DISCLAIMER: It may not be what you’re expecting—it may even upset you—but it’s the truth, and that is truly what matters to me.
“I once was lost, but now am found... was blind, but now I see.”
The meaning of those words has changed dramatically for me in the last several years.
I was born and raised in the Christian faith. When I was a little girl, we attended a Presbyterian church. I wonder now, looking back, if it was because my parents agreed strongly with the teachings, or if it was just because it was a Christian church that was near by. In any event, we attended that church for much of my childhood. I didn’t consider it to be an incredibly spiritual place. I never had any “spiritual experiences” there. I just knew that it was “god’s house” and that it’s where good people went on Sundays to learn about him and his son Jesus. It was part of the routine. It was what we were supposed to do, where my friends were, and where I had attended preschool.
For me, the idea of “god” was incredibly confusing, even though I didn’t admit it (even to myself). When you’re a child raised in the church, you’re taught all of the fundamentals from an incredibly early age. Jesus loves you. God loves you. Jesus died on the cross for you. You have to accept Jesus into your heart in order to be saved. You repeat these things over and over and sing songs about them. They’re completely imprinted in your head before you’re old enough (i.e. emotionally and mentally mature enough) to even begin to understand what they mean. You accept them as fact because they’re taught to you by people you love and trust; people who would never lead you astray. The idea that those people would lie to you, or even be ill informed, doesn’t cross your mind. To a young child, parents and teachers are good people and they know everything.
I will say that I consider the kind of teaching I received to be brainwashing. I am not angry that I was taught these things. I’m not angry with the pastors, the Sunday school teachers, or with my parents. They believed genuinely that they were doing the right thing by raising me in the faith. They thought they were starting me on the right (and righteous) path and keeping me safe from “the Devil.” They didn’t know that what they were teaching me was a bunch of lies. They would have been shocked and offended at the suggestion that it was.
I’ve heard Christians refer to the religious education Muslim people give their children as “indoctrination,” but they don’t consider the religious education they give their children to be the same thing. It’s interesting to me that so many parents teach their understanding of the Bible to their children as fact. It seems not to cross their mind that Bible scholars and textual critics—people who dedicate their entire lives to understanding the scriptures, their meaning, and their origin—have such intense debates about what the Bible actually means, who actually wrote it, and what parts of it are actually “true.” These educated men and women have heated debates about the scriptures and their meanings, and yet people tell their children the version of understanding their church happens to accept as though it is the unquestionable, unchanging truth. They expect a little kid to understand something that adults don’t fully understand.
In all honesty, I think that’s exactly the point. If you tell the story of The Old Testament god and the New Testament Jesus to an adult who has never heard it before, that person will certainly have questions. They will be able to point out the parts of the story that don’t make sense. They may even laugh at it. They may read the Bible and point out all of the contradictions or ask why we’re supposed to follow certain parts of it and ignore others. If you tell the story to your children who love and trust you, they will accept it as truth. They will grow up believing and defending what you’ve taught them. You’re setting them up with biases. You’re giving them your already formed opinions, rather than letting them form their own and decide their beliefs for themselves. Because their minds have already been made up for them, they will defend the parts of the Bible (and of the religion in general) that make sense to them, and dismiss the parts that don’t.
My beliefs were decided for me, and into my early 20s, I defended them at every opportunity.
I remember as a child, I knew that “Jesus loved me” and that everything about him was good. On Christmas we sang Happy Birthday to him. I knew he was god’s son, born to Mary and Joseph in a manger, and that he died on the cross to save me because he loved me. I knew that happiness and Jesus were one in the same; all good things came from god. I loved Jesus because it made me happy to think that he loved me too, because it made my parents happy when I talked and sang about him, and because I knew it was the “right” thing to do. I believed in god and in the story of Jesus very genuinely.
There was, however, a darker side. I knew that there was a hell. I knew that it was a place of fire and suffering where bad people were tortured for eternity; never, ever finding relief. I suppose I never questioned how a place like that could exist if god was a good god; probably because my beliefs had all been packaged so neatly for me. Everything good was from god and everything bad was from the Devil. In a religious upbringing, beliefs are presented in a way that leaves little room for questioning, unless you’re able to step out of your comfort zone and put ALL of your beliefs into question; something a little girl like me simply couldn’t do.
I was a good girl. I was fun and goofy in comfortable situations (as I’m sure most kids are), but for the most part I was shy and obedient. I rarely got in trouble outside my home. I listened to adults and I hated to cause trouble. I was emotional and fearful of upsetting my parents (or anyone else I looked up to or cared for). So, naturally, upsetting god was the absolute worst thing I could do. Not only was the mere prospect of disappointing him absolutely crippling for me, but I knew that my disappointing him could lead to him not loving me anymore. It could lead to my being sent to hell and suffering forever.
Every night when I went to bed, I would pray and ask Jesus into my heart. I knew it was only “necessary” to do it once, but I was terrified I had done it wrong, or that something I had done that day—some sin I had committed—would cause god to not love me anymore. To a shy little girl who was unsure of herself and still struggling to understand the world around her, the idea of disappointing her creator and being sent to a place of eternal torment was incredibly disturbing. (I suppose it’s probably disturbing to anyone!)
Every Sunday I went to church and sang songs about Jesus, laughed and played with my friends, prayed to god, and learned Bible stories. Every night I would go to bed fearing the same god I had been taught loved me and “had the whole world in his hands.” Every mistake I made—every “bad” thought I had—caused me to beat myself up inside and hate who I was. It didn’t help that I began being very curious about sexual things at a young age. I can remember being very preoccupied with sexual thoughts at the age of six; maybe even earlier. I didn’t know what those thoughts were, or why they felt good, but I thought for sure they were sinful because none of my friends ever mentioned them. Adults didn’t mention them. I was convinced something was terribly wrong with me. At night I would cry and pray and ask god to take away my bad thoughts. Sometimes in the middle of a prayer my mind would wander into the very thing I was trying not to think about. This led to serious self-hatred. I hated myself for being weak. I hated myself for letting god down. I knew I wasn’t deserving of his love. I was defective. Maybe I had a demon in me. I was disgusted with and ashamed of myself. I knew Jesus had died for my sins, but I thought that, certainly, I was too bad to be covered by that. I was so inwardly focused—so obsessed with how sinful and awful I was—that all I could do was hide. I was an innocent little kid locked in a personal hell. I didn’t want my parents or anyone else to know about the thoughts I was having. I was afraid they, too, would be disappointed in me or think badly of me. I didn’t want to lose their love and acceptance.
I spent years in this cycle; promising myself I would be better, and then failing over and over again. As an adult looking back, I can’t help wishing that I had known that the thoughts I was having were normal and that everyone has them; they’re a part of growing up. I spent so much time hating myself and feeling like a failure when I should have been enjoying my time just being a kid. Instead of just living and discovering the world, I spent my time always worried that something I did that day would cause god to stop loving me. Again, I’m not upset with anyone about any of this. My parents, because of my silence, had no idea what I was going through. It was the fearful religious mindset that made me not want to come forward with my questions and fears; not my parents themselves. I knew they loved me and, in hindsight, I’m sure they would have been happy to listen to my concerns and reassure me. I was just too afraid to speak up. To me, it was better to deal with my struggles alone. It was between me and god. I would have been so ashamed if anyone found out.
When I was 11 years old, a trusted male family member molested me. Later that night, I went to the kitchen to use the phone to try and call my mom so I could get out of there. He must have seen me go in because he came in and had a talk with me. I should say here that I had started to physically develop at an early age, before most of my friends had. He told me that if I told on him he’d go to jail and that we didn’t want that to happen. He told me that a girl my age “just shouldn’t look like that,” as if his actions were my fault. As you can imagine, this only added to my shame and caused me to feel, to an even greater extent, that there was something wrong with me.
It took me about a week to tell my parents. I was physically sick the whole week. When it finally came out, I went to counseling. My parents were very supportive of me, and made sure I knew it wasn’t my fault. However, what had happened (and what was said to me) affected me more than even I had realized at the time. I began to act out and want to dress more provocatively. I started enjoying attention from boys. In my mind, I was now an even bigger disappointment to god. Around this time I also started cutting (a form of self-harm). I remember the first time I did it. I cut my wrists. I didn’t cut deep though; I knew I didn’t want to die. I just felt like I deserved to bleed; to feel pain. It felt good to relieve all the anger, stress, and confusion I had pent up inside. After a while it became a coping mechanism. (Even today, the urge is still often there in moments of frustration or when I lack control over a situation.)
If religion was not the direct cause of my self-hatred, then it was a massive hindrance in my path to self-acceptance. It set me up on a path for failure. Christianity teaches us that we’re weak. We’re nothing without god. We can’t build our self-esteem on the love and acceptance of ourselves; we must lean on god and cast all of our cares upon him. We must draw our strength from him. I didn’t build my sense of self on my accomplishments, personality traits, or talents. I didn’t feel proud of myself. I felt shy, afraid, and weak. I felt like something blowing in the wind. I had no control over what happened to me. It was all up to god. I didn’t appreciate who I was. I was constantly reaching for an invisible being, hoping he would make me happy, and punishing myself when I didn’t please him. (Now my punishment was more than mental; it was physical.) How more people aren’t absolutely driven insane by this religion is beyond me. We’re striving to please and drawing our strength from something that isn’t even there. We talk to “him” and never receive a real answer. We ask to be changed, but we remain the same. But then, I suppose, people have prayed to all kinds of gods over the years and received no response aside from the randomness that life gives us on its own.
I wanted to be perfect for god and I couldn’t be. No one is perfect. No matter how much I prayed or how hard I tried to be good, I would always fail. Now I had a way to deal with the feelings of self-hatred (cutting), and it only added to the crippling cycle I had been caught in for so long. I asked god to help me stop. I wanted the urges to stop... but when I let him (and myself) down, it’s the first thing I did. The relief was powerful, but it wasn’t lasting. Eventually the guilt would set in, and the very thing that helped me feel better when I felt like a failure made me feel like a failure. I tried my best to hide the marks on my arms. Again, I was certain something was horribly wrong with me. None of my friends cut themselves. It was just me. I was different. I was defective. God hated me. If he loved me, he would take the urges away. He performed miracles, right? Why not for me?
When I was 12 years old, my grandma invited me to a new church. I went to the youth service with one of my friends (my cousin). I remember walking in and hearing loud, upbeat, Christian music. There were lights flashing, and I was greeted by friendly people who seemed genuinely excited that I was there. I got “saved” that night during an incredibly emotional sermon. The message beforehand was a typical “let’s see how many people we can get to raise their hand and accept Jesus” message, all about how hell is real and how Jesus loves us and wants to save us from it. “It’s easy! All you have to do is accept his free gift!” I fell in love with that church. For the first time, I could really “feel” god. (I know now that I was only feeling the loud music, the emotional prayers and crying out to god, and the deep desire for it to be real.)
“I once was lost, but now am found... was blind, but now I see.”
I felt like I had finally found god. I was finally saved. The pastor would lay hands on people and they would fall over “under the spirit of god.” People would dance, cry, wave their arms around, and speak in tongues. It was scary, but I believed it was real. Since I was now “saved,” I had nothing to fear. I was a part of something real. I knew I hadn’t been living right (since I had been flirting with boys and dressing provocatively). The message that night preyed on my weaknesses; my feelings of unworthiness and lack of self-esteem. That sermon, just like so many sermons given at churches around the world, played on the insecurities of the kids in the audience. What teenager doesn’t feel out of place? What kid doesn’t feel like they don’t fit it? Who doesn’t want to be rescued and loved by a father figure who will never let them down? Who doesn’t want to be saved from eternal torture when all it takes is something as simple as a hand raise?
I became active in this church and would sing in the church and youth services. I made friends there. I, too, cried and raised my hands during worship. I fell over “under the spirit.” (I remember doing it because I didn’t want anyone to think I was less spiritual or blessed than they were. It was never involuntary. It was more of a “letting go” feeling. I trusted that someone would catch me, so I just did it.)
During my eighth grade year, we moved to a new suburb and I started a new school. We left my hometown because I was still dealing with depression, and it was only made more intense by the fact that there had been multiple suicides in the town I lived in. One boy who took his life was one of my church friends. He had been found hanging and was resuscitated. He was taken to the ICU where we would visit him as often as we could. Our church believed that if you prayed hard enough and were faithful enough, god would respond. They believed in “speaking things into existence.” If you believed it and claimed it, it would happen. It was indicated to us that if we prayed enough, he would come back. I truly believed he was going to wake up. I would go in and sing songs to him, talk to him, and even joke with him.
...but he didn’t wake up. I was not only broken-hearted, but I was confused and upset. I thought that maybe I hadn’t prayed hard enough.
Before going to my new school, I was actually placed in an outpatient program at a hospital for my cutting and depression. My parents just wanted so much for me to get better. I’m sure they didn’t understand what I was going through and I’m sure it scared them. I wish now that I had been more open with them about what I was feeling. Anyway, I didn’t stay in the program for long—maybe a couple weeks.
I liked my new school. Another cousin (who was a close friend) attended this school, and I enjoyed being there with her. For the most part, I was happy... but I still felt so out of place in the world. (What 14-year-old doesn’t?) I had this dark cloud over me. I was sinking deeper into depression. I tried several different anti-depressants, but never stayed on them long enough to see if they helped. I didn’t want to have to take them, and I didn’t like how they made me feel. One day I remember feeling like I was floating through the hallways at school, somewhat detached from myself. The idea of being influenced by pills and not being myself really scared me.
I don’t think many people know this, but during my eighth grade year, I attempted suicide. (I now know that many of those anti-depressants increase suicidal thoughts in children and teens. I’m not sure if a medication I was on at the time, or my depression itself, was the cause.) I wrote a long letter addressing my parents each individually, my little brother, and each and every one of my friends. I remember while writing it, I was strangely calm. The letter told everyone not to be sad, among other things... that I just didn’t want to “be here” anymore. I went downstairs and grabbed a bunch of pills from the cabinet. I took about half of a big, 200-pill bottle of Aspirin, other pills out of random prescription bottles, and I even downed some cough syrup while I was at it... whatever I could get my hands on. I figured the more things I could mix together, the more likely I was to die. I remember how long it took me to swallow all the Aspirin. It felt like forever. I laid in my bed and waited to die. Of course I prayed and asked god to understand that I could no longer go on, and not to send me to hell. At this point I think I was just so broken down and so lost that I was willing to go to face the possibility that I may go to hell anyway. I felt like I deserved it.
To make a long story short, I got really sick. My parents thought I had the flu. When I started getting sick, I was angry because I knew I probably wasn’t going to die. I tied a shoestring to my top bunk, got on my knees on the bottom bunk, and tried to hang myself by leaning forward. I’m not sure how long I hung there before I fell to the ground (obviously from the awkward angle I was at, I couldn’t have really “hung” at all). I woke up with a thud on the ground and had a horrible ringing in my ears. From there, I basically just went on with my life. I didn’t know what else to do. My parents just thought I had been really sick, and when I got better, I went back to school. Still being religious, I assumed if I hadn’t died, that god must have had a “plan for my life.”
(Looking back, I can’t believe I tried to kill myself. I love my family so much, and I can’t imagine the pain they would have felt if I had ended my life at such a young age. I think especially of my little brother, who was only nine or ten at the time.)
The summer after eighth grade I tried smoking weed with some guys. My parents found out and grounded me for the rest of the summer. Because of this, instead of going to the big high school near my house, I was sent to an Evangelical Christian high school near by. I didn’t know anyone there, but I adapted pretty well given how shy I was. The rules at my high school were often ridiculous. I had a hard time believing that Jesus would care if we exposed our toes, wore more than one ring on each hand, or didn’t wear an ugly skirt to chapel every week. However, I made friends there and was able to sing in the choir and in weekly chapel services, which I really enjoyed doing. The teachers, while I obviously disagree with their beliefs and their willingness to teach them as fact to kids, were mainly good people with good hearts. I felt relatively safe there. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy my time there at all. It wasn’t all bad. However, the education one receives at a private, Christian school isn’t what we might hope for. Science is only science when it doesn’t go against what the Bible says. Things are biased. There’s just no getting around it. (I am now devoting time in my life to learning about science, history, and the history of Christianity, since all of those things were taught to me in such a slanted fashion.)
After high school, I got an apartment with some friends and “went crazy” for a while. I drank a lot. I made some bad decisions. I was one of those Christians who believed, but didn’t live at all “like a Christian should.” Occasionally I’d still go to church services, and of course I’d cry and pray and promise god I was going to change... but the truth is that I didn’t want to change. I didn’t think I deserved to live a good life. I was broken. I will still cutting, and my arms looked really bad at this point. I dated someone who turned out to be a violent alcoholic, and I calmed down a little after him.
When I was 21, I ended up dating a guy who I would stay with for over five years. When he first met me, I was a shy, Christian girl who liked to drink at bars. I won’t say much about the relationship except that it was toxic and he had a temper. There were good times, and there were very bad times. It was during my relationship with him that I stumbled upon a website where people could ask questions and get answers on almost any topic, including religion and spirituality. I was absolutely appalled by the amount of atheists and agnostics on the site. I had always believed that atheists and agnostics KNEW there was a god, but rejected him out of anger, because of bad experiences, or because they wanted to be bad without consequences. I spent a lot of time on that site, trying to “show god’s love” to everyone there. I thought I already had all the answers, but people’s questions really made me think. One of the things that I couldn’t let go of was Christianity’s dislike for homosexuals. I had gay friends and I always just tried to ignore the fact that they were (supposedly) going to hell for it. They were good people.
I soon realized that there were Christians who accepted GLBT people, and there were also GLBT Christians. I thought I had found the answer. God didn’t hate gay people. It didn’t make sense that he would! I could be a Christian and still love gay people, as well as people from other religions. I didn’t realize that I was doing what so many people do, which is making god into what I thought he should be. Most people talk about what god wants or what god thinks, and really they’re just talking about what they themselves want and think. My idea of who god was and what he wanted from us evolved a lot during this time. But the longer I stayed on the site talking with people of all different religions, backgrounds, and ideas, the more I realized that my religion didn’t make sense. There were absolutely terrible, disgusting things in the Bible. God did terrible things... things I would consider “evil” if anyone else did them. There were contradictions—tons of them! Why had I so easily dismissed all of the other religions and yet clung so tightly to mine? The only answer I could come up with is that I was told by people I trusted and loved at a young age that it was the truth. I was born and raised in the religion.
Every time I thought I had an answer—something that "proved" my god was real—a logical, scientific, and/or rational response followed quickly behind it (by my own research). After a while I realized all I was doing was trying to hold on to my religion because I wanted it to be true... but wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. No amount of apologetic nonsense, no amount of wishing, and no amount of hoping god was real would make him real.
I went through some depression at this point. I remember crying out to god and asking him to let me keep believing. It’s devastating to realize that everything you believe and have based your entire life on is a lie. It’s hurtful to realize you’ve been lied to, even if it was by well-meaning people. All those nights I spent trying to figure out if it was god or demons talking to me, believing there was a spiritual battle going on over my soul, hating myself for not being perfect enough, and praying for help were pointless. I had spent my entire life believing a lie. I grew up confused and unsure of myself for nothing.
I’ve been an atheist for years now, and I’m slowly finding myself. I feel happy and at peace for the first time. I do the right thing because I want to, not because I fear eternal punishment. I feel strong for the first time in my life. I’ve accomplished more in the last few years than I did in my whole life. I found the strength to leave an emotionally abusive, long-term relationship. (I had some help from a very kind and rational friend.) I quit smoking after eight years. I’m becoming more outspoken and honest about who I am and what I think. I’ve enjoyed reading with an open mind for the first time in my life. I’m writing more, and I’m finally pursuing my love of music. I have a realistic view of life and of the world around me. I understand that things just happen, and that’s okay. When something goes wrong, I don’t spend days trying to figure out what I did wrong or how I can please god enough to make it better. I accept the reality of the situation and think, realistically, about what I can do to make things better for myself and the people around me. The circus has left my head, and it’s so peaceful. I appreciate my life, and I’m genuinely happy to be alive. I don’t spend my time wishing “Jesus” would return and take us all away to a magical place where nothing bad ever happens. This world is beautiful. Life is beautiful. It’s the only one we have, and I want to do as much with mine as possible. I don’t want to spend my life hoping for a next one that won’t come. I don’t want to keep lying to myself and not asking questions because I’m afraid of the answers. I want to learn as much as I possibly can.
Really, the only source of unhappiness in my life right now is seeing how religion affects those around me (and still affects me). Even after leaving my religion, I’m still surrounded by it. It affects politics (which affects all of us). The majority of people in this country are religious. It seems like everyone I meet in my day-to-day life believes in god. That still baffles me. Most people believe a lie (and that lie is often used to manipulate them politically and in other ways.) Yet, believing that lie is considered the right and good thing to do. Not believing that lie makes someone a bad person in our society.
I still get on that question and answers site from time to time, and there are always questions from kids asking if they’ll go to hell if they masturbate. It takes me back to those dark times in my childhood, and it upsets me that kids aren’t being taught that these things are normal and natural for every single person. There are people who say that they can’t stop “gay” feelings and that they want to die because they can’t stop “sinning.” Their pain and emotional anguish is apparent. They hate themselves, but they’re not ready or willing to admit that they religion might not be true. They’re convinced it’s they who are the problem. They’re caught in that cycle of self-hatred; of trying to be “better” and failing time and again because they’re human.
Because of religion, I still often feel alone. Almost all of my friends know that I’m an atheist, and I’ve become more vocal about it the more reading and studying I’ve done, but they all remain religious. My parents don’t know that I don’t believe, and although I’ll be telling them soon, I know it will only create problems between us. They will probably spend the rest of their lives trying to “save” me. I’m trying to prepare myself to deal with that. I know that with most believers, it won’t matter what I tell them regarding my beliefs. Their minds are made up about what they believe and about why atheists don’t believe.
It’s upsetting to feel like you’ve been blind your whole life and you can finally see—you’ve finally been freed from an emotional hell—only to be treated by others like you’re “lost” or even evil. Christians have told me that I “must have never been a REAL Christian” if I was able to stop believing. I must never have actually believed. I’ve been told that I’m possessed by a demon. I’ve been told that I’m an idiot and that I’ll burn in hell. Having been religious for most of my life, I understand their mindset. I know where they’re coming from. I used to think the same things. Their minds won’t allow them to believe that the conclusion I’ve come to was the result of genuine questioning, researching, and an open-minded search for the truth. It’s easier for them to cling to their beliefs if they tell themselves that I’m the one who is lost; that I’ve been influenced by an evil spirit.
To admit that I may be right would be to admit that they may be wrong.
Even though I still struggle with the influences of religion all around me, I’m still happier than I’ve ever been. I’m reading with an open mind, I’m finding out who I am and what I believe, and I’m not constantly afraid of disappointing some invisible being. I’m open to the possibility that I may be wrong about life, and that’s okay. I will keep learning and keep searching for the answers. There are no knee-jerk reactions to hold me back from discovering the truth. I’m free. I can finally see.