Finding Freedom in Calculus

by Melissa Basileo

For the first eight years of my life, I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina… a deeply spiritual, fundamentalist Christian, southern-bell part of America. I lived and breathed Christianity before I was even entirely aware of it. I attended a Baptist school which doubled as my church, and I frequented this place six days a week. Christmas and Easter plays, Awanas, Daily Chapel, Sunday school… that was my life, and my indoctrinated beginnings.

We moved to Seattle, Washington when I was about nine years old and I entered into another private school with the same religiously vigorous routine as the old one. My mother also began attending one of the mega churches in the area – Overlake Christian Church – and concomitantly, I did as well. It wasn't until I started attending Overlake that I felt the presence of God in my life1.  I wanted to serve God in any way I possibly could, so I joined the church's drama team, the nursery worker program, the homeless outreach program, prisoners for Christ program, the choir, and participated in at least twenty separate mission trips offered by the church across North and South America. I was also given a youth leadership role in public speaking, and loved giving sermons to audiences by the hundreds. I was convinced that God wanted me to become a missionary when I grew up… and, since I had always loved science, I knew he wanted me to become a scientist so I could share the word of God by bringing technology to impoverished countries.

During my four years spent in the Washington area, my parents underwent an extremely brutal divorce.  My feeble, adolescent mind had difficulty dealing with the custody battle, lawyers, social workers, psychiatrists, etc.  I found solace in the one thing I knew for sure, which was that I loved God. I had few concerns, as I knew everything was in His hands. He would take care of me no matter what hardship I endured. Church was a beautiful escape for me from that other confusing life. It made sense, and it gave me a sense of belonging I was incapable of finding anywhere else.

In 2001 my mother decided to move back to her hometown in Michigan. We left Seattle and the mega church I loved so much, and started over in the smallest town I had ever seen. The churches were no larger than fifty members per congregation, and it was difficult for me to find my niche there. I joined a small local Baptist Church and feverishly started working to bring kids from my public school into its youth program. It was also during this time that I became employed by a large Baptist summer camp in Lake Ann, Michigan (Lake Ann Baptist Camp).

This camp employed kids between ages fourteen and eighteen to work as either kitchen or maintenance staff. Our work schedule was from 6:30 AM – 11:30 AM, 12:00 PM – 3:00 PM, and 6:00 PM – 10:00PM, totaling twelve hours hard labor per day.  We were compensated at thirteen dollars per day, or a little over one dollar per hour. We were also required to attend Bible studies and chapel services between shifts2. Suffice to say, we were never allowed more than two hours worth of free time. The people who employed us would say we were doing a great service for God, etc. In other words, they would pull the "Jesus Card" on children and exploit them for cheap labor so the institution could save money. The camp was a thriving multimillion dollar success, complete with its wealthy hierarchy of clergy, so I knew they could afford to pay their workers a decent wage. But, instead, they brainwashed their children staff and gave them pennies for the most grueling, tiresome work I still to date have ever done. I caught onto this at the young age of fifteen and realized the manipulative/exploitive nature of the institution, even then.  When I left the camp,  I immediately saw the same attitude everywhere. I would become disgusted simply sitting in the pews during a church service, looking around at all the fake people. I knew that many of them would go home and do the worst kinds of things, and yet judge everyone else around them who was not a Christian, saying that they were better than them simply because they had Jesus. I decided I didn’t want any part of that and became embarrassed to call myself a Christian, since so many people were perverting what that even meant.

However, I still considered myself a Christian despite my disdain for church. I believed for a long time the Bible was true in its entirety (that’s how we’re raised in the South). All of that finally changed when I went to college. What influenced this change the most, I believe, was mathematics. The calculus classes I attended completely reset my thought process when I was finally taught linear reasoning. I have never heard of calculus having such a profound effect on anyone else, but I know that it changed me… namely, the way I thought and reasoned through problems. It only makes sense that the rationalization taught in mathematics would flow over into other areas of life, and what do you know… it did.I slowly started to question the teachings of the Bible and the contradictions I saw between it and the rest of the world. I started wondering why religion had to even exist at all… why didn’t God love me enough to tell me and the rest of the world in an unambiguous fashion, sans middle man, that he did? The process of questioning my previously held beliefs was also expedited by the passing of five close friends within a years time. As everyone knows or could imagine, the loss of one close friend really makes one ponder the fragile nature of life and the mystery of death.  Losing five amplifies that feeling, I think. My initial reaction was anger toward God, anger at why we had to be stuck in this celestial game, anger at the existence of pain as a simple byproduct of the celestial game that I was never given a choice to forgo. I came to the conclusion that either God was there, working tirelessly in everyone’s lives, or that he wasn’t there at all. The former had stopped making sense to me. I felt that if God was as involved in my life as everyone says he was, I should know it. And, I didn’t.

It took about three years after those events to realize that I had lost faith in God. That I internally did not believe in the God of religion, the personal god, the one who loves us. When I did finally realize this… I was terrified. I suddenly had to look at the world through new eyes.  I no longer had a defined purpose; I had to find my own. I no longer had a place to go once I died; I had to confront my own mortality. It was a total mental rebirthing. I had anxiety attacks when I’d think about death, and could only view the future with nihilism.  I felt for a time that life was meaningless… that no matter what path I chose for my life, it didn’t really matter.

That was probably the most difficult time in my life to date, walking through life with such a huge level of uncertainty. And yes, it is hard to find meaning in your own life when you know the task isn’t being assumed by someone who is more knowledgeable than you. But, humans are far more resilient than I could have ever imagined. I have, in fact, found meaning again, as nihilism is completely unfitting to my personality.  I find beauty in the world where I had never before looked… beauty without God. Awe, fascination, wonder, excitement, optimism, without God.

If I could have a religious reader take one point away from all of this, it would be that atheism was not a "choice," as many religious folk wish to believe. I did not reject God. My thought process simply changed in a way that would not allow belief without evidence.  And, if it just so happens that someone is reading this right now who is struggling through the same deconversion process as I once did, I’d like you to know that there is a light at the end of this tunnel.  In time, the world will show its color to you again, and you will be intellectually stronger and far more capable a person after taking the time to look at the world and life for what it really is.  There is an insurmountable amount of beauty and power in what can sometimes be felt as the burden of truth.


[1] Which, in hindsight, makes sense as I now know that the secret behind the success of the “mega church” is their marketed sensualistic mentality toward religion… the idea of feeling God, and becoming completely immersed and lost in that feeling.

[2] Once, a boy in my group was so exhausted after the morning shift that he fell asleep while standing during our morning Bible study. He collapsed onto the row of bicycles adjacent to the group, knocking ten or so over “domino” style.