When Christian Pastors Exorcise Their Own Children: An Ode to Tony

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Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

I had a close friend in high school named Tony with whom I lost touch shortly after graduation. The last time I saw him he had returned to our hometown after a stint in the Marines. I'm not sure what made me think of him after all these years. I hadn't realized it before, but he played an important role in my growing acceptance of atheism at the time. This one's for you, Tony.

Tony wasn't smart in the academic sense. He never enjoyed school, and his grades were Cs and Ds. He hid a negative self-concept behind a tough-guy facade. Tony was one of those guys who managed to mention how much he could bench press in every conversation. He wrestled for his high school, and this was a source of pride in an otherwise dysfunctional life.

Tony's childhood was no picnic. His parents had long ago decided to focus their love and attention on his sister. His destiny was to serve the role of a problem child. He was one to be fixed rather than celebrated. Both of Tony's parents were pastors in the most conservative Christian church in our town. This would explain some of the particular hardships he faced. Watching what he went through also influenced my attitudes toward fundamentalist Christianity.

I met Tony through a mutual friend. My friend's mother belonged to Tony's parents' church and dragged my friend with her each week. Tony and my friend bonded over their mutual displeasure in their church experience. I knew little about this church other than what I heard from them. I remember learning that speaking in tongues was a regular feature of their services.

My friend brought Tony into our group, and he and I hit it off immediately. I saw through his tough-guy exterior. He seemed relieved to find acceptance for who he was rather than what he appeared to be. If only I had known then how little time I'd have with him.

Tony and I got in more than the usual share of trouble for teenagers at the time. We shared a love of heavy metal, drugs, alcohol, fast cars, and promiscuous young women. I introduced him to Slayer, and he turned me on to Overkill and King Diamond. Like many kids into metal at the time, we dabbled in the trappings of Satanism. Neither of us believed in a literal devil, the rejection of Christianity appealed to us.

Of my friends at the time, Tony was the most hostile to Christianity. Given the experiences he'd had with it, this made sense. He helped me realize that the taboo around criticizing religion was harmful. There were far worse things out there than being impolite. We were there for each other when there wasn't anyone else either of us could talk to about religion.

I can still recall what happened to Tony when his parents realized what he'd been up to, though I'd like to forget. Not long before the incident, I was no longer allowed in his house when his parents were around. I did not attend their church and looked rather unsavory with my long hair. That was more than enough for them to prohibit him from hanging out with me. He ignored their prohibitions, but this was stressful.

It was in this context that Tony's parents found some of his metal records. He wasn't permitted to have anything other than Christian music in their home. They grounded him for a couple of weeks and burned every record in his possession in front of him. A couple of them were mine, but it wasn't like that would have stopped them. After this, everything seemed to be resolved. Tony retreated to his room, seething in anger. It seemed that he had little choice but to wait out his grounding before seeing his friends again. What Tony didn't know was that his ordeal was just beginning.

Late one night after he'd been asleep for hours, Tony was awakened by dozens of hands grabbing him. His eyes opened to reveal at least 10 faces looming over him. He recognized them as his parents and many other men from their church. They held him down on his bed as he struggled. Prepared for his strength, they placed as many men as it took to immobilize each arm and leg. Others pinned his shoulders. He could not free himself. There were too many of them, and their sneak attack caught him unprepared. As his heart raced with terror, the assailants began praying over him. His parents, along with other pastors from his church, began to perform an exorcism. Have you ever noticed how the crazier churches always seem to have an army of pastors?

They told Tony that he was possessed by demons. They were going to exorcise them by any means necessary. Prayers, threats, and physical abuse would ensue for several hours. They continued until near dawn. Tony broke under the onslaught. He was too exhausted to resist. He told them what they wanted to hear to escape the torture. He would later tell me that he acted out what he thought it must look like for demons to leave one's body. There was nothing else he could do to make it stop.

I didn't see Tony for a long time after that. The next time I saw him, I realized the toll this experience had taken. He was not himself anymore. He was always looking over his shoulder, more uncertain of himself than ever. He was like a dog that had been beaten too many times. His tough-guy facade had crumbled, and he was no longer sure who he was. I had never seen him like this before, and I had no idea what to do.

Tony would recover, at least to some degree, in the months that followed. But his story does not end well. Shortly before his high school graduation, Tony's parents threw him out of their home. He was not permitted to take anything more than a small duffel bag of clothes, and he had no money. He lived with assorted friends for a while, but that was not sustainable for more than a couple of months. Having nowhere else to go and no prospects before him, Tony enlisted in the Marines. This was never something I had heard him talk about before. He felt that he had no other choice.

I moved away not long after he enlisted, heading off to college. I would see him one more time a year or two later while he was on leave and I was visiting family. The Marines had taken the vulnerable shell of a man who had enlisted and filled him with hate. I barely recognized him. Everything I'd appreciated about him had been stripped away. Worse still, it had been replaced with racism, cruelty, and hate. He couldn't seem to complete a sentence without dropping racist or homophobic slurs. At least now his parents were proud of him now. They were happy to have their Christian soldier return to their home.

I miss you, Tony. I hope you find yourself someday and that the damage is not permanent. You influenced me in many ways. We traveled very different paths, but mine was richer for encountering you along the way.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised in 2022.