My journey from apathetic sort-of Christian to outspoken Atheist was pretty damn convoluted. No surprise there; I’ve never been good at taking the direct route. To anything. Ever.
When I was very young, I used to go to Vacation Bible School with the neighbors. I wanted to go, because that’s what all the other kids were doing. Looking back later I couldn’t figure out why my non-believing mother sent me, but now I realize she probably just wanted me out of the house for a few hours. It was fun in many ways, but there were things about it that bugged me. The answers to my questions were always essentially “just because,” which my wee skeptical mind couldn’t handle. I wanted to be a scientist at that age (nothing specific, just someone who does science things and wears a lab coat), so telling me things I knew couldn’t be right didn’t work. For example, I knew Heaven was not “in the sky.” Outer space was “in the sky” and I was going to go there someday (I also wanted to be an astronaut).
I also didn’t like that they had a boys vs. girls fundraiser for the week, and the man in charge (I don’t know what his actual title was) would personally ensure the boys edged out the girls every summer. There was very little religion in my life beyond that; people I knew went to church or Sunday school and occasionally I’d go with them. Some family members said “grace” before meals. Religion was just a fact of life, irrelevant unless I was bored off my ass in some pew. Until my quietly agnostic parents enrolled me in a tiny Seventh Day Adventist school.
The public middle school in our small town didn’t have a very good reputation, and the SDA school was the only other option. It was a three-room schoolhouse; the first room was grades 1-4, then 5-8 and the high school. There were five people in my grade; four girls and one lonely (but extremely popular) boy. I was the only non-Christian. In the entire school. My parents told me to treat the Bible study as a literature course, and I managed B’s and C’s. I think I would have gotten A’s except that I asked far too many questions about scripture, watched cartoons on Saturdays, and was deeply skeptical of Ellen G. White.
I wasn’t exactly unpopular. I had several friends, but almost all of them were extremely devout and wanted to “share their faith” with me. All. The. Time. I got so sick of hearing “really meaningful” Amy Grant songs, or having people pray for me. The descriptions of the coming “End Times” didn’t sit well with me either, especially the part about the “mark of the beast” being a tattoo of a barcode. I still think of that when I see stuff about RFID chips, and wonder if my teacher is hiding in a basement somewhere.
That teacher was really upsetting. He was an odd little man with a nasal voice and weirdly lumpy teeth, and he would explain things (like, why God doesn’t want you to wear jewelery but watches are ok) in a way that just never actually addressed the question. The pastor of the church (and the girls’ basketball coach) never stopped smiling, even when he was telling me I was, well, probably not going to make it to heaven if I didn’t start having a little faith. I didn’t understand how that would help me with my free throws, but you do what you can.
I went to the SDA summer camp two years in a row, and loved every moment of it. I was never particularly outdoorsy, but there was a photography course that I really enjoyed, and a “general arts” class that let us do silkscreening and batik. I was way to chicken to try any water sports, which I kind of regret now, but whatever. I was already playing basketball and felt that was more than enough of this “athletic” bullshit.
The counselors were high school students, mostly about to leave for Loma Linda or Walla Walla University. They were, down to the last one of them, sweet, wide-eyed and relentlessly cheerful. They did skits every night at campfire, and we all sang songs so fucking catchy I still find my self humming them.
The campfire was probably when I felt most connected to the Christian god. Especially on the last day of camp, when they’d put on a big production. One year it was “Teenagers of the Bible” and featured Jesus and Noah’s son Japeth, and a third character played by a counselor not cute enough to be memorable. The next year it was “The Life of Jesus,” which was exceptionally vivid. The head counselor was Jesus, and they crucified him at the end, his wrists with fake nails in them, most of his body doused in fake blood.
I’d come home rather pious, singing praise songs and generally making my parents question all their parenting choices. That always wore off fairly quickly. Nothing killed it quicker than going into the church and seeing the kids’ artwork, which had some pretty disconcerting messages about the roles of men and women drawn in child’s scrawl. Overall it seemed like a lot of silly pretension. They would justify why it was fine for them to break the rules, like the various exceptions to the “no jewelery” rule. I couldn’t comprehend why God would want you to just sit around, bored, from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, wasting time and energy. Plus, I refused to even consider worshiping a god that wouldn’t let me eat pork.
It did, however, plant firmly in my mind that I needed to find some church. I didn’t think my parents were lacking because they didn’t go, but I felt that, in order to really belong, I needed God. I just wasn’t sure which one.
To be continued.