Sometimes I run across an atheist or ex-believer who was so embarrassed by their prior religious affiliations that they don’t even want to talk about it. Granted, this is their right, but for me personally I find that by addressing my past embarrassment I can get it out there as a cathartic exercise in showing what not to do, how not to think, how not to act.
In fact, I think it will be more than cathartic to address my past proclivities in the hopes of not only better understanding why it is atheism makes so much more sense, but perchance it might act as a beacon of reason to help guide others out of the stormy waters of unreasoning dogmas.
I grew up in the Assemblies of God Church. You can look them up if you don’t know their basic tenets. In essence they are an Evangelical branch of Pentecostal Christianity which takes a legalistic and fundamental approach to Biblical authority. They believe the Bible is the God inspired word, believe in divine healing, and baptism by the Holy Spirit.
First off, I should consider myself lucky, because I grew up in small rural communities where the Assemblies of God churches I attended were not charismatic brainwashing camps, although I saw my fair share of those too. Strangely enough, nearly all of my friends were raised Catholic, so they grounded my perspective and balanced some of the radical beliefs I held onto.
What did these beliefs entail? Well, as I said, faith healing was popular. If someone in your church had the “gift of healing” it meant that God and Jesus Christ had blessed them with the power to heal in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Who could be healed? Why anybody who had enough faith, of course. If you went to a healing session and weren’t cured instantly, then it was because of your lack of faith, not the fault of the healer… and certainly not the Lord’s problem.
Another peculiar belief I held was that speaking in tongues (glossolalia) was considered a sign that the Holy Spirit had descended unto me! Modern psychology and neuroscience have confirmed that religious glossolalia is in fact utter gibberish—and furthermore has shown that the language part of the brain actually shuts down, so it cannot be considered a divine language by any stretch of the imagination—since the very part of the brain which is meant to try and comprehend it has shut down. Never mind though, it’s a matter of faith remember, if you don’t have faith then it’s not going to work. Anyone as skeptical enough to believe what science says doubts the validity of the claim, their faith is weak at best, and so they could never be considered to understand or appreciate the profundity of speaking in tongues. So on Sundays my friends and I would raise out hands to the sky, and in a trance-like state, beging to say things like: “Eiplora extol ni exubrihim nilohim, sanctus molifik Jesus, oh Lord, sorben tai qaulifique oota ootoo loo… Hakuna Matata Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious…” and all that jazz. People would occasionally faint, but only in the large more crowded churches. Wherever there were large crowds there was a better chance of people becoming entranced or hypnotized by the smooth talking pastor.
At any rate, it was all a bunch of nonsense.
Baptism was another big deal. I remember being baptized when I was an infant, later as a child, and then again when I became “born again.” Three baptisms seems symbolic of the Christian Trinity, but believe you me, it’s a redundant waste of time. Of course I say that now, but when you’re a believer it seems necessary, in fact, vitally important as your very soul is at stake! Each baptism is a way to shed your sins, be forgiven all over again, and get a fresh start. You’d be surprised at how many Christians will take you up on the offer to be re-baptized. They can’t get enough of it.
These were the strange rituals I partook in. Needless to say Pentecostalism has many other stranger beliefs still. In some more radical sects they believe you can drink snake venom without poisoning yourself. How does one go about doing this? Do they train with animal professionals? No. Do they learn the tricks of the trade from an illusionist? Not a chance. They take it all on a matter of faith.
Oddly enough, no matter what natural disasters were happening in the world, it was all the work of the Devil. Either that or God was deliberately punishing people for their sin (which he supposedly forgave them of during their numerous baptisms—but never mind). We were warned each week that we were being tempted by the anti-Christ away from the savior. Everything from music, to movies, to a pretty prom date could potentially be the devil in disguise. Most enthusiastic Pentecostal churches ban music, movies, and showing public signs of affection. Children have been told they can’t even join prom because it would include dancing with a girl, gasp, it would include physical touch, oh now, it would include bodies rubbing up against each other and pulsating hearts beating to the rhythm of the DJ—God forbid!
The Assemblies of God regulations varied depending on the rules of each independent congregation and church committee. It was left up to the elders to decide. My own church merely advised against such things, but other than this stern warning, didn’t deem it worth denying them to us. This probably had more to do with the fact that we were all stuck in a small farming community within a town that had no movie theater, no real restaurants, and just a few pubs and churches. It was better you were at home watching a film than causing a ruckus at the local bar or tavern.
Some people grow up their whole lives under the spell of religion. They never question it, because they never know anything of the world outside of the confines of their rural community. This is why a college education is so vital in liberating one’s mind, prying it open, and cramming all kinds of valuable information in there. Most of all, though, it teaches us to ask questions. Even as I was a gun-ho Evangelical going into college, I came out of the University system a learned and more level head, well rounded, individual. Chalk it up to experience, but an education helps (see HERE).
Moving to a foreign country and learning another language opened up my horizons even more. With a worldliness comes a much broader perspective, and I learned to have an even greater sympathy than anything my prior faith had to offer. In fact, the compassion of my past faith seemed tribal and barbaric to the multiculturalism which now compelled me to think more humanely about the equality of peoples. I learned patience and tolerance, but I didn’t learn that from my faith, I learned that from engaging with the real world and dealing with the people there.
Faith was only able to teach me so much, and in rhetrospect, it wasn’t much at all. That’s why I feel such embarrassment when I look back on my religious days, because for me, it shows how truly self righteous, arrogant, and foolhardy I really was. In actuality, I was a know-it-all know nothing.
The photograph I include with this essay is a reflection of that cocky religious attitude, because I was in the mind set that I had a mission to spread the good news, to share the message of the Gospel, and to proselytize, evangelize, and win souls for Christ. When I met my wife I was still an intolerable, wanna-change-you, Christian.
Before we were married I bought my wife an NIV study Bible, and on the dedication page I wrote the message that you see above. At the time it didn’t cross my mind how insulting it would be to tell someone else from a totally different culture that they were wrong, to expect them to change for me without justification, and to relinquish their entire upbringing along with societal and cultural beliefs because (for some reason) mine were true and hers weren’t.
I don’t know how she even put up with me those first few years. Insulting, impertinent, and insolent know-all doesn’t even begin to describe such lack of respect. But do you want to know how I justified it? I’ll tell you, it was because I had faith and she didn’t. That’s how I knew I was right and she needed saving.
Buying my wife a Bible, at the time, seemed like the best way to express my love. I wanted to share with her this deep and meaningful faith I had. Not only this, I wanted to save her eternal soul as not to suffer being apart from her. How greedy and self centered is that? Not only was I so lonely that I wanted to bring her over to my side as to keep her, since my church had strong opinions on marrying others outside of the faith, it was the only way I could ensure both happiness and a continuation of my faith.
In retrospect, it looks damn selfish not to mention flagrantly foolish. Here I was telling a gorgeous intelligent woman not to be who she was but to be something other than what she was. Basically, don’t be Buddhist because I’m Christian is not a valid argument. I’m lucky she didn’t leave me completely for a more level headed man.
Well, what can I say? The heart wants what the heart wants. Love is more powerful even than faith (see my Deconversion Testimony HERE). And it was because of this love that I was forced to re-evaluate everything that I thought I knew. Even so, in the end my rational brain finally turned on. After years of indoctrination into a bizarre faith with even stranger beliefs, I finally came to see the light of reason. Better late than never, if you ask me.
Now that I’ve studied the fringe movements of Christianity quite a bit, and have dealt with people worse off than myself (ever hear of the cult called Universal and Triumphant?) then I think you’ll understand why I can identify with embarrassing and wildly asinine religious ideologies. I have sympathy for those caught up in such muddled thinking… and that’s one of the reasons I write—to act as a beacon of reason. May it help to guide others out of the confusion of parochial, inward-looking, partisan types of faith.
I’m not saying anyone must agree with me or believe what I believe, but that by challenging their religious beliefs, and by questioning them, they might begin to think for themselves and, perhaps, learn to see things less myopically, less one-sided, that is to say, if willing, less blinded by faith. For them, a new way of seeing, a better way if you ask me, awaits them.