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From Fundamentalism to Atheism - a 40 Year Journey

By ObstacleChick ~

I was raised in a Southern Baptist family where my grandfather was a deacon (at one time chairman of the deacons) and my grandmother was a Sunday school teacher and Women's Missionary Union teacher. I'm not entirely sure what my grandfather's feelings were about the church, but he was very active and loved the people. He did a lot of pro bono work in the community as well, fixing the air conditioners, freezers, refrigerators, etc., of people who couldn't afford to call a technician. My grandmother LOVED learning and studying, and her subject of choice became the Bible. She had a small library of Bible history books, concordances, archaeology books, etc., and she spent a couple of hours each day studying those books and putting together lessons. She loved teaching and studying, anonymously gave money to community members in need, and always felt like she wasn't good enough morally/spiritually/etc. as her religion proscribed. In another time and place, I believe my grandmother would have been a university history professor. My mother was a divorced working mother who had more education than her parents but worked in a secretarial job living a life that was lonely and unfulfilling. She spent some time away from church but eventually started going again after her divorce, probably seeking some sense of meaning. She felt like an outsider as a divorced mother in a conservative community, but it was the community readily available to her. She was painfully shy, so finding other friends was difficult. Eventually she remarried, had another child, and brought her husband and child to the church. My great-grandmother who lived with us could barely read, and the only book she ever tried to read was the Bible, which I thought was odd because with its archaic language how could she possibly understand it? As her eyesight worsened she eventually gave that up along with the crocheting and sewing which she enjoyed.

For many years, we attended church 3 times a week as a family - Sunday morning and evening, and Wednesday evening. I went to Vacation Bible School in the summer. When I was entering 5th grade my family sent me to a conservative Christian school which was even more fundamentalist and strict in doctrine than the Southern Baptist church. I was indoctrinated 6 days a week with fundamentalist Christian teaching. At school we had Bible class 3 days a week and chapel services twice a week, with science being taught through the filter of young earth creationism. Each year there was a week-long Bible conference (think old-school revival meetings) at school that we had to attend. Our Bible and science curricula were provided by Bob Jones University Press, and our regular textbooks (math, English, etc.) were about 20 years old. There were strict rules for students and faculty with regard to dress and conduct, with some conduct rules applicable outside school as well. For example, one year there was an edict that any students seen attending a local roller skating rink would be suspended for a week. My sophomore year 3 boys were expelled for being at a party where there was drinking (another student heard the boys talking about the party and turned them in). Two girls were expelled for teen pregnancy and expunged from the yearbook (one homecoming queen who became pregnant was expunged from the yearbook and there was a fake crowning of a homecoming queen after the fact - just a photo, no ceremony or court, with the replacement girl having to borrow an appropriate dress for the photo). Teachers were not allowed to attend movie theaters on threat of being fired, and all newer teachers were required to have attended Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, or another conservative Christian college deemed appropriate by administration. One good thing that I can say about the school is that despite the obvious fundamentalism, I was never once discouraged (as a girl) from pursuing academic excellence. I graduated as valedictorian and was encourage in my endeavor to attend a top-20 secular academic university (they probably wanted to be able to say that their students could be accepted into top universities).

Doctrinal points taught at church and school:

  • Inerrancy of the Bible
  • God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Divine nature of Jesus
  • Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 3 in one)
  • 7 day Creation story taught as fact
  • Adam and Eve's fall from grace
  • Original Sin (every man is born into sinful nature which he cannot escape without atonement)
  • Death and resurrection of Jesus
  • Jesus' resurrection as price paid for man's original sin
  • Eternal damnation in hell as human price for man's original sin
  • Salvation through man's confessing sins and accepting Jesus as personal Savior
  • Heaven as reward for salvation
  • Great Commission - Christians are to go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit
  • One's goal is to live a Christ-like life, to have a personal relationship with Christ through prayer and Bible study, and to spread the word to others.

Other things I learned at church and school:

  • Catholics are not real Christians because they do not have a true conversion experience, "worship" Mary and saints, and value the Apocrypha as part of Scripture.
  • Sex is only between a married man and woman - everything else is sin.
  • There is no difference between sin through thought or through action.
  • All other religions are false, incomplete, and/or influenced by Satan
  • All people are condemned to eternal torment in hell after death if they are not "saved", even those who have never heard of Christianity.
  • It is the fault of the Christian if they do not share their "witness" and someone dies and goes to hell.
  • "Once saved always saved"
  • Once saved, your life belongs to Christ and you must submit and serve and love him and him alone
  • Women can teach other women and children but must never be in a position of teaching or authority over a man
  • Wives must submit to their husbands, and husbands are to love and guide their wives
  • Husbands must submit to Christ as Christ is the head of the church
  • Children must submit to their parents
  • Christians must be in the world but not of the world (secular movies, magazines, rock music, etc., must be avoided to retain one's Christian purity)
  • Christians have the responsibility to tithe to the church
  • Alcohol is forbidden
  • Tobacco is frowned upon but not expressly forbidden
  • Dancing is forbidden
  • Homosexuality is a sin and a lifestyle choice because God doesn't make mistakes
  • Temptation is everywhere so many situations should be avoided - Satan will put things in our path to tempt us
  • Christians can question religion but be careful because Satan will tempt you with lies - all answers should be sought during prayer and Bible reading, and discussion with the pastor
  • God can answer prayer with "yes", "no", or "not right now", and only time will show the difference between no and wait
  • Everything that happens is God's will, but it is possible for humans to make choices outside God's will
  • God's will can be found through prayer and Bible reading
  • Communion is the remembrance of Christ's suffering, death on the cross, and resurrection

My mom told me that when I was a very young child, I questioned everything. At five years old, I questioned Santa Claus so much that my mom gave up and admitted that he wasn't real (but don't tell the other kids because they still believe). At church, I would question the Bible stories. For example, when learning about Jonah in the belly of the whale, I asked how did he breathe in there and was told by the teacher that God took care of Jonah. Every story I questioned, but soon learned to keep my questions to myself because teachers never had answers beyond "God took care of it". I pestered my mother to death about these things as a child. She didn't have answers either, but she introduced the idea that probably a lot of those stories were allegories and parables that were told to teach a lesson and weren't actual events. Of course, this went against what our church taught and certainly what the Christian school taught.

When I was 12 years old, my family started pestering me to "get saved", "make a profession of faith", and "be baptized". I didn't really want to, mostly because I dreaded going down front at the end of service altar call and having to stand there with the whole congregation coming to shake my hand. But they kept bringing it up so I decided to bite the bullet, pick a Sunday, and get it over with. To be honest, it was such a relief to have it done, especially after the baptism was over. And whenever I questioned whether I was actually saved or not (which I often did during Bible conference or chapel at school) I'd just say the prayer again to make sure. I must have been "saved" a couple of dozen times, just to make sure it stuck.

During school, I had problems with a few things that we were taught. The biggest was dinosaurs. We were taught that dinosaurs were all killed in Noah's flood which is why none survived, but if that was true, why didn't Noah take any on the ark as he was supposed to take a pair of each animal? Then I was told that after the Flood, the weather/climate changed and the dinosaurs couldn't survive the climate. They also taught us that carbon dating was faulty science and the concept that dinosaur bones, the earth, etc., were millions of years old was a lie. Further, we were taught that God created the world with the appearance of advanced age. Someone else may have mentioned that "day" in the Bible was figurative, and that with God, a "day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as a day" so maybe the creation week was a lot longer than 7 times 24 hour days. None of this added up, and I marveled at how they tried to have it both ways. (When I went to college, I just avoided Biology or any science that might teach evolution, and I certainly avoided any conversations that included evolution because I was embarrassed at my ignorance of evolution - I had to learn it own my own as an adult).

I also had a big problem with God damning people to hell who had never even heard of Jesus and salvation - that just seemed extreme and wrong. Of course, we were told that it was our fault, not God's fault, that he was being a just judge in the situation. But I thought, why should we all suffer for Adam and Eve's choices - if we were damned to being born into a sin nature from birth, and were damned to hell if we did not repent, then what chance did we ever really have? And why didn't God just start over? If God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, why didn't he just start over when Adam and Eve made the wrong choice? Of course, the answer was that God wanted us to choose him, that he didn't want creatures to serve him who had no choice. But I couldn't reconcile "free will" with humans being part of "God's will" or "God's plan". That is, do we or do we not actually have a free will, and how much of our actions are controlled by God? Additionally, I didn't think it was fair that people who had never heard of Jesus were automatically damned to hell, and we were told that those people were our fault if we did not devote our lives to witnessing to them.

Additionally, no matter how hard I tried, how much I prayed or read the Bible, I never heard God speaking, guiding, or answering me. Whenever I brought it up, I was told essentially that I wasn't doing it right - that there was some sin or unresolved issue that I needed to address through prayer and Bible reading. I would try and try, but I never could hear God's voice. People talked about feeling God's presence, hearing God's answers, having a personal relationship with Jesus, and I never had that. It was always my fault for some reason, and I stopped bringing it up so as not to be reminded of my fault.

My first major faith-shattering event was in college (fortunately I went to a secular top-20 university - am amazed to this day that I was admitted with my Christian school credentials but my ACT and SAT scores were high). I took a History of Christian Thought course where the professor explained to us that there were many texts that were considered for acceptance into the Bible, but only some were canonized. The Apocrypha, which I was taught was false Catholic text, was canonized. Being taught as a Fundamentalist that the canonized Scriptures were the inerrant word of God, I felt like Martin Luther and the Protestants made a great error and lied to us all by excluding the Apocrypha, which were canonized Scripture. Fundamentalists taught that God guided those who wrote and canonized Scripture, yet Fundamentalists were willing to exclude canonized books from the Bible. Either you believed these men were inspired by God, or you did not - you can't have it both ways where most of the books were properly selected but these others were a mistake.

College was a big turning point for me socially as well. Having been in a restrictive environment and then going into a free environment was a big adjustment. Freshman and sophomore year, I was very judgmental of college students doing what normal college students do - partying! I found a local church to attend most Sundays, and while it was a "more liberal" Southern Baptist church, at least it was not the Fundamentalist Independent Baptist genre like my school. I joined the Baptist Student Union and met a few friends, who by college standards were still pretty conservative, but many were "liberal" and "partiers". Junior year I stopped going to the Baptist Student Union because I got mad at them, and I started hanging out with some other friends from different backgrounds. I found out that Catholics weren't so evil and bound for hell after all. My church attendance lessened.

Moving to New Jersey with so many people from diverse backgrounds was interesting as well. Many people were only marginally religious, some not at all, while other groups were very devoted to their religion of choice. I tried going to Catholic church for awhile because I was dating someone who had been raised (marginally) Catholic. But I decided I couldn't convert because part of conversion required that one declare that they believe all the tenets of the Catholic church, and I couldn't do that. Eventually we settled on a Congregational United Church of Christ, which was light on hellfire and heavy on inclusivity and community service. I even became a deacon (God forbid, as women were not allowed to be come deacons in the church of my upbringing). It was good for awhile, but there were very few members our ages and very few children. As our kids became more involved in sports, we stopped going, mainly after a trip to Mexico.

My second major faith-shattering event was in 2007 when my family visited the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. We learned about the Mayan gods, and about the ball game where the winner had the honor of being sacrificed to the gods. There were many situations where virgins or children or other people may be sacrificed to the gods, usually in hopes of good crops, or rain, or any of a variety of reasons. Those being sacrificed would be given copious amounts of alcohol, loaded with jewelry and adornments, and then tossed into a deep pit of water. It struck me like a lightning bolt the realization that this so-called pagan culture with its false gods was no different from Christianity in that blood sacrifice - death - was required to appease the god/gods. This realization shook me to the core, and soon my family and I parted from church (during college I started attending non-fundamentalist "liberal" churches that taught being a good person, no hell fire and sin). I only talked about it with my agnostic (now openly atheist) husband because it was such an earth-shattering realization. The foundation of my religious belief had been irreparably shaken.

I also had a big problem with God damning people to hell who had never even heard of Jesus and salvation - that just seemed extreme and wrong. For nearly a decade I avoided thinking about religion. Then I started examining it as an outsider would, pondering doctrine, looking at other religions, comparing different beliefs against the Fundamentalism that I had been taught. I started saying that I was "taking a break from religion". Eventually, I became angry and sad that my restrictive schooling had kept me from learning complete science and had steered me away from seeking truth. Additionally, our school offered courses that were labeled "AP" (advanced placement) but were never told that there were actual AP tests that we could have taken for college credit. We were also on a lower track for math instead of the advanced track culminating in calculus that honors students in public schools could take. Again, I still am amazed I was admitted to a top university despite these shortcomings.

I remember a time soon after moving to New Jersey when a client of my husband's invited us to a BBQ/pool party at their house. It was fun, but after a couple of hours we were surrounded by a group of 20-somethings who were sharing their Bahai faith with us. They even brought out a book to show us pictures and to tell us of the prophet Bab who had survived a firing squad (over 700 bullets and not one hit him). Afterward, my husband and I were surprised that we were the subjects of proselytization. I felt what it must feel like when fervent Christians "witness" to others. I mentioned that the story of Bab sounded crazy and far-fetched, but realized that it was certainly no more crazy and far-fetched than a virgin giving birth to the son of God who performed miracles, died on a cross, and was resurrected from the dead.

When looked at from the outside, all religious stories sound farfetched like fairytales. I suppose ancient cultures that developed gods had to make sure their god/gods were bigger, badder, stronger than the gods of other cultures. Looking at the God of the Old Testament, he sure was a mean, nasty character.

It took awhile to get over the fear of eternal damnation in hell. Even withdrawing my children from church and not wanting them to be indoctrinated, even slightly, with religion came with no small price of mental torment. I would wonder, what if I'm wrong, what if I'm responsible for not leading my kids to "salvation". But I chose to rely on my powers of observation and reasoning and to return to the questioning nature I had as a child. Weighing the evidence, I decided to shed the fear and to finally admit to myself the truth - that I am an atheist.When examining why I believed in Christianity, it came down to fear of hell. That was it. I did not "love" God or Jesus or Holy Spirit, I did not have a personal relationship with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit, I could not reconcile the things about Christianity that seemed like myth or fairy tale, and I came to realize that I was relying on "God of the gaps" to understand things that we do not yet understand through science - and it is adequate sometimes to say "I do not know yet". My husband and teen children are atheists without having to go through this long, arduous, painful process, and I am glad to have chosen to spare my children this journey. We teach them to give to others, to be compassionate, to uphold values of honesty, truth, integrity, good character, all without the accoutrements of religion. We encourage them to learn about other religions, but neither has expressed interest in joining - they are merely intellectually curious.

About 3 years ago, my mom, who knew she was dying of cancer, told me that she wanted to make sure that her children and grandchildren were "saved" and that she wanted be assured that she would see them in heaven. I side-stepped the topic by telling her that we would all be fine. I truly believe that we will as I no longer believe in the heaven or hell taught by religion. I finally feel free.