The Shafts of Light Found Me

(Via Alexis)

I never went looking to become an atheist. I went to a Christian and Missionary Alliance church in St. Pete., Florida from as early as I could remember, singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World, Red and Yellow Black and White, They are Precious in His Sight...” While I am glad the song helped make me non-bigoted, now I realize it was a call for us to send missionaries all over the world and CONVERT these little children, whether they needed it or not. We’d tiptoe past the big church” where the grownups sang songs like “How Great Thou Art.” It was the late fifties and I wore dresses every week – I was shocked once that a girl wore a skirt and blouse instead of a dress. In the summer I loved the arts and crafts part of Vacation Bible School.

The first flash of light came when I was looking at a plaque on a bedroom wall in my house, saying “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and Thou Shalt Be Saved.” BELIEVE? BELIEVE? I was about seven, and had thought everything told me in Sunday School was FACT. Things seemed less certain.

I kept going to Sunday School, to keep my mother happy. Then came a Sunday School evening taffy pull, when I was nine. The teacher boiled up the taffy mix and we got to take turns pulling it. Things got weird; I don't remember exactly what the teacher did, but she must have set this up - we had never been taught anything anti-Catholic, only vaguely knew who the Pope was, and certainly didn't know anything about ring-kissing. The group of kids dressed one boy up as the Pope and put him on a "throne." I was blindfolded and told to kiss his ring. I bent over an d kissed it, and everyone screamed with laughter. I pulled off the blindfold and found out he was wearing the ring on his toe. I just melted into the crowd and didn’t say anything, but I never felt safe again – my feeling was why did they pick ME, who never said anything skeptical or bad. I never attended that church again, and some of the kids, who went to my school, never asked me why I quit. I think they knew.

I found Isaac Asimov and watched science and nature shows on television. I decided I was an atheist, and stopped saying the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance. I remember a Jehovah’s Witness boy in our class who would stand each day, like he was in front of a firing squad, and NOT say a word of the pledge. Everyone left him alone – I think they were afraid he would try to convert them if they even talked to him. To this day I have respect for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, partly because they gave ME, the closeted atheist, cover. My other little joke was, when we were FORCED to recite the Lord’s Prayer, I’d say under my breath, “My father, who AIN’T in heaven.” To this day I would fight any forced prayer in school. It’s intimidation. I read the entire Bible, like I read the Iliad and the Odyssey, as classic mythological fiction, but I wouldn’t have dreamed of publicly arguing for atheism. I was too young, I didn’t have any skeptical framework, and it was too dangerous to argue about the contradictions of scripture.

Our next door neighbor, a year older than me, knew I didn’t go to church and, obeying the commandment to haul in lost souls, dragged me to Southern Baptist church a few times. It was so colorless and preachy I couldn’t get into it. She also got me to go to “Pioneer Girls” weekly meetings at a nearby Methodist Church where we did rugged things like make frilly aprons. I remember being shocked by the painting of Jesus in the church hallway, because in previous churches it was one of the Ten Commandments to have no “graven images.” Somehow I babbled some excuses and escaped these outings without having to declare “I am an Atheist.” I found out decades later that this girl’s father had an affair with his wife’s brother’s wife, who lived next door, and this produced a boy. So my friend was half-sister and first cousin to the same boy, yet her family was so snobby about being tight with God.

In home economics at age fifteen, I got cornered. My four or five girl partners in cooking class would take turns saying a prayer, and finally it was my turn. I remember the triumphant glare one girl gave me. Out of sheer fear, I closed my eyes and said the only prayer I could remember “God is great; God is good, now we thank you for our food.” And then I never had to pray again. I was racked with guilt and shame over being such a coward and betraying my own integrity.


At 15, I went into an eclectic phase. I took up yoga and astrology, which worried my mother, though I had perfect grades and no vices, so she mostly left me alone.

My mother started getting depression when I was sixteen, so to cheer her up, on Mother’s Day, I started going to an Assembly of God church. It was growing rapidly from a few hundred to HUGE. I sang in the choir with bemused enjoyment, like I was an anthropologist. The choir director was the pastor’s wife, blonde and perfect. Once while in the choir the person next to me started breathing wildly, then leapt to her feet and spoke in tongues. The pastor stopped his sermon and everyone watched, rapt. She finished and slumped back into her chair, while congregation voices said "Praise God," and "Thank You, Jesus." I went to teen Sunday School classes in my little dresses, my two main memories being a gory description of the crucifixion, and being embarrassed that I’d forgotten to save my legs. On a church outing to a go-kart park, we were in a great mood on the bus ride home. I watched wide-eyed as the two youth leaders did side-splitting impersonations of the pastor and his wife, and they showed us how you could sing “Amazing Grace” (Which was THE song of that congregation) to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun,” and vice versa I got to see a wild fundraiser where the pastor gave an electrifying sermon and then people jumped up to give THOUSANDS for a new sanctuary. As I left (with relief) for college, a new sanctuary was rising, and the pastor was found guilty of adultery. The place is now a mega-church.

In college I continued with yoga and tried transcendental meditation and tai chi. I still like them for the physical benefits. After college I started reading New Age Journal and even believed in that old fraud, Yuri Geller.

When I had children I felt compelled to take them to the closest church, an Episcopalian. I was enchanted by the ritual and the music, and the hands-off attitude that as long as you did the ritual, nobody was going to get into your face about what you really believed. I had both of my children baptized, figuring it would save them having to undergo the intrusion of an adult baptism if they married someone who cared about such thing. I thought being a Christian was still a worthwhile thing even if I had trouble with faith. I felt second class in the church, because my husband refused to go, and I couldn’t contribute much money. I contributed by teaching Sunday School, and had lots of a rts-and-crafts projects for the kids – the kind I loved when I was a kid. I became resentful when some of the parents would NEVER teach Sunday school because they were “too shy,” as the religious education director put it. The real reason seemed to be because they were big contributors and they felt it was somebody else’s job to do lowly things like teach. The first grade boys especially were a difficult handful, and I didn’t like being alone every week, but at least the five-year-olds and up got to spend a few Sundays inside the big church which gave me a break. Each week we’d take the kids to a children’s chapel for a little service and try to keep the boys from crawling under the pews and laughing. I also didn’t like overhearing one of the teachers stressing how it was the Jews who crucified Jesus. The last year I was there, I taught four-year-olds, who never had a Sunday when they went straight into the big church, so I taught every Sunday from September to June with no help and no Sundays off. I only got to meet the equally overworked Sunday School teacher moms (there NEVER were dads) from other grades. I felt socially shut off from the rich moms and non-parents who of course could network all they wanted in the big church. Once a year I was able to lead the four year olds into the big church, on Palm Sunday, with all the children proceed behind a big pretty cross. I led my little lambs, waving palms as the congregation sang “All honour power and glory, to thee Redeemer King,” and felt a bit of acknowledgment. It wasn’t enough.

The final shaft of light hit when I read a book called “Orpheus,” an old skeptical history of religion, which pointed out that Jesus was only known to one historian of his era, as a leader of a rebellion, and that even Josephus wasn’t telling the whole truth. I then realized I just wasn’t ANY kind of Christian anymore. I moved to a Unitarian Church, which finally felt like home, since atheists go there happily. Even my husband was willing to go, and my kids were happy there. Every parent had to help teach, so I got lots of Sundays free to go the the big church and enjoy the sermon and fellowship. When I did teach, I had a second teacher in the room. The kids were much better behaved than in the Episcopalian Sunday School. Nobody ever laughed out of turn, or jumped up or crawled under the seats in Unitarian children’s chapel. We got to teach comparative religion, where when the kids ask why the Hindu’s don’t eat beef, I’d ask the kids questions like why don’t Americans eat horse meat, while the French do? I felt really free and enjoyed all the kid’s fund-raisers for Heifer Project, cleaning homeless shelters, and other worthy causes.

The public library in my town finally subscribed to “Skeptic” magazine, and it knocked my socks off. Finally, I could get back to my early love, science, and just leave the whole “supernatural” stuff behind entirely. We moved west, and I stopped going to church entirely. Now I read skeptic sites and science, always science.

My brother joined Scientology in the 1970’s and is still in there. He disconnected from my mother and sister and then recently disconnected from me, probably because I wouldn’t break off from my own mother and sister. His daughter is an underpaid middle manager in the Church of Scientology and looks twenty years older than her real age. The ideas and insights of skeptics have helped me focus my thoughts as I frequently post anonymously to anti-Scientology sites like www.xenu.net.

I utterly respect the solitary soul-searching that goes on in pre-teens and teens, and that often leads to atheism. The Alliance Church children sang "The Wise Man Built His House Upon a Rock." This impressed me to choose house sites carefully, but also to found my arguments on fact, not mush. I want schools and parents to respect the search for natural truth, and not treat children as blank slates that will believe if you stuff more and more and more dogma down their throats, and if you forever protect them from any skeptical knowledge. I was never looking for skepticism when the shafts of light hit me. I found doubt with that first plaque that said “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” that really started me saying, “Why do I have to BELIEVE?” The contradictions of religion just CREATE millions like me, young people who learn to doubt all by themselves. Like sunlight, the shafts of light FIND THEM.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This was a gorgeous story - thank you for sharing it. Well written and touching.

-Anonymous Letter to Richard Dawkins Girl

tina said...

Yes, I enjoyed it also.