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Escaping Indoctrination

By Kate Hawthorne ~

My journey here is probably something like a clone of many of yours. Raised in a Christian home, by parents who were raised in Christian homes, went to Christian colleges and never questioned it. Church nursery ages 0-2 (where I'm told I was bitten several times and almost kicked in the head by a rambunctious older boy...isn't church such a peaceful sanctuary away from the world?) gave way to Sunday school, and by age four I was deemed ready to be up in the adult services (Reformed Baptists start them young).

Theology and dogma saturated every sermon; of course, I didn't understand it and would rather have been running around outside, but I tried to be reverent to avoid the disapproving parental glares, and believed whatever wasn’t too confusing. I sang all the songs about being washed in Jesus’ blood, felt guilty for making him die with my six-year-old evilness, and was appropriately grateful for being saved from the fiery tortures of hell.

With morning and evening services conducted by ministers and deacons who really didn’t know when to shut up (stretching them to 1.5 hours a shot), I’ve spent roughly 2500 hours sitting in a pew. That’s not even counting travel time (our church was half an hour away) or the weeks we attended prayer meeting. A hundred and fifty thousand minutes I could have spent learning to be a musical genius or something useful!

Not that the indoctrination ended at church. A homeschooler K-12, I was taught all my subjects from a Christian perspective (believe me, biology was…fun). All my friends came from church or the Christian homeschool group we joined (you’ve never seen so many jean jumpers). I sensed even at a young age that I was different somehow than everyone I knew; I became a loner and could usually be found in some corner with a book.

This is probably what rescued me. While my peers were succumbing to the brainwashing, turning into carbon copies of their fundamentalist parents and each other, I was reading, writing, developing the critical thinking skills that I would later apply to religion.

I can’t pinpoint my deconversion, but it was probably around age 12 or 13. In the beginning I still believed everything—I just didn’t feel any sort of divine presence in my life, and realized I never had. My default reaction was to assume that something was wrong with me…that maybe I hadn’t been predestined. Convinced I was going to hell, I prayed for god to just make me a Christian. I told him my heart was open and the holy spirit could waltz right in anytime.

It was only when nothing happened that I began to wonder if there was actually anyone up there. So it was back to the books; I dove headfirst into the study of religion, filled notebooks with biblical criticism, and concluded that religion was a manmade tool of fear and control.

Voltaire and Thomas Paine became my mentors through my teen years. I admired their courage, their nonconformity, and their dedication to dispelling superstition. Reason was, and still is, my guiding light.

After graduation, my parents gave me a choice: I could either live on-campus at a Christian college, or live at home and commute. They were still unaware of my deconversion, so I suppose they were reluctant to have me mixing with “unbelievers” and being tempted away from the faith. I decided it was more important to get out of the house and start becoming independent. Christian college it was.

And what a Christian college. Mandatory Wednesday chapel (I sat in the back with the other hoodlums, headphones on to block out the call-and-response chanting). No vacuuming or laundry on Sundays. Dancing prohibited (unless it was line dancing or some other kind that nobody wants to do). Core courses included Bible class. The halls were deserted on Sundays as students flocked out to church, while I stayed in the dorm and watched Christopher Hitchens debate Christians (he was brilliant) or read Dawkins or Harris.

I felt like a wolf among the sheep…but I didn’t attack anyone’s faith and didn’t proselytize freethought. Having other people’s beliefs forced on me turned me off the idea of doing that to someone else. If people asked me about my views on religion, I’d be honest, but most people just assumed everyone was a Christian and the most heated debates got was over denominational differences in doctrine—infant vs. adult baptism, predestination vs. free will. When these came up I usually just walked away. It wasn’t worth the fight for something I wouldn’t even be able to change.

My classes, however, were another story. My professors caught on pretty fast when I started writing papers for Old Testament class about how Yahweh was a megalomaniac tyrant who ordered genocide, or did a project on the topic of how there is a rational basis for morality, or (most telling) wrote the various “self-reflection” papers on my deconversion.

They mostly reacted the same way—they were sad, yet accepting, and offered to discuss religion with me anytime. Sometimes I took them up on it, but they had believed the Christian story so strongly for so long that it was clear I wouldn’t change their minds…and after all my studying, I knew that I could never find Christianity intellectually satisfying, so they wouldn’t change mine. I still think it was valuable to have those encounters, if only for the sake of helping both sides understand each other more, and I discovered that I could truly respect my professors even if it didn’t mean agreeing with them.

I dropped the bombshell on my parents over the Christmas break of my freshman year. Understandably, they were shocked and there were tears, but I was able to present my reasoning calmly and non-confrontationally, and they admitted that they had no answers for my questions. For them it just came down to faith and the work of the holy spirit. They probably pray for me every day.

Present day: I am eighteen, in my second (and last) semester at this school. Next fall I’ll be transferring to a non-religiously-affiliated college. I’m not yet sure what path my life will take, but as a humanist I believe change is up to us, and whatever else happens I’d like to leave this world better than I found it. This is not the power of Christ in me. This is the power of being alive…and being free.