December 22, 2015

Losing Belief in Santa, Magic, and Gods

magic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I do not remember the point when I stopped believing in Santa Claus as being particularly difficult. Nobody yelled at me, threatened me with eternal torture, told me I was just "going through a phase," or anything of the sort. Nobody seemed surprised that I stopped believing in Santa. It was almost as if they expected it to happen sooner or later.

The same goes for my belief in magic. There was a time during early childhood when I believed that magicians were doing actual magic rather than just illusions and trickery. When I stopped believing this, I experienced no adverse consequences for doing so. Nobody repeatedly informed me how much I had disappointed them. Nobody angrily proclaimed, "In this house, we believe in magic!" I do not even recall anyone trying to persuade me that magic was real.

So why did it have to be so different when I stopped believing in gods? Why were all the negative reactions I described above as being absent in those cases reserved for when I began to question the existence of gods?

I wasn't raised in an evangelical Christian household. My family, including my immediate and most of my extended family, were fairly liberal Protestants. I use "liberal" here not in the political sense (although that applied too) but to communicate that they were not biblical literalists and were not terribly devout in their faith. Sure, there were some more devout Christians in my extended family. There was even a creationist in the family, but that was viewed as an embarrassment by most others. They were all certainly believers. They attended church regularly and took the whole thing seriously, but they weren't trying to convert others. The only Gospel spreading they did was the indoctrination of their own children.

In spite of this, I was yelled at, threatened with hell, told I was "going through a phase" and hit with as much guilt as they could muster all because I could no longer believe in gods. I did not understand this at the time. I'm still not completely sure I do. But I suspect that there was one primary reason for this reaction: they felt threatened by my expression of doubt. When they heard my doubt, I imagine that it must have meant something very different to them than it did to me. They said they were worried about me and what it would mean for me to no longer share their faith. I believe this explanation, but I think it is equally likely that they worried about themselves and how they would be perceived by others in their community when word got out that I was no longer one of the faithful.

As a teen, this was the thing that pissed me off the most about how my family reacted to my atheism (i.e., the concern that others would perceive them poorly because of my loss of faith). This did not seem fair. My parents told me to keep my doubts to myself because expressing them would upset others. Undoubtedly, some of the more devout family members would have been upset. But I think the more important reason my parents wanted to silence me was that they feared how it would make them look. They tried to convince me that I couldn't possibly be an atheist, that I was just experiencing temporary doubts that would soon go away, and that expressing them might jeopardize my future.

Psychologically, living with secrets takes a toll. I became quite skilled at hiding the parts of myself that were deemed unacceptable. This became second nature. In fact, it is still a real struggle for me to let my guard down even with people I know and like. Others would describe me as private, guarded, and difficult to get to know. They'd be right to do so, as this is all accurate. I hate this about myself, but there is no denying that this is who I am and who I have been for most of my life.

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