended masses in both Latin and Spanish. The Latin I knew nothing of and the Spanish I knew a little of, but they explained things as they went along, or after the fact when appropriate. Prior to this, my only exposure to “other” churches was attending my sister’s wedding in a Methodist church and a couple of visits to the fundamentalist Baptist church my niece attended. They were so strictly fundamentalist that I was asked to leave a skating party I attended with my niece because I wasn’t wearing nice enough clothes, specifically a “Sunday school” dress.
In my experience, being honest meant being ostracized and shouted down – most of all by my family. I did get a few licks in, though. As a rebellious teenager left alone with a detached father, I learned how to lash out when I wanted attention. It was not uncommon for me to threaten to date a black or hispanic boy or, worse yet, a CATHOLIC! My favorite jab at Daddy, though, was to refer to the bible, his beloved bible, as a book of Jewish fairy tales. That one statement could cause a full relief map of the state of Texas to appear in the veins on Daddy’s forehead.
Daddy never did give up on his religion. One day, Mere weeks before his death at age 94, he asked me what I was reading. I told him and he thumped, literally thumped, his bible and said, “This is the only thing I need to read.” Because of his age, and my refusal to mar his last days with dissent, I neither laughed at him nor answered with what I thought. Later that day, I vented by updating my Facebook status with, “If you never read anything other than what you already believe, how do you know that what you believe is true?”
As an adult, I tried never to begrudge Daddy his religion. Before he died, I made a nice hand-stitched cover for his old bible. I fear it gave my family false hope of my impending “salvation,” but I would have done the same no matter what book it was. I also helped arrange for him to be buried with his bible. It was his companion in life so I felt it was only right that it accompany him in the casket. My main reason for this was to minimize the potential for fights and bad feelings among several of his grandchildren who had already expressed an interest in having the bible. Putting the bible in his casket with him took it out of play. When the man from the mortuary asked if we didn’t want to keep it, I told him that too many people wanted it and this was a way of preventing family squabbles. I refrained from telling him I felt it was just so many pages of fiction and there are plenty more copies of it to go around.
Daddy wasn’t the only religious zealot in our family. My oldest sister, more than 15 years older than me, can hold her own as a religious fanatic. Once, when my son was acting up, as children will do, she told me to put the heel of my hand on his forehead and tell the devil to “be gone.” Now bear in mind that this woman has one son who has been in prison since his late teens for murder, and her oldest son has almost completed his life’s work of drinking himself to death. Looks like that plan really worked for her; and still, she has the gall to wonder why I don’t believe.
Her daughter is my favorite family bible-thumper despite the fact that for quite some time she was a member of a Christian sect that I considered to be a true cult, where the pastor often used the pulpit to rail at her parishioners for a variety of personal transgressions because, after all, anyone and anything she didn’t like was “evil.” My niece and sister, among other family members, now know my opinions about religion, but at least my niece has finally learned that she will never be able to change my ideas and attitudes, so she accepts them. That doesn’t stop her from occasionally trying, but she has learned to gracefully accept “shut up” as an answer. I wish her mother would do the same. She loves to make little jabs at me whenever possible. Her most recent attempt involved quite pointedly discussing with her daughter, in front of me, how “When we go to heaven, God will make us forget friends and family members who weren’t saved so we won’t be unhappy.”
It’s no surprise to me that I hedged about my (non) religious views for years. It’s only with the advent of the atheist groups online, which I found through a nephew who also happens to be an atheist (thank you, Donald [http://contributor.yahoo.com/user/111823/donald_pennington.html ]), that I have become more open about my views. Many people who matter very much to me still disagree with my views, some quite vocally so. Nevertheless, I find feeling free to express my thoughts and feelings about religion to be liberating.