I grew up in a strict conservative Christian household. My father was the head of the household; my mother was the submissive wife. My father submitted to the leaders of our church. My brothers and I were expected to get in line.
I didn’t. Instead, I asked a lot of questions that began with, “Why?” Fundamentalists don’t like that word very much.
In church, other kids got to sit with their friends, but I had to sit with my parents. My parents carried their Bibles in cases. My mom’s was neat, but my dad’s was full of notes and post-its. He carried index cards with Bible verses on them in his breast pocket. My New Life Bible had a butterfly on it. That’s why I bought it — not because of anything inside. I doodled in the margins with a pen stolen from the sign-in table.
I went to a private Christian school from kindergarten to my senior year in high school. Whatever dogma I didn’t absorb at church I received there.
At church and at school, we were taught that humans were born sinful and needed atonement to be saved. That’s a condition called “original sin.”
Brittanica has a great definition:
Original sin, in Christian doctrine, the condition or state of sin into which each human being is born; also, the origin (i.e., the cause, or source) of this state. Traditionally, the origin has been ascribed to the sin of the first man, Adam, who disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit (of knowledge of good and evil) and, in consequence, transmitted his sin and guilt by heredity to his descendants.
To sum it up, when Adam sinned, we all sinned. From that point on, we were all born with sin inside us.
As a result, I grew up believing that I was — by default — really messed up.
To be saved from eternal damnation, we must seek the forgiveness of God and believe in Jesus. This process is called “atonement.” Christians teach that if you go to your grave without atonement, you will go to Hell. Therein lies the purpose and justification for Christianity.
“But wait,” you might say, “What about babies and little kids? What if they DIE before they know any better? Babies can’t go to HELL if they die! They haven’t had the chance to sin!”
Ahhh… but Christian fundamentalists have answers for those tough questions.
A kid can be subjected to the laws accompanying original sin when he or she is aware of good and evil and/or reaches “the age of accountability.” Some denominations actually put a number to it — age 8, in some cases.
Theopedia gives the following definition:
In other words, as soon as you’re capable of making a decision, you’d better make the right one. Because if you die unexpectedly, you go straight to Hell. (This tenet is taught in many churches despite the fact that many theologians cannot back this claim with any Biblical chapter or verse.)
I didn’t know all of this when, at age five, I was baptized in my bathtub at our home on Roxborough Avenue.
But as I grew older, Christian doctrine got more complex and more sinister. We went from learning about all the animals going two by two into Noah’s ark to hearing that, like, 70% of the world’s population is on the Highway to Hell.
I didn’t buy it. Not all of it, anyway. That many people can’t be wrong, I thought.
In sixth grade, I started asking questions. These included:
“Why are we all born sinful? Isn’t that the opposite of ‘innocent until proven guilty’? Isn’t God a good guy? That’s kind of out of character, right?”
“What happens if you’re halfway through your ‘I need Jesus’ statement and you croak? What if you thought it out completely but only said half of it? Will you go to Hell Lite?”
“So, I’m still sinful, even if I don’t feel guilty?” (My teacher raised an eyebrow at that one.)
We were taught that all religions not Christianity were classified as cults. Yes, even Catholicism. Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Christian Scientists (well, they are pretty weird), Muslims, and even Jews. Anyone who did not believe in the holy trinity and worship the Christian god alone was going to have eternal punishment.
Leaders in our church began using the word “depraved” to describe anyone who was not redeemed. Depraved means “morally corrupt; wicked.” I thought, Wow, that’s dark. My Catholic neighbor doesn’t seem all that bad.
We were taught that developing a “Christian world view” would change the way we perceive certain… ahem… apparent contradictions in the outside world. (Even if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a chicken, because the Bible says it’s a chicken.) We learned the difference between a paradox (an apparent contradiction) and an actual contradiction. This is important stuff if you have to someday argue the validity of religious beliefs that don’t make much sense to anyone outside the religion.
Toward the end of my high school experience, they added in some new stuff, which was — at this stage in my biblical education — utterly horrifying.
We were taught that there were seven levels of Hell. The first was indeed Hell Lite, reserved for the random three-year-old that fell out an open window or poked his daddy’s screwdriver into the electrical socket. Then there are levels two through six, with incrementally worse punishments.
The seventh level of Hell — with the worst punishment of them all — was reserved for Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler and most of his Nazi buddies, and of course, serial killers.
The seventh level of Hell was also reserved for people who had heard the word of God and decided not to pursue a relationship with Christ.
Boy, that’s a heck of a thing to tell a teenage kid after they’ve just completed more than a decade of Christian school.
Goodbye, choices. Hello, guilt.
I was traumatized.
I graduated from my Christian school and went out into the real world and found that most of everything I encountered in my theology classes was more than a little off. I couldn’t ignore the nagging differences between life, theology classes, and my church’s teachings. They weren’t paradoxes. They were stark contradictions.
I left my church soon afterward. Things were getting weird there. They had ousted the pastor that baptized me. Y2K was coming, and the church leaders were preparing for the Apocalypse. My dad was on board.
And something happened: I started thinking. With my brain. Instantly, I felt bad. I felt bad about even thinking there was something out there better than Christianity.
The guilt was immediate, and overwhelming.
How could I turn my back on my parents, and all of the lessons I’d been taught? Could my Bible teachers really be that wrong on so many things? They wouldn’t feed all kinds of harmful, incorrect stuff to hundreds of impressionable kids year after year, would they? And who am I to question the teachings of the Bible?
The pastor that baptized me at age five went through a faith transformation of his own. He chose to follow Jesus instead of the church, which, ironically, made him unpopular. Put simply: he chose to love others, instead of judge them. I kept in touch with him over the years. He had told me he regretted baptizing me so early in life. He recommended books on the real Jesus and modern (non-fundamentalist) Christianity. These books led me to other books, which led me to others, until I ran across Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.
The God Delusion was irreverent, sarcastic, funny, and smart. I read it cover to cover and enjoyed every word. It wasn’t the only book responsible for my own faith transformation, but it did play a large part. Dawkins taught me it was okay to ask questions. He taught me to look at dogma from a practical perspective. He made me understand that belief is a choice, and that I would only be beholden to a belief system if I did, in fact, believe. (i.e. Money is valuable only because we all believe it is valuable.)
So I decided I would believe original sin is garbage. I am not guilty by association because some guy and his wife ate an apple eight thousand years ago. And it improved the way I looked at myself, even just a little bit.
Still, the guilt hung on, because it was so deeply ingrained.
I read more about the foundations of all major world religions and found most of them were based on… well… hundreds and thousands of years of folklore. Christianity was no exception. And I realized that just because a story has been passed down for generations doesn’t make it true, holy, or something by which I needed to live my life.
My New Life Bible went into the memories box, where it belonged.
The guilt remained. There are such serious consequences for your actions, I heard my grandma Ruth inside my head, Giving up your own salvation is an unforgivable sin!
Just before I turned 30, I joined a Unitarian Universalist church. I wanted community without the dogma. I wanted my kids to know how to behave in a church environment. One of my fellow church members was a Wiccan priestess. I chose to love her and learn from her instead of expect her to grow another head and start fryin’ up little kids. The UU church was a good fit, and I stayed.
Soon, I realized I had left behind the guilt. And since God himself hadn’t showed up yet to personally convince my sinnin’ ass to get in line, I was pretty much okay with leaving him behind, too. It was people — only people — who had convinced me he existed. People just like me.
Please, I beg you, don’t mistake my sarcasm for carelessness. I prayed and deliberated over this decision for years. It was by no means a quick or easy conclusion.
When someone asked me what religion I was, I started using the word “agnostic” to identify myself. “I believe there’s something out there, but I’m not sure what it is,” I’d say. It felt like saying I was a registered Green Party voter. I read somewhere that being agnostic is like cautiously toeing the line, like not committing to atheism all the way just to be safe. It took another two years until I finally felt safe enough (listen to this nonsense!) to give up a belief in God altogether.
Now I am an atheist.
And boy, has my life changed.
I know original sin is a lie. I am by no means wicked or morally depraved, and no, I don’t need redemption.
I believe that I’m an okay human being. I have my faults, and there are things that I work on every day to be a better person. But I don’t focus on the flaws so much. Instead, I look at what I can do, and I do more of that to make myself better.
I believe the concept of sin is another confabulation meant to keep us in line. But there are consequences — good or bad — for every action. (And inaction.)
I am accountable for my actions, and I don’t blame them on some mythical creature. The devil did not make me do it. God did not send me a sign. I did it myself. I suck. And I’m sorry.
I am kind to people, not because God has commanded me to do so, but because it makes the world a better place. Kindness pays off, don’t you know?
I respect people of all religions without secretly vilifying them, but I am acutely aware of the pitfalls of extremist religious beliefs, and I protect myself and my children from those who seek to rope me in. I am impervious to evangelicals.
I don’t assign any religious significance to things that are in and of themselves amazing. I am fascinated by dragonflies not because I believe God created them, but because they’re like beautiful, colorful little aliens.
I raise my children with open minds and hope they will build their own belief systems devoid of the influence of dogma. I discourage their grandparents or other adults from pressing them to believe one way or another. It still happens, but those adults know where I stand. And sometimes that’s enough.
Without the Christian world view, I can see the connections between all of us more clearly. I no longer see the people of Earth as tribes separated by beliefs. Instead, I see us united in our humanity. That’s a pretty good way to live, I think. It makes me care more about others, even if they’re — gulp — Mormons.
The guilt is gone, and I no longer feel that tightness in my chest when someone asks, “What religion are you?”
“I’m an atheist,” I say, and I smile. “You should try it. It’s great.”
Esther Hofknecht Curtis, MSM-HCA is an independent writer living in Dover, Delaware. Follow her on Facebook — go to https://www.facebook.com/TheArdentReader19977/