Just An Atheist
Let me preface this by saying that people often ask me how I became Atheist when I was raised in a Christian home. I've wondered this often myself. Why didn't I just accept what was taught and modeled as so many children do? What caused my deep dissatisfaction and abject skepticism? What was it about the Christian doctrine that felt so conspicuously wrong to me? I don't know.
I just know that at some point I realized I wasn't buying it. Any of it.
But there are moments that have stayed with me, moments that caused the slowly burgeoning bud of wrongness to open just a little wider on the way to full bloom.
It was one of those moments that came to mind last night.
I don't remember how old I was, but I'm guessing around 11 or 12. I was young enough to be completely and totally mortified by the events that unfolded in church that day, but old enough that I eventually understood what was going on.
By that age, we were expected to sit through the hour long church service after having already spent an hour in Sunday School. Naturally, my mind wandered as did my sister's. We bickered and poked one another, we jiggled and wiggled and played rock paper scissors. We did pretty much anything but listen to the sermon. The point of having us in church at that age escapes me.
But that day, my attention was captured by the sound of sobs coming from the pulpit.
I looked up from whatever mischief we were using to pass the time to see two couples up at the front of the church.
One couple was young and had a new baby. I loved babies and I often snuck off to the nursery to hold the littlest ones. Their baby was round and pink and I loved the milk powder smell of him. I liked the young mother too. Her name was Joy and it suited her sunny personality. She, like her baby, was round and pink. Her cheeks were permanently flushed and even her hair seemed happy, as it flipped up naturally at the ends, creating a smile on each shoulder. Her husband was dark and tidy, with an impressively lush mustache and square glasses like my Dad.
The other couple was older. Their youngest son was in my Sunday school class, but their oldest was already a grown up. She was tall and pinched, with short, tightly permed hair that was black at the roots and straw colored at the ends. She had a large nose and a small mouth, which made her look very crabby most of the time. Her husband was a large, beefy man with a deep, booming voice who should have been a scary because of his size, but somehow wasn't.
I noticed first that they were all crying. Three of them had quiet tears streaming down their faces, but happy little Joy was sobbing softly. Her normally pink cheeks were pallid and gray. I noticed second that Joy's husband was standing with the straw haired lady, as if they were a couple. I noticed third that they both appeared completely dejected and shamefaced. This look was so entirely out of character for both of them, that it actually alarmed me.
I sat up and paid close attention. And pretty soon it became clear that Mr. Mustache and Mrs. Straw Hair had done something very, very bad together. It took me a while to figure it out, because I didn't understand words like "carnal knowledge" and "fornication" and "adultery". I had memorized the ten commandments for Sunday school and gotten a unicorn bookmark for it, so I did know that whatever "adultery" was, God didn't want you to do it.
Eventually I put the pieces together and understood that Mr. Mustache and Mrs. Straw Hair had done things with each other that only husbands and wives were supposed to do together. I remember feeling both horrified and strangely titillated to realize that they had probably kissed each other.
But I also remember being horrified by the fact that they were standing up in front of the entire congregation talking about kissing each other. WHY??? Why would they do that?
They wanted forgiveness. With clogged and quavering voices they asked for the forgiveness of their spouses and their brothers and sisters in Christ. At one point, Mrs. Straw Hair even went down on her knees, hands clasped in front of her, fingers clenched and bloodless and begged for absolution.
Now, Southern Baptists and Northern Baptists are two very different breeds. So there were no comments from the congregation. There were tears and snuffles, but otherwise, there was nothing but stony silence. No "Amen", no "Yes Jesus", no "Praise the Lord!". And that, I think, was probably worse than any imprecation or accusation. It was the worst kind of judgment, so profound that it allowed no commentary to soften it's weighty blow.
They left the pulpit single file and returned to their seats, where they sat stiffly. Joy still sobbed quietly, and even her hair drooped with sadness. No smiles sat on her shoulders that day.
There was of course, a sermon about adultery and deceit. Jesus knows, Pastor said, when your heart and your actions are not pure. I didn't really understand why kissing was such a big deal. I felt angry at the Pastor for making those people cry, especially Joy, who had a baby and should be happy. And I felt angry at the people in the congregation, whose judgement was so palpable despite the silence. If Jesus knows, then why did they have to stand up in church and talk about it? I wondered why it was anybody's business but theirs and Jesus'.
And I clearly remember thinking that I wanted no part of that kind of business at all.
Was that moment to blame for my Atheism? No. It was just one little seed of doubt and dissatisfaction that was planted that day. But enough of those seeds will eventually grow into a garden of discontent that gets harvested as a bounty of rejection.
The wrongness I felt that day led to a more profound and encompassing sense of wrongness later on in life and eventually to realization that a belief system based on punishment, fear and shame was not one that I could embrace.
Which I find sad now, all these years later. Why? Well...I'm no Bible Scholar. But I did read my Bible cover to cover and got a nice faux leather King James Version with my initials stamped in gold letters on the front to show for my efforts. And I think that Jesus would have forgiven Mr. Mustache and Mrs. Straw Hair and loved them anyway. I don't think he would have humiliated or shamed them. I don't think he would have made them beg for anything. I think he would have asked the congregation to love and support them regardless of their mistake.
I think Jesus, the guy, was about love.
But I'm just an Atheist. So what do I know?