By Karen Garst ~
I started challenging myths when I was about twelve years old. That’s right! I was a young skeptic, very young. Being raised in a religious cult can do that to a kid. Through the lottery of birth, I started my life in a family of religious zealots. You might say that I was forced to hit the ground running. We don’t get to pick our parents. Mine were total outliers. Thus, I grew up living in a closed society. When I was eighteen, I left home with a small bag of personal belongings and little else. I was attempting to find my place in the civilian world. The decision to leave the church ended with my excommunication from the family. So, with no money, no family, no friends, no job, no world experience, no car, and no driver’s license, I was soon sorely tested by the great, big, unpredictable world.
Sometimes, it actually did seem like evil prevailed, but I wanted to stick my big toe into the civilian waters at whatever cost to my never dying soul. I turned my back on the church and thus my father’s god, a very domineering god who promised a burning hell to those like myself that refused to comply with his wishes. This isn’t a totally unique American tale, but there was one thing that made my experience with an extremist religion a bit different. My father believed that he’d been chosen, handpicked by god if you will, to be the final prophet of the last day and age. He didn’t just believe that sinners were sinners, he also believed that most Christians were sinners. He claimed that the actual voice of his god had revealed all of this to him. He’d been personally chosen to restore the truth, the holy truth that had been virtually lost from the face of the earth.
Now that’s a mighty tall order for one mortal man and his family to bear, but my father seemed to relish it. Little by little, he cut his ties with every church he attended. It might be fairer to say that most churches were relieved to see him go. Finally, it boiled down to just me, my two brothers, three sisters, and my mom. We were it. Yet, he wasn’t deterred. He carried on by himself, hearing the voice of god every day of his life. That’s right! God told my father a lot of stuff. He promised him that if he was faithful that he’d deliver unto him a million followers before Jesus returned to rapture them all. He promised that he wouldn’t die, but instead, would one day in the near future be swept into the heavens by the angels — just in the nick of time. As soon as he and his followers were gone, god would pour out his wrath upon the earth and the scores and scores of miserable sinners left behind to suffer.
It turned out that my mom, sisters and I needed lots of fixing. Over the course of about five years, we had a complete godly makeover. Slacks, shorts, and swimsuits were put away for good. Hair was never cut again. Dresses were lengthened. Makeup and jewelry discarded. Dresses were lengthened again. Hair was pulled back into a bun at the nape of our necks. Dresses were lengthened again. Black stockings replaced flesh colored ones. Finally, we gave up color and the ultimate makeover was completed — long gray dresses to the ground, buttoned at the throat and wrists, a cape that fit over the bodice hiding our blooming figures, black stockings, and no accessories. Plain women who were shamefaced and modest was the goal. God, apparently, has no sense of fashion whatsoever and hated the sight of a woman’s body.
My father’s god was a vengeful deity that punishes on earth in addition to after death if he doesn’t receive total compliance. Children apparently really piss god off. So, the belts, hair brushes, hands, and all manner of instruments of torture were wielded with complete confidence that, if done regularly, would save our childish sinful souls from eternal damnation. Anything that brought pleasure was suspect. In fact, pleasure and sin were synonymous. Life was very drab for a young girl who was told that there was no use in planning for her future because before she was twenty or thirty, well, soon, the world was going to end.
It started with turning my back on god and my family and ended with eventually giving up on all gods. It was a process that didn’t happen quickly. For a long time, the church was in my head, hounding me with fear and trepidation. Every time something happened on the world scene, it seemed prophetic. I worried that the world was going to end and that I’d be left behind with the unbelievers to suffer untold anguish. Fortunately, I had always been extremely sensitive to the inconsistencies of my ultra-religious upbringing. My mind seemed to be hardwired to recognize contradictions. For that reason, becoming a lifelong myth buster may have been easier for me. That was an amazing stroke of good fortune considering the family that I’d been born into.
That bothered me. I’d already had a bellyful of forced compliance to the extreme. The last thing that I wanted was to have to become a card-carrying member of any club. Thus, began my official career as a myth buster. Once I’d managed to debunk my religious upbringing, I went on to question many aspects of my culture. Incidentally, I didn’t get to choose where I’d reside once born either. Turns out there wasn’t a lot that I got to choose. I didn’t get to choose my gender, country, how my brain was wired, family, level of intelligence, genetic makeup, looks, and so much more. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with from the get go, I eventually discovered that all societies are built upon myths, fairy tales, and cultural expectations and that very few people are living a life they actually chose. People usually don’t realize the predicament they are in, but there’s a reason why most everyone lives out their existence pretty much like everyone else. We never knew we even had a choice.
Religion was a great place to begin my myth-busting career. It’s so absurd in all of it’s ridiculous forms that it literally screams to be challenged. Yet, many atheists haven’t exercised their myth-busting skills beyond the realm of religious fairy tales. Religion is just one of many culturally concocted myths promising a fairy tale ending if we’re fully compliant with the thousands of attached cultural expectations. All cultures have developed very detailed requirements of compliance and coercion. Belonging to the tribe comes with certain benefits but we sacrifice an enormous amount of personal autonomy as well. There are a thousand different ways to do something, many happening simultaneously all over the world, but humans tend to do it the same way over and over again. I contend that is to our great disadvantage.
Not only does compliance and conformity rob of us of getting to live a life of our choosing, but it discourages creativity and problem solving. Most people do things over and over in roughly the same fashion hoping for a different outcome. Yet, when a true nonconformist comes along with a creative idea, they are often resisted, even driven out of town. Fortunately, there are those who were born to question. And, they make all the difference.
The world needs us more than they’ll ever know. If you’ve managed to bust the myths surrounding religions, you’re already familiar with the skills needed to expose cultural limitations at large. Join me in the trade. .