How I Went from Being a Southern Baptist Preacher's Daughter to an Open Atheist
I didn’t necessarily want to die, but I wanted to go to heaven. No, it wasn’t exactly that either. What I really wanted was to avoid going to hell. I was young, innocent, and I knew that if I died, I would go to heaven. So, at 11 years old, I tried to kill myself.
I was at home in rural southeast Missouri with my father, known to many as Pastor Ted. He was watching TV in the living room. My mother, a nurse, was working the evening shift. Sitting in my bedroom, I wrote a note to my parents telling them it wasn’t their fault. Then I walked down the narrow hall to my parents' bathroom, with the clawfoot tub my father had found being used as a cattle trough on a neighbor’s farm, and opened the mirrored medicine cabinet. I pulled out three bottles of pills and counted out a number of over-the-counter red and blue pain capsules. I also included some of the small white prescription sinus pills my mother gave me when I had a cold. They made me sleepy, and I was hoping to go painlessly. With a few gulps of water, I swallowed them all.
I went back to my room and sat on my bed. I flipped on my 13-inch TV on the antique dresser and waited to die.
How did it come to this? I wasn’t a depressed child. I was solitary, often wandering alone around our 40-acre farm near in Bell City, 150 miles south of St. Louis. I did well in school, read a lot, and took my Christianity very seriously. And I was scared of being cast into a fire for eternity. My parents didn't try to shelter me from the reality of hell; it was an essential component of our faith. Hell is a concept made to intimidate, to frighten people into believing, and it worked on me.
I’d learned, for example, that we're always so close to eternal damnation. My father—overweight, average height, with a combover for as long as I can remember—preached in front of his congregation of around 30 people every Sunday morning. Sometimes, he'd suddenly get quiet, put his hand over his heart, and say "One heartbeat away... we're all just one heartbeat away from either heaven or hell." He would dramatically pat his hand in the heartbeat pattern, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. He was following a long tradition of hellfire sermons.
In what is often called the most famous American sermon, "Sinners in the hands of an angry God” (1741), Christian theologian Jonathan Edwards said that people are always on “the very brink of eternity” and that the “Unconverted Men walk over the Pit of Hell on a rotten Covering, and there are innumerable Places in this Covering so weak that they won't bear their Weight, and these Places are not seen.” In other words, hell is just around the corner.
Besides telling us how close we are to hell, these hellfire preachers describe it vividly. A fictionalized account is in James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” A priest in the book tells a roomful of boys how, in hell, "Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with red hot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame."
The preaching was enough to send Joyce’s protagonist straight to confession, and similar descriptions thoroughly frightened me. I watched my father preach that hell is a place of everlasting torment with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. A place with no hope of escape, and pain beyond anything imaginable, where flesh continually burns off bones. Luke 16:24-25 says it’s a place of anguish with no mercy. Matthew 25:46 says it’s a place of “everlasting punishment.”
Everyone around me believed this. My hometown, with a population of around 500 mostly white, working-class people, had four Christian churches.
After years of being told about hell, questioning my parents about it, and thinking about it way too much, I decided it wasn't worth the risk. My dad had assured me that all children go to heaven. My mother addressed my other concern.
“Mom, do people who commit suicide go to heaven?” I asked one day, forming my plan.
My mother, probably attributing my question to childhood curiosity, answered, “Yes, as long as they're saved.”
No problem there. In my church, being saved meant declaring that Jesus is Lord and believing that God raised Him from the dead. I had tearfully and wholeheartedly made this public declaration in my church at about 8 years old, so I was saved.
I imagined my parents would be relieved when they found me dead. They knew I was a child and would be in heaven, so they wouldn't have to worry about my immortal soul any longer.
Looking back, I’m not surprised that I was so terrified of my flesh burning off that I wanted to die early rather than risk hell. I felt my chances of going to hell would increase as I got older because I might decide to give up my religion. Looking back now, I would say that I was indoctrinated.
The word indoctrinated has a sinister connotation. Pew Research Center found in 2012 that 78 percent of Americans are Christian. Surely they can't all be brainwashing their children? However, a major component of religion is faith, believing in something without proof. The definition of indoctrinate is “accepting beliefs uncritically.” I'd say the two go hand in hand. I now identify as an atheist, but I still don't feel completely free of my indoctrination.
The same Pew surveys found that unbelief is also growing. The group often called the “nones,” those unaffiliated with a particular religion or with no religion at all, stands at 15 percent in the U.S. And that number has been slowly rising over the years. As I began researching conversion from Christianity to atheism, I found mine was a well-trodden path. Life circumstances made me question my beliefs, I turned to Christianity for comfort and found none, and then agonized over the pain my disbelief caused my parents. As more people join the nones group, the number of people on this journey are sure to grow. And, maybe eventually, Christianity itself will be questioned and no longer looked upon as benign.
Religion in America is a touchy topic. Professor, scientist, and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins caused an outcry when, in his book The God Delusion, he said religious indoctrination was a form of child abuse. His statement raises a question of whether it's possible for children to have a religious upbringing that is not indoctrination. The answer to the question depends partly upon the nature of belief. Plato is often credited with the statement that knowledge is justified true belief. If a belief is true and one has justification to back it up, the belief is considered knowledge.
Religion, however, is stuck in the belief stage because of the reliance on faith. Without a logical framework, religion never becomes knowledge. Convincing a child that religion is true requires that the child suspend his or her rational thought.
In the HBO documentary Questioning Darwin, Pastor Peter LaRuffa of Grace Fellowship Church in Kentucky says, "If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said two plus two equals five, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible. I would believe it, accept it as true, and then do my best to work it out and to understand it.” My parents would agree, as I would have.
Even so, I was never that good at blindly accepting. My mom would indulge my questions, up to a point. But my ordinary childhood questions, such as "Why is the sky blue?" always had the same answer: "Because God made it that way." I was taught that all questions ended with God, and one must never question God or the truths outlined in the Bible.
The Bible encourages faith, defined in Hebrews 11:1 as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Second Corinthians 5:7 commands "Walk by faith, not by sight.” Christians are instructed not to question. In Matthew 4:7 Jesus said “You must not test the Lord your God."
When faced with evidence that contradicts faith, the Bible says that should make someone cling even more tightly to faith: "These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.” (1 Peter 1:7)
Instructing people to rely on faith rather than evidence results in more Christians. People who are more likely to rely on intuition rather than critical thinking are more likely to believe in God. In a 2011 study, Harvard researchers concluded that “experimentally inducing a mindset that favors intuition over reflection increases self-reported belief in God.” Based on this information, other scientists took it one step further and found that critical thinking encourages religious disbelief. The more you think, the less you believe.
I didn't think much about my beliefs in adolescence. Once I had them, I looked for evidence to back them up. In his book The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer, science writer and founder of the Skeptics Society, explains this way of thinking: "We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.”
However, beliefs do sometimes change. My atheist seed was first planted in my first year of college at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, when I was exposed to people with different beliefs. I learned about agnosticism in an honors college dorm room. After hearing the term, I didn’t evangelize the speaker; I asked questions. How can you live your life not knowing whether or not there is a God? Christianity was right there. How could you not believe when the truth was so obvious and readily available? I kept my faith, but this was the first step in my journey, even though I couldn't see it at the time.
Many of my own conversion milestones happened in Hawaii, where I spent my junior year of college. It was August 2001 and my best friend from high school, April, was stationed at the Air Force base. My university offered a national exchange program where I could pay in-state tuition at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, and I jumped at the chance.
Hawaii is the same country, but a different world. I realized that as soon as I stepped off the airplane into the open airport, with palm trees lining the walkways, the smell of plumeria floating in the air. There, I was exposed to different cultures, languages and a different way of life.
Being around Buddhists, Hindus and Baha'is for the first time led me to take a class in world religions. My professor structured the course around different versions of the messiah story and I realized that many religions had a Christ-like figure. I was sitting in class one day thinking how fanciful one particular religious story about heaven sounded and realized that my religion sounded implausible too. Heaven has streets paved with gold; Noah built an ark (took him 400 years or so) that could fit two each of the world’s animals on it; Lazarus was raised from the dead; and Jesus turned water into wine. That got me thinking, why is my wacky religion the truth and everyone else's just a fairy tale?
It was also in Hawaii that I had a cataclysmic tragic event. On 9/11/2001, I hadn’t found housing yet so I was staying with April on the Air Force base adjacent to Pearl Harbor. Staying on the base wasn’t a big deal, as long as April or one of her enlisted friends was with me when I was on base. Then the terrorist attacks occurred and the security level of the base was upgraded to one that didn't allow visitors. Unable to leave without attracting notice (and punishment for my friend), I was stranded alone in her dorm room. My world was upside-down, watching the Air Force prepare for what they thought at the time was going to be a war. I was separated from my family, trapped on an island in the middle of the Pacific, and America had been attacked. Nothing was certain any more, nothing was solid. Then I was raped.
It was about a week after 9/11. I was drinking with a couple male friends of April’s (both of whom I had cleared with her). After a few drinks, they insisted that I quickly finish this one drink they made for me. I was 20, naÃ¯ve, and hadn’t been warned of date rape. I had no idea that the drink they urged me to finish was anything other than vodka and fruit punch. I was soon incapacitated, yet still somewhat aware. They half-carried me back to April's room (she was working). Then one left, the other stayed. I was vomiting for a while then immobile. I was still semi-conscious during the rape, but I wasn’t on the bed. I was looking down from the ceiling, watching. The drugs forced me out of my own body.
I was in a stupor for days. I had never even smoked marijuana, so the out-of-body experience was about as unsettling as the rape. The country was slowly returning to a form of normality after 9/11, but my world had been upset again. I was a floating object in a shaken snow globe, unattached from everything. God wasn’t there to ground me. Why would God let that happen to me? Where was God on 9/11? Why didn't I sense his calm and loving presence when my life was so tumultuous? It seemed the more I needed him, the more I questioned Him for not being there, the more silent God remained.
The snow didn’t settle any time soon. A couple months later, I received an emotional phone call from my mother. My uncle had been murdered the night before. He owned a small bait and tackle store in the country near a large recreational lake, where people often went boating and swimming. Apparently, two young men thought he was gone after the store closed and broke in to rob it. He was there and they shot him. He died on the scene.
I was taking a Christian ethics course at the time. We happened to be talking about the death penalty a couple days after my uncle was murdered. A fellow student adamantly stated that if someone we loved was killed, we'd all be for the death penalty. I didn't speak up, but I disagreed. No one else needed to be killed; my family's pain was enough.
This led to a pattern of thinking. God sends people to hell, yet he's all-powerful and loving. My mom's little brother was murdered, and I didn't wish death or even pain and suffering on the men who did it. I just wanted them to be locked up so it wouldn't happen again. Does that make me nicer than God? I was still lost wondering why I didn't sense God's presence when I needed Him. Now I was doubting how a loving God could condemn people to eternal torture. Perhaps irrationally, I turned to Christianity for comfort.
This seems to be a common stop on the journey to atheism. Seth Andrews, author of Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason and founder of the Thinking Atheist website describes in his book how he began an in-depth study of the Bible after first questioning religion. In Numbers 31, Andrews read how God instructed Moses to "kill all the male Midianite children and kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” He read how rape victims deserve a death sentence if they don't cry out for help. He also read about the numerous mass killings God commanded. When he brought all this to the attention of his Christian friends and family, he says that “[n]obody had satisfactory answers. Nobody joined my chorus of alarm bells. Nobody really cared.”
Similarly, comedian Julia Sweeney (Saturday Night Live’s androgynous “Pat”) embarked on a study of the Bible after a visit from Mormon missionaries prompted reflection on her Catholicism. Her journey is encapsulated in her one-woman show “Letting Go of God." She started attending church as well as a weekly Bible study. Like Andrews, she was surprised by the violence in the Old Testament. She found instances of parents murdering their children, and they weren’t isolated: "They're all over the place in the Bible. For example, in the Book of Judges, a guy named Jephthah tells God that if God helps him win this battle, he will kill the first person to greet him when he comes home. Who turns out to be his daughter. Who he sets on fire.”
When people suggested she read the New Testament, she saw that Jesus wasn't always a gentle man. In John, Jesus says "that anyone who doesn't believe in him is like a withered branch that will be cast into the fire and burned.” And in Luke he says, "that he is like a king who says, anyone who does not recognize me, bring them here and slaughter them before me.” When she brought her Biblical concerns to her priest, he suggested she pray for faith.
Following in their footsteps, walking down a path I didn't know I was on, I also turned to church and the Bible after my unsettling events in Hawaii. I found a church in Waikiki and started attending regularly on Sunday mornings as well as a Tuesday evening Bible study. I went to church dinners and volunteered on their witnessing outings. I had one-on-one sessions with the pastor of the church, bringing to him all my questions about the violence and contradictions in the Bible. For example, why were women instructed to be silent in church? He couldn't give me a satisfactory answer. I asked my Bible study group "If God is so good, why does he condemn people to hell?" They were kind and considerate, but they couldn't give me an answer either.
I searched for answers, prayed, sang worship songs, wrote in my journal, and had long email exchanges with Christian friends. I walked along the rocky shoreline, hoping God would appear to console me. But I never found God; Jesus never gave me any comfort. I didn’t see Him when I looked at the beautiful beaches. I didn’t hear Him in the wind. He wasn’t there. And slowly I became fine with that. I started to think of myself as agnostic, then eventually atheist. This led to a sobering realization: What would my parents think?
I wasn’t alone in my daughterly worry. Libby Anne of the blog “Love, Joy, Feminism” says she had never seen her parents as disappointed as the day she told them she disagreed with their Christianity. In her blog she writes, "I had gone from being their golden daughter to being broken, completely broken, in their eyes.” Seth Andrews has a similar tale in his book Deconverted. He told his mother he was atheist and she was “obviously blinking away the unthinkable notion that her son's outright rejection of Yahweh would sentence him to a painful, fiery, eternal Hell.... She protested. She argued. She wept.”
I knew my parents would feel the same way. But they had to find out sometime.
It was a while before I broke the news to them. After I finished my bachelors degree I moved to England, where religion just wasn’t a big deal. I was able to avoid thinking about it for a while. I met a boy, he got accepted to a Ph.D. program at Cornell, and so we planned a move to Ithaca, NY. This was about two years after I'd left Christianity. My mother and I were on a long drive together, transporting my belongings from the farm in Missouri up to Ithaca. She asked why I wasn’t going to church. I said I didn’t really believe in it.
“You don’t believe in church or you don’t believe in God?” she asked.
“Well, both,” I answered.
“Don’t you miss it?” she continued.
“Not really.” I replied.
“You’ll be back someday."
She didn’t press it further. She thought it was just a phase. As the years go by and my convictions don’t waver, and as I publicly identify as an atheist, she’s become more afraid. She mentions God whenever she can, is upset when I don’t go to church on my visits home, and responded to an evolution article I posted last fall on Facebook with “God created the world. I don’t know how he did it, but he did.”
The most difficult thing about being atheist is the anguish I cause my family. My mom knows I'm going to burn in hell and suffer an everlasting torment. I've tried to explain this to people who have never believed in hell. They see the belief in hell as silly, comparable to believing in the tooth fairy. I think that, to really understand the fear, you have to be indoctrinated as a child. All the authority figures in my young life agreed: Hell is a real place, it's horrible, full of demons and Satan himself, it's a lake of fire, it's torture, and it's forever.
And that's where my family thinks I'm going, and they want to do everything they can to stop me. So I can't blame them, they don't want me to suffer in the afterlife. If they accept my atheism, they condemn me to hell. So I can either lie to my family and say I'm Christian, or have a strained relationship. I choose the latter, but neither choice is good.
My early suicide attempt failed, of course. I went to sleep and woke up the next morning. I was in pain and thought it was a miracle, that God didn’t want me to die. I didn’t tell my parents. I went to school and suffered through a few days of pain and vomiting. I lived, grew up and became what I feared in my younger days: a non-believer, a rejecter of Christ, a person destined for hell. If my mother were faced with the choice, either I could have died when I was 11 and went to heaven, or die now at 33 and go to hell, I think she would choose my childhood death. To her, life on earth is nothing compared to where I'll spend eternity.
My beliefs have changed, but sometimes, the fear of hell is still there. Recently, I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a long, low horn. I immediately thought of the rapture and that in the next few moments people would be ascending into heaven, and I would be damned. I thought it would be as Joyce describes in “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," that the archangel Michael would blow the trumpet that signaled the end, that soon “Time is, time was, but time shall be no more." I was scared. Then common sense kicked in, and I realized it was probably just a tractor-trailer rig sounding its horn.
The fear that had made me try to end my life as a child was still there, doing its job, trying to frighten me into believing. I may never completely escape.