My parents divorced when I was 5 and my brother was 1, and we moved from the country to the city with our mother while our father stayed behind. Our mother would tell you she was a Christian if you asked her, but we never went to church or talked about Jesus much. She worked two jobs and went to night school to learn to use computers, helped with homework, read us bedtime stories, patiently answered our endless questions, and encouraged us to read often and think independently.
Our dad, on the other hand, was a complete religious fanatic, control freak, and hypocrite. Every other weekend, he would make the 175-mile drive to the city to pick us up, and we'd be subjected to a 2 1/2-hour drive in his cramped little pickup truck with Christian rock music blasting at full volume while he blared his horn at slower-moving vehicles (saving his middle finger and his F*** YOUs for those who honked back), tailgated and swerved maniacally through traffic at top speed, and, on one unforgettable occasion, rolled down his window and pointed his handgun at a man who was committing the cardinal sin of doing 65 in the fast lane (this ultimately resulted in us telling our mother, and our dad spending a week in jail). During our drives, Dad would also frequently startle/scare us with sudden, random, painfully loud screams and war-whoops, which he attributed, wild-eyed, to his being "ON FIRE FOR THE LORD!" (My brother and I privately imitated and giggled helplessly over these ridiculous displays of religious fervor.)
Once we reached his little place in the country, we generally spent most of Saturday doing intensive Bible study (I knew who St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Martin Luther were before I hit third grade) followed by a rousing game of Bible Trivia (groan); the next day, we'd get up at the crack of dawn to get ready for church (which was *only* 40 miles away). We participated in Sunday school and Children's Bible Study, and went on church outings to "share the Gospel" with people in poor neighborhoods. We were always anxious about going to Dad's house, not only because of the long, traumatizing drive to and from, but also because he would frequently say frightening and/or inappropriate things for young children to hear, such as "Your mother is a wh***. She only lets you come with me so you won't see her having sex with all her boyfriends."; "You know that clicking sound you hear when you first pick up the phone? That's the FBI listening to our conversations."; and "Your mother worships Satan. I'll kill both of you if it means I keep her from dragging your souls to hell with her." Our mother unintentionally alarmed us further by (sensibly) requiring us to memorize her phone number and every address we moved to, so that if our father ever abducted us and we were able to get away, we could call her and/or provide the police with her contact
information so we could get home again.
After a few years of this, my father moved to the city (he returned to the country a couple of years later) and, unfortunately, played an even more actively religious role in our daily lives since we were physically closer to him. My mother encouraged me to join Girl Scouts when I was 7 or 8, even scraping together enough money (we lived well below the poverty line) to buy me a brand-new Brownie uniform, and I happily complied only to have my father use Christianity to ruin that for me. He was furious that our Brownie Troop met on Wednesday evenings (which were also our "extra" church nights), and forced me to leave the group by accusing the Girl Scouts of being a Satanic organization which was making me choose between God and The World by having their meetings on the same nights we were supposed to be in church.
When he moved back to the country, we were once again forced to endure the white-knuckle journey to and from his house. Bible studies intensified, and we bounced from church to church as he endlessly alienated entire congregations. Our dad was a loud, aggressive, burly, tattooed man with a ninth-grade education who had done hard drugs for most of his teenage years and hard manual labor for most of his life, so he intimidated and flat-out scared a lot of people. Once, my brother and I each invited a friend up for our weekend with Dad (naively assuming that he would be nicer in front of company and perhaps allow us to skip Bible study and/or church); on the contrary, he required EXTRA Bible study and insisted that our now-captive and reluctant audience join in, whereupon he expressed shock at their ignorance of the Bible and the great theologians, ordered them to give their lives to Jesus before they died and went to Hell, and pressured them to decide whether or not they believed in predestination and the post-tribulation rapture. On the way to church the next day, he further alarmed them (and humiliated us) by cautioning them to watch out for black helicopters because they were using infrared technology to spy on us, and detailing how Bill Clinton was having people murdered in the White House. Obviously, that was the first and last time our friends accompanied us to visit our dad.
As I grew older, I began to pick fights with Dad (over the phone) so I'd have justification for refusing to go with him on his court-appointed weekends. My quieter and more easygoing brother was still obligated to go, and on one occasion this resulted in a phone call from him to tell me that Dad had captured a rat on a glue board in his kitchen and spent fifteen minutes shooting it with blowdarts before taking it outside, shooting it, and taking pictures of it. My mother and I were both horrified and furious, and it was several months before my brother made the trip up there again.
Despite my Dad's best efforts to show us that Christians were scary, paranoid people who should be confined to rubber rooms, I genuinely believed in the Bible and often read it in my spare time. One night when I was 16, I was sitting alone at my little desk in my room and reading the book of John. Suddenly my independent, reasoning mind started waking up. I had a QUESTION. Uneasily, I called Dad. He might be nuts, but he knew the Bible like the back of his hand. "Dad, Jesus said 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.' But He also said the Jews were His chosen people, and Jews don't believe in Jesus. So do Jews go to Heaven or Hell?" Dad hemmed and hawwed, he mumbled various vaguely-pertinent Bible verses, he hesitated and false-started a few times, and then launched into some story from the Bible that had nothing to do with my question. I chalked it up to "He doesn't know." After I got off the phone, I went back to my Bible and realized I had ANOTHER question! I called Dad back. "Dad, if belief in Jesus is the only way to Heaven, what happens to people in remote parts of the world who have lived for generations without even knowing that an 'outside world' existed, and have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel? Do they die and go to Hell just because they were born into the wrong place?" Dad did some more hemming and hawwing, and then had an epiphany. He answered, "Well, they can still look around at the sun and moon and stars and trees and animals and think 'Some power greater than myself must have put all this here', and then choose to honor and respect the Creator of nature. Then God can work on their hearts so that they will be true Christians in His eyes." You know how, when you hear the truth, it just rings true in your ears and you recognize it for what it is? That's how I felt when he said the first sentence (not the second one). I was delighted/surprised but also puzzled, and asked "Well, couldn't everyone just do that?" He responded that Christians are instructed by Jesus to spread the Gospel. I said that didn't make any sense; why should we bend over backwards to tell everyone something they can all figure out for themselves? He said it was because we needed to tell them the Truth before they were led astray by false religions like Islam. I thought for a minute, then hesitatingly observed that everyone thinks their religion is the correct one, and asked how we could be sure that ours was right and theirs was wrong? He explained that we know ours is right because we have God's Word right there in our Bible; I rebutted by saying that they think they have Allah's Word in their Quran too. Dad started getting agitated in that way that religious people do when you start asking questions, and asked if I was turning into an atheist. I quickly reassured him that I was not, and the conversation ended there on an awkward note.
I spent the next few years telling myself that my questions were the result of inadequate faith on my part, and tried to squelch and ignore my growing doubts. When I was 19, I met a remarkably intelligent and articulate 20-year-old fellow college student with whom I shared a love of reading, learning, integrity, and intellectual debate...and excellent sexual chemistry. We began dating, but the relationship was kept secret from my father's side of the family because he was black. I had never dated outside my race before (I had barely dated even within my race because I simply wasn't particularly attracted to anyone and was a bit of an intellectual elitist), but I didn't think it was strange or unusual, although I was aware that my father hated black people (and Hispanics, and Asians, and women, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and Catholics, and foreigners, and democrats, and the elderly, and everyone else who wasn't a middle-aged conservative white Protestant male from the southern United States). We each recognized a kindred spirit in the other and spent every waking moment together when we weren't at work or school, arguing race relations, politics, religion, and foreign policy (and doing other things, of course!), and ultimately fell very much in love. Six months after we began dating, we moved into an apartment together (as far as my father knew, I was just getting my own place).
In an attempt to appease my Christian-upbringing-induced guilt over my very active sex life outside of marriage, I joined a church and began semi-regularly attending services there. The pastor and his wife invited me to their house for dinner, as was their custom with all new attendees, and both were impressed with my Biblical knowledge and theological awareness; I was repeatedly invited back for dinner and Bible-based discussion, and became something of a family friend. I was flattered by the attention and conveniently failed to mention my ongoing sexual indiscretion, although I felt increasingly like a hypocritical, lying fraud for the year or so that this went on. Then I got pregnant.
When I admitted the pregnancy to the pastor and his wife, they were upset. When they met my boyfriend, they were horrified (the whole interracial thing). They privately urged me to give the baby up for adoption and abandon the relationship, which I refused to do. Neither they nor my other church "friends" ever spoke to me again, and I stopped attending church altogether. I knew I was wrong for having lied to them, but I felt angry, hurt, and betrayed that *Christians* would drop me like a hot potato for not living the perfect Christian life. How unChristian of them. I finally began allowing my religious questions and doubts to rise to the surface, and discussed them with my boyfriend, who understood the difficulty I was facing in beginning to work against my brainwashing; he patiently encouraged me to use logic and reason to determine the truth for myself. (He was two steps ahead of me in the religion department, although I wasn't aware of this at the time; he let me figure out what I thought for myself before telling me about his own journey to similar conclusions.)
Ironically and completely unexpectedly, my dad was elated to find out he was going to be a grandfather. He wasn't even fazed when I told him who the father was (they had met once, but I had introduced my boyfriend as "my friend", and they had gotten along surprisingly well) and was utterly shocked that I thought he was a racist, which he adamantly denied being. I later figured out that, with my dad, it's nothing personal; he's just one of those people who hates everyone equally.
Shortly after our the birth of our daughter, I found out I was pregnant again, despite my faithful use of birth control. When our first child was 13 months old, our son was born. We moved into a larger apartment and I halfheartedly attended another church with a friend a couple of times, but finally had to admit to myself that I wasn't buying it anymore. I went home, looked myself in the eye in the mirror, took a deep breath, and thought (I was too nervous to say it aloud, as though I might be struck by lightning for my insolence) "I'm not a Christian anymore. I don't believe that everything the Bible says is true. I don't know if Jesus ever existed or not. Religion is a tool used to control people. I'm not a Christian anymore." If you were brainwashed from birth to believe that Christianity is the only right way to live and that to deviate is to die spiritually, then you know how hard it was to overcome that programming and dare to think what I thought. I never went back to church again, and I've never missed it.
We went on to have two more daughters, and sometimes (particularly after I get off the phone with my dad) I look at my beautiful, intelligent, happy (when they're not fighting over some stupid toy) children and am silently grateful that I "woke up" before I inflicted another senseless religious brainwashing on a new generation. They will never have to suppress their natural curiosity or shut their perfectly functioning minds down in order to accept ancient Middle-Eastern fairy tales as their basis for how to order their lives. No one will dangle the threat of hellfire and eternal damnation over them in order to frighten them into compliance with an outdated mythology. Their parents are both back in college (after several years' hiatus spent trying to cope with the sudden influx of children); their mother is working on a Bachelor's in Biotechnology (despite their grandfather's advice to "Be careful about gettin' too educated; it'll turn you into a damn lib'ral atheist."); their father is preparing to enter the Master's program as an MIS major. They're growing up in a household full of books about science and business and technology, and developing a healthy thirst for knowledge and understanding instead of an irrational fear of a vengeful, bloodthirsty god who hates women, gay people, and questions. I don't mind them learning about various religions, including Christianity, as long as they understand that different people believe different things, that it's up to them to decide what they believe, if anything, and that no one will ever force them to accept any belief system against their will. I'm so glad I "got out." Also, to my everlasting delight, I discovered just last year that my brother (who spent three years in the Navy and now lives in Hawaii) has also been questioning religion and is now at the phase where he clearly doesn't believe in Christianity anymore but is reluctant to say it aloud for the same reasons most of us are afraid to. So I'm not the only one breaking free!
The only problem is that I still can't bring myself to admit to my family that I don't believe what they want/expect me to believe. My father has mellowed considerably in recent years; our relationship has greatly improved and I've forgiven most of the insanity with which he generously peppered my childhood, so you'd think he'd seem more approachable to me than he once did, and you'd be right.
However, he still has the soul of the religious fanatic and the black-and-white worldview that will tolerate no shades of gray, making his stability questionable. In spite of everything, I do love my Dad, and I'm especially close to my grandparents (his parents). What if I tell them that I'm not a Christian anymore and they sever ties with me? (Or, perhaps worse, engage in endless and fruitless efforts to convert me back?) In my family, it could easily be THAT big of a deal. My brother hasn't told them yet either, but he's never been very family-oriented and is not nearly as close to our relatives as I am, so I think the lack of emotional investment on his part would make any excommunication by our family ineffective. For me, it would be very upsetting, even devastating.
I've been postponing telling them for years now, but I'm afraid I'm about to reach the point where I'll have to. They (my dad in particular) are bringing up the kids' religious education more and more, especially around religious holidays. For instance, my mother (who has gotten slightly more religious over the years) called on Easter morning a few months back to wish me a Happy Easter. "Have you told the kids about the true meaning of Easter? Jesus died for us on the cross and rose again from the dead to ascend to heaven. Today is a holy day. It's not all about colorful eggs and chocolate and candy, you know." (Me, rolling my eyes and thinking "To me it is!") Later, my father called and demanded to know whether the kids have a Children's Bible. I answered yes, although I didn't tell him it's in a box in the back of my closet and that I have no intention of unpacking it. He told me I needed to give it to my oldest daughter to read, and mentioned that he's "going to start really working with them to teach them about Jesus." I thought, "The hell you are!" but compromised aloud by promising him that the kids would certainly know about the Creator (and they will, as soon as they can look around at the sun and moon and stars and trees and animals and know...). Thankfully, my dad has a short attention span, so I can just - Hey look, a squirrel! - and he forgets what he was talking about, but I can't change the subject forever and I don't want to keep being such a coward. I'm a grown woman for heaven's sake; I shouldn't be so scared to tell my family. Not sure what to do at this point.
Anyway, in the unlikely event that someone is still reading after all this time, I sincerely apologize for the length and detail, but it feels better to get everything off my chest, even if no one ever reads it. I love reading the other stories on this site; although I'm not an atheist like many people on here (I consider myself a Deist), I definitely sympathize with the atheist perspective and can certainly relate to the Christian brainwashing, de-conversion experience, and familial troubles I see being shared, and it's encouraging to be reminded that I'm not the only one struggling away from lies and toward the truth.
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