I think it is time that I dig into how I got to where I am. My writings here are to chronicle my ongoing growth as an atheist (and humanist), but it’s not clear how to do that if I don’t first analyze how I arrived at where I am today. I need first to build a foundation.
In the religious sense, my mother was head of the household when I was a child (much to her dismay). She was the one who picked the church, herded us kids to church on Sundays (and occasionally Wednesday nights), led myself (and my sister) to Jesus at a young age, and encouraged us to read the bible and pray. I remember a number of times that my father stayed home while the rest of us went to church. I’m not sure if at the time I envied him, or simply thought his time was better spent than ours as we headed out the door. But I do remember many Sunday mornings that my mother would pop a roast in the oven and hustle us kids off to church as dad stayed home. I remember being given change to drop into the plate as it went by. I knew we were helping missionaries in Africa and elsewhere, any yet as a child I no more understood what they were doing in Africa than I understood at the time was was being done to me.
I was aware of the friction between my parents on the topic of church attendance. I don’t think it was that my father was actually against church, but it simply wasn’t a pressing concern for him. He was in the real world, the present-day world, the working-man’s world. He was a farmer, and later a construction worker. He had his hands full of cold, hard, physical reality.
We moved among churches a fair amount. I remember Hillcrest Baptist in Logansport, Indiana. We left there because the new preacher was critical of how we dressed. (We were poor farmers, after all.) There was another church in Logansport, perhaps earlier, although I don’t remember why we left it. I know we left some churches because they were not “alive” enough. For a brief while, we attended the one and only church in Fulton (that’s not even a one-stoplight-town; it is merely a flashing-yield-light-town). And there were still other churches. We found some stability at a church my aunt attended, an “Olive Branch Church of Christ”. It was at this church that I remember starting to get more “into” religion and god. I helped with some productions, and sometimes put my hands up and swayed while we sang songs off the overhead projector. I started to really “get” the god thing.
I went to a boarding school (of sorts) for high school. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a chance for a small breather from church. I took some college level courses during high school, including philosophy. Looking back, I wish I had been more open-minded. It was good to have that breather from home and church, and yet it was almost too late. My mind had mostly been welded shut by that point. Perhaps it didn’t help, either, that at the time I had lingering romantic interests in my first crush, who happened to be going to college on the same campus as I was attending high school. She was as wholesome as apple pie and down-home as your local church youth group. …and so maybe I hadn’t gotten quite the breather that I thought I had.
Then I went off to MIT in Boston, and things ratcheted up a notch. Midwestern, protestant, white-as-white-bread farmboy meets the liberal east coast, and what happens? Not what you’d expect.
I had been on campus barely more than a few months when I met Rob and Matt. They were fellow MIT students, sharply dressed, friendly, talkative, and they seemed to take an intense interest in me. I was naive. After the friendship had been built, they invited me to church with them, at the Boston Church of Christ. I went. I found something similar to “Olive Branch” yet bigger and more intense. From all of my upbringing, this was right. This was good. This was “alive” and therefore must be true.
Every time I went to church, Rob and Matt pressed me for a commitment to the next event. Sunday morning church. Evening church. Wednesday night bible study. Friday night. Monday night. And when I resisted anything, Rob and Matt questioned my commitment to god, and my salvation. Being on god’s side took work, commitment, time. It was a way of life. And it had to be a conscious choice, and a conscious commitment. This resonated with me because it matched my upbringing – accepting god as savior was a conscious choice. It was my own decision that had to be made. And yet my youthful decision was clearly not enough. God’s true disciples had to walk the walk. It was Decision Time again, and this time it was for real. God or MIT?
Rob pressed me repeatedly to make a decision. No decision, by default, was a decision against god, and the bible was clear in that case that I was doomed to hell. There was no middle ground. My every spare waking hour (by some definition of spare) must be dedicated to god, or else I was not serious, and therefore was not actually committed to god. Ergo hell. He showed me the verses, and lo and behold, there it was in black and white. He was right (if the bible was to be believed). And that caused me no end of consternation. My upbringing had taught me that god and Jesus are real and to be feared and loved (even though the juxtaposition of fear and loved always seemed strange to me). I had been taught that the bible is the literal word of god.
(Over time, of course, I had quietly taken my own liberties with that literal interpretation – such as, god’s days were like millennia in human years, allowing me to believe the Genesis story literally and yet not. In my early 20’s I had also designed my own form of doublethink regarding evolution: Evolution was a scientific fact that I could not deny, and yet I reconciled this with god by thinking god could have breathed the “spark” of consciousness into man at some point in the past. Looking back, I realized that I conveniently sidestepped even considering what that “spark” might be, or how god could have made it occur in a way outside of evolution and outside the natural world. For if he hadn’t done it in a “super-natural” way, he negated the very need for his existence in this area, and perhaps entirely.)
But even with all this, I had not yet carved out some doublethink in my mind to explain the biblical requirement to be completely committed to god. So there I was, paying nearly $30,000 per year in MIT tuition (and this was in 1994 dollars… so we are talking even more “real money” than it sounds; I think it’s closer to $50,000 per year as I write this) and seriously debating whether I should be studying my 6.001 problem set or the bible.
I didn’t realize at the time that the Boston Church of Christ was considered by many to be a cult. Go ahead and google “Boston Church of Christ cult” and do your own research. As just one example, here is a site to assist people to escape and recover from it.
Be that as it may, I must ask, how can the BCC be labeled a cult and mainstream Christianity not? That’s because the vast majority of Christians (despite what they say) do not take the bible literally. To me, that fact right there is a crushing blow to religion in general. If you allow yourself liberties with it, then you do not honestly believe it to be true. You are either believe it literally and are therefore a “fundamentalist”, or you employ doublethink as I did. Truly, completely, believing it is widely (and rightly) considered to be nutty. Yet partitioning your brain and employing doublethink so that you can somewhat believe it without suffering cognitive dissonance is nutty too.
One last note about the BCC: They also employ brainwashing. I experienced this slightly, but others document it more extensively on the web. Well, mainstream Christianity does the same, even if it is not as formally defined up through the hierarchy. I lived it as a child. Pick your flavor of religion; they are all cults. They stamp out outside thought. They stamp out critical thinking. They stamp out examination of your own thought processes; they teach blind faith instead. It is herd mentality – it must be to survive – and I despise that.
My first full-time job after MIT was in Utah. But that’s for next time.