Fear & Loathing in the Suburbs (Part 1 of 3)
Posted on February 22, 2018
If you asked me just three years ago to describe my childhood experiences with religion to you I would have told you a very different story than the one you’re about to read. Until three years ago, I called myself a Christian, genuinely believed I was raised that way, and quite simply felt that I was always a Christian. But it’s not three years ago. It’s today, and today, I am an atheist.
For me, the most difficult part about my realization that I was an atheist was the self-reflection it took to get there. The truth is that I wasn’t always a Christian. I wasn’t consistently raised that way. And for most of my childhood, I didn’t “feel” that I was Christian. What I felt was fear and shame. And without those two elements, I don’t believe I would have found my way in to the Christian faith at all.
Honestly reflecting on both my childhood and the years I’d spent as a loud and proud Christian was emotional, embarrassing, amusing, heart breaking, and ultimately, rewarding. Forevermore, I will view my life in three unique segments: (1) my childhood brainwashing; (2) my life as a Christian; and (3) everything after that. And so, I chose to share with you my journey into Christianity and back out again in those three unique segments – this is the brainwashing part.
Until I was 5, I was raised by a single mother. A strong, independent woman who came from nothing – less than nothing even. She had given my father, a man she had dated in her teens, but never wed, an ultimatum: cocaine or your daughter. He chose the coke. So it became just my mom and I, and she was my world.
My first memory of church was my mother’s wedding to her first husband. What I remember most about that day is feeling like we didn’t belong there. While church wasn’t a part of our lives at all until that moment, somewhere along the way, I’d gotten the message from someone that “good” people go to church and “bad” people don’t. We didn’t go to church. Because of this I was all too aware of our badness.
Five year old me ran up and down the aisle in my flower girl dress while the women got glammed up for the big day. Pretty quickly, someone from my soon to be new family sternly told me to compose myself because “we were in church.” When they condescendingly asked where my mom and I attended church, I lied, saying I couldn’t remember the name, but one “like this one.”
My mom and I were a team and I couldn’t be the reason someone found us out. I did my best to protect our secret badness, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was on to us. As I waited for my mom to walk down the aisle, I was certain at any moment someone was going to come tell us the gig was up, and send us packing. This is my first memory of feeling shame.
My next memories of organized religion were around the same time, but with my biological father. A few years after my mom had given him the coke ultimatum, he’d found god, a good Christian wife with good Christian sons, and was born again a new godly man. He and his family attended an apostolic church. The congregation was large, loud, and primarily black. I immediately found this surprising, as my father was racist. While at that young age, I didn’t fully understand racism, I knew nigger was a bad word, and was very aware that I shouldn’t broadcast my father’s liberal use of it.
The pastor was a fat, soulful white guy, but during his sermons, he’d get so fired up that his face would turn a deep shade of purple. I often worried his heart was going to give out mid-sermon. He’d yell to the congregation, “can I get an Amen…. CAN I GET AN AMEN?” The congregation would Amen loudly on command and with gusto. The services were long, and the longer they went, the more active the “holy spirit” would become. Men and women running up and down the aisles, speaking in tongues, fainting, sweating, loving and fearing their god. My five-year-old self was in love. Not with god, but rather the people watching.
As a young suburban white girl who’d been to a Methodist church for a wedding and a few holidays, I’d never been the minority in a church or any other setting for that matter. This alone was fascinating to me. More fascinating still was that the women weren’t permitted to cut their hair, or, wear make-up or pants. The black women pulled this look off much better than the white women. Their clothes were vibrant and colorful, their hair fun and funky unlike anything I’d seen before. Best of all, they wore all the shades of red lipstick even though it was “forbidden.” I grew up believing black women across the board were braver than white women – after all, what’s braver than wearing red lipstick if your god commanded against it? Meanwhile, the white woman wore those awful monochromatic skirt-suits that were ill fitting and hung down to their ankles. They too, wore their hair in dramatic up-dos, but with ringlet curls. The black women could have been the cast of ‘A Different World,’ while the white women could have been attending a ‘Wive’s Warren Jeffs Convention.’ My view from the pews was a glorious juxtaposition.
Sometimes my dad would hold my hand and sing in a deep bellowing voice, but other times, he and the strangers seated near us would lay hands on me and speak in tongues over me. I couldn’t understand why they needed to talk in another language. It seemed secretive and I was convinced they were discussing my badness with their god. When I’d listen to the purple pastor’s hellfire and damnation sermons, I simultaneously felt superiority and unease. In my gut, I believed every thing about this church was non-sense, hence, the superiority. But deep down, I felt unease, as I questioned why I could never “feel” what everyone else in the room seemed to feel so powerfully.
How often I attended this church was contingent on how often my father would show up for his visitation – which was inconsistent at best, but enough to make an impact. He’d fill the silence of our car rides holding my hand while speaking in tongues and putting down my mother’s parenting. And often, we’d abruptly swerve into the drug store parking lot to get nail polish remover to un-polish my painted nails. God doesn’t want you adorned this way he would tell me. I once asked why only girls had these kinds of rules to follow. He just looked at me and scrubbed harder. At night, when my father would give me a bath, he’d demand to know if my new stepbrothers were touching me. They were, and he clearly knew it with the frequency at which he’d inquire. I’d lie – I especially didn’t want to confirm my badness on this subject matter. Then he’d put me to bed in my brothers’ room. In church on Sunday’s, I’d apologize for whatever sexual crime I knew I’d committed the night before to a god I didn’t think was up there – just in case. Not surprisingly, my shame deepened.
When I was eight or nine, I went to a church camp with my cousin. At the end of the day, we had circle time and could ask our wise and knowing 15-year-old camp counselor all of life’s big questions. Someone spoke about being saved. Too embarrassed to ask in the group setting, for it would be further evidence of my secret badness, I privately asked my wise camp counselor what it meant to be saved. The conversation went like this:
TIMID MK: “What does it mean… to be saved?”
WISE 15 YO: “It’s the best thing you can imagine. You ask god to forgive you of all of your sins so that he can come live in your heart. Then when you die you get to go to heaven to be with your whole family forever.”
TIMID MK: “What happens if you don’t go to heaven?”
WISE 15 YO: Thinks for a moment about how to break the bad news to me and then says, “Well, you have to go to hell and don’t ever get to see your family again.”
TIMID MK: Stares at her in horrified silence.
WISE 15 YO: “Would you like to get saved?”
TIMID MK: Recognizing the grave disparity between my options that before now I’d been mostly unaware of, I manage to squeak out, “Um, yeah. What do I have to do?”
WISE 15 YO: “It’s easy, just repent for your sins – all the bad stuff you’ve done – then ask jesus to come live in your heart forever. The only thing is you really have to mean it.”
TIMID MK: I worriedly ask myself how to “mean it” and how specific I should be about the “bad stuff” then close my eyes to pray before I can wimp out. “Ummmmm, I’m sorry for all the bad stuff I’ve ever done, I really want you to come into my heart and save me so I can be with with you and my family in heaven.”
Immediately, I think that seemed way too easy and realize I must’ve done it wrong. I open my eyes to see my counselor’s face stunned at my brief and meek prayer, which further confirmed to me that I’d surely done it wrong. To my surprise, she simply congratulated me and asked if I felt different. I didn’t, but I did the right thing and lied. Later, in another wisdom filled circle time, she announced that I’d chosen to live for jesus and had been saved. The group of 8-10 year olds applauded me and asked how I felt. I lied some more.
Sometime shortly after I returned home from camp, while sitting on the floor as my mom braided my hair, I noticed she had a gold cross necklace around her neck. This was new. I asked my mom why she was wearing it, curious, as god still was not a significant part of our lives in my mother’s home. She explained that she liked to know god was with her always – looking out for her. I asked how she knew that he was real. She explained that too much bad had happened in her life to explain how good her life turned out and because of this she knew he was watching out for her. “Too much bad” was a reference to her less than nothing childhood I mentioned earlier.
My mother confirming her very real belief in this higher power changed something in me. It didn’t make god any more real for me, or aide me in “feeling” him in any more tangible way. But it did make me fear – and fear deeply – that my mom was going to go to heaven and I wasn’t going to be allowed in with her.
From that day forward, every single night, I re-prayed that stupid redemption prayer determined to get it right. That counselor and I both knew that I’d gotten the prayer wrong. I often wondered why she didn’t make redo it at the time and explain more clearly how the prayer was supposed to be said. The only thing she really stressed was that I had to “mean it.” Well, I meant it now, as much as I could, without knowing a god was really up there somewhere. My mother was my every thing and while I wasn’t sure there was a god, I was sure I had to get into heaven. I decided if I showed this god I meant business, he’d surely demonstrate his realness to me. After all, he too must want me to make it to heaven to be with him.
I prayed both aloud and silently. I apologized for specific things and also made broad sweeping apologies as a catchall back up plan. Sometimes nearly asleep, I’d recall something else that needed righting and I’d make a prayer addendum. I’d tell god that I wanted to talk to him, to know he was really out there the way it seemed everyone else that I knew already did.
I begged god to reveal himself to me in some real way so that I could know I was on the right track. He never did. My shame once again intensified. I knew it was my fault that I couldn’t see the sign he must be showing me. Because of this, my fear of not getting into heaven persisted.
Shame from a god I was uncertain I believed in, and fear of being exiled from a place I wasn’t sure existed. It was a heavy burden to bear as a child. And because I was too ashamed to admit my uncertainties for fear of making the world aware of my perpetual badness, I bore it alone.
During my middle school years, my mom had that abrupt realization that many parents do – she should be raising her children in church to ensure we were getting the moral guidance we needed. This meant we would have many “church phases” over the next few years. We’d try out a new church for a few months and then stop abruptly with my mom declaring it wasn’t a good fit for our family. We never stayed long enough for me to make friends. And frankly, I didn’t want to. I knew that everyone would see right through to my badness. The longer my fear had persisted, the angrier I felt at this so-called god. For years, I wanted a simple confirmation, a small sign or gesture that he’d gotten all of those late night prayers of mine. I wanted to know that he had a file on me. That he was listening, and paying attention, and looking out for me. And when I didn’t get that, I began to reject him – loudly.
I was particularly loud on the church phase Sundays. I’d scream at my mother that this god of hers wasn’t real and that I didn’t need church to be a good person. Her argument was always the same – “only good can come from going to church, and only good can come from believing in god, so what’s the harm?” I hated when she’d make these proclamations because at the time they truly stumped me. I genuinely had no idea how to argue against these ideas. I had never been exposed to other religions or religious history. I didn’t know there were other people out there leading good and moral existences without god. I assumed everyone believed and that I was alone in my late night queries.
It was also during my middle school years that visitation with my father became even more sporadic, and in turn, my visits to his church were too. On the occasions that he’d show up for visitation, my car rides with him were also much different than before. He was tense and angry, particularly with god. He prayed aloud to him noticeably less. He cursed more. And he’d often furiously rant to me in a rapid disjointed manner. Rather than ask me how my weeks had been going since he’d last seen me, he’d say, “MK, do you have black friends? You don’t know black people like I do, you haven’t seen a nigger act like a nigger the way I have. You can’t understand what I went through as I child. You don’t know Granddad as well as you think you do. You don’t know what he was like to me when he got remarried. I can’t take you to church on Sunday. I can’t be there right now. God’s not on my side right now. He’s still with you. He’s always with you no matter what. You’re still pure. Has your mother been taking you to church? She ought to be, you need it. You need god. Always remember that. No matter what.” His words were dark and morbid, and there was finality to them that I couldn’t wrap my head around at the time. When I’d ask him deeper questions trying to reconcile all of his ramblings, he’d grow frustrated that I didn’t understand the wisdom he’d just bestowed upon me, and then further chauffeur me in silence. I’d just stare out the window wondering how he could tell whether or not his god was on his side.
At that time, my father was the owner of a hugely successful home remodeling company outside of Washington D.C. On the way to his house, we’d often stop off at a construction site so that, according to my father, he could issue payroll. He’d quickly hop out, chat with one gruff guy or another each time, and hand them some cash. Typically, he’d come back with something else in hand. Then he’d drop me at his home to spend the weekend with my stepmother and brothers and I wouldn’t see him again until he drove me home Sunday evening.
At that time, I believed a few things to be true: (1) drug deals took place in secret scary back ally type places; (2) with the help of his god, my dad had been clean for years; and (3) car rides with my father were growing increasingly uncomfortable for me. Turns out, only one of those things was true. I just didn’t know it yet.
Back home with my mom about the same time, we started attending a non-denominational church. They played loud worship music; had a huge youth group that sat in the front of the church separate from their parents; and offered coffee and donuts to everyone after the service. It wasn’t weird and scary like my dad’s church, and it wasn’t stuffy and boring like the churches my mom had been testing out the last few years. It was fresh, welcoming, and upbeat.
They didn’t talk about a literal fire burning hell; rather, they spoke about an eternal “absence of god.” They didn’t talk about getting saved; rather, they spoke about your ongoing day-to-day relationship with god. They explained that he was everywhere in everything – in all of the goodness we witnessed each and every day. They spoke of his plan for everyone and everything – for me specifically, he had a grand plan for me! They talked about having faith in this god – even in times of doubt. They acknowledged doubt! I wasn’t alone in mine. Every Sunday felt like a pep talk for the following week – motivation for the next seven days to be a good person, to help others, to get closer to god so that he would get closer to you.
It was my first exposure to the feel good, new testament, faith over fact formula and for me it was incredibly effective. It didn’t happen overnight; in fact, it took several years. But, for the first time, I was open to the idea of a real god without the necessity of tangible evidence. And once I started buying in to the idea that proof of god’s existence was that I didn’t get into a car accident that morning, or, I’d managed to go 14 years without any major health crisis, suddenly I was seeing the signs I’d been searching for my entire childhood. For the first time ever, not only did he feel real to me, I felt that he was working for me, rather than against me.
And while no one single thing finally convinced me, three separate things collectively wore me down. Sixteen years of fear. Sixteen years of self-loathing. And the icing on the cake: the right spokesperson. It was a slow burn, but by my junior year of high school, I was a loud and proud Christian.