Disclaimer: Is religion wrong? No. That’s not what this post is about. This post is about my journey from Presbyterian believer to atheist. This is my journey and I’m writing about it because there may be another person out there who needs to read this. They may be on a similar journey and they need to know that they aren’t alone. I’m not dissing on religion or God. I’m trying to explain why I have let go of my belief in both.
I very much like rituals. No, I’m not talking about routine or habit (that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy always putting my pants on right leg first then left leg because the other way would just ruin the whole day), I’m talking about ritual.
rit-u-al n 1: the established form esp. for a religious ceremony 2: a system of rites 3: a ceremonial act or action
I grew up in Rock Lake Presbyterian Church and each Sunday, the service followed the same pattern:
Opening Hymn, Call to Worship, Doxology, Prayer of Confession, Bible reading, Gloria Patri, Apostle’s Creed, Sermon, Invitation, Blessing, Hymn, Postlude.
I haven’t stepped foot in my childhood church in decades, but I can still sing the Doxology from memory.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow! Praise Him, all creatures here below! Praise Him above, ye heavenly host! Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! Amen.
Pretty ironic for an atheist, eh?
I’ll let you all in on a little secret that I haven’t told anyone. You may want to get a little closer to the screen because I’m going to whisper it to you.
During my eighth grade year, when we had to take state-mandated standardized tests, we had to mark our career interests. I put down, “Presbyterian Minister.”
When my father went into the hospital in 1981 for a triple-bypass surgery, my love of religious ritual was fractured when I overheard my mother telling a friend that our minister hadn’t visited my father in the hospital because we hadn’t tithed enough money that year. I realized at that moment that for some people, religion wasn’t so much about faith as it was about money and influence and I was determined to not make it about that. I wanted my church to be about God, family, and fellowship, regardless of whether my manse had a hole in the roof or if the church’s stained-glass windows had cracks.
The longer I stayed around religion, though, the more of a bad taste it left in my mouth. I saw people praising God for their raise or their tax return while children were starved or beaten two streets over. I witnessed a friend’s church state that only baptism by immersion could save souls while my church baptized by sprinkling. My Sunday school teacher proclaimed that one uttered cuss word would damn us straight to that fiery place and because of that, I lay awake many nights, terrified that I would spend eternity with the likes of serial killers and rapists because of a misplaced fuck, not to mention the fact that I’d possibly been baptized wrong and couldn’t be saved in the first place.
I slowly, but surely, realized that religion wasn’t always one thing for one person. That it could be grace or fellowship or volunteerism for some, while others used it for money, power, and selfish ego. Yes, I did experience the selfless sacrifice of a few people but overall, I experienced the opposite from many. And never once did I feel God was there directing any of it.
I recall one afternoon in high school, on the school bus, passing my church and wondering, “If I were born in India, I’d be Hindu. Or if I were Japanese, I’d be Shinto and Buddhist. Religion is geographical. It’s a birthright” Well, how could that be right? I knew there were missionaries, but why did there have to be? Why wasn’t everyone already Christian? Why did we have to “sell” it? And weren’t those same Hindus and Buddhists and Shintos convinced they were right? And then it clicked. It wasn’t so much about geography as it was indoctrination, what you’re born into and taught all your life. I was taught to worship God as a Presbyterian because that’s what my parents were taught, and their parents, and their parents, and so on. It wasn’t necessarily right or correct, but it was genealogical.
As an adult, I announced my affiliation with deism, then later agnosticism. But was I really a Deist and then an Agnostic? No. I think it was me, after decades of reading the Bible, being preached to and frightened into belief (or else) that I couldn’t let go of. It was after suffering from infertility that I finally set my belief in any higher power free. So many things were said to me and about me during that period in my life that I could fill a book. (Funny I say that because I’m working on an outline for said book as I type this.) Many of those things were helpful and caring. Some, though, weren’t. A few were callous and hurtful, but the one that absolutely broke my heart was a Bible quote.
Halfway through my fertility treatments, I received an anonymous card in the mail. There was no return address and a generic Atlanta postmark. Inside the innocuous card was handwritten the following:
Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from him
I was stunned. There was no signature. I remember shaking from head to foot, unable to process how one Bible verse, so well-placed, could be so utterly hurtful. I cried loud, angry tears and screamed at the ceiling. An hour later, I wiped away the snot and cleaned myself off. I placed the card on the kitchen counter along with the rest of the mail so that Tyler could see it. I wanted him to read it without my influence and when he read it, he agreed with me that because it had been sent anonymously, it had been sent to hurt, not heal. A person who followed God was telling us that for whatever reason, we were unworthy of the gift of children. And no inner voice told me otherwise.
I finally proclaimed my atheism several years later because I hadn’t seen or felt God in my life. Ever. I realized that nowhere in my life did a divine power ever step in and assist. I never felt guided or helped or loved by anything celestial or beyond me. I have always felt alone. There has been no voice or direction, just me and my singular judgement. And the day I came out as an atheist was the day I admitted to myself that I was fine with that, that I accepted that, that it didn’t make me sad or angry. It’s just life. Good or bad, we are responsible for ourselves and our actions.
The guilt I felt for many years was lifted the day I admitted I’m atheist. We are all human, with mistakes and foibles and bad and good, all rolled into these physical forms. We screw up and we triumph every single day. This is humanity. And I refuse to apologize for being human, what religion calls a sinner. I’m not a sinner just because I’m human. That’s wrong. Accepting my humanity with no strings attached? That’s what’s right for me.