(Updated November 14, 2011)
When I was growing up, my father was extremely harsh and controlling. He was never physically abusive, but he was an emotional nightmare. I don't hold a grudge against him any more; we've spoken and made amends, so to speak. As a small child, however, some things about him were terrifying; he was very tall, his voice was deep and loud, and every time he got mad, it was an explosion of rage that had built up because he insisted on holding everything in. Even if he is not angry or upset about something, he often comes across that way. I was, and often still am, afraid to openly disagree with him because his reaction was almost always inappropriately large, and dealing with it is just a hassle I don't feel like putting up with.
He was incredibly demanding on me from childhood straight through my teenage years - if I was told (never asked) to do something, he'd come along behind me and make sure it was "good enough." If it wasn't, he'd point out where I went wrong - not with a gentle, corrective tone - but with a harsh, judgemental tone that made me feel insolent and stupid for not having done my chore properly. Eventually, it stopped frightening and saddening me, and it began making me angry. My diary from those days is full of "I hate my dad" entries, many of which include the word "dad" in quotation marks, as if I thought someone so harsh couldn't possibly have been my real father.
In addition to fuelling my anger, my father's behaviour gave me the message that self-loathing was proper. If I was good at something, that was okay (even expected) - but acknowledging that I was good was Bragging (use of proper noun for effect) and it's wrong to Brag. Accepting compliments was equated in my mind with an acknowledgement that something about me was good, and therefore qualified as Bragging. I learned that I wasn't deserving of any praise, from myself or anyone else. In addition to wreaking havoc on my social and intellectual life, these constant self-loathing thoughts laid a perfect foundation for being brainwashed by religious conservatives.
My mom says I was asking questions about God much earlier, but I only remember starting to become consciously spiritual around late elementary/early middle school. I started contemplating "God" as I knew him from church, and I started going to EYC (the Episcopal church's youth group), where we talked in-depth about morality in general as well as Christian beliefs. I also became very interested in other worldviews through public school classes wherein we studied Greek mythology and world religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. I started to form my worldview, discovering what spoke to me from each path I studied. The summer after 6th grade, I went to an Episcopal Performing Arts Camp, and in 8th grade I went on my first spiritual weekend retreat. I started to connect to what I thought was the Christians' version of God.
Fast forward to high school and the introduction of a pagan in my year who was in the same advanced courses that I was taking. He frequently spoke of his adventures using astral projection and aura reading, which intrigued me greatly. I was also interested in the tarot, having read about it in a magazine. I began researching all of these things online as much as I could. I tried astral projection a few times and found myself unsuccessful, assuming that I'd failed because of doubts about the morality of it. I had been reading in a Christian pamphlet that "occult" things were evil and satanic and no good Christian girl would use them. I didn't know whether astral projection and aura reading counted as "occult" but I was positive that my tarot cards were, because I'd seen them mentioned by name in the pamphlet.
I didn't really think any of these things were wrong; they didn't feel evil and I could find no good reason why anybody should say they were. If I had talked to my mom about any of this, I know she would have been open-minded about it, but I don't think it would have helped much, since part of me had already decided that the pamphlet was right and I was a terrible person for ever thinking otherwise. I continued to progress along the Christian path, attending church events and participating in many faith-based volunteer services. My concept of "God" was forming, and I started to think about all of the people of the other religions of the world, and what would happen to them if they were wrong. Some of them would never even be exposed to the "truth" of Christianity; surely they wouldn't be eternally punished for that? I thought and thought and thought about it, and finally I realized that all of the different religions I'd studied had such similarities throughout them - morality codes, similar historical events, and the like - that it only made sense that they were all talking about the same thing. They simply called it different names.
Fast forward to my senior year of high school. I sat in front of a boy in my humanities class that I later ended up dating for a few months. (Come to think of it, that boy had approached me two years prior when I was wearing a shirt with a screen-printed Buddha on it. He told me that Buddha was going to burn in Hell and that Harry Potter, of which I am a huge fangirl, was of the devil.) He was attractive and I was attractive and we started passing notes back and forth during class time. He invited me to a weekly Bible study at his house and, seeing a possible way to "strengthen my relationship with God" I faithfully attended every week. The group was comprised mostly of Southern Baptists who all attended the same church. Some of my teachers from school were also considered part of the group, and they would attend occasionally to lead discussions. The student attendees who went to my school also met during our ten minute break every morning for Prayer Club where we were joined by some others. This group was sponsored (and as far as I know, probably still is) by one of the Spanish teachers.
The prayer/study group of which I was now a devoted member consisted of weekly studies of Bible chapters and/or subjects of concern for young Christians as well as daily meetings at school for short devotions. Most of these activities were run by students, but occasionally some of our teachers would (completely illegally) step up and lead the discussion. We rebelled against the separation laws and actively encouraged those teachers to step up. Lessons often featured the message that "we are all horrible, dirty sinners who deserve to go to Hell for eternity simply because we were born." This was inevitably followed by the idea that, "if you believe in our God, and follow the instructions we give you as to how to live according to his word, then you can be mercifully saved by grace."
Let's recap my neurosis for a moment here - a severe self-loathing complex as well as fear of upsetting my judgemental, perfectionist father. The message those other kids were serving me played directly into these issues I had. I was highly fearful of doing anything wrong, and absolutely terrified of the Unforgivable Sin, vaguely listed in the Bible as "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" and not clarified at all, save the statement that blasphemy against the Father and/or the Son was forgivable. This made it all the more terrifying - how do I know which one I'm blaspheming against, and for that matter, how will I know if I accidentally blaspheme, even if within my thoughts or beliefs? I immediately swept all previous thoughts of truth in all religions under the rug along with any desire to question what I was told by these Christians. They taught me that gaining too much "worldly" knowledge was detrimental to my faith and would put "lies" in my head, so I began to resent my humanities class because we were required to study non-Christian philosophers and sometimes elements of other religions in class. I became convinced that our teachers were trying to indoctrinate me with "tolerance" and "understanding" as if it was a bad thing! (I came across an old note that I'd been passing with that boyfriend during class and I was chagrined to see that I'd made that exact statement.) It's also worth mentioning that any time I thought I had done Christianity "wrong," I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart, just in case he wasn't already there. I considered getting rebaptised, even though the Episcopal denomination I'd grown up in acknowledges just one baptism as necessary. Before school, I went to early-morning services during Lent and signed up for candlelight vigils in the church during the appropriate penitential seasons. Almost every night, I sat up reading the Bible and singing praise songs. I took every opportunity to "witness" to my friends (which was essentially just reading Bible verses at them and telling them what to do because "God said so").
Speaking of witnessing: I went to two weekend retreats during my time in high school. One of them happened during my junior year, when I was still tolerant and interested in other religions. The second one was during my senior year - I had to miss a band event to go to the team training for it, and I bravely stood against my band director's orders that everyone was required to be there, telling him it was important to my spiritual journey. I carried his entire clarinet section, and he was a Southern Baptist who was very much in favour of leading his students to Christ, so of course he had to let me go. While I did act a little spiritually overbearing during this one (it was an Episcopal retreat, as were the previous ones), I got far more out of it by helping to bring good spiritual experiences to other people than I did from actually going through as a candidate. This, looking back, is really the only thing that I got out of Christianity. I thought I had a relationship with God, but really I had a bunch of fears and a relationship with the psychodrama of religion.
Overall, the whole period was terrible. That band director? The year before that retreat, he interviewed me for a position as section leader - it was a formality as he already knew who was going to fill each leadership position, but he did it to appear fair. I came in for my interview, and the last question he asked me was something like, "If you could meet any dead historical figure, who would it be and why?" I answered with Jesus, and said there were a lot of questions I wanted to ask him. Imagine my humiliation and shame at "doing it wrong" when my band director began to speak to me with that Danny Tanner tone of voice (you know, like in Full House when he lectures his daughters?) about how Jesus is still alive, and I can talk to him any time, "in here" (at which time he pointed to his heart).
I did ask my mom to take me to therapy during those years, when I realised that I was sad all the time and that I wanted to die so that I could go to Heaven. But she didn't realise how serious it was, and she was worried about hurting my dad's feelings. So religion filled the hole that I thought I had in my life. It became an addiction. Outwardly I don't think I showed too many signs of inner turmoil; my family didn't realise anything was wrong, but some of my friends from church did tell me later that I'd gone off the deep end. But no matter how happy I seemed in my faith, inside I was always questioning my salvation and fighting myself to keep any doubts or questions suppressed. I went off to college and for the first year or so I continued to travel back home to go to church nearly every weekend. I joined the message board of which I'm now an admin, where I started debating in the "controversial" forum. Speaking to people of various religious and political standpoints eventually forced me to open my mind back up. I realized that, while the churches (both Baptist and Episcopal) had taught me that "homosexuality is wrong; all gay people are either mentally ill or are making a conscious decision to sin" I had to force myself to believe it, and after researching information about literal Biblical translations, historical contexts, and psychological studies I realized that what the church so vehemently preached at me was incorrect.
Add on a few similar realisations, a best friend who practices a form of witchcraft-based paganism, and remember the predisposition toward the occult, from early high school. Mix it all together, and you get fluffy, Christian-tinged Paganism. Episcopaganism, if you will. I fumbled around in this area for a while, trying to learn more things about "paganism," thinking it was that kind of new-agey bunk that edgy teenagers refer to as Wicca and not realising for months that paganism is an umbrella term and Wicca is something completely structurally different. I still harboured many leftover fears from Christianity, however, and I wouldn't give myself permission to completely let go of my religious beliefs.So my "Episcopaganism" was basically a bastardized form of Christianity that stole elements from many different pagan religions. I even once leaned towards Asatru, belief in the Norse pantheon: I'd had a dream about Odin, wherein he moderated some sort of peace talk between me and what I assumed to be my personal demons. Clearly, this was a sign that I should follow that religion, right? Then, I got scared of believing in that because I thought I had a vision of an angel of God reminding me to come back to the church. It sounds crazy, but when you're brought up believing that dreams are often prophetic, it can be exceedingly difficult not to divorce reality. I eventually got tired of trying to reconcile all of my beliefs, suppositions, fears, and curiosities and decided I was going to take a break from religion for a while.
The break was nice for a while, but eventually it caused me to be rather uneasy, since I knew that I really wanted to make up my mind about this. Searching through different belief systems wasn't leading me anywhere except straight into more questions, so I decided that I needed to clear my head and start from square one. Why, exactly, did I believe in any gods at all? My mission was to figure out what my reasons were. I am the master of over-analysing my thoughts, especially after I learn new information that challenges them. This instance was not an exception to that rule. I read a lot of articles and books, and after reading part of George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God (and subsequently obsessing over what to do with the new information), I realized that the only reasons behind my belief were childhood indoctrination, fear of punishment, and a hope that someone was looking out for me. I have learned over the years that emotions are not necessarily good indicators of truth or reality, and as I could not find any reasons for belief that were not directly related to my emotions, I felt that I would have to put all beliefs on hold. I would not call myself a believer until I had respectable reasons for belief. If my only reason for believing was that someone told me to or that I was afraid, God would see through that anyway, right? I prayed - over and over again, I prayed - for any god who was out there to send me a sign, if he or she was interested in me. I begged for a sign that I could not possibly mistake for a coincidence or pass off as something that another person had done with the intent of tricking people into believing.
Instead of getting my unmistakeable sign, the more I looked, the more I realized that there was very little evidence, if any at all, for a conscious entity known as God, and more evidence pointing towards a completely natural (as in, not supernatural or spiritual) way of things. I finally came to understand Occam's Razor as well, and how ridiculous it is to dream up unevidenced, convoluted explanations for God's hand in the natural order of things when increasingly, the universe can be explained quite sensically without it. I found it impossible to justify a belief in God, and could not, in good conscience, claim to believe in one any longer. I identify as an agnostic atheist, so I am not completely opposed to the idea of belief in God; I simply cannot believe in one unless someone presents me with very compelling evidence.
The fact that I now feel my reasons for belief were shoddy probably makes Christians want to pull out the No True Scotsman fallacy on me, and I know that I can never prove to anyone what was in my heart during my years as a believer, so trying to determine if I was "doing it right" is kind of a waste of time. From birth until at least 19, even though I took God for granted, I still believed as earnestly as any teenager can; during my senior year, I was even considering becoming a priest. I tried to ignore the fact that I often couldn't feel anything coming from God when I was praying or reading the Bible, and figured that since I (thought I) felt God so strongly when I was singing to him and helping other people, that I just had to connect to him in a different way. I suspect that most believers have their own secret areas where they know good and well they aren't getting anything back from "God," but they'd never admit it. It's hard to be in a conversation with a believer who tries to tell me that I didn't really have a relationship with Jesus (and that I should try again, and they can help me), because I'm convinced that their beliefs are just as unfounded as mine were, and they're convinced that they have some super-special relationship with Jesus that makes their experience more valid than mine. It's funny how Christianity can make people humble to a fault, yet arrogant.