I grew up attending Sunday school and vacation bible school at the Southern Baptist church just down the road. We memorized bible verses every week and got a special treat when we said them all. Our teachers were the parents of our friends. Most were teachers or coaches in the local public schools. They spoke in platitudes and stank of respectability.
My parents never stayed for "preaching" (the worship service). The few times my brothers and I did go to the auditorium to listen to a sermon, I was unbearably bored. I'd sit by my grandmother and watch her out of the corner of my eye. I had to be certain that I didn't do anything childish or silly. After all, this was Big Church. The younger kids were usually sent to the gym for children's church so their parents could really soak in the pastor's words or not have their gossiping interrupted by a three year old's bladder. I knew I didn't belong with the other kids, even though they bragged about their tiny cups of coke and vanilla sandwich cookies.
Instead, I sat primly until the choir finished singing "The Old Rugged Cross". The congregation would clap, but we (my grandmother, granddad, my brothers, and me) never did. The older generations didn't go in for such shows. We simply with our arms folded as the choir loft emptied. As soon as the pastor instructed his flock to turn to such and such book and chapter of their bibles, I was lost. My grandmother sensed my waning interest and would hand me a service program. It listed the hymns to be sung, prayer requests, and the congregants who had birthdays the following week. The birthdays were all I cared about. The backs of the pews were fitted with slots for hymnals, pens, and pastel colored blank cards. I would fill out birthday cards for every name on the program. Then I would get more cards and doodle on them until I had to stand for the Invitation. After, the righteous words of god hushed, we filed out, got into cars, and went for lunch.
These mundane things are what stand out to me when I think of my early religious education. My interest peaked as a preteen. I was saved and baptized at nine years old. My family seemed nonchalant about it, but I was convinced this made me a real person. I had to be taken seriously because I had realized that Jesus was the only thing keeping from the fire and brimstone of an evangelical hell.
As my friends and I entered high school, religion became a point of contention and/or bonding for us. We all went to church at least semi-regularly. We all called ourselves born again Christians. Those who attended the Church of Christ told the rest of us that unless we attended their church we would never see heaven. Meanwhile, they whispered to us about getting fingered in the teen center on Wednesday night. We were all convinced of our own rightness. In this place, even if you didn't attend church, you still declared yourself a christian. If nothing else, it prevented a lot of uncomfortable questions.
I read the bible daily. i took a bible study class in the tenth grade. Our school held a Prayer at the Pole day every year. My journals were filled with impassioned pleas to god that he set me on the right path, lead me to his will. I had sex with my boyfriend every weekend. At school, I judged the girls dropping out or missing classes because of pregnancy. I almost signed a purity pledge but stopped myself before god could strike me dead for my hypocrisy.
I learned at an early age that the thousands of questions I had concerning god, the bible, Jesus, and religion in general were never going to be answered satisfactorily. My boyfriend and I had many conversations where he sensed my unease. He would assure me that everything happens for a reason. We as humans are simply too weak to understand the workings of god. i fucking hated that sentiment. It felt so...weak. It was just a deus ex machina that prevented any critical thought.
I went on for years vacillating between a fairly steady faith and an ambivalent agnosticism. If asked, I was still a Christian, though not Southern Baptist. They lost the women of our family when they doubled down on their position on submissive wives (that phrase sounds really porn-y). My grandmother always said that the disciple Paul was a raging misogynist. She ignores his writings.
When our first two kids were born, both of our families wanted us to start attending church. My husband was interested, but he was just too lazy to bother. My mom would guilt trip me weekly about not raising our kids in church, even though she didn't attend more than a Sunday or two a month. I did take my oldest to vacation bible school. He came home talking about the end times, That ended that.
My dad was diagnosed with leukemia in March of 2009. He died in late April of 2010. I had never seen him sick outside of a bad cold. So as I sat beside his hospital bed and watched the nurse attach the chemo lines to his port, I prayed. I prayed every fucking day. I would lie down at night, exhausted from fear, love, and unending prayer, and force my eyes to stay open to pray some more. I'm a superstitious person. I easily ascribe power to the most innocuous actions. i was certain if I lay down and instantly slipped off to sleep that god would see me as unfaithful and take my dad from me.
Obviously, my dad was taken from me anyway.
About six months after, my husband and I spent the evening with some friends. we were at their house, playing cards and drinking. My husband and his buddy started talking about god. I lost it. My face burned, tears poured from my eyes, and I banged my shaking fist on their brand new table. "FUCK GOD." Six pairs of eyes looked at me like I had sprouted horns. "I prayed. My family prayed. My dad's friends prayed. Y'all prayed! And what? Not a goddamn thing." All the anger roiled over. My husband grabbed me to him and asked if I wanted to go home. I shook me head, took a deep breath, and smiled weakly. The subject was changed for a moment.
But I couldn't go back. All the questions from my childhood came back. I didn't want to shake off the uncertainty anymore. I just don't want to believe in that book anymore. Honestly, I don't think I ever did, so let me rephrase that. I don't want to pretend that I believe in that book anymore.
I'm still reluctant to call myself an atheist. In this area, that would be tantamount to the cardinal sin of calling yourself a socialist. Oh, wait. I've already done that.
I've settled on agnostic, though I've only said the word to my husband. My brother has guessed it. My mom has an inkling, but she will never ask because she doesn't want the answer. My in-laws would probably call child services on me.
I'm an atheist on the down low, y'all. It's scary, but it feels like I can finally breathe.