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.
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:
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
These obstacles I fail
To even stumble over
What am I?
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.