It’s been about a year now since a couple of roving missionaries knocked on my apartment door and invited me to come to their church. There was a woman a little older than me and one in her 20s, both modestly dressed. The younger one stood quietly while the older one went through the spiel and asked if I was confused by all the different claims made by all the different religions.
I acknowledged that there were certainly a lot of claims, though I had to admit I wasn’t exactly confused by them.
She acknowledged my acknowledgement and asked if I attended church. I said I hadn’t been a regular churchgoer for years. She politely asked why not, and I said “It just stopped making sense to me.”
She made her pitch anyway, letting me know that her church had taken all the confusion out of religion simply by following the Bible. “It’s all right in here,” she said, tapping her copy. I shrugged and shook my head and said “That’s the part that stopped making sense to me.”
I don’t know exactly when I stopped believing in deities, but I know the process began while I was still a firm believer. Anyone who’s been through the process knows that’s not necessarily a contradiction. You see things and you want to doubt but you won’t let yourself.
The table was being set. All I had to do was admit to being hungry.
Rural Indiana wasn’t exactly a hotbed of diverse beliefs when I was growing up, so I was under the impression the church was the final arbiter of truth and the rest of society was just catching up. Salvation was the ultimate goal, and I believed everyone else in the world must think so, too.
Look around you, kid. Look around at the 125 people here in their Sunday clothes, older than you, smarter than you, more faithful than you—do you think they’d be here on a Sunday morning if there weren’t a perfectly good reason to be?
I believed because that’s what you do. That’s what you do when you’re a kid and the only thing you see is other people believing. In sixth grade, 1971, I visited a Wednesday-evening Baptist service with a friend and picked up one of those little Jack Chick comic-book tracts designed to scare people into righteousness (my own church was Disciples of Christ, where nobody tried to scare anybody). This particular tract railed against hippies and stated that the peace symbol was the sign of the antichrist, and of course I, with all the critical thinking skills of a popsicle stick, assumed it was true. It had to be—it came from a church, didn’t it?
The next week we sixth-graders were lined up after recess and I noticed another friend of mine with a peace-symbol button on his jacket. I explained ever so helpfully that he was wearing the sign of the antichrist, and he responded with well-justified indignation: “Oh, I suppose God is for war.” I didn’t have an answer for that. There was a scriptural reference in the tract, but I read Revelation front to back and never did find anything about a peace symbol.
I did the whole confirmation and baptism thing in seventh grade. In our church that meant taking a few weeks of special classes to prepare you to say Yes to the question “Do you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
But honestly, they might just as well have skipped the classes and said “We’re going to line you up in front of the church and ask you a question, at which point you will say Yes.”
Saying Yes meant we publicly acknowledged that 2000 years ago a supernatural being took human form, died, and came back to life. Keep in mind that for years we’d all been brought up to believe that 2000 years ago an all-powerful supernatural being took human form, died, and came back to life, so this wasn’t a huge stretch for us. Nobody had ever challenged us to think seriously about the believability and likelihood of the story, nor did they have much reason to. Everyone else believed it, so why shouldn’t we?
(Or, more accurately, everyone else believed it, so it must have happened. This is why they set the confirmation and baptism age high enough that you’ll want to answer correctly and join the rest of the crowd, but not so high that you’ll say you need to think it over first. Implausibility, I now realize, isn’t sufficient reason for believing in something.)
So on that Easter Sunday in 1973, they chalked up eight new souls. Our names were added to the church membership, and after the ceremony we were all congratulated by our families and the church elders and whatnot, as if we’d walked on water and not just toed the company line.
Of course, it was a pretty big deal to me at the time. Who couldn’t get behind salvation? Who wouldn’t choose eternal life? It was nice knowing we had virtually automatic forgiveness for our sins, but the way I understood it, our magical baptismal dunking had washed away any desire we might have had to sin in the first place.
So that was the cloak I wrapped myself in for the next several years. As a point of clarification, I was never a Bible-thumper, never an evangelical, never a crusader. I was never obnoxious about my faith and I never tried to convert anyone else. It was personal to me.
It was also a tremendous handicap. While I’d always had a thirst for knowledge, I was only willing to receive it up to the point where it conflicted with my religious beliefs. I attended a well-respected liberal arts college and was surrounded by great literature and humanist thought, but I’m pretty sure my GPA would have been higher if I hadn’t had to filter everything through Biblical literalism.
I was protected by the Armor of Truth. Fortunately, it had a few chinks.
(to be continued)