To be more specific, creationism led me to a crisis of faith that ultimately, through some twists and turns, drove me out of the Christianity. My parents did not realize that in teaching me that literal young earth creationism was the foundation of Christianity they did not simply fortify my faith but rather gave my faith an Achilles heel. And apparently, I am not alone. Really, really not alone.
My parents taught me that Christianity was about being filled with the Holy Spirit and having a personal relationship with Jesus. They taught me that Christianity was about love and service, not rules and regulations. I really wish they had stopped there. Instead, they added and added and added.
Growing up, Christianity was a package deal. Blogger Fred Clark argues that the borders of evangelicalism are defined by the “big four” issues: Abortion is murder, homosexuality is sin, evolution is nonsense, and environmentalism is a farce. This was certainly true for me. I was essentially taught that you could not be a Christian and believe otherwise on these issues. In other words, these issues were so tied into Christianity that they became an essential part of it. I would add a few more issues as well, namely anti-feminism, capitalism, spanking children as divinely mandated, and parental control over their children’s education through homeschooling. These issues were made into essential Christian doctrines.
I have sometimes described the faith my parents constructed for me as a sort of crystalline structure.
Everything my parents taught me fit together. It was a cohesive whole. The problem, though, was that if you took one piece out, the whole thing would fall down. My parents taught me young earth creationism alongside the virgin birth, anti-environmentalism alongside the trinity, and anti-abortionism alongside the divinity of Christ. Everything fit together into an integrated whole, but it was a whole that was dependent on all of its parts holding true.
These other beliefs – creationism, anti-abortionism, anti-environmentalism, anti-gay rights, anti-feminism, capitalism, the importance of spanking children, and homeschooling as commanded by God – became so entwined with conventional Christian beliefs such as Christ’s atonement on the cross that they became almost indistinguishable. They were Christianity. Anyone who didn’t share these beliefs was not Christian, was misled, was walking down the path toward damnation. Christianity, then, became dependent on the truth of these other beliefs, most especially creationism.
My parents taught me that we could know our faith was true because of the scientific truth of creation. Science pointed to a literal six day creation six thousand years ago, they taught me, and “liberal, atheistic” scientists who supported evolution were either misled or intentionally misleading. We could know our faith was true, my parents taught me, because the Bible was true, and we knew the Bible was true because creation was true. My parents intentionally, purposefully taught me to make young earth creationism the foundation of my faith. And, they taught me, if I ever gave up young earth creationism and became an “evolutionist,” I would have to give up my faith. Christianity and evolution were simply incompatible.
If a young person has had issues such as creationism, anti-abortionism, or anti-gay rights integrated into his or her faith and then finds those beliefs in question, it triggers a crisis of faith. If that belief, taught as gospel truth alongside such doctrines as the trinity, was not true, then what was true? If my parents and church were wrong about that, the young person wonders, what else were they wrong about? The reality is that elevating creationism or anti-abortionism or anti-feminism to gospel truth means that if one of those beliefs is called into question so too is the gospel.
It could have started with anything. It could have started with having a gay friend who caused me to rethink my anti-gay rights stance, or with feelings of the injustice of female submission. For me, though, it started with creationism. The answer, I think, is simple. Being anti-gay rights or anti-abortion were, for me, theological positions. I might emotionally question them if, for example, I had a college friend faced with an unexpected pregnancy, but that would probably not be enough to make me rethink them. It had to be creationism, I think, because it was something that could be examined scientifically, not just theologically or emotionally.
I never had any college science professors tell me what I could and could not believe. There was no “indoctrination.” What happened was that college opened me to a new array of facts and arguments about evolution and creation, facts and arguments conspicuously missing from the creationist science textbooks I studied from in high school. This was my first exposure to real science. I soon found that I had a problem. I had to choose between rejecting facts and evidence and going with the literal interpretation of Genesis I had been taught was the only acceptable Christian position, or accepting facts and evidence and becoming a dreaded “evolutionist” on my way to damnation.
I was forced to choose between reality and faith.
I’m a very honest person and a very logical person. I simply could not reject the evidence I saw before me (and believe me, I struggled over this for a long time, trying desperately to disprove it, using my creationist resources, and yet coming up short again and again). And so, I accepted the scientific reality of the theory of evolution. But as I did so, the crystalline structure that was my faith began to crumble. I desperately tried to hold it together and pin it up, but I could not. I had been taught to integrate young earth creationism into my faith in such a way that I was not sure my faith could survive without it.
Most of all, I was terribly, completely confused. If my parents had been wrong about creationism, I realized that they could be wrong about anything, or even everything. I could no longer implicitly trust what they had taught me as I had before. Instead, everything they had taught me was suddenly suspect, potentially untrue. I had to rethink all of it and figure out what should be kept and what must be thrown out.
I know I’m being repetitive here, but by holding the truth of creationism up as high as that of the trinity, my parents created a very problematic situation for me, and for my faith. They created a situation where my faith depended on creationism being true, a situation where learning that scientific evidence actually points to evolution would lead me into a crisis of faith and throw their every teaching into question.
When the makings of my faith tumbled, though, I was left with one thing, and that was my relationship with Jesus. Jesus had always been my best friend, my confidant, my constant companion. I cried out to Jesus, I told him I was scared, that I did not understand, that I felt my life was crumbling around me. I found comfort and solace in Jesus, and the permission to rethink the beliefs my parents had taught me. I rethought my anti-environmentalism, my anti-gay rights and anti-abortionism, my unblinking faith in capitalism and my anti-feminism. Eventually, I even rethought my belief in spanking and homeschooling. And, little by little, I reconstructed my life and put my faith back together, making it truly mine. My faith felt more real, more exciting, and more beautiful. I felt energized and more in love with Jesus than ever. My faith was an adventure, and suddenly I could ask anything, consider anything, and truly explore, with Jesus and Jesus alone at my side.
My parents reaction was, not surprisingly, extremely negative. They could not see that I felt closer to Jesus than I had ever been. All they saw was that I had rejected my faith, for that was what rejecting such things as creationism meant. They treated me as a fallen, rebellious daughter. In their actions, they made themselves unavailable to me and pushed me away, all because they had made creationism, capitalism, and anti-feminism core tenets of their faith. They had so integrated beliefs like anti-environmentalism and the godliness and necessity of spanking into the essence of their faith that they could not comprehend what was happening to me. And when I was with them, they worked their hardest to push me back into the box-like beliefs in which they had raised me. It was stifling and belittling, and having tasted the freedom of being able to ask questions and come to my own beliefs, I refused to go back into their box.
Stung by my parents rejection but basking in Jesus’ love and my freedom I explored other faith traditions, especially Catholicism. In them I found much to be admired, but I found something even more important. I found a faith that was not tied to capitalism or anti-environmentalism. I found people who did not integrate creationism or anti-feminism into the very structure of their faith. I found diversity, richness, and beauty. I found a faith that truly placed love and service, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, at the top, and relegated other issues to secondary positions. I found faith that did not come with its own built in politics, faith that transcended politics, nation, and differences of opinion.
But. The removal of creationism from the structure of my faith created a nagging problem I was never able to solve. Because creationism had been elevated to the same level of importance as core doctrines like the trinity, I could never see those core doctrines as above question. Just as I had questioned anti-feminism, unthinking capitalism, and anti-environmentalism, even so I found myself questioning the trinity, substitutionary atonement, and even the divinity of Christ. After what happened with creationism, I could no longer take these doctrines for granted. And as I questioned, thought, and explored, many of them stopped making sense. I was afraid, and I once again grabbed at my faith desperately, trying to hold onto it and not let it slip through my fingers. I wanted the trinity to make sense, wanted God to make sense, wanted Jesus to be real. But wanting it could not make it so.
I was afraid as I looked the possibility of losing my faith in the face, but I was also upheld by the same energetic buoyancy that had supported me before. There was something invigorating about considering new ideas, questioning everything, and asking hard questions rather than simply accepting pat answers. There was something intoxicating about finally really and truly being free and, for the first time, truly forming my own beliefs. My questions took me in directions I never thought I would go, and I found myself moving in the direction of universalism, pantheism, skepticism, agnosticism, and, eventually, atheism. The excitement of having the freedom to ask questions and form my own beliefs never left me. The world still seemed a beautiful and wondrous place, the birds still sang, and life was still an adventure filled with purpose. Only this time, it was adventure and purpose I created for myself.
What of Jesus? He was there for me when I needed him in the emotional turmoil of those early days of questions, but the more comfortable I became in being able to stand on my own two feet, the less I needed him. For a while, as I questioned my faith itself, I was desperately afraid of losing him. But by that time, truth mattered more to me than comfort. I realized that Jesus might be nothing more than an imaginary friend that I could lean on or confide in, and that truth and reality mattered more than my desire to keep an imaginary friend. In the midst of all my questions, I actually became so distraught that I had to take a break, and so for a month, I took a break from the questions and a break from faith. At the end of that month, I realized that my faith had gone, and that Jesus had slipped away like the imaginary friend he was. Strange as it may sound, I will always be glad I had an imaginary friend to support me in the turmoil of those early years. But that in itself does not make him real.
I have been an atheist for several years now, and life has gone on. I still have hope and purpose, I still see beauty and wonder. I have a wonderful, fulfilling life and am not bitter about the past. I honestly think I am a kinder and more loving person today than I was growing up, even without religion instructing my life. But then, that may be because I have replaced religion with humanism. I don’t believe in nothing, you see. I believe in human potential, human value, and human worth. I no longer see children as full of sin and I no longer classify people as saved (“good”) and unsaved (“bad”). Atheism is what I do not believe, and humanism I do believe.
I want to bring this post full circle and address its main point once again. If my parents had not elevated creationism to the same importance as the virgin birth, I would never have had my crisis of faith. Doing so gave my faith an Achilles heel. I’m not saying this happens to everyone raised to equate creationism with Christianity – it doesn’t. What I am saying is that elevating things like capitalism and spanking to the same level of truth as the trinity creates a Christianity in a box. It shuts off questions and exploration. It closes the door to differences of opinion. It creates a situation where you are either in, or out. And, more importantly, it creates a situation where questioning something as simple as capitalism means rejection and changing your mind on something as little as anti-gay rights means potentially throwing everything from the trinity to the divinity of Jesus into question.
I recently came across this blog. The author is a self-described young evangelical Christian who does not equate things like capitalism and anti-gay rights with Christianity. The Christianity he lives is one that is open to questions, differences of opinion, and diversity of belief united only by core beliefs in things like Jesus, love, and service. I cannot help but think that if my parents had raised me like this, emphasizing core ideas like love and letting issues like capitalism or environmentalism be peripheral and individual I might have kept my faith. I would have had room to explore without rejection, room to question without judgement, and room to form my own beliefs without ostracism. If the core tenets had truly been love and service instead of anti-feminism and anti-abortionism, I would probably never have felt stifled by Christianity in the way that I did. I might have still left, but I might not have.
I am glad that my faith journey led me to skepticism and beyond. I wouldn’t undo it. I am happy where I am and I am a certain as I can be that there is no God and that religions are invented. I am happy to be joined in this by others who have similar journeys. But I don’t value atheism for itself. I value questions, freedom, and people’s ability to form their own beliefs. I know Christians, especially in the blogging world, who do this, thinking outside of the box and asking hard questions, valuing love, acceptance, tolerance, and service above conformity, and yet still maintaining their faith. I don’t necessarily want a world where everyone is an atheist, but rather a world where everyone is allowed to ask questions and think outside of the box, where everyone is allowed to form their own beliefs, and where love and service and acceptance matter more than judgement or boundaries.
You see, I have noticed something about way too many faith communities: they will say it’s all about loving Jesus and then they make that a lie with their actions. My parents reacted negatively to me not because I had rejected Jesus but because I had rejected creationism. Overnight, I went from golden girl to pariah. I know a girl who was rejected from her loving faith community when she came out to a mentor as bisexual. All of the women who had loved her and mentored her, the women she had grown up with and admired, suddenly turned on her and rejected her. I know a man who is about to be fired as pastor of his church because he has started wearing his hair long and has pierced one of his ears. He teaches the same doctrine and provides his parishioners with the same love and care he always has, but they have turned against him, holding secret meetings and talking behind his back.
Growing up, I was told that Christianity was about love and acceptance, but I have to be honest, I really don’t see a lot of that. Instead, I see an emphasis on conformity and a turning on anyone who doesn’t fit the box. The problem is that this emphasis on conformity and demonization of questions or a diversity of opinion on more peripheral matters risks driving away anyone who steps across the (often invisible) boundaries of what is acceptable. By responding as they did when I questioned creationism, my parents pushed me away rather than giving me room to breathe, room to be different. My friend who came out as bisexual was so jaded by her treatment at the hands of supposedly “Christian” women that she is now an atheist. My friend who is in the process of being fired is also jaded by his experience, and is toying with agnosticism. By creating a sort of Christianity in a box, bordered by issues as mundane as capitalism or proper disciplinary practices, you create a situation that drives away those on the borders. It closes up instead of reaching out, pushes away instead of attracting, rejects instead of loving.
I’m going to take a moment here to offer advice to Christian parents. As I said above, I don’t have some secret agenda to turn your children into atheists. Instead, my hope for your children is that they be allowed the freedom to form their own beliefs, the room to ask questions, and love and acceptance on their faith journeys. In this light, I would suggest that you not make things like creationism and anti-gay rights as central and fundamental to your children’s faith as my parents did to me. Leave room for exploration and room for differences of opinion. Make faith more dynamic than stultifying. Allow your children room to explore, and the ability to form their own beliefs. You may disagree with your newly socialist daughter or your ear-piercing son, but are those issues really as important to you as Christ’s substitutionary atonement or God’s love? Is the length of your son’s hair or your daughter’s sexuality really more important than Christ’s command to love and serve others? Does the age of the earth matter more than a heart sold out for God?
I ask you, Christian parents, please throw out your boxes and any narrow preconceptions you may have inherited from Christian leaders like those who taught my parents. Your children deserve better. If you make creationism or unbridled capitalism core tenets of your children’s faith, you only set your children up for potential problems. Your children deserve freedom and the ability to form their own thoughts and opinions rather than being simply forced into yours. If you deprive them of that freedom you risk suffocating them and losing them. You risk driving them away, and I speak from experience on that.