Atheist Stories Pt. 3: Believe Or BURN!
I was well known in school. I might not have always been well-liked by some crowds, but I wasn’t generally hated either. I was that weird kid who would refuse to play kickball but would doodle in gym class instead. My mother was often in a hurry in the mornings and would yank on my hair while attempting to brush it out, and so I developed an aversion to hairbrushes. My hair was cut short so as to not be much work, and it was often messy. As for clothes, I mostly just threw together an outfit without much care apart from ensuring that I was covered (bright green sweatpants and a Power Ranger’s T-shirt with a hole in it seemed like a good match.) I didn’t much care about being attractive. I just didn’t really care at all what anyone thought of me. In a way, I miss being able to carry that sort of attitude.
I badly needed glasses, but I never got them until about second grade. Even then, I often lost them. Of the friends that I would make at recess, I would often have trouble finding them again due to my poor vision. I can’t say that I felt all that lonely though. I usually was happy to entertain myself drawing. I even brought my sketchbook with me to gym class and would sit out games of kickball in favor or doodling.
I was never much bullied. Sure, kids tried to bully me every now and then, but that never went all that well for them. I was no push over. I was a very confrontational child and would stand up for myself. For a time, I was a regular in the principle’s office because I wouldn’t let any Zero Tolerance policy rob me of the right to defend myself when needed. Of course the loser of any scuffle, even if he started it, would paint himself as the victim and me as the aggressor.
I had a few friends, in a circle I kept very small. Then I had a room full of classmates, most whose names I couldn’t be bothered to remember (it was a good year if I knew the teacher’s name.) And that was my school life, pretty much.
There was one girl in particular, who I got along mostly OK with, by the name of Dorothy. Admittedly, she was quite annoying. She was known to be excessively loud, clingy, and careless (she had once dropped a rock on my head off a playground, and had also spilled milk on my head in the cafeteria once.) I was mostly only friends with her because her name reminded me of The Wizard Of Oz, and I had a tendency of feeling compelled to be nice to people, no matter what they’ve done to me in the past, as long as they were being nice to me at the moment, which she usually was.
It was at her invitation that I first attended church. I reckoned I may as well find out who this god character everyone keeps fussing about is. I had little else to do on Sunday mornings anyway.
I’ve always loved the gothic architecture that some churches have. I love the soaring, stained glass windows, and the images that they would depict. I loved the repeating patterns of elegant, pointed arches. I loved flying buttresses that climbed the wall with such grace. I love the strong, stone pillars. Then there was the towering spire, visible from quite some business away, with its breathtaking presence. Before I first attended church, I associated that sort of gothic cathedral construction with all churches, probably because that makes churches highly recognizable. I thought that they were all designed in this fashion.
I’d often wished that I could find a church of that type for sale, and was able to get it zoned as a residence. I was a bit of an odd child, maybe, but it’s hard to deny that a building with that sort of construction would make for a beautiful and rather large dwelling. I imagine that the chapel would have good acoustics, and the pews already provide ample seating, making it the ultimate home theater room.
Much to my surprise the church I was brought to wasn’t at all what I imagined. It was actually quite ugly. I’d seen this building before as it was close to my home, but if it weren’t for the large stone cross, I would have never guessed the hideous thing church. It lacked any symmetry or aesthetic form at all. It looked like a collection of children’s building blocks just thrown together. The exterior was stucco and painted bright blue, and much of it looked to be in disrepair. It certainly lacked the beautiful architecture of the Catholic Church down the street.
I once revisited this church building as an adult, just a few years ago. By then, I’d thrown off the shackles of religion. My purpose for visiting was not one of faith, but of consumerism. What had once been a church had been turned into an antique store, now called Church of Mouse. The building seems to lend itself as well to this purpose. I amuse myself today at the thought of religion as an antique. It seems appropriate, really.
The adults of the church seemed very sure of god, and would talk about him with certainty to each other rather than just when speaking to children as with Santa. Adults can’t be wrong, can they? It was at this church that I learned that, at the age of 8, I was a filthy, dirty, sinner deserving of not only execution, but also the most horrific tortures imaginable for an infinite sentence afterwards. Apparently, snatching a cookie before dinner or feeding my peas to the family dog were very grievous offenses in the eyes of god. As for my young self, it was the first time that I had been told that I was so evil and worthless, the worst of my crimes being simply being born.
It wasn’t all bad though. As it turned out, the members of this church, and only them, the brilliant people that they are, had the cure that I need to cleanse myself of my wickedness and escape condemnation to hell. How lucky for me that I happened to meet people privy to such a thing. It’s odd that no one who didn’t claim have the cure ever even mentioned the need for one, considering how much people went on for the cures of diseases. I would think that this hell would be far worse than cancer or AIDS (whatever those were.)
Thanks to the kindness of the pastor, I was quickly “saved” from from my sentence to hell which, until I met the church people, I never even realized was immanent.
Wait, the concept of hell seems a little bit implausible. I mean, where is it? It can’t be under the crust of the earth, that’s where the mantle and core are. Don’t ask questions! Don’t even think questions! Is it supposed to be on another planet? How do we get there? How do we even get anywhere anyway if we’re dead?
STOP THNKING! STOP DOUBTING! STOP ASKING QUESTIONS! That’s just the devil infecting your mind and trying to trick you into doubting, the punishment for being a victim of this trickery being that eternal torment in hell. Oh no! Sorry, god. I didn’t mean it! I’m so sorry! Please forgive me. I promise not to doubt for a moment ever again. Please don’t burn me. Amen.
And so I became indoctrinated and easily manipulated puppet. I was even an instrument in my own indoctrination. Do as god/I say(s,) hate what god/I hate(s,) hate who god/I hate(s.) Wow, it sure is lucky that I found a teacher who is so in tune with what god thinks. It’s very convenient that he can hear god. … Why can’t I hear god?
Anyone familiar with operant conditioning can see what’s going on here. You do something, so you’re punished (the mere thought of punishment, especially one so severe, is its own punishment here) so eventually, you stop doing that thing (even when that thing is only a thought.) I was not to doubt or to question. To do so meant thinking of hell, the punishment for thinking and questioning. Skepticism was simply not allowed. It was blasphemy. Once that much was accomplished, it was easy to convince me that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” was a sensible argument against respecting the humanity of those evil homosexuals (whatever those were.) I could not ask, “by why is being gay wrong?” expecting any deeper answer than “because god says so,” otherwise… hell.
I don’t remember Santa Clause ever threatening me with anything apart from coal. Even then, that punishment was just for being bad, he didn’t seem to care if I believed in him or questioned his reindeer or not. And that punishment at least was temporary, I’d have next year to learn from the punishment and do better.
Just nod your head. There’s a good little sheep.
It should be said at this point that, for the most part, the church fold were nice. They picked me up and dropped me off every day in their church van. On my first day, they introduced me to everybody and the adults shook my hand, a respect I was rarely afforded as a child. Every day there were snacks available for free, which I appreciated as I rarely awoke in time for breakfast.
The pastor was personable, always chatting with everyone, even the children. And the lessons for children were fun, we mostly played games and watched Christian cartoons. The church folk even got me a Christmas gift.
This was not a fire and brimstone church. Nor was there a time in which they attacked science, at least not in front of me in the time that I attended. Still, all that is needed is the threat of hell, for crimes real and crimes only thought of but not actually carried out, and the rest of the indoctrination takes care of itself.
And then, something even more terrible happened and I was plunged into my own personal dark ages, which I didn’t manage to crawl out from until embarrassingly recently. One day while I was chatting with an adult neighbor about dinosaurs, I imagined how they died out something like 65 million years ago, way before the first humans. Then he did something I wasn’t expecting.
His words were simple, shattered my perception of reality. I was that day made into a creationist, not because of any evidence or convincing argument, but because of the blind fear that church had conditioned me to develop.
He asked me how that was possible for the dinosaurs to have lived and died so long before the existence of humans, given that the sun, earth, humanity, and all animals were all crated in the same week according to the book of Genesis.
It was at this point that my brain short circuited, a portion of it ceased to function properly. We all joke about hearing something so dumb, that it makes the rest of us dumber for having heard it. To my shame, I can honestly say that this is exactly what happened.
I had heard the story of Adam and Eve before, who hadn’t? The sins of the first humans are, as I had been told, to reason that I deserved eternal torment. I even attempted to read Genesis as a child, but the strange form of English used in the King James Version was not one that was fluent in. Somehow, it never occurred to me before my neighbor asked the question that there might be a conflict between the Bible and the truth. I had never considered it before. But now I could no longer deny the contradiction. I then had to make a choice. I should have just said that the bible’s account of the origin of life on earth was simply wrong, as the evidence that I was, by then, well aware of clearly shows.
However, I just couldn’t say that the bible was wrong – it was the word of god, I’d been drilled to believe. I’d surly go to hell if I didn’t believe the bible. I’d go to hell if I even thought about disbelieving the Bible. To deny the Bible was evil. Satan, I was told, would do anything to make me doubt, and would come in a form that seemed reasonable and attractive.
Science, I had to convince myself, was evil. I had to believe that scientists in many fields, some of the smartest people on the planet, were all wrong. I convinced myself that I was required to believe that dinosaurs never existed. So severe was my fear of torment should I accept dinosaurs that when the marvelous BBC documentary Walking With Dinosaurs, which depicted the awesome creatures in a way I had always wished Paleo Word could, was shown in class, I refused to look. I put my head down on the desk, closed my eyes, and tried to block it all out. It broke my heart that I had to give up my dream of being a paleontologist.
I even rejected fun things like Pokemon, simply because the word “evolution” is used to describe the monsters’ transformation which is nothing remotely like actual biological evolution. Pokemon, at the height of its popularity, was quite difficult to avoid. The devil sure was a crafty, um, devil, trying to lure me to the darkness with cute yellow electric rodents. Or maybe the lord was testing my faith. Given what I’d been carefully lead to believe was at stake, I couldn’t afford a bad mark in god’s grade book.
My parents, to their credit, tried to help me. My father offered me the idea that time was relative and that the bible didn’t really mean six literal days. My mother suggested that I attend different churches or investigate other religions. Sadly, I was dug in like a tick. I was sure that either option meant eternal death. In hindsight, I wish they wouldn’t have just stopped babying me and flat out told me that I’d bought into bull. But they let me believe whatever I believed, even to my detriment, in much the same way most us are told that we must respect any religious belief, no matter how absurd. It’s all the same anyway, I would have probably just dismissed their attempt to de-convert me as the work of the devil or something and buried my head deeper.
I tried not to think about dinosaurs, or the age of the earth, or evolution, or anything that wasn’t consistent with the religion I’d been fed. I couldn’t argue against any of it, so I tried to block it out. I couldn’t doubt, I’d be punished. And I prayed in school before eating my lunch, even though the kids in school mocked me. Oh well. The Bible says that Christians are persecuted, so I figured I was being a good little martyr.
I couldn’t not pray, I’d be punished for that too. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a start, trying to remember if I’d prayed before bed or not and then praying anyway for good measure. Please don’t burn me.
When things went well in my life, I credited god. If there was a substitute teacher on a day that I’d forgotten/neglected the previous day’s homework, then god was looking out for me, personally. If a stalled car started, it was god. If my mom made angel food cake, well, that was obviously god. What sense did it ever make to thank anyone else?
I’d been told that I can ask god for anything, and he may or may not oblige. However, I was required to believe that he would deliver whatever I prayed for, else I was doubting his power. But he still might not deliver if it wasn’t in his plan. So… if I prayed for something, I had to believe that it would be there, and was god’s plan, until such a time as it wouldn’t be there and wasn’t god’s plan. I have trouble explaining the cognitive dissonance this particular dilemma caused me, apart from saying that it now reminds me of Schrödinger’s cat.
I was convinced that whenever anything went wrong in my life, I was either being punished for something or tested. Did I just trip and scrape my knee because I was bad and needed to be punished? But I just prayed for forgiveness not even an hour ago, so I should be freshly forgiven! I must have done something wrong that I didn’t realize was wrong. Maybe I’m incapable of realizing everything that I’m doing wrong because I’m just a mere human and am not the all-knowing god. … This game seems rigged. Sorry! Don’t burn me!
Maybe bad things are happening to test me. That’s what happened to Job, right? If I remark on, even in my head, how bad things are, or how unfair god’s justice system seems, I’ve failed. Am I supposed to be… thankful when I’m hurt or hungry?
When I was 11 years old, I was shot. I am a perfect example of the harm even personal, non-violent religious belief can do. I, a mere child, was shot. And I was convinced that I deserved it. Whatever I did to deserve such punishment, it must have been awful. I truly believed myself to be a worthless creature, to deserve such a thing at only 11. I was certain that I did not deserve to live. Is that really such a stretch when Christianity had taught me that humans all deserve eternal death?