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Escaped the cult, but not the programming

By tekHedd --

I think I'm over it now. I've had more than 25 years to work through issues, and when I started reading books and this site, I made a lot of progress healing in a short time.
Another Look at the Vatican's Large Bronze DoorImage by Storm Crypt via Flickr
At this point in my life, religion is more of a political issue than a personal problem. has been a big help in that respect, and I'm grateful (if cynicism hasn't entirely poisoned that word for you) to all of the people who have posted here. I thought I would share my pitiful little experience for what it's worth.

When you're brought up Christian, you can't entirely separate the religious brainwashing from the completely normal traumatic experience of being a child and having parents. You wash your hands after going to the toilet, you pray before you eat. And so as a child I definitely believed, but what does that mean? At that age you're still having nightmares and pulling the covers over your head for protection when you sleep. I knew there was no Santa, but that's because my parents are terrible liars...not so with God.

For me, getting rid of God was easy, but I'd retained the other programming!Mom is Lutheran and dad is Catholic. We went to the Episcopal church as a sort of compromise. Mom is the minister's daughter who never rebelled. I can see why, because grandpa was a complete saint. The one genuinely great person you'd ever expect to meet. A true believer to the core.

Somehow we still managed to look down on all those Baptists and other lesser churches, not to mention cults. And I believed it. Up to about the age of 12 I was definitely confident that I was better than the kids around me, some of whom were going to hell. They also listened to that rock and roll music, which has no musical value whatsoever. Yes, as a child you believe what you're told.

But I'm a skeptic. I'm probably vulnerable to the "never a true Christian" attack, because I was taught to think for myself and read books. I always had doubts. I hated Sunday School(TM) where we learned stupid fairy tales that obviously had nothing to do with morality. So maybe I never completely believed. I prayed really hard, but God never did anything. And again, so what? What if I never fell for the lie in the first place? Does that make it less of a lie? (This would be a good time to use the "you're an atheist because you are arrogant" attack.)

Going to church was not optional. I sang in the choir, which gave me something to do instead of being terribly bored. I also hated wearing the terribly uncomfortable polyester dress pants on Sunday. Why is it so important to dress in formal clothes for a god who is really only interested in what you believe inside? Church was interminable, and I pretty much spent my whole time in church staring at the girls.

Girls, my downfall! I was earnestly told not to touch myself, and that sex is bad, and that was pretty much the extend of sex ed. Oh, and that if you sin in your mind it's as if you've really done it. Well, that was pretty much the end of my faith right there! What kind of god makes you that crazily pumped up on hormones, and then tells you not to even think about it? The Problem of Evil's got nothing on the Problem of Sex(TM)! It was obvious to me that none of this made any sense whatsoever. So, yes. In a strictly literal sense, sex was my "downfall".

So this leaves me open to lame attack #3: "you are just an atheist because you want to live a sinful lifestyle". Guilty! If you define sin as "occasionally having sex and not feeling bad about it afterwards". But joking aside, that's not the real cause of my disbelief, it's just my first personal experience with the central problem of Christian philosophy. Why are we "corrupt" and God simply can't do anything about it? I didn't think in these terms back then, because I wasn't interested in winning an argument. I was satisfied with my own logic and that's enough for me.

Years and years later, I eventually told my parents--who have become increasingly pushy with the rise of right-wing intolerance. My mother apparently blames herself for my atheism, which may be partly true. After all, she did teach me to read. The endless evangelizing has forced me to read more about Christianity and religion in general. I never wanted to know any of these useful arguments--I don't really care what a "false dichotomy" is; I'm not a debater. But, no, I don't get a choice, do I? It's an endless stream of attacks--my very existence as a nonbeliever challenges their world view. Being an atheist has forced me to learn more about my former religion than I ever wanted to know.

There I was, in my late 30s, reading (of all things) the Golden Compass books--there is a passage that talks about about how the angels really would be blissfully happy if they just had bodies and were alive. And it registered with me: I have a body. I'm alive. Right now, right here, I'm experiencing life, and it's real. Afterlife, praying to an imaginary thing that never answers, this focus on the abstract hereafter has really colored my entire life. So, you see, in the end I did need spiritual guidance: I needed someone to tell me to wake up and live in the present.

For me, getting rid of God was easy, but I'd retained the other programming! "Pleasure in this world is not important, store up your riches in heaven. I should be humble, I shouldn't speak up, I'm not important. Work harder and avoid confrontation! It is wrong to enjoy any aspect of life. Anything pleasurable is probably a sin." It's enough to drive you to drink!

Considering the reason for my initial lack of faith, it's ironic. I'd rejected ridiculous constraints on behavior then, but accepted the equally ridiculous constraints on my emotions! I'm alive and free to en-joy it.

I think it's too late to save my parents, though.