May 24, 2005

Journey of an Atheist, Part I

I've really enjoyed reading personal accounts from several atheist bloggers about their journey from the religions in which they were raised to atheism, so I figured it was time to share mine. If nothing else, it will be a good excuse for some self reflection around how I came to believe what I do.

I was raised in a mainline Protestant church (Methodist) by parents who thought that it would be good for me to be exposed to religion. To some degree, they may have been thinking about what a disadvantage I would have been placed at by growing up in the United States without knowing anything about Christianity or being part of the privileged tribe. But the primary reason they gave me at the time involved their concern over the health of my "soul." I did not hear much about hell at home, but it was clear that it played a role in why it was so important for me to grow up as a believing Christian. My parents also attended church for the social networking, and I suspect that this was why they continued to go for awhile after I was out of the home, but the primary reason they attended at the time seemed to be that they wanted me exposed to it.

My earliest memories of religion involved fear. Like our primitive ancestors, I was afraid of the unknown. As a young child, just about everything was unknown. Added to this, I was a bit more neurotic than most. I prayed because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn't. Nobody really needed to threaten me with hellfire and damnation; it was just the idea that if there was this invisible man in the sky with all these amazing powers, I better not disappoint him. My prayers at this time were never about asking for crap I wanted and almost always attempts to prevent bad things from happening to those I loved.

Entering public school on the West Coast exposed me to a couple of new ideas. First, I learned that religion was something that was considered a deeply personal and private matter. One did not generally discuss it with others or hear about it at school. This was very different from experiences I would have later in Mississippi. Second, despite the private nature of religion, the children generally assumed that everyone was Christian. This type of Christianity in no way resembled the evangelical forms I would encounter years later, but there was surprise and sometimes ridicule for anyone who did not identify as Christian. I had friends of all different Christian denominations (e.g., Protestants, Catholics, Mormons), but differences in what they believed were almost never discussed.

Church was a formal, stuffy affair where children were expected to behave themselves. At the church I attended throughout most of my childhood, young children were dismissed mid-way through the service and before the actual sermon to go to Sunday school in another building. I guess the adults realized that we weren't going to understand the sermon (they were right about this). We were always relieved when it was time to exit the sanctuary and head off to Sunday school. I remember very little about Sunday school except that it involved a lot of singing and crafts (both of which I hated) and always seemed to be more focused on the younger children. I also remember being very happy when it was over.

On to Part II.