I’ve always had an active imagination. Rumor has it that when I was maybe three or four years old I used to run around pretending to be R2-D2, bumping into things and making beeping noises. My imaginary friend was a mouse called Oko, who lived in my pocket and subsisted on a diet of cheese, which, yes, I would sometimes carry around in my pocket for him to eat. My elementary teachers would write notes of concern regarding the elaborate drawings of monsters and landscapes that I made on my assignments.
I was drawn to imaginary worlds; still am. I dressed up as Frodo from Lord of the Rings for Halloween in grade school, which might have been perfectly normal had it not been the middle of the 1980’s, but two decades before the Peter Jackson movies I was left explaining to people who and what I was supposed to be. I spent my childhood discovering new feats of creative engineering with Lego blocks, writing and illustrating my own comic books and manuscripts on notebook paper, even drawing up elaborate design documents for video games, which I sent to Nintendo of America (and they were usually pretty gracious about sending me letters back amounting to “thanks, but we’re not taking game designs through the mail”). My mind has always been set for imagination overload, and my creative impulses have most often been driven in turn by my curiosity about the world around me. So, with it understood that I was predisposed to the fantastical and hungry to know how reality functioned, maybe it’s no surprise I fell so hard for religion.
When did I first hear about the concept of a deity? Did I buy into it from the start? It’s hard to say. I certainly don’t remember being too concerned about the whole issue during my early childhood. As far as I can recall, the issue didn’t really come up until some time in the interim between fourth and fifth grade. I was something of a rambunctious little shit through the end of fourth grade; at the time, I was dealing with my parents’ divorce while on the verge of puberty, and I was feeling isolated from my peers (exactly why that was, I couldn’t say at this point, though it seems to have been a common theme for me growing up), so as much as a dick as I probably was at the time (and trust me, my metaphorical penisitude could be staggering back then), I’m tempted to give myself a bit of a pass. Regardless, the issue of god vs. no god seems to me to have been brought to the forefront when my immediate family (defined in this instance as my mother, myself and my toddler sister) started attending a Southern Baptist church.
If you’ve never been to a Southern Baptist church—well, good for you, keep it that way. But allow me to give you an overview of the kind of place this was. The pastor was a white-haired patriarch who was fond of hellfire sermons and spoke highly of the love of an omnipotent god who wouldn’t hesitate to strike you down if you stepped out of line. He was a quiver-full proponent who, on top of having an expansive brood of his own genetic children, had begun adopting as well. The men of the flock were all called “Brother,” like “Brother Porky” or “Brother Daffy,” and the women were generally “Miss” or “Mrs.” Last Name and were generally discouraged from wearing pants to church services or, tacitly, anywhere else. I remember Daniel, Revelations and the various letters from Paul (with an emphasis on the bits about Christian persecution at the hands of the Roman government) being the topics of repeated sermons. The congregation would trade around bootleg VHS copies of A Thief in the Night and its sequels, a series of movies where the Anti-Christ and his one-world government forces people to get “666” in binary code stamped on their hands so they can buy food and people get their heads chopped off for believing in Jesus.
It was, in short, a fairly awful environment for an impressionable young mind, particularly one with an over-active imagination to begin with.
We stayed at that church for—well, I’m not entirely sure, but surely at least a year, probably more. My memory is foggy when it comes to judging spans of time with regard to my childhood. Suffice to say that I was in that environment for a significant amount of time as far as a child’s mental development goes. I participated in the youth choir and the youth study group. I went to vacation bible camp in the summer (which basically meant being indoctrinated in a basement for a few hours every day for months). Services were held every Wednesday night and Sunday (morning and night), and you better believe there was a guilt-trip imposed on you if you didn’t show up for those Wednesday services. There was plenty of singing about the power of the Lamb, and the blood of the Lamb, and the power of the blood of the Lamb, which in retrospect makes me wonder if the pastor had a blood fetish thing going on there. But I digress.
It didn’t take long for me to start believing in the whole bible rap. Why wouldn’t I? I was ten years old. I had an Authority Figure telling me things out of a Book which said Authority Figure ensured me were True. Hell, I might have still believed in Santa Claus at the time for all I know. The idea of an omnipotent, omniscient creator who whipped up the Universe in six days and then doomed mankind to eternal hellfire because a snake talked a woman into eating an apple, only to eventually offer us a way out that involved the torturous death of his own son, made sense to an imagination whose previous major contents had involved magical space samurai, evil turtles who turned mushroom people into bricks and quests to throw evil rings into volcanoes.
But I suspect in retrospect that’s not the only reason my young mind took so quickly to the religious explanation. I am an insatiably curious person, and one of my major questions in life has always been, “How does reality work?” Nowadays I tend to phrase that question using the words my years of reading have taught me—words like “space-time,” “quantum physics,” “entropy,” “chemical reactions,” “electromagnetism,” “noumena versus phenomena,” and so on. I didn’t have those words back then. What I did have was a book that purported to tell me the truth about the Universe, and you better believe I read the hell out of that book, or at least the better part of it. I tended to skip the really boring parts, like the chapters where they just listed who begat whom. But the bits that were supposed to be historical, like the captivity of the Jews in Egypt or Joshua’s victory at Jericho, fascinated me. I wanted to know more.
The biblical account of metaphysics was really the first rounded explanation of reality presented to my young mind, and as such, I seem to have immediately accepted it as my own, which, as far as I can tell, is a pretty common occurrence throughout the human population. Any failures of that metaphysics to account for the world as it really was could be attributed, not to an actual failure of that religious brand of metaphysics, but rather to my own fallibility and misunderstanding as a human being, my own inability to grasp the breadth of a deity’s plan, my lack of proper faith or any other number of (what I realize looking back were) cop-out excuses. Rational assaults on my faith in this religious view of reality in fact only made my belief stronger—this, no doubt, was a side-effect (and possibly the underlying purpose) of the persecution complex that had been implanted in my mind along with my religious indoctrination. The world was out to get Christians. There was no doubt of that in my mind. Hell, the word “worldly” (which seems to have been replaced in modern fundamentalist parlance with the just-as-loaded “secular”) was just a half-concept away from “evil;” to be “worldly” was to be too concerned with this sinful world and not concerned enough with the will of Yahweh. I didn’t want to be worldly and burn in hell. I, as the hymn instructed me, chose to be holy instead.
My mom eventually pulled us out of that church, and for that she has my eternal gratitude. I get the impression that it was a decision she made gradually, but I think the concluding factor came from the change-for-Jesus episode. It went something like this: one of the members of the church saw a quarter under a stranger’s chair and mentioned it; this (naturally) led to a conversation about Jesus, and the stranger accepted Jesus as his person lord and savior, blah blah blah, etc. This story was “witnessed” to the rest of the church one Sunday night. Soon, similar stories followed from other members of the congregation on subsequent nights. Apparently Yahweh was at work. Then loose change started showing up under the seats of members of the church, leading to behind-the-back doubts about certain people not being right with god, interlopers in the house of Christ, so to speak. A flurry of persecution complexes and paranoid delusions seemed to heap atop one another as years-simmering interpersonal feuds erupted in the form of stray nickels found under certain worshippers’ usual spots in the pews.
But our exit from that particular church didn’t mark the death of my faith in Christianity as a whole. It may have waned for a bit—I really can’t remember at this point. But I do know it was in full form by the time high school rolled around. Let me give you a list of things I believed whole-heartedly during my high school career:
- Evolution was a crock. Had to be. It was counter to what the bible said about the origin of life on his planet and the central importance of humanity on the cosmic scale. This belief did not prevent me from reading my tenth-grade biology textbook cover-to-cover; even in the grip of religious fervor, my curiosity remained the paramount drive of my existence.
- Likewise, carbon dating was a scam. So was the entire field of geology. Why? I’m sure I had my imaginary reasons at the time, but what it came down to was: it disagreed with the bible, therefore it was wrong; QED, heathens.
- Homosexuality was a choice, and a sinful one at that. I don’t know, even in the depths of my religiosity, that I’d say I ever hated gay people. It was more of a self-righteous pity. Which is still, in retrospect, pretty disgusting in its own way.
Here’s a life lesson for you: anyone who uses “love the sinner, hate the sin” as a moral defense for the fundamentalist approach to ethics is probably a fairly ugly person deep down. This is in large part due to the fundamentalist version of “sin” equating to “being different from the biblically-defined ideal,” which is interpreted as a willful rejection of the deity’s authority; in other words, you know what’s right, and you’re just doing otherwise because you’re so “prideful” and want to rebel against Yahweh, whose authority you really accept in your heart of hearts. So, in the example of homosexuality, gays know deep down that 1) they’re really straight and 2) what they’re doing is wrong, but they’re just being childish and rebelling against authority for the hell of it. I wish I didn’t have to point this out, but THIS IS WHAT MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ACTUALLY BELIEVE. Including me, at one time.
Let’s see, what else?
- Oh yeah, here’s an interesting one for a teenage boy: masturbation was sinful. In practical terms, this one held out for all of about four months, during which I was probably in a pretty foul mood most of the time.
- I also believed that C.S. Lewis and Frank Peretti were both good writers. I’m especially ashamed of this one.
I’m sure there were other wacky beliefs I held at the time, but my brain’s probably repressed the better part of them. I haven’t even touched on my political conservatism, which was also in full swing at the time, but that really lies outside the scope of this telling. My religious zeal and complementary Christian paranoia was at full throttle; I carried an orange pocket-New Testament to school every day and harbored the fear (and, perhaps, repressed hope?) that one day I’d be sent to the principal for doing so, which would of course give me a platform as a persecuted religious minority to spread the word of Jesus. I read my bible, I prayed every day, and by my senior year I’d gotten it into my head that I wanted to go to college to major in theology.
Why theology? It wasn’t just due to my religious zeal. I think my choice to major in theology at the beginning of my college career came, more than anything, from my continuing desire to understand reality. I was obsessed with the idea of finding and reading texts that weren’t included in the bible, texts that would fill in the gaps in my understanding of the Judeo-Christian metaphysics. I already believed; now I wanted to know as well. Surely, I thought, the people running the great churches of the world had access to all kinds of resources we mere worshipers couldn’t get our hands on! So it was that I applied to—and obtained a scholarship from—a Catholic college. I wasn’t Catholic; hell, they were a little too liberal for my tastes. I certainly wasn’t out to join the priesthood; I still hoped to have sex at some point in my life, after all (and, it turned out, a Catholic college was a pretty good place to work on that goal—but again, I digress). Who, my reasoning went, was more likely to have the answers to all my questions about the Christian explanation for life, the Universe and everything than the original Christian church, founded by one of the apostles? So I went to Montana and began my education in Christian theology, ready at long last to uncover the greater mysteries of the faith.
It started off pretty well. I did some exegesis papers. I learned how the first five books of the Old Testament had been cobbled together from a handful of sources, which seemed a little odd for a divinely-inspired perfect record of ancient history to me, but I went with it. I learned that the gospels weren’t actually written by the people they were named for, and in fact this brand of pseudonymous authorship had been fairly common at the time; instead, it turned out, the gospels had been written anonymously decades later, the oldest being Mark, and there were all kinds of disagreements about what sources were used and whether or not the authors of certain gospels had access to other gospels and so on. And, through my own concurrent studies into classical literature and mythology in elective classes, I began to see parallels between Christian mythology and the stories and figures of Sumerian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman mythology. I read up on gnosticism and found a copy of The Book of Enoch.
The more I learned, the more it became difficult to believe that the bible was telling the literal truth about what had happened. It turned out there were no eye-witness accounts of Jesus having actually lived and taught. All of the supposedly historical records about his life and teachings were written after-the-fact, by people involved in the early Christian church. My Catholic teachers presented the writings of Tacitus and Josephus as secular evidence of Jesus’ presence in the world—but independent research into both showed Tacitus was addressing the early Christian church, not Jesus himself, and that there was good reason to believe medieval Christian copyists had “revised” Josephus’ writings to include references to Jesus, which put me back at square one.
And oh hell, my understanding of history—I had to completely reorder the understanding of the ancient world that had encamped itself within my skull. I was flabbergasted to learn that, not only had Jericho not had walls at the time Joshua was supposed to have brought them a-tumbling down, but the damn city hadn’t even been inhabited at the time. Oh, the whole bit about the Jews being enslaved in Egypt? Yeah, turned out most historians and even a great many theologians already agreed it had never happened. What was next? Was someone going to tell me Jesus had probably never existed? (Actually, that one came far enough down the line that, by the time the probable non-existence of the historical Jesus became fairly evident to me, I could more or less just laugh about it.)
What was worse, the Catholics embraced evolution, though a “one day Yahweh put a soul into a chimp” version, and I was forced through my further studies in biology and chemistry to begrudgingly conclude that, alright, so the Earth really was billions of years old and the science really was sound with regard to evolution. Which, to be frank, I’d already known in my heart of hearts since tenth grade and just hadn’t wanted to admit to myself.
But when did I, as the song goes, lose my religion? I couldn’t tell you the date, but I can tell you the exact thought that went through my mind. It happened near the end of the school year, when I was going about my final paper for theology. I was researching and comparing sources on one of the gospels, I want to say Luke, when something that I read (I don’t recall what at this point) struck me as particularly ludicrous and, before I had a chance to self-censor my thinking, the thought popped into my head:
Holy crap, they just made it all up!
The accusation, once made, seemed to me to be immediately apparent and totally irrefutable. The proof lay in the books spread out round my dorm room: the lack of trustworthy historical sources, the conflicting nature of the biblical accounts, the nonsensical claims that flew in the face of both reason and science—wasn’t it obvious? This was a work of fantasy, the same as the stories I’d grown up reading and writing. It wasn’t, taking a critical eye, even a particularly good fantasy; the plot jumped around, the characters were one-dimensional, the theme seemed to shift from page to page, the author’s idea of right and wrong had a habit of warping to fit the narrative (and in other places, vice-versa); how in the world had I ever taken this book seriously? It belonged on the shelf next to The Odyssey and The Silmarillion.
It’s tempting to say that I resolved then and there to be more careful in my thinking and set out to learn about the world anew from a fresh perspective, but the truth is that I retained my theism for some time. I even nominally remained Christian for a bit—surely, I thought, there was no harm in at least applying the moral teachings of Christianity to the world, even if the bible itself was kind of a crock. I would gradually abandon this pretense of Christianity over the course of the next year or so, and the death of my belief in any type of deity or supernatural phenomena would follow as a matter of course. But that’s a story for another time.
Looking back, it’s all too obvious why I bought into the Judeo-Christian metaphysics. As a child, my greatest desire was to comprehend reality as it really was, a desire that’s never really left me, and the Christian mythology was the first such explanation presented to me (and therefore the one I immediately latched onto). I could use several terms to describe the effect my conversion to that religious viewpoint had on my thought process—socialization, memetic programming, brain-washing—but they all mean the same thing: my beliefs came to dictate my perceptions of reality instead of the other way around.
The adult that I am today somewhat regrets that I spent my teenage years wrapped in ridiculous beliefs that hampered my relationships with my peers and got in the way of my having some simple rebellious fun while I was still young enough to get away with it. I deeply regret being so hateful toward certain groups and so obstinate in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence concerning the workings of the Universe. On the other hand, I feel I’ve been given insight into the depths of the irrationality of the human mind, so to speak (for ultimately we are all, despite our best efforts, irrational people), and while my religious experience may not have been a complete immunization against future lapses of rationality in the face of the unknown, I’d like to think it was at least a booster shot.