My first impressions of religion came from my grandmother. She was a Catholic, and very focused on the judgemental aspects of the religion. She’d often warn me that God would punish me if I did one thing or another. Needless to say, my concept of God was not a positive one. I didn’t like this God person, but felt that he was too big to argue with, which made me like him even less. So I was off to a great start.
After my grandmother passed away, my religious education fell to my mother. She had left the Catholic Church as a teenager to be an atheist and communist, as was common in the 1960’s. By the time I was around, she’d moved on to being a Wiccan capitalist. I never recall her pushing any of her beliefs on me at the time, and for a couple of years I lived pretty much free of any religious restrictions, save for the many superstitions that had existed in our family since time immemorial. Over time, a combination of crazy life circumstances created a pressure-cooker of stress for my mother, causing her to become increasingly frustrated and despondent. The summer of 1989, when I was 11 years old, my mother finally decided to put an end to the whole shebang by killing me and then herself. Before carrying out this final solution, she wanted to do one last thing. She wanted to take me to Burger King. Walking down the street that day in our Queens neighborhood, we happened upon a new church building. There was music coming from inside, and a friendly looking man standing outside greeting people. He noticed my mom and me and asked if we’d like to come in. She agreed, most likely desperate for some kind of help. Within two weeks, we had both said the sinner’s prayer and were learning the ropes of fundamentalist Christianity. I guess it beat being dead.
I have to admit I never felt comfortable in fundamentalism. I was a kid who loved to read and learn and question things. As a Christian, I had to put aside whatever logic I had managed to acquire by that age in order to believe so many unbelievable things. I didn’t dare voice these thoughts to my mom, considering the fact that being “saved” literally had saved the two of us from death. That’s not to say the problems of life went away, far from it. We flew by the seats of our pants the whole time, it just seemed that fundamentalist Christianity provided some hope for her. At first, I kept my doubt secret from my mother, in order to not rock the boat; later I kept my doubt hidden from even myself. As a child, I suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder; when Christianity came into my life, I just adapted the obsessions. Prayers and religious rules became more anxiety-reducing rituals to get me through the day. Every time we went through a rough spot, I became extra pious, fearing that God would take his protection from me if I faltered. The fundamentalist life became a habit and a crutch, and by my mid-teens I had no idea how to operate without it.
Eventually, my mother became involved in what can be called a “power church” that had been started by a family friend. The code of behavior was very strict and the leadership enjoyed using military terminology to make the congregation feel that they were part of an elite spiritual battalion. They were also very involved in the deliverance ministry, which involved performing exorcisms on people. These exorcisms were required for anyone wanting to be truly free and a fully functioning member of the church. I spent many nights in the church basement hanging out with my friends while the sobs, screams and gagging of some poor sucker being “delivered” was going on in the background. Oddly, nobody batted an eye at this, but I guess it goes to show what people can become accustomed to. One day it was my turn, and I spent a miserably awkward hour sitting quietly in a chair while three large men screamed in my face, waiting for my demons to manifest. The novelty of this atmosphere wore off for my mom when she noticed the pastor getting way out of control… or should I say way too in control. He ran everyone’s lives. He dictated who should marry whom, who should quit their jobs, and he threatened anyone who deviated from his way with excommunication and a cursed future. When my mom confronted him over the phone, the pastor launched a full-fledged war against my family. We were stalked to the point where we feared for our lives, and eventually left the state. That story could take up an entire book, so I’ll leave out the details, but it suffices to say it wasn’t pleasant. That period in my life was my first wake-up call. I was 18 years old, and getting to the point where it was hard not to do some thinking for myself. Once I had settled into my new town, I started taking a slightly more easy-going approach to God and religion, but still was nowhere near ready to honestly seek answers to my questions and doubts. I attended a few more churches, which were reasonably moderate, and non-threatening, and felt I could stick it out as long as I avoided major trouble.
Fast forward to 2003. I was 25, working for a few years, and starting to feel as much like an adult as I could, given my lack of any social life. The previous few years had had me struggling with my doubts, all the while acting as secretary in the ministry my mother had started with her new husband. I was a workaholic, a condition I preferred because it allowed me to do nothing much other than work, sleep and worship. However, the questions crept in. The conservative political agenda in the church I was attending had started to bug me, and in seeking a differing viewpoint, I discovered liberal Christianity web sites, which really threw me for a loop. Some of these folks didn’t even believe that Jesus had been born of a literal virgin. Yikes! This opened a whole can of worms in my thought life. I would sometimes cry at night and wish I had been born in the time of the martyrs, so I could be killed while my faith was still strong. If you’re thinking I was nuts, you’re probably right. But thankfully, I was hitting rock bottom, and there was no place to go but up.
I’m not sure exactly how it started, but I began to slowly pull away from the rigid fundamentalist thinking and actually explore my questions. Like many other ex-fundamentalists, I started by making very basic observations. I looked around me and noticed that the Christians I knew weren’t necessarily any happier, healthier, or more successful than non-Christians. They weren’t necessarily more ethical either. I started to see the holes in the doctrine, and the ways in which the Bible was used again and again to justify injustice, ignorance and cruelty. I felt courageous enough to move forward with my reading and research on the real history of Christianity, which opened my eyes to the very human origins of beliefs I was taught had come straight from the mouth of God. I started to recognize the features of a dysfunctional family being carried out in the Church, with God the parent you’d better not piss off or question. My 5-year-old self re-emerged and said “I don;t like him”, and my 25-year-old self actually listened. Around this time,things in my life were starting to go into upheaval once again. The company I’d been working for for 3 years closed down, and I had to move. I was stressed, but this time, I refused to believe that God was punishing me. I stepped out on faith (as fundamentalists are so fond of saying) and declared that if God existed, he’d have to either kill me or accept me questioning my faith. I just couldn’t worry anymore. And surprisingly, I lived.
That’s not to say it was easy. As I made my way into the “world”, I knew I had very little experience with real life. In a matter of months, I had a crash course in human relations, pop culture, and a whole mess of other stuff I should have learned over a period of years but didn’t. I had to figure out how to navigate my way and create my own limits and preferences without a strict set of rules to go by. It was scary, but it was also very freeing. In 2005, I gave birth to my daughter, and the experience solidified my feeling that leaving the faith had been the right decision for me. The thought of teaching the doctrine of original sin, hell and judgement to my daughter made me cringe, and I instantly regretted all the years I had spent teaching it to other people’s children during my years as a Sunday school helper. Still, I don’t count my years as a Christian as entirely wasted. I think I learned some valuable lessons about self-control and perseverance. I also had the chance to bring food and clothes to the homeless in New York every weekend for several years through a mobile feeding unit ministry at one of my churches. On the street I met some great people who were surviving terrible times, and who were often more accepting and friendly with me than my church brethren were. In addition, I’ve taken away a healthy scepticism when it comes to leaders, movements, and the supernatural. I’m reluctant to jump on a bandwagon unless I know where it’s headed and who’s driving. Preferably, I’ll be driving.
After a few years of avoiding any talk of spirituality (a term that I feel is a highly overused and fuzzy catchphrase) I’m just beginning to explore a way of celebrating life and marking time that works for me; mainly an eclectic, nature-based path. I don’t believe in the fundamentalist god or the traditional “God” image most are familiar with, so some might label me an atheist. But that’s not how I label myself; in fact I try and avoid labelling myself at all. I’m still learning and figuring out life and what works for me. Most of all I’m still revelling in the freedom to do so without fear.
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