August 22, 2019

An Ex-Christian Atheist

atheist at church

I don't remember the first time someone told me I was human, male, White, American, or Christian. All I know is that these things probably happened before my brain was capable of forming lasting memories. That is to say, I would have been told these things at a very early age. The last of these (i.e., that I was a Christian) is a bit different from the others because I do remember being told that periodically throughout my childhood. It was usually presented to me as a part of my family's identity (e.g., "As Christians, we believe..."). I was part of the "we" being referenced, and this was one common way my parents told me that I was a Christian. Being a Christian was part of what it meant to be part of the family.

Although it would be fair to say that Christianity was forced on me as a child, I did internalize my indoctrination. As I've noted previously, I did believe. Perhaps that was easy because I initially thought Christianity was universal. As a young child, everyone I knew identified as Christian. Since I had yet to encounter someone who did not, I regarded Christianity as the norm. It was an important part of who we were. I suppose I had the kind of faith of which many Christians seem to be envious in that it was mostly unthinking. I took in what the adults around me said and rarely questioned any of it.

Had I operated this way as an adult, I'd deserve to be labeled "ignorant" or worse. But I was not an adult. I was a child who was dependent on my parents and other adults for everything. Initially, I had no reason not to trust what they told me. They had never steered me wrong. If they all said I was Christian, I was Christian. If they all told me that there was a loving "god" watching over me, then that was the case. I accepted all of this uncritically.

I'm not sure when I first realized that my parents were not entirely trustworthy. I think it might have been the "tooth fairy" deception, but the one that had the biggest impact on me was learning the truth about Santa. This affected me in two big ways. First, it led me to realize that my parents were not trustworthy and that I could not uncritically accept that what they told me was true. They had lied to me for years about Santa for their own entertainment, and this was a betrayal of trust. This was not an easy lesson, but it was an important one. I begin to wonder what other lies I had been subjected to. Second, I begin thinking about some of the parallels between Santa and Jesus. Was it possible that at least some of the Jesus stuff wasn't true either?

Unfortunately, I didn't have the critical thinking skills at this age to question Christianity as I should have. It seemed so much more important than Santa and the other lies that I was able to convince myself that others wouldn't deceive me about it. Yes, Santa and Jesus had some disturbing similarities, but I was able to sweep my doubts away and cling to Christianity for several more years. I did ask more questions, but I can't claim to have had much skeptical intent behind them. My questions were more about making sure I knew what our "god" wanted so I didn't disappoint it. After all, I feared this god in a way I never feared Santa.

I cannot separate my childhood god-belief from the fear that surrounded it. No matter how many times I was told that this god was loving, a very different picture emerged from the bible I thought was "holy." The love I'd heard so much about was clearly conditional. If I displeased this god, I'd be punished forever. I was used to being punished by my parents, and the thought of it lasting forever was more than I could stand. I desperately wanted to avoid that and was willing to grovel before Jesus to do so.

None of this is to say that I did not derive some benefits from being a Christian or even from my Christian beliefs. Being a Christian meant that I was on "the right side" of everything. It meant guaranteed social acceptance, and it meant that others would assume I was "a good person" even when that was not the case. Christian privilege was a wonderful thing to have. As for the beliefs themselves, they did provide comfort at times. There's all the obvious stuff about eternal life, heaven, and that sort of thing, but there was another benefit we don't hear nearly enough about: certainty. My Christian beliefs allowed me to shut off my mind and feel confident about things I had no right to feel confident about. As unhealthy as this was, I cannot deny that it often felt good.

But did I really believe? Absolutely. I was initially able to do so without questioning it. I was absolutely convinced that Christian dogma was true. Even when I began to question some of what I had been taught, fear allowed me to keep my questions under control for several years to maintain my beliefs. The process of losing my Christian faith was lengthy, unpleasant, and one against which I fought for as long as I was able to do so. Ultimately, it was something that happened to me and not something I chose.