|Maybe the title of this post is a little inaccurate. I never really had religion inside my heart or my mind, but it was very much a part of my life as a youngster. I grew up in an isolated community in which the church played a big role, and even though I attended non-faith schools, religion was still ubiquitous. In my first two schools, the legal requirement for an act of daily worship was strictly adhered to; we regularly had visits from church groups to teach us dubious moral lessons, and religious dogma permeated the syllabus. And this was in an ordinary, non-faith school system. I’ve heard of the experiences of those who did attend religious schools, and their stories range from the casually harmful to the downright monstrous. In addition to the formal aspects of education, the ethos of the schools was very much focused on discipline and shame. We were not educated about drugs, alternative lifestyles or sexuality, or even about our bodies and sex in anything but the most clinical and limited terms. I think the idea was that if we were shielded from it, we wouldn’t do it (this presents a kind of magical thinking about the teenage brain).|
My family were incredibly religious, attending church at least twice a week. My childhood was overseen by good old-fashioned Christian discipline, with certain topics off-limits for discussion (anything about the human body, sex, or social injustices), and certain viewpoints the unquestionable truth (homosexuality = bad, nuclear family = good). The way this was instilled within us was by fear. Disobedience or blasphemy (yes, as a child I was instructed to limit my speech, and by extension, my thinking) were punished by a beating, or at the very least by being yelled at. No opportunity for reflection was given, so that I could figure out what I’d done wrong – I just learnt to know what I could get away with around whom.
|Throughout my school career, there was a noticeable divide between those who had religion, and those who didn’t. Although our community was cut off, plenty of families were more outward-looking and didn’t get caught in the trap. At the time, I thought that the children from those families were mean and spiteful and bad. So it was a difficult dance to perform at school – I wanted to have friends, but I also knew that the kids I wanted to hang around with were prone to taking the piss out of the religious, and it made me feel really small. Even though I didn’t believe in it, there was a feeling of “wrongness”, like these words were a personal attack on me. In these situations I just kept my mouth shut and hoped they would stop, and (please, please, please!) not turn their attention on me. Not having anywhere to turn while trying to leave religion behind was so awkward for me. I wish that I’d discovered atheist groups before my thirties, my formative years could have been so much more enjoyable.|
In my late teens, a family friend encouraged me to get confirmed. By this point in my life I was unsure how I felt about religion, but it was something that we just “did”, so I went along with it. Unfortunately this then imposed all kinds of expectations on me, that I would attend church more regularly, that I would take communion (I felt so uncomfortable about this – like I had been coerced into a ceremony I felt no connection to), that I would live my life in a certain way, and most insidiously that I would “find some new friends”. I toed the line up until the first opportunity arose that gave me a chance to leave, which was going to university shortly after I had turned 18. My parents were dead against it (it’s a dangerous world, there are all sorts of bad influences out there, etc, etc), but I already had a reputation for being headstrong (I wasn’t really, I was just normal, but my parents didn’t want to have to deal with “normal”).
|So by the time I arrived at uni almost 20 years ago (I know!), I was simultaneously glad to be free, and quite fearful of the myriad opportunities for transgression that were available pretty much as soon as I was left alone in a strange city for 5 minutes. I wasn’t good at making safe choices, or controlling my impulses, because I’d never been allowed to make mistakes as a child. Religion may well keep its adherents on the straight and narrow, but only because it prevents them from figuring things out for themselves. Take someone out of that environment, and they have a LOT of catching up to do. I was all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and very little study. I learnt so much about myself that first year away, but I did it the hard way. I made all my social mistakes at once, and got myself into some rather sticky situations that I found it difficult to extricate myself from. I discovered that left alone to develop my own morals and beliefs, I was becoming quite a different person to what my parents had told me I was. My year 1 flatmates didn’t really like me, and one of the reasons we didn’t get on was that I just wasn’t at the same stage of development as them. I went it alone a lot of the time, and didn’t always reach the healthiest conclusions. I would never have wanted to admit at the time that I was vulnerable, but I was. I wasn’t self-aware or resilient enough – if I had been, I’d have dropped religion a lot sooner.|
By this time religion was just something that one did, I certainly didn’t feel an attachment, or find meaning in any of it. There had been times in my teens when I had enjoyed the collective euphoria of a religious service, or the community aspect, but I never really believed it. I assumed that other people at church must have felt the same way, but I’ve since met many people of whom it is clear that they really do believe (I try to understand their views, but it’s almost like the “religion” part of my mind doesn’t really work. The “philosophy” part, however….). I wonder if the first red flag occurred with Santa Claus. See, I hear of many stories when someone first realised that Santa wasn’t real. Well, I don’t have that memory. Santa was spoken of in our house, I was told the stories about him delivering all the presents on 24th December and sneaking in down the chimney to drop them off, and many of my Christmas presents were “From Santa”. But even my 4- or 5-year-old self knew it was a crock of shit. I clearly remember knowing while that age that Santa was just a story. As was the tooth fairy. But the thing to do was to play along because it was kind of fun, and involved getting presents. This could well have laid the foundations for my shallow acceptance of religion growing up. I knew that with non-religious peers and adults, I could do and say one thing, and with my family or at church I must do another. It was complicated by the overtly religious nature of my schooling, because the lines between religious instruction and the real world were blurred. I had to discern which role to play in which circumstance, so while I lacked some social skills, I became very good at reading people’s intentions. I also knew how to give people what they wanted, which became dangerous as I also learnt that I should always please others. That’s a hard one to shake, and I’ve still not really got there.
|One thing that I really struggled with was that adults who knew the family, even if they weren’t religious themselves, had expectations of me being religious. I had to act out scenes which I really didn’t believe in. It felt hypocritical. I felt uncomfortable going through the motions, because I knew it wasn’t me, but I also couldn’t tell my parents how I felt – they totally lost it if I repeated a religious joke, so telling them I thought it was bullshit was probably not going to go down well.
So I was away from home, feeling gratitude that I could live my life the way I wanted, but also still holding on to some “god-fearing” beliefs. To this day, I have anxiety about taking the Lord’s name in vain, even though I know it’s entirely inconsequential. It’s like I retained all the bad bits and lost any good bits from religion (fortunately there aren’t that many). Over the years my confidence grew, and I’m a lot more outspoken about my beliefs. I also don’t put up with other people’s false assumptions about me. I only wish I’d managed this quicker than I did.
I used to hold some really objectionable opinions that were completely baseless when I actually thought about them logically (for example, I inherited – and subsequently disinherited – homophobia from my parents, while also knowing that it was a stupid and harmful belief. That’s cognitive dissonance for you!). And that was one thing that changed in my mindset – I had no problem logically seeing that the religion itself was a fantasy, but the baggage that came with it went unquestioned until I was out of the bubble. Deconstructing these beliefs and opinions also took time, but it was a necessary process. My politics and views on oppressed minorities are so changed that my personality is unrecognisable now, and I cringe at some of the views I held up to be true.
Actually leaving religion – that was the hard bit. I had no resources to safely get away, or to prevent well-meaning family from trying to rein me back in. Leaving home was the only way that I could do it, and it had to be far away. Living just down the road would not have been enough distance. It’s one thing that makes me wary when people mock the religious: like at school, when kids from the more enlightened families would poke fun at religion. I shared their views, but I could also tell that they saw me as one of the religious types. The joke kept me in my place. Having met many people who’ve desperately searched for a way out, I exercise caution in this respect. Sure, it’s one thing to ridicule from afar, but how many closet atheists are we preventing from finding freedom? We have to be welcoming to those who retain their faith, to those who question it, and to those who we have no idea of their intentions. Leaving religion is a journey, and there’s no set course. Assumptions harm, and as skeptics we should be especially wary.