Authoritarian Parenting, No True Scotsman, and Really Bad Poetry

I’d wager that most readers at the Friendly Atheist are at least familiar with the “No True Scotsman” fallacy if they haven’t been on the receiving end of the argument at some point. The idea is that when someone doesn’t fit your stereotype of a particular group, instead of reassessing the stereotype, you just assume that person doesn’t actually belong in the group (“You’re an atheist who votes Republican?! You must not be a real atheist!”)

I bring that up because when people find out I’m an atheist, they often assume I was never a “real” Christian to begin with. They believe that all True Christians would never leave the faith. But lately I’ve found myself agreeing with them… Maybe I never really was a Christian. Maybe I really was missing something. Maybe they’re right.

On some level, my previously held beliefs are impossible to remember with absolute certainty, simply because there is no evidence beyond imperfectly-kept memories and various physical relics. And that’s ok, because I don’t really need a time machine and a Belief-o-Meter to make informed statements about past belief; my teenaged self was gracious enough to leave a paper trail of melodramatic, ham-fisted poetry, some of which are actually really interesting glimpses into a religious mindset that I no longer occupy.

Via the inimitable Drew at toothpastefordinner.com

In my mind, my de-conversion to atheism was just the slow, forward, glacial march of my intellectual curiosity leading me to increasingly difficult questions, but the catalyst for that doubt was really interesting: the commonly-used double-edged sword of authoritarian parenting.

I wasn’t even familiar with the term until I started reading Libby Anne’s excellent blog after I was already an atheist. Her insights into the Quiverfull movement were fascinating, especially since one of my closest friends growing up was raised in an eerily similar home environment. It was like a peek into the lives of the homeschooled families that always existed on the social perimeter of my soccer team, youth group, and 4-H club. But, even more horrifying, I slowly began to realize that it resembled my own upbringing, too. Both were based on the same belief system and executed with the same religious motivations. It wasn’t as quite as conspicuous as, say, the Duggars, but the parallels are creepy, and the unintended consequences are enormous.

Growing up, church attendance was mandatory at least twice a week (sometimes two services on Sunday and Wednesday night youth group). The intended consequence, of course, was for me to be steadfast in my faith and grow in my “walk with the Lord” (still not sure if that is actually in the Bible or just that obnoxious, pithy “Footprints” poem that every Christian household has hanging in their bathroom), but they went about it all wrong. The church suppressed dissent and encouraged conformity; even the kind of Christian music I listened to at the time wasn’t “godly” enough. We were encouraged to leave our doubts “at Jesus’ feet,” specifically discouraging doubts about the Bible. Instead of acting like the Jesus I kept being told about, the members of the youth group were cut from the same cruel, adolescent cloth as the other kids in my high school.

I considered myself a believer as a teen, but between the anti-intellectual church culture and the strict behavioral limitations at home, my doubts and curiosities had nowhere to go except to escape through cheap poetic metaphors. No one in a position of authority would take my questions seriously, or even allow me to ask them… but in poems, I could write whatever I wanted. Specificity was to be avoided at all cost (resulting in a groan-worthy amount of abstractions and clichés) because specificity meant risking someone finding out. Which meant inevitable punishment. So, even though I had moral and intellectual qualms about my professed beliefs, and serious doubts about serious parts of it, I had to maintain a Christian identity where I wore modest Christian clothing and only listened to Christian music and only hung out with other Christians and only participated in social events that both the church and my parents approved of.

Without further ado, here is one product of the intellectual binds I found myself in, grammar and spelling errors included:

I can't believe the whole world can see this...

Ignorance and Apathy

Lately myself’s the only one
That I can stand to hate
This vapor taking far to long
Jesus, I’m ready to come home
Thus making the forward assumption
Of something past the now
The bloody tedium of rut routine
Relinquish it? Not for the world
Squint past the skies
To see where I am headed
This ignorance
This apathy
These obstacles I fail
To even stumble over
What am I?
But easily
Bruised
Broken
Corruptible
Flesh
Blood
I am nothing but human
and thats what’s killing me.

Ironically, it was the very fact of being subjected to constant, unflinching indoctrination that made me skeptical and suspicious of religion. I slowly realized that we didn’t study the Bible like I studied any other book; many non-denominational Christian churches focus more on the power of personal revelation, so sermons are issued microscopically instead of telescopically. Churchgoers were encouraged to read verses “for themselves,” and a typical devotional was structured to include just a handful of verses and lots of space for personal interpretation. I was keenly aware that I didn’t know anything about the Bible at all -– who wrote it, when, what the writers meant in a historical context, nothing. I couldn’t explain why there were so many different denominations, or where they came from, or why exactly my church taught that Catholics weren’t “really” Christians. I couldn’t figure out why, if everything in the Bible was true and factual, it included tales of talking snakes and donkeys and global floods and miracles and lots and lots of smiting. It didn’t seem like a very trustworthy book, and some of the moral components were confused, at best, but a quick coat of “faith” and “patience” buried these concerns quickly, even if none of the concerns were actually addressed.

Instead, I agonized internally, and the poems I wrote thematically reflected my despair over my lack of knowledge and my perceived inability to “get it.” There are scads more examples of poetry just like this, long-forgotten in a dusty accordion file, and they all abstractly talk about my struggle to self-define in a culture that gave me a very narrow range of expression, and all of them make me rather sad.

Sad because I was never allowed to be uncomfortable in my own skin; instead, I was de facto required to assume an identity that I didn’t want. Being a teenager is already hard, and it’s made all the more difficult by limiting a child to certain identities or beliefs and explicitly disallowing certain kinds of expression or questioning. I’m sad that I was required, in essence, to live a lie. (Of all the people who can understand that concept, it would be the atheists who are forced to remain closeted for any number of reasons.)

If there’s any lesson in this, it may be a cautionary tale about the influence of mainstream Christian churches that, from the outside, don’t look nearly as cult-like as the Quiverfull movement or as outrageous as Mark Driscoll‘s Mars Hill. It may serve as a good reminder as to why we need to be out and visible, if possible. It’s why we need to support organizations like the Secular Student Alliance, who are paving the way for much-needed community and public discourse in secondary education settings.

I may have since shortened the “really bad amateur poet” part of my identity to “amateur poet,” but the desire for critical examination and creative expression that my oppressive religious upbringing started will stick with me for the rest of my life. I’m a much better poet, thinker, and reader as an atheist than I ever was as a Christian. Most importantly, I am finally myself, and no person or ideology or institution will ever take that away from me.

Never again.

About amanda

Amanda is a pie-baking, music-listening, lindy-hopping, yoga-doing, power-tool-wielding feminist, atheist, and wife. She divides her time equally between cooking delicious things, trying to make nice with the house cat, and ranting about religion.

  • Annie

    I’ve had similar thoughts lately.  When asked, I feel funny referring to myself as a “former Catholic”, as I never really bought into it all.  Like you, I had questions that no one wanted to answer, or even hear.  Perhaps there is a better term for people like us?  Instead of former Christians, perhaps we were simply indoctrination-proof? 

    • randall.morrison90

      Lenin and Trotsky set up the system to kill Millions!

      “But they weren’t doing that because of atheism!”

      “No True Atheist? …snicker…

      P.S. Yes the were…read Trotsky’s last testament at Trotsky.net

      • Glasofruix

         They also had a moustache, were they yelling “in the name of facial pilosity thou shalt die”?

        • Jim [the other Jim]

           It’s also well established that Hitler was not an atheist. What he actually was, is a subject of much debate.

          • Glasofruix

            I know that he was not an atheist, my point was that jumping into the “lenin/stalin/whatever did what he did because he was an atheist” train is stupid.

      • RebeccaSparks

        I think this is the first time I’ve seen Lenin/atheist themed spam.

      • jmn

        There exists a bad person or persons who were atheist and/or something horrible was done in the name of atheism therefore all atheism and atheists are bad. If this is gonna be the method for determining if something is bad I bet you I could find one or two people or events that might make Reliigions like Christianity look bad. And by one or two I really mean thousands.

        • Glasofruix

           I can’t recall ANYTHING bad that was made in the name of atheism, it’s like saying something bad was made in the name of mathematics. Now, really bad things happened in the name of gOd(s) and that’s a fact. Stalin was just a power hungry man, he could have been catholic, orthodox or jewish for what i care, that wouldn’t have changed anything (except the justification for his acts, which as atheist he never justified).

      • Doug

        Trotsky was anti-facism. That’s precisely why Stalin had him deported and then murdered. Trotsky was one of the good guys.

        • RupertPupkin

          What the hell is facism? 

          Trotsky was one of the good guys? What are you going to claim next?  That Rudolf Hess was one of the “good guys” because of his ridiculous peace mission that ended when he crashed his plane?

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Nobody has ever denied that Lenin and Trotsky, and Stalin, were atheists.  Neither has anyone explained what their atheism had to do with either why millions of Ukrainians starved.

        • Duke OfOmnium

          Now, if he’d said Enver Hoxha, he’d have a point.  But knowing about Hoxha requires a little more erudition than most Xians are capable of.

  • Nickolas Johnson

    “I slowly realized that we didn’t study the Bible like I studied any other book”
    I never really thought about that but it is very true.

  • Prosepetals

    *nodding* 

    *cheers!*

  • Amy

    Thank you for that thoughtful, intelligent article.  And for what it’s worth, your poem was much better than the drivel I was writing as an angsty teenager.

  • Revyloution

    Fascinating story.  I grew up with secular parents, so the window into the lives of religious families is always a little bit like watching the twilight zone.

    On poetry,  I don’t find your poem so shame worthy.   Like any craft,  learning the skills of the trade isn’t a bad thing.  Be proud that you had, and still have, the will to put pen to paper.  

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    To anyone NOT familiar with the term “No true Scotsman” I think it’s useful to explain that there is no such thing as a Scottish passport.  One can be British, but not, officially, ‘Scottish’.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ORRVVC5R2QWLTXEM6SX5L6BORE Jay Arrrr

    Never wrote poetry when I was a kid, unless you count excrement-themed limericks…
    There are so many areas in my life where the “Not a TRUE Scotsman” falacy gets flung in my face. “You call yourself a Democrat? why, you criticize Obama and the Party!”… “You can’t be a Liberal! You own GUNS!”… “You’re not Green, you use CHEMICAL fertilizers!”… And the classic “You were NEVER a REAL christian!” (RealChristians(tm) never question their gawd)

    The inference I take from the last fallacy is that RealChristians(tm) never have doubts. Or, if they do, they ignore those doubts (leave ‘em at the feet of Jeebus?). That requires an ability to ignore reality (who you gonna believe, the Apostle Paul, or your lying eyes?)
    Couldn’t keep up the charade, went into the “Dark Night of the Soul”, and came out the other side knowing it is all bullshit.

    The “Scotsman” is used by people to reconcile things that just won’t fit in their little mental compartments.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    Maybe it’s no wonder there is such a high percentage of Christians in prison.  They’ve been in training for living with mental and physical restrictions all their lives.

  • mcwright

    It’s sad that people are turned away by Christians because they’re not welcoming. They automatically assume lots of things, so on behalf of them I apologize.
    I think you have to have more faith to be an atheist than a Christian. How can everything (and if you are into physics or biology, etc. you might understand a little more) be created without anything? Atheists believe in no god, so in a sense everything had to just ‘magically’ appear and happen. I say the world has its flaws, but without the bad stuff, you can’t have the good, and good can come from bad.

    • Onamission5

      You’ve got your “magic” crossed. Invisible deities creating everything spontaneously from nothing = magic, whereas verifiable natural processes = natural processes.

      It takes exactly zero faith to not believe in the corn maidens, yahweh, or zeus.

      • mcwright

        I’m not trying to sound stuck-up, but I would believe you if atheists knew where those natural processes began, versus Christians who have a source from where those processes came from.
        It is lack of belief in a god but faith that it all happened because it did, and everything just fell into place. I just think that there’s more to it than that.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          But the Christian source is an assertion with nothing to back it up.  And other theologies have different competing assertions.  So you feel better going with ‘a source’ (no matter how correct it might be) than an admission of not knowing.

          The only (or at least biggest) danger I see is that if not knowing makes one so uncomfortable that they accept things that don’t have any evidence, then they stunt the search for the real answer.

          Heck, both L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith came up with some great explanations for things.  And millions believe them.

          Here’s a great talk that discusses faith, and makes the thesis that “Faith is pretending to know things you don’t know”.

          http://richarddawkins.net/videos/645979-faith-pretending-to-know-things-you-don-t-know 

          • mcwright

            I personally believe that there is a source. For example, the Bible, which I believe in, has archeological proof to support it. I agree with you on that point about the answers without evidence up until the “real answer” part. I think that there is too much evidence for a god than there is for against.
            I watched that video, and it makes a lot of good points. However, I think that faith is trust based on reason. At least, that is what mine is on.

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      I think the first part of your comment is rather ironic, since you somehow manage to fit the same Christian stereotype yourself!

      You apologize on behalf of other Christians, and then, without even a pause, you spout a bunch of stereotypical nonsense like “it takes more faith to be an atheist than a Christian,” as if atheists haven’t heard that little phrase a million times before. It doesn’t make any more sense the more we hear it. Atheists don’t believe in magic. We don’t have “faith” that there are no gods. I wasn’t born believing  in a god and I was never indoctrinated to start believing in one. No faith required.

    • Wildrumpus67

      A super important thing to understand is that atheism is not just a different belief system – it LACK of belief. You cannot say that an empty glass is full because it’s full of nothing.

      Also, the magical belief that the Universe was created out of nothing is what theists believe. Atheists understand that the Universe was created by natural processes and if we use science and reason we will one day understand those processes.

  • Neuron

    Yeah, I suck at this whole closeted thing. I’ve already gotten a couple excommunication threats from my mom. I think has something to do with me being both a lector and a terrible liar.

  • Mankoi

    I know it’s been said before, but I feel like there should be a distinction made between Christian homeschoolers, and more normal ones. Christian homeschoolers may be a problem, but in general, they’re just louder. Growing up, I was part of a large secular homeschool group, where several of the members were atheists, and all of us lived in dread of the Christian homeschoolers who gave us a bad name. 

    Honestly, I think a large part of the reason I’m an atheist and a skeptic now is because I was taught how to think critically and rationally from a young age. It probably also helped I was able to avoid the religious intrusions that seem desperate to push their way into the public school system.


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