I originally posted this story on the Think Atheist website (another atheist community); but since I found Atheist Nexus, I thought it would be nice to mirror it here as well. I just wanted to share a little bit about my experiences growing up and general background with religion to give everyone a chance to know me a little better.
I grew up going to Pentecostal churches. The earliest church I remember from my childhood burned to the ground sometime around the age of 5 or 6. I don’t really remember too much about it; but the next church was a Church of God. For anyone who is not familiar, this was one of those churches where all the women wore their hair in huge “beehive” hairdos and were not allowed to wear pants, or makeup, or jewelry (not even wedding rings, but my mom did put her foot down about that one, lol). I remember dressing in these long “maxi-dresses” to go to church. These dresses literally came down to my ankles. If all of these things were not bad enough, the services could get a bit lively. They, of course, believed in speaking in tongues, laying on hands in prayer, and sometimes took to running up and down the isles, “dancing in the spirit.” Things like these were quite common. For a young child of 6, however, they could be quite terrifying. We attended this church for several years. Every Saturday night, Daddy would drop my mom, my sister, and me off at church while he went grocery shopping. I never got to ask my Dad why he never went to church with us; but occasionally he would go with us to tent revivals or gospel singings. I remember once going to see the evangelist, Oral Roberts; but all I remember about this Christian gathering was that it was held in a huge stadium, we got to go to Knoxville that day and it was really boring.
At some point my mom started looking for another church. I’m not really sure why, though. Around age 11 we began attending Faith Tabernacle Assembly of God. It had a much smaller congregation that met in a storefront building next to a gas station. The services were much quieter and calmer, except on rare occasions. Assemblies of God are not as strict about hair and clothing as Churches of God; but they still have the same basic beliefs of speaking in tongues, laying on hands in prayer, and dancing in the spirit. My mom taught my Sunday school class for a while; but there were only a handful of kids. It was during this time that I went through the motions of accepting Christ as my personal savior; however, I still don’t think I really had a clue as to what that actually meant. I just knew I didn’t want to go to this place they called hell. I was then baptized a while later in a river somewhere in East Tennessee. Was I supposed to feel any different??
The funniest experience I can remember from these years was around the time that JR Ewing got shot on the television program Dallas. A lady in the church literally asked the church to pray for JR Ewing because he had been shot the Friday before. Oh, and she was dead serious too! The pastor, who was a very kind, gentle person, blushed a bit and smiled and repeated her request, quickly moving on to the next person. After only a couple of years attending this church, the pastor decided to close its doors. I’m not really sure why; I wasn’t told; but everyone was very understanding. They even gave me their old upright piano which I put to good use teaching myself to play by ear and reading music. The pastor did, however, recommend another church which is where things get interesting.
I think I was 13 years old when we started attending Circle Assembly of God. This church also held its services in an old storefront building; but they had the best music! When I started going there, I think the usual attendance was somewhere between 50 to 75 people. Everyone was so nice and friendly, but so Pentecostal. They were proud to be “holy rollers.” Now, they had some wild services. As I got older, I kind of pushed aside the craziness and scariness of the whole being filled with the Holy Spirit thing and began to get curious. For the first time, I began to listen more to the preacher and Sunday school teachers and reading along in the Bible. My sister and I even joined the Puppets of Love. The teens had a puppet show that we practiced songs and silly skits to travel to area churches to proselytize to other young, unsuspecting children. I guess it was mostly for entertainment, but the overall goal was to “win kids to the lord.” The church had at that time bought land to build a new church, which was finished a couple of years later.
The first twist in my life came the summer before my 14th birthday when I was diagnosed with Lupus. The only reason my family took me to the doctor that summer was because I had to have a complete physical before I started my freshman year of high school. My right knee had been badly swollen for several months; and of course, the doctor noticed it. After many, many tests they concluded I had Lupus. I continued to experience issues with arthritis over the years, had serious problems with getting enough sleep, and a recurring butterfly rash on my face that worsened with sun exposure. The exhaustion has been the worst symptom by far, though.
My parents never did take me back to the doctor after that initial diagnosis even though I remember the doctor telling them to schedule a follow-up for later. I never knew why until recently. To be honest, I thought they must have misdiagnosed me or something. I figured it was a stronger possibility that my family just didn’t have the money for the continued medical expenses. I don’t really remember anyone ever explaining anything to me or if they did, I just blocked it out. I'm 36 years old, now. A couple of years ago during a time when I'm sure I was having a flare-up, I finally asked my mom why they never took me back to the doctor. She simply said, “God healed you of that horrible disease,” in a very matter of fact manner and changed the subject.
Looking back at that time in my life, now, and the reason for me telling this story is that I realized that my fear of being diagnosed with an illness caused me to become a real “holy roller” for at least a couple of years. I remember the church laying hands on me to pray and how often people kept telling me that I was healed; but in reality, it was just like they planted a delusion in my head because I always knew it wasn't gone. It has taken me as many years to come to terms with this illness as it did for me to see religion for what it truly is. I'm sure it will take me a lifetime to deprogram myself; but hopefully, as time goes on, it will be easier.
But on with the story. By the time the new church was finished, the congregation had grown to over a hundred people. The music department had grown to drums, a bass guitar, an electric guitar, piano, keyboard, trumpet, and of course, the husband and wife song leaders. The “praise” service would sometimes go on for hours. There always seemed to be some drama going on with the music department (gossip and fussing, mostly) to which the pastor said the devil was attacking the musicians and prayed for them. But then again, this is the church that laid hands on and prayed for my mom’s car because it was a lemon! Daddy ended up replacing it a few months later.
I really looked up to my Sunday school teacher. I read my Bible daily and prayed to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I thought for a time that I was. At some point, though, I started asking questions. At first I pretty much accepted the answers; but by my senior year in high school at age 17, I started having my doubts. I also had an excellent English teacher my sophomore and senior years (I dropped back from advanced English my senior year, just so I could have this teacher again). In our literature discussions about poetry, we turned to the Psalms briefly which led to a very memorable discussion about the Bible and other religions. Our teacher dared to tell us that King James added the parts about witches to the Bible or that it was, at best, a mistranslation. I’m not sure if this is actually true or not; but nevertheless, it got me thinking, first about the people of other religions and their fate, and secondly, about the possibility that the Bible was not the “true and infallible Word of God.”
To make matters worse, I chose the topic of speaking in tongues for a research paper in this teacher’s class. My research paper made me start questioning the validity of this experience that I observed so many Sunday services. I read that it was not actually a language, that it was a learned behavior, and most likely the result of a kind of mass hypnosis due to extreme emotion. I started watching the people closely who spoke in tongues and the ones who “interpreted.” There was one young girl who started speaking in tongues around the age of 9 or 10 who made me wonder if these observations could be true. The answers I received to the questions I asked my Sunday school teacher and the preacher’s wife made question more. If God would condemn all other religions to hell, then how could he be a loving God and why would he be worthy of my praise? It was right before graduation that I took the first step by not attending church regularly anymore and discovering my options.
I decided to look for the answers in my own way. What I found along the way intrigued me. Other religions were extremely interesting and they all had fairly complex belief structures that were basically similar to one other. Most of the differences were simply in the rituals used as the tools of prayer and the explanations for what happens when we die. Religion has evolved over the years just as everything does, including societies as a whole. The more I read about religion and various belief systems, the more I discover my own beliefs to be changing. For the most part, I understand the reasons why religion exists. From an historical point of view, many if not most of the stories from the bible are a mix of history and fiction. However, many of the historical references are grossly exaggerated or fictionalized through personification.
Think about the authors of today. Many fiction authors use current events in their novels to bring more realism to their stories. Why would the beginning of Christianity be any different? Stories were passed down generations and generations by word of mouth for centuries until finally someone wrote them down. Amazingly, the similarities among these stories to other stories from all over the world make me wonder if all of the old stories originated from one source prior to the creation of the Abrahamic religions. It would be feasible to say that the stories would have changed slightly (if not drastically, depending on who told it) as they passed from generation to generation spreading across the world, like that gossip game. In this game, one player starts by whispering a secret in the next person’s ear. Then, one by one the secret is passed by whispering it to each other until the last person. At the end, the secret is told completely different than how it started. This is an example of how stories change with each person’s point of view. My only conclusion would therefore be that the bible is a collection of fictional writings of the time period.
I've learned a lot about many different religions, but not enough to be an expert on any. I have the most experience with Christianity (17 years). I later attended a Unitarian Universalist Church for 3 years, and after that studied Wicca with a coven for 3 years. I admire the pagan reverences to the natural world; but Wicca just wasn’t for me. Now, I just call myself an agnostic or a nonbeliever. I’m still leery about calling myself an atheist because I don’t want to go from one extreme to the other. I hope that doesn’t come across as pretentious because that is not my intent. I’m just not there yet; but then again, it took me 19 years just to get this far. Religion truly does fascinate me. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I do believe, but I do know that I do not buy into the whole Christian concept. I'm to a point where I'm not even sure that I believe in a God; but I’ll save my beliefs or lack thereof for another day as this has already grown much, much longer than I anticipated. Thanks for taking the time to read! I just really needed to get it all off my chest.