It’s funny how religion can mean everything or nothing. I grew up in a household that seldom talked about god. A friend of my older sister invited her to vacation bible school one summer and I tagged along. When it was over, an older couple offered to pick us up and take us to regular church. My sister went sporadically for a while before giving up completely. But I was devoted. My parents did not object to the idea, so from the age of four I went to church every Sunday without my parents.
Neither of my parents grew up with a strong focus on faith, so they weren’t concerned. Church seemed safe enough. I was raised by liberals who viewed religion with suspicion; enough to not go to church themselves, but not quite enough to worry about their preschooler attending alone. I imagine the members of my church saw them as heathens, which explains why I was spoiled there.
And I was. On my first official Sunday after vacation bible school I was presented with a little black and white table that had been made especially for me. You see, it was a very small bible church and there were no other kids my age. My Sunday school class was always a one on one session. The adults there loved to make me perform, and I didn’t mind. I was always singing solos and reciting bible verses during the service.
When I graduated high school they held a special ceremony and presented me with an engraved bible that I still have. When I left for my missions trip, this tiny church gave me more financial support than any other group member. And some of the group members came from huge churches. In fact, while I was on the road they took up a separate collection every Sunday just for me. Sometimes I feel bad about getting married and moving away. I was loved there.
If only they could see me now.
But through it all my parents remained indifferent. When I became obsessed with Jesus around my junior year of high school I suspect they were annoyed, but they also figured I couldn’t be getting into too much trouble. I wasn’t. It helped, because at that point I did not get along with my parents at all and I desperately wanted to escape from home. Deciding to become a missionary was a surprise to them but they did not try to stop me. They also did not offer any financial support toward the ministry.
I knew my dad was not a believer. I never saw any trace of spirituality in him, and the topic of church would inspire immediate eye rolls. It still does. My atheism is no doubt a source of pride for him now. My mom on the other hand seemed to always be seeking out spiritual answers on her own. She wasn’t interested in the Christian church life, but she did read a lot of books on different religions and once dragged me to the nearby Kingdom Hall. She is the woman who not only invites the Jehovah’s Witness in to talk, but invites them back for weekly discussions. In the end we did not give up Christmas, but I was forced to hand over my Ouija Board.
I suppose I am an example of what happens when you let your child make their own decisions about god. Their mistake was not knowing what I was being taught at church; they were oblivious to the subtle ways I was being brainwashed by kind, well-meaning people. Because there were no discussions about what I was learning there, the teaching I received was unbalanced. Of course, not experiencing god at home was an advantage I had over other Christian children.
The thing that strikes me today is that telling my parents my thoughts on god, whether I believe or do not believe, has always felt irrelevant. It isn’t a big deal. A complete change of faith could be brought up in casual conversation with little to no reaction. This wouldn’t strike me as interesting at all if not for my husband.
My husband grew up with church being everything, especially at home. For his parents belief in god is more relevant than anything else. My husband’s father has written a book supporting the science behind creation. Just this month he set up a website and blog. There is no question that this man is intelligent, and his need to reconcile reason with god is a dominating force in his life. There is a struggle there that I recognize, but he doesn’t see it. I do not believe he will lose faith now. He is too committed to the cause of defending it, and he is in his seventies.
They do not know that I am an atheist or that I write this blog. Will they find out? Maybe. I know the risk is there. We are many years past the days when their approval factored into our decisions, so it is okay if that happens. But I won’t be the one to bring it up. They no longer ask us about church, and in their minds we probably are in danger. But not lost. I keep this secret in order to preserve the relationship. Sometimes it’s better not to tell the whole truth all of the time.
I am fully aware of the polar opposites my father-in-law and I have become. The irony is how much our differences prove what we have in common. But it’s hard to be the atheist in this scenario, because I have been in their shoes and I know what I thought then. Atheism would be easier if I didn’t care so much about sharing my lack of faith. I could quietly think whatever I wanted to think and no one would need to be the wiser. The same can be said of being a Christian, but for different reasons.
As a Christian it was terrifying to witness to someone who didn’t know god, but calling myself a Christian was easy. The opposite is true of atheism. I am happy to spread the bad news to believers; but unlike Christians who inject spiritual anecdotes into everyday conversation, criticizing religion can be done without full disclosure of where one stands. From the moment I was sure I no longer believed to the moment I was comfortable saying it out loud was almost seven full years. It’s easier now, but I only share this blog with fifteen percent of my Facebook friends for a reason.
You can’t explain all that to a Christian. All they hear is “atheist” and they know everything they want to know about you. I hate misunderstandings. It is maybe the entire reason I do care so much about sharing how doubt has changed my life. That, and seeing the danger of religion up close. Seeing both sides makes me want to clear up a thousand misconceptions. And yet, I do not want to clear the air with those in my day to day life. It’s just personal enough to offer more destruction than repair.
Religion can mean everything or nothing at all. Given the reality of the world we live in, I would settle with meeting each other somewhere in the middle.