One of the questions I was asked most often this weekend was what happened to me to cause me to leave religion. Each time I told the true answer, I was corrected and told that I was supposed to tell them the incident where I got hurt badly enough to leave religion. I insisted that there was no such event, and each time, I was met with skepticism, if not outright disbelief.
I understand where some of this disbelief comes from. I don’t hide the fact that I was occasionally hurt by religious beliefs. It’s got to be easy for a True Believer to see that I left, see that I was sometimes hurt, and draw a straight line between the two. But let’s be honest about this. Everybody gets hurt. Around seventy percent of Americans are religious, and practically everyone is or has been close to someone who’s religious. It would be difficult to find someone who has not been hurt in a way they could associate with religion.
Can we say that hurt is the only reason people leave religion? I suppose we can. Maybe that’s what some of my questioners think. If that’s the case, I have to just let them go their way. How do you argue against that position? If they will not accept anything other than the answer they want, they’re not very open minded, are they?
Let’s just admit that some people leave religion for reasons other than hurt.
Do some people get hurt by religion and stay anyway? We’d be daft to suggest otherwise. People change churches all the time, and hurt is often the catalyst. In fact, Northview Baptist Church, site of the conference, was apparently hit by a major rift some years ago. I am told by one of the original members that it wasn’t a very pleasant split and that lots of people got their feelings hurt. But rather than become atheists, both groups stayed in religion and went their separate ways.
While we’re at it, let’s also note that some people cling even harder to religion when they’re hurt. They believe so strongly that God is real that they will endure hurt for longer than they normally would just so they can continue to serve God in the way they feel is right.
But all of this is in the removed realm of “the others,” and doesn’t really answer the question of Hambydammit, hurt, and religion. So here’s my timeline.
- I was raised mostly Methodist and Baptist. I have few bad memories of my early childhood and religion. In fact, I can’t even think of any off the top of my head. As far as I knew, everyone went to church. There were nice elderly ladies who pinched my cheeks and told me I had beautiful eyes. I played the piano and made construction paper arks and played on the playground. It was nice.
- During my adolescent and teen years, my mother divorced and remarried. (My father was a non-believer. He and I had exactly one conversation about religion. I asked him a question of theology and he said, “Go ask your mother.”) My step-father was a classic Bible Thumper. He and I were at loggerheads on most issues, and in general, he never stepped into a father role because I never let him. I had a father I loved, and was perfectly happy with that arrangement. He did have a strong influence on my mother, and we started going to churches with more strident messages.
- For most of my teen years, I attended churches with messages almost exactly like the one I heard this past weekend. Literalism was the name of the game. The earth was 6000 years old. Evolution was a lie. Homosexuality was an abomination. Catholics were not true Christians. All other religions were false. Satan, demons, and angels were real. Between about a half a dozen churches (I was making money as a church pianist in those days) I saw healing services, speaking in tongues, exorcisms, and… I don’t know the word for this… un-gayifications. It was during this period that I had a few bad experiences:
- Around 12 or 13, I was taught to believe that demons were trying to possess me and that lewd sexual thoughts were one of their main avenues of entry. Being young, hormonal, and sheltered, it was impossible for me not to think such thoughts. Thinking about not thinking them meant I was thinking them. So I spent a while thinking I was going to go to hell for imagining sex. (After a few months of internal torture, I reasoned my way out of it and decided that the only thoughts which were forbidden were thoughts I had intentionally. End of story. Hurt over.)
- During my later teen years, I had a lot of self doubt when things just weren’t making any sense at all. Since I had been taught that anything which disagrees with the Bible was false, but I disagreed with the Bible, the only logical conclusion was that there was something wrong with me.
- All through High School, I was on the fringes. To begin with, I was a sheltered nerd. That would have been bad enough, but I was also a pious sheltered nerd. I suffered just like any nerd, and didn’t blame religion. In fact, I clung even more tightly to it to get me through the teasing and the long walks home by myself. It wasn’t until well after I left religion that I got mad about it. I realize now that if I hadn’t been so religious, I’d probably have overcome my social problems much, much sooner.
That’s really all I can think of off the top of my head, at least as far as things which caused me lasting emotional distress. Maybe there’s something else I’ve written about before, but if there is, it’s not coming to me now. If you’ve read something on here that I left out, please remind me. All of this was a long time ago.
My transition from Christianity to Atheism was a long, gradual one. When I was seventeen or eighteen, I rejected the hard-nosed evangelistic churches my family attended and took musical positions at more laid-back, less judgmental churches. This worked for a while, but at the same time, I was also in college studying philosophy, evolution, ethics, and world religions. What I learned sharply disagreed with what I had been taught, and it shook my conclusion that I must be wrong since I disagreed with the Bible. The more I read from sources outside Christianity, the more it became obvious that most of what I’d learned was circular and/or untestable.
As I developed intellectually, I was becoming better socialized as well. I made friends who were non-theists (even though I didn’t know it at the beginning), and over the course of two or three years, they asked me a lot of hard questions. My first girlfriend turned out to be an ex-believer as well. She was extremely intelligent, and had a way of explaining things easily and precisely.
By this time, I had little of the evangelical left in me. Though I was still giving lip service to Christianity, the truth is that I didn’t believe it. I still believed there must be some sort of god, but the Christian god was just so… hideously immoral and childish… that I couldn’t believe it. (Not to mention that there were some really serious philosophical problems with the idea of omni-max properties. But that’s another post.)
From there, I progressed to a sort of deism. I understood evolution well enough to know that it was a much better explanation than creation. Ethics made sense without authoritarianism. Psychology was sufficient for explaining transcendent experiences, mind reading, miracles, and other religious phenomena. I was faced with the reality that I didn’t need religion to answer any questions — except for the origin of the universe.
One day, I was studying Occidental Mythology and came across a creation myth in which the original god destroyed itself in the act of creating the earth. (I wish I could remember what it was. Maybe one of my readers knows? It doesn’t really matter, but I’d be interested to know.) Then it occurred to me: Even if it is impossible for there to be infinite regress, couldn’t the creator have destroyed himself in the act of creating this universe?! The obvious answer is yes. If we are postulating a creator outside of the limits of the universe, we can postulate a virtually infinite number of ways in which he created the universe, including his own self-destruction.
So that was the end of my deism, which flowed nicely to pantheism, since I liked the idea of a creator becoming the universe but ending his own intelligent existence in the process. It had a nice ring to it.
That couldn’t last very long, though. How could it, since it’s just as likely or unlikely as anything else? So I kept it tucked away in a quaint little box of memories. One day, I was having coffee with a few friends, and we were discussing philosophy and the universe and so forth. One of my friends looked at me quizzically and asked, “When did you become an atheist?”
My immediate response was, “Oh, I’m not an atheist…” But then I thought for a second and said, “Hmmm… you know what? I am! How about that!” So the odd reality is that I became an atheist before I realized I had become an atheist. Bit by bit, I had dropped parts of religion that didn’t make sense. At some point, there was nothing left to drop, but it didn’t occur to me because religion had so little impact on my life at that point.
Ironically, the hurt came after I recognized my own atheism. I realized what I’d missed out on. The uselessness of my self-doubt and self-torture rankled. I was embarrassed when I remembered things I’d said out of religious fervor, knowing now how foolish I looked to people who would have happily been my friends if I’d known how to relax and enjoy being a kid. I was mad at my mother for subjecting me to the indoctrination. I was mad at my father for not telling me there were alternatives. I was mad at myself for hating gays.
So yeah. I’ve been hurt by religion. But on balance, the vast majority of the hurt has come since I left. But that’s a topic for another day.