Skip to main content

Religion? To Hell With It

By A Formerly Indoctrinated Child ~

I sat in the front row of the little semi-rural Catholic Church in the not-quite foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. There’s a lot of Jesus out here, but Catholic Jesus is a bit rarer, and much rarer still were people like me, a wolf among sheep as most Christians would put it. I was 32 years old and listening to my father give a homily for the first time as an ordained Catholic deacon. He talked about sitting comfortably in the pew over two decades before as the deacon at my childhood parish gave a sermon about being called to serve God more and urging the laymen to consider what God wants for them. It was the beginning of his journey that would first require him to finish raising me and my younger brother before being able to turn more fully to his dedication to God.

My journey in the other direction started sometime before that. Maybe it was around 1983 or 1984, when as an inquisitive preschooler who enjoying counting, playing with calculators and clocks, and among other things analyzing a big globe that was in my grandmother’s house. “Dad,“ I would ask, “if the North Pole is in the Arctic Ocean, how could Santa build a house there?”

“Well son, he builds it on the ice, there’s a permanent ice pack there.”

“Oh, how come in all the pictures, there are always trees and mountains there?”

“Well, it’s an artist’s rendering…”

“Why would an artist draw something that isn’t there if this is a real place? Dad, how many people are on Earth?”

“About five billion.”

“How many seconds are in a day?”


“That’s a lot of houses per second he has to visit…”

And on and on it went; I was a born skeptic. But, as with any good childhood indoctrination, I was taught how to rationalize away these sorts of questions with regard to the Catholic Faith. The Church is big on reason, at least in the past few centuries after the insidious Galileo Affair and even more so in the 20th century, as it was a Catholic Priest, Georges Lemaître, who was instrumental in the currently accepted Bing Bang Theory. Despite this, my upbringing contained a rather strange mix of this concept of reasonable faith combined with some strangely Fundamentalist anti-science bunk. While current Catholic teaching allows for the full acceptance of all current scientific consensus, including cosmology and Evolution (other than perhaps Polygenism, but I digress), it does not require it. Therein, was one of the bigger cracks in the foundation that would ultimately lead to my de-conversion, but it was a long journey.

When I was at the Age of Reason (in Catholic terms, that’s 7 years old), like other good Catholic kids, I made my First Communion. Around the same time, my parents yanked me out of Sunday school and decided I would be taught at home. You see, my parents, especially my father wanted to make sure I was being properly taught what the Church’s true teachings were, not any of this Post-modern liberal Christian bullshit (my words, not his ). You know, the real teachings, Catechism and all, a well formed conscience, the full knowledge of grave and mortal sins, such awful acts as not attending Church on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation, blaspheming the Lord, in thoughts or in words, in words or in actions, “in what I have done and what I have failed to do” as is repeated by the Congregation at every single Mass. These points were driven home well. I was Catechized, and we frequently said the rosary as a family. A favorite time to do this was in the middle of a ballgame I’d be enjoying on TV (you see, putting this off until after the game was over would be putting baseball before God, which could potentially lead to (gasp!), the occasion to sin, potentially mortally!) Naturally, the all-loving and all-caring God would eternally damn us to suffering in a pit of fire should this happen and I fail to confess it before I die—Infinite punishment for a finite “crime.” Is this logical, loving, caring or moral; and, more importantly, is there a single shred of objective evidence that this is the world we live in? The answer is an emphatic “no,” on all counts.

But fear is a strong emotion, especially when it’s used to manipulate and control. This fear of Hell had such a grip on me that I remember once, when I was 11 years old and in the middle of a rosary (If you’re not familiar with this particular prayer ritual, look it up. It is mind-numbingly boring and repetitive, as it is intended to be, so that the focus is not solely on the words you’re saying but also focused on the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus.), my mind wandered and I thought to myself, “When will this fucking decade (of the rosary) be over?” and I then proceeded to mentally torture myself for weeks thinking that I was destined for damnation. Unsurprisingly, my “God-box” was turned on in my brain and I didn’t apply logic in this area anymore, at least not openly. But the questions I’d always had continued to linger in my mind, I just learned not to ask them anymore and fully accepted that Atheists were people who hated God and willfully rejected Him.
As I went through my teenage years, the indoctrination continued. My parents were part of a Catholic group called the Couple to Couple League, which taught Natural Family Planning. Every two years, there’d be a giant conference where people from around the country would gather some place in the Midwest. It was a modern day Pilgrimage for the adults to support each other in their mission to ensure that birth control is never used and all sex is procreative and open to life. For the kids (and there were many, and I do mean many, like really—a LOT of kids), it was an opportunity to be further raised in the Catholic way of life. Among the highlights of these trips were the priest who told me I had severed my relationship with God for having masturbated, the founder of CCL stating in his closing speech, “With apologies to our separated brethren (the Protestants who were there), I am convinced that in this world of declining morality, the only way to heaven is through the fullness of the Catholic Church.” Think about that statement. Hundreds of people traveling miles to try to live in a way completely at odds with modern society and to get support for how to do so are then told by the leader of the conference that they are going to be eternally tortured! And—not a peep was heard in the audience, they took it in stride! If this doesn’t speak to the expertise the Church has developed over 2000 years of learning how to effectively manipulate people into submission, I don’t know what does.

By this point in my life, the indoctrination had taken full hold. I sat on the airplane home thankful that if the plane went down, I had reconnected with God and I would be eternally rewarded. In fact, I thought that if the plane did go down, I would be thankful and welcomed into God’s arms! What a swing of emotions, but in a world where the end result is everything or nothing, isn’t this the only rational response? For the next handful of years, as I went through my late teens, emotional swings like this were common. I would preach the importance of practicing Catholicism on one day, and go out and curse like a sailor and fool around with girls the next—all typical for a teenage boy. But through it all, I would go through this mental anguish of trying to better myself as a person; after all this is what the saints did! One day, as a freshman in college, I even walked out on a class when they were their talking about safe sex practices.

When I was 20, I left home, transferring from the local college to one further away. I think I lasted 2 weeks going to church on my own once I was away from home. I just couldn’t bring myself to go when I was away from my parents’ control. In hindsight, this was the first inkling I had that religion is not the result of a divine mandate, but rather a human invention; that the fear of God instilled in so many children is actually fear of people, people who have authority over you, and manage to compound that with the doctrine of Hell. If we had any evidence whatever that eternal torture was possible and there was a method by which you could avoid it, it would be rational to do so, even if that’s kowtowing to the “celestial North Korea,” as Christopher Hitchens so eloquently put it. Instead, what’s clear, once one gets past the emotional grip of this childhood indoctrination is that at its very foundation, eternal punishment is infinitely immoral at any level, even more so when there’s no evidence it can or will be implemented.

Soon after I quit going to church regularly for the first time in my life, I began the rationalization process (that is, when I bothered to think about such things). The liberation of being away from home and independent, at least with regards to my living quarters, got me through my remaining college years. I gradually became a more liberal Christian. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but I slowly started to think that the specific dogma and doctrines of the church weren’t as important as “the spirit of the law.” No longer did I worry about having sex with my girlfriend, who I am now happily married to for over 10 years, and feel not a shred of guilt about the love I expressed for her prior to marriage. I figured a marriage license is just a paper and marriage is really about the commitment. With regards to gay people, I didn’t judge them; after all, by the strict rules of the church, I was a sinner too, our weaknesses were just different. In ninth grade, I had written a term paper defending Creationism. largely under the direction and suggestion of my father. Even in this regard, I still believed what I now clearly understand to be the empty arguments and strawmen that Creationists put forth, I began to think that even if evolution were true, an all-powerful God could have easily used this as a creation mechanism. Naturally, there’s no evidence that this is the case whatsoever, but that’s a key advantage of theology, you don’t have to stay within the realm of well, anything, much less observable facts.

Early on in my slow journey out of the grip of childhood indoctrination, my grandmother passed away. A year later, my grandfather, a tough son of a bitch who spent 29 years in the Marines spanning from WWII to Vietnam, fell ill and was hospitalized. The situation with my grandfather had always been somewhat of an odd situation. He wasn’t keen on inviting my family to see him, and the only knowledge I had of his spiritual beliefs were that he told his kids that he didn’t care what religion they follow, just don’t bring it home with them. Naturally, as a devout Catholic, my father would constantly pray for him. Family rosaries would be offered up for him, “Oh my Jesus, forgive us of our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy." It’s built right into the prayer, what could be better than offering up one of the most powerful prayers on the books for the conversion of my grandfather?

Finding two theologians who agree on specifics on a particular issue is quite the challenge, and that’s only if you get past the challenge of them offering any specifics at all.In 2003, my grandfather passed away. The last time I saw him was a few weeks before he passed away, and I held his head in my hands at his request to give him a drink of water. I helped him sit up, as he wanted to get to the bathroom, too delirious to realize he was wearing a catheter. He drifted in and out of consciousness and at times babbled about the “number of Japs he killed” and the horrors he saw in the South Pacific. He went on about how he missed his wife and he’s sorry for the bad things he was forced to participate in, fighting in the worst war in human history. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried beyond the age of eight or nine, but this was one of them. Seeing the toughest man I’d ever known living in this weak state was too much; that combined with the obvious compassion any decent human being would feel for him was quite overwhelming.
Though he never spoke about it much, and I now I don’t recall whether it was directly from my grandfather or if it was secondhand, I knew that he didn’t believe in God, or at least in an all-loving God depicted by some religious denominations, simply for the fact that he saw hundreds, if not thousands of people die directly in front of his eyes in WWII. How could an all-powerful, all-loving God let such things go on? And even if this can be explained away by freedom of choice and man’s fall from grace, how could God let this go on with no clear indication to all of humanity which side was right in the conflict? (Notice that “God” always seems to support the winner when it comes to the atrocities of war and how history reports it.)
Needless to say, my grandfather passed away without any hint of the fabled deathbed conversion. It was shortly after this that what I would qualify as my first serious doubts about the truth of Christianity began to creep in. My father, in a conversation I will never forget , said that he hopes God shows his father mercy, but he just doesn’t see how it could be possible, given my grandfather’s hardened stance against all things related to religion. In essence, my father was fairly certain that his father was now in the beginning stages of eternal torture. The lack of compassion sticks with me to this day. Sure, I understand the thinly veiled excuse (theological rationalization) that God loves everyone, but it is we who choose to burn in a pit of burning fire. What a pathetic stance! What a copout! “I wouldn’t intentionally burn someone eternally in fire, but if God wills it and they chose it, well, who am I to question it?”

Around the time my grandfather passed away, I remember offering up one of the most sincere prayers of my life that God show me some sign that my grandfather is okay; or, at the very least show me some sign of what happened to him. As a brief aside, I remember when I was five years old and my other grandfather passed away, that shortly thereafter my mother had a vivid dream where she saw my grandfather with his heart on fire, much like the famed Sacred Heart of Jesus picture. She saw him wearing a golden crown, sitting on a throne next to Jesus. Wow! What a great experience; if only God would show me something like this! I prayed and prayed and the answer that came was approximately the same response that comes when you ask a cow to jump over the moon—nothing, zip, zilch, nada.

Over the ensuing years, I remained a cultural Catholic and attended church on holidays and occasionally on Sunday. After having seen the fallout of the abuse scandal (and other scandals that are too long to spell out here), I didn’t give the church money, but I at least stuck to my liberalized theology, with a few vestiges of the strict doctrines I had learned as a child. One example of this is the overwhelming anxiety I felt prior to having my first child baptized. It absolutely needed to be done before some tragedy happened and he may lose out on the chance of Heaven. At this point, it hadn’t yet fully crossed my mind how twisted it is to potentially deprive helpless babies of a reward for actions they have no control over.

Around this same time period, I was very interested in the global warming issue, what the true story was behind it, and whether there was anything more to it than the run of the mill political battle. Somehow, a thread on an internet forum brought evolution up and I trotted out the tired canard that “evolution has never been observed.” Woefully (and I dare add embarrassingly) ignorant of the actual science, I felt secure in my stance that I could convince a few of these skeptics that they just weren’t looking at the evidence. A very patient atheist and rationalist was kind enough to point out (and without any condescension or sarcasm) that Richard Lenski of Michigan State University had just released his results having observed bacterial evolution over thousands of generations. Additionally, he pointed out that evolution is the mechanism by which diseases mutate and why we need different flu vaccines every year. This may seem obvious to many people, but having grown up in the religious environment I did, having tested out of college biology, having had a Creationist biology teacher in High School, and living in a region of America where more people are Creationists than not, this line of thought had simply never entered my mind. But, now that it did… HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT. If I had this basic concept wrong, what else did I have wrong? A couple years later, I stumbled upon a clip from a debate Sam Harris had with William Lane Craig and Sam specifically pointed out in a matter of 11 minutes the core of the doubts I had had in my head from the time I was the precocious preschooler questioning Santa Claus. I was not the first to think these things!

Finding Sam quickly lead me to the writings and videos of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett; I also found frank discussions from a variety of people such as Jerry Coyne (who was the first person I found to directly attack from a biological point of view the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin), Ricky Gervais, John Loftus, Dan Barker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane, and many others. Not only was I far from the first person in history to question these things, but educated people from across the spectrum have had the same questions, and even more amazingly, absent any doctrine, had independently stumbled upon the very same conclusions! In fact, the more education one has, the more likely it is that he or she will lack superstitious beliefs of any sort, including religion.

Science and logic lead to the same answers in many instances; theology almost (and saying almost is probably generous) never does. Finding two theologians who agree on specifics on a particular issue is quite the challenge, and that’s only if you get past the challenge of them offering any specifics at all. Where is Heaven? What does it look like? Is it a place? Does God exist or does he transcend existence? Do we watch people in Hell suffer when we get to Heaven? Is it the physical us or some essence? If it’s an essence, what precisely is it that constitutes that essence? What is God’s nature? Why did He not need to be created? Why is the description of Heaven so incoherent, yet the description of Hell is so graphic? What about the Jews? Why are they wrong, they wrote the beginning of the book, didn’t they? This list can go on indefinitely, and in a nice case of symmetry, the list of answers to these questions is equally indefinite.

Despite my emotional reasons for no longer believing, the final straw was evidence. That list of questions above and all the other questions that go along with them can be summed up in one word: Why? That question is never answered. No matter how sophisticated the theology gets, and the best arguments for God and religion may even be internally consistent, the basic premise is never answered. Why is God, particularly the Judeo-Christian God (or any other defined god you wish to insert here), a necessary entity for the Universe to exist? Better yet, why is this question even a question? Surely, a God with the characteristics attributed to this one should have some empirical evidence. Please don’t confuse this with proof. I’m not asking for proof anywhere in the realm of a mathematical theorem or even a scientific theory. A simple observation of this God by all of humanity with a message that He created everything and is understandable to all people on earth would be a nice start. Confirmation of which religion, if any, is true would be a nice continuation. And if that doesn’t work, answering my prayer that he do something benign like turn my shit green and have it spell out “I exist” to at least prove it to me may suffice. Yes, I actually said that prayer once, in my more desperate times. Now, I’m quite comfortable with my position that if a rational entity created us and cares about our daily interactions exists, then he/she/it will prove it to me if that’s the desire. One thing is for sure, I will live this life the best way that I can, and when I leave it, I hope that I’ve made it better for those who I’ve crossed paths with; but, when I go, I won’t be afraid that an invisible maniac is going to torture me forever.