Hindsight being 20/20, I can now look back and see that my progression out of judeo-christianity and religion started as a very young boy. Maybe it was because I’m adopted and so vastly different than the family I grew up with. Maybe I’m just naturally a skeptic. Or maybe I intuited that my family was very dysfunctional because I questioned their skills as parents also at a very young age. I have always been thankful for my skepticism and my rebellion throughout my childhood because I have seen the damage that has been done by acquiescing to that lifestyle by my sisters. But I was a skeptic from a very early age asking many of the same questions that have been asked by members of this website. As was age-appropriate, I took the words of my pastor and other teachers as truth for the most part and left the unknowns as something that I would figure out later. But the one that sticks out for me happened when I was 12 or 13. I remember asking the youth pastor how we knew for sure that the Assemblies of God was the correct religion (since I had been taught that unless your beliefs were close to A/G, you were undoubtedly spending eternity in hell…especially Catholics, since they prayed to Mary instead of Jesus). Since my question was out of context–just a random thought that crossed my mind–the youth pastor paused a bit before providing a very unsatisfactory reply that didn’t quench my skepticism.
Later, I questioned the story of Noah’s Ark and I remember wondering how animals from the Arctic would survive in the Mediterranean? And how exactly, did animals from South America make it there? What about the tiniest of bugs…how did they get there, and what did they eat on the way? And where did the extra rain water come from to make the seas rise that many extra feet ? And where did it go when the waters subsided? Something wasn’t adding up.
The other thing that wasn’t adding up was my attraction to males. On some level, I experienced “gay” thoughts as early as 5 years old, even if I didn’t understand what it all meant. I remember thinking a particular boy in my 3rd grade class was attractive and that I wanted to be his friend after starting a new school–and was excited to find out we took the same bus! I was different from most of the other boys. I couldn’t quantify it, but I just “knew” there was something different.
I didn’t grow up with parents that cared about whether I was empowered. My childhood was full of rules and an expectation of near perfection. Their only goal was to make sure that I went to heaven and Jesus would (magically?) take care of the rest. One of my first clues that there was something wrong with our family environment was the realization that my public persona with family was different from home life with family. At church, we were the golden children and only hung out with families that also had golden children. At home, there was a lot of yelling, discipline, and bare-butt corporal punishment which left welts and bruising. When my dad suggested that this hurt him worse than it hurt me, I knew he was wrong. I also knew instinctively at the age of 10 that my sister should not have been spanked for lying about wetting the bed because she was actually ashamed. But to my mother who views life very black and white, it was all about lying, and I remember being heart-broken as my 5 year old sister was spanked hard and angrily in front of us. I saw the rage in my mom’s eyes, and I knew she was wrong. I also saw the way my parents fought at home and how their behavior was so different in public, especially church (where we attended “whenever the church doors were open”). I was a misfit in school and my only saving grace was being part of the (I’m not kidding) popular high school marching band. But as a confused skeptical closeted gay fundamentalist Christian growing up in the largely un-churched Pacific NW, I didn’t have a lot of resources from which to draw from. Plus, I didn’t learn about personal boundaries since I wasn’t allowed to have any, so I learned a lot of things through trial and error. Besides, a 15 second prayer could fix any sins I had and be safe in case the rapture occurred, right?
By 6th grade, boys were talking about their budding sexuality in the locker room, albeit from an ignorant point of view. I was an early bloomer and began puberty earlier than most boys. Sex was something to be ashamed of in my house, and I also remember being mortified having to read a book with a conservative view on sexuality with my dad. But that didn’t stop me from experimenting with masturbation by the time I was 11. I had my first sexual contact when I was 13, although it was only touching. I had “girlfriends” in church, and even one in high school that I kissed, but I was never interested in having sex with any of them and always had my Christian viewpoints as my ace-in-the-hole for why I couldn’t have sex. By the time I was 16, I was praying after Sunday night services and begging God to take away my same-sex attraction. God answers prayers, right? I mean, God SHOULD answer THIS particular prayer, right? Yet, the feelings persisted. The summer before I began my senior year of high school, I knew I needed to begin my escape from the controlling and suffocating environment of my childhood, and began the process to join the US Navy as soon as I graduated from high school. One of the questions they asked was whether I was gay (it was the Reagan years after all…). I remember thinking that I was a hypocrite as I answered “no.” And so a month after graduating high school, I joined the US Navy for the next 5 years.
I basically quit going to church immediately. I was done and I didn’t care. I was so full of sin with my dirty thoughts about men, that I was beyond redemption. Shortly after being stationed in Norfolk, VA, I became friends with another sailor who was raised in a United Pentecostal Church in the South. We became very close but argued over the differences of doctrine between our two denominations. His church was going to hell for not believing in the trinity. The A/Gs were going to hell because the women wore make-up and cut their hair. Almost 4 years later, after he returned from a 6 month cruise, he came out to me, which was initially confusing since he had a wife and a young son. And then he immediately told me he thought I was gay too. I had been asked before if I was gay, but nobody had actually told me they thought I was. I denied it…and then spent an agonizing week knowing on some level that I was gay and also frustrated that God had not answered my prayer. I have always been drawn to deep-down truth though, no matter the consequences, and the hypocrisy that I felt every time I was introduced to one of his friends as his “straight friend” was exponentially increased during that week. The only bad part was that I was still convinced I was going to hell, while simultaneously holding the view that there was nothing I could do about it. And so a week later, I asked my friend to go for a walk and came out to him. I explained to him how religious teachings had prevented me from coming out, which of course he understood. It is a dichotomy that I struggled with for the next several years. Too bad for me. I began going to gay bars and was amazed at how natural it seemed to see two guys holding hands or otherwise being affectionate with each other. I also began to realize how many gays and lesbians there are in the military–and how many of them were living a heterosexual lifestyle 99% of the time. (And may I add that the current conservative view against repealing DADT is so full of misinformation.) I got out of the military a year later and within 6 months, moved to Seattle.
My journey to giving up religion led me on a curvy path. My first step was to reconcile my sexuality with Christianity which occurred by meeting a business associate who was gay and told me I could be gay and Christian at the same time. I laughed my head off. Tsk, tsk…how silly and naive these Episcopalians are–since they were headed for eternal damnation anyway. But I started reading books on the issue and a couple of years later, I attended a conservative gay-positive church that started as a blind date. It was like a gay Assembly of God church, and felt somewhat familiar. Although the blind date didn’t last long, I eventually met a nice man there, but he was freaked by the extra-curricular activities like the vigorous worship service and the occasional service which included being “slain in the spirit” and speaking in tongues. Due to some other weird stuff going on at this church, and at his encouragement, we began attending a very liberal gay-positive church that really stretched my theology, like referring to the divine as a female, calling God by different names, like Allah, etc. It took me awhile to stretch into these alien ideas, but eventually, I saw that my views about religion were fundamentally flawed upon closer examination and that Jesus had truly lived a life of love and was his core mission. I saw Jesus through a different lens, and I began to see the A/Gs and similar denominations as the Pharisees that Jesus rebuked on occasion. I was heavily involved in this church, volunteering on the board, playing piano occasionally, directing the choir, volunteering for this or that, and providing financially to the church. However, when the pastor tried to push the envelope even further, I couldn’t take it anymore and left the church. I occasionally attended a gay-friendly Roman Catholic Church with amazing black gospel music, but was really burned out of churches and attended “St Mattress the Comforter” on Sunday mornings. But there were some persistent questions gnawing at me that still were not being explained even through a more loving and liberal Christian theology.
Around this time, I had one very short conversation with a gentleman who introduced me to the concept that FEAR is the opposite of LOVE, and that anger and control are by-products of fear and are secondary emotions. It was this conversation that has been my mantra ever since, and I finally realized that it was FEAR that kept me within my religious roots. Fear of hell…fear of family alienation (I thought that going to church would help me get some parental approval finally…boy was I wrong!). It is this concept that finally made me understand that many religions are fear-based and controlling, including the one I grew up in. Around this time, I also happened to see an online advertisement for the book, “The Dark Side: How Evangelicals Corrupt Love and Truth” by Valerie Tarico. I immediately went out and ordered the book. While reading it, I was amazed at how many of her conclusions I had come up with independently. I intuited that I needed to speak to someone who could specifically understand my background and its affect on my 20+ years later. I contacted Ms. Tarico who also lives in Seattle and she referred me to Marlene Winell (and her own book, “Leaving the Fold”) who has helped me via therapy to put perspective around my past and how to move forward. I am still learning how to embrace love and “little Mark” while simultaneously letting go of fear in my life and to be bold and courageous. I am leap years ahead of where I was even two years ago, and there is no doubt that I am happier as a result. I am also not afraid of religion anymore nor of an everlasting place called “hell.” I now realize that the only hells that exist are the ones that I create through fear.
I don’t think there’s a god, but even if there is, I just don’t care, nor do I believe that if god exists, it has any specific interest in me. I maintain that some people need the structure of religion in their lives, and I’m okay with that, as long as they keep it to themselves.
Oh, and by the way, my friend is still my best friend (not lovers) after 25 years. We are more like brothers. As part of my process of combating fear, I made a conscious decision to quit seeking approval from my parents. I am also learning how to put boundaries around situations to protect “little Mark.”
I truly believe that our goal in life is to be empowered, and that this is only possible through our abilities to try and be unconditionally loving towards others. I also believe that this was the true teachings of Christ and that so many Christians have bastardized the teachings due to their need for control and power–which is the opposite of love. But I don’t need Christ to be a god, nor do I need religion in order to know that unconditional love is important and that morality is innate. We just need to learn how to control ourselves, and not others.