I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had been raised with religion in a milder form.
I have friends who are gently religious. Their faith brings them comfort; it gives them strength. Their warm and welcoming God loves and supports them. They are loving parents, loyal spouses, kind neighbors. They would never metaphorically clobber someone over the head with a Bible. Their religion makes them feel better and in spite of my atheism, I have no desire to take that away from them.
But when I explain why I am leery of religion, they understand.
After leaving the cult behind, I took years to reexamine my beliefs, slowly picking out all the legalistic bits that had been ingrained in my belief and trying to rediscover the essence of my childhood faith in Jesus and his love. I explored more generic evangelical churches and read books and listened to songs about God's "amazing" grace. I sang to my babies about God's care. I taught my children passages straight out of the Bible, as unadulterated as the pure fruit juice I put in their sippy cups.
As my husband and I got more comfortable in our new life, we began to refer more freely to our not-so-distant past.
At first we talked about "legalism", and then we said "cult-like". It was hard to admit we had been members of a cult. After all, our teenage memories are all steeped in "the kool-aid". Our early friendship, even our marriage put down its first roots in that choking soil. Many of our friends were still involved in IBLP; whenever we drove through the Chicago area we liked to revisit memories at the IBLP campus. Remember when we rode our bikes together here? Remember sitting on the rug, reading Winnie-the-Pooh? Remember taking Miss L--- shopping? To completely reject the organization, would we have to disown part of ourselves? After a lot of research, we gave in to the truth. Personally, it was a huge step forward. Relationally, it was a huge step away from many people that were still important to us, especially family.
After a few more years of painstakingly combing out our beliefs and rejecting what didn't line up with our new understanding of Jesus' teaching, we woke up one day to the realization that our brand of evangelical American Christianity didn't line up with it that well, either. By now our life experience had softened our hearts toward other struggling human beings. Our shifting values showed up in our politics, in our parenting, in our purchases.
We sold our snug paid-off home and moved across town to a larger home with an enormous playroom, a big backyard with a swing set, and plenty of trees. We voted against a Republican. We stopped spanking.
Wanting our children to see a more generous Christianity, we started attending a "mainline" church. Many people there were warm and accepting, and they viewed themselves as Jesus' hands and feet in their neighborhood. They focused on meeting people's flesh-and-blood needs in Jesus' name: meals, warm clothing, a place to sleep, clean water, functioning toilets, respite care for families of the disabled.
There was a lot of good stuff there, and the church was a haven for me to heal and grow when I was in an emotionally fragile place. But ultimately, what remnants of our faith we brought with us faded even as we prayed, sang, studied the scriptures, listened to the pipe organ, took communion. When it was time to leave, we just knew. And we knew we wouldn't be back.
Today, I don't have a problem with religion, per se. Like other mythologies (Pegasus, Robin Hood, Santa Claus, the Pilgrims...), it has been around a long time and plays a role in the culture. Religion can bond a community. It conveys heritage and values and ideology from one generation to the next. I get that. But I have a problem with ignorance, especially religion that is based on ignorance, that encourages ignorance, that is dependent on maintaining ignorance. If you want to use ancient literature to justify a public policy position, I expect you to be at least curious about where that literature came from and how it has been interpreted in the past.
I also have a problem with religion that teaches people to be cruel. Christianity taught me to be hard on myself and on other people. The God of the Bible is harsh: he created labor pains to punish a woman for listening to a talking snake. He drowned the first batch of people he made. He sent serpents and boils and marauding armies. He is also a bully. He killed Egyptian children, sabbath-breakers, whole families who happened to be living where he wanted his people to live, and a guy who tried to steady a holy box. In the New Testament he has his own son murdered so I can have the privilege of being one of his kids, too. Otherwise (according to some versions of Christianity), I stink too bad to even be in the same house with him.
It's no wonder fundamentalist Christianity treats "different" people so unfairly. Depending on the criteria of a particular religious group, "different" might include:
- gays & lesbians
- the poor
- the divorced
- teenage boys
- public school teachers
- single parents
- Planned Parenthood volunteers
- other races
- the sick or disabled
- the mentally ill
- working mothers...
And on it goes. When human beings are abused, neglected, berated, belittled, harassed, manipulated, vilified, condemned and disgraced in the name of any god, it makes me angry. And while we're on bullying, this is bullying at its finest: telling another person what an invisible being wants from him/her, under threat of unlimited punishment to be served after he/she dies!
So, I sometimes wonder--
If I had been raised with a religion that did not condone cruelty,
If I had grown with a faith that cultivated curiosity and honest inquiry,
Would I have stayed?