Around Valentine’s Day, Facebook thought I might enjoy this HuffPost article, entitled “Romance in the Bible?”. (Question mark in original.) I once knew its author, back when I myself also worshipped the One True God. This is why Facebook thought I wanted to read it. As it turns out, I was interested, but not in the way that Facebook thought.
It reminded me of several Bible romance stories. And my own reaction to those stories shocked me. I grew up a Christian fundamentalist, and I know those stories inside and out, up and down, backwards and forward.
Yeah, I know. Many Christians, including Evangelicals like I was, have never actually read the Bible. But from a young age, I had. I started with The Picture Bible as a kid, and before I hit adolescence, I was reading through the good-ol’ King James. Eventually, I learned some Biblical Greek and Hebrew, and collected shelves of reference books. None of this disabused me of my faith, because you can always examine those stories through whatever lens you want to.
I now see through a different lens.
I no longer live trapped inside the fundie bubble. It no longer distorts my view in the same way. I see those stories from a different perspective. The Bible’s deity isn’t always the hero. The heathen isn’t always the villain.
Three stories in particular stuck out at me.
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Two years ago, on August 1, 2014, I wrote a page-long statement in my private journal, “Who Am I Today?” It contained paragraphs on religion, politics, personal values, sexuality, and personality. I was trying to sort through what I believed, how I identified, what I valued, what I felt and thought, to put this all into words.
Two years later, and I’m still trying to answer that question: Who am I today?
While I have a much better sense of the answer, with each new day, week, month, I’m discovering new things about myself. For the time being, I’m enjoying the journey, meeting new people, experiencing new things, stepping out of my comfort zone a little more, inventorying the pieces of life that stick to my personhood.
If you follow me on Facebook, you may have noticed that I’ve changed. Or at least my outward appearance has changed. And this post will probably reflect that change. The Me inside really hasn’t changed—a fact that showed clearly when I recently had dinner with an old friend from 25 years ago. But the freedom with which I allow that Me venture into the open has changed. He’s no longer caged up, no longer a prisoner in his own soul. More and more, he’s allowed to venture out and express himself without shame. He’s getting better at listening to the people around him, taking in the world. And more and more, he’s feeling more comfortable in his role as Me, and feeling more courageous, more able to set healthy boundaries, more able to stand on his own.
So who am I today?
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I grew up in a shame-and-blame religion.
The so-called Good News, as taught to me, is that we humans are fundamentally evil, unholy, sinners, distant from God. And so to save us, God needed to execute the perfect blood sacrifice. And there was only one person perfect enough to serve as that sacrifice, God himself. So he came to Earth in the form of a man who was without sin, and allowed himself to be executed, the perfect scapegoat, in order to take upon himself the sins of us all. As a result, we can blame him for all the shame we feel about who we are.
When I’ve told this story, I have gotten shocked looks of disbelief. “That’s not what Christianity is about, is it? I thought it was a religion of love and peace and helping people.”
But I grew up in fundamentalist Christianity. I grew up an Evangelical. I grew up on Jimmy Swaggart and James Dobson and patriarchy and homophobia and the Holy Spirit über alles. And I grew up singing classic Evangelical hymns and praise & worship songs.
Last night began the Jewish holiday of Purim. This is a celebration of the book of Esther. The last time I celebrated it was when I was still a member of a Messianic Jewish congregation two years ago, before I came out as an atheist, long before I came out as polyamorous. It was even before all the private drama that separated me from my religious community. But not before my doubts: I had doubts about Purim even then.
But this year, I’m getting closer to the point where I want to be. I miss Purim.
I was born into a Pentecostal family. My dad was the pastor.
All versions of my story start the same way, with that line.
For decades, I was stepping further and further away from the faith I was taught as a kid. But the emotional core of my faith was still fundamentalist, and I still thought of myself as an Evangelical. And I still believed in fundamentalism (kind of like Daniel Dennett’s “belief in belief”). By the end of 2013, there were two of me living inside my mind. There was the fundamentalist, who believed in some version of Evangelical theology. And then there was the rationalist, who would admit that it’s all just a story, a religious narrative, but—I believed at the time—a useful narrative. I thought of myself as an agnostic Christian, because I didn’t think you could prove whether God existed—all the “evidence” people cite are just stories—but I believed in him anyway, just because.
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I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this blog site. I haven’t posted much over the last year, but that’s because I am a different person—in a sense—than I was in January 2014. I know I entitled this blog “Hope, Love, and Peace,” and I still believe in those qualities. But I also believe in authenticity, and I am more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever felt before. I want to blog more. You’re going to see a lot more of me—a lot more genuine me—probably a bit more edgy, and hopefully more inspiring. If you stick around, you might even witness me coming out some more. But you might not like it. I can’t help that last part.
Kate Schell recently published a long list of modesty “rules” that girls have to deal with, especially in religious fundamentalist families. These messages teach girls to be ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of being women, ashamed of themselves.
Her series is about messages that we send to girls. Unfortunately, boys encounter similar rules—not rules of modesty, but rules nonetheless. We all encounter messages from people who think they know who we are and who we should be. And when gentle persuasion fails to persuade us to comply with their dogmatic view of reality, they turn to judgmentalism and suppression, and push fear and shame. As self-aware adults, we know to push back. But as children, we internalize these messages as emotional triggers, and they may saddle us for the rest of our lives.
Earlier this year, I shared this funny nativity scene photo on my own Facebook wall (one of 150,000 or so who did), and was soundly thrashed (by someone who is no longer my Facebook friend). And what was supposed to be a cute, fun photo turned into a theological discussion.
I’m noticing that I could say some things with perfect impunity as a “Christian” (even if in name only), which as an atheist almost surely get a Bible verse thrown at me. Almost makes me sorry I came out.
Ever since coming out atheist, I’ve noticed that people interact with me differently than they did before. And I interact with them differently.
As a result, I’ve found these extremely funny.
There’s one kind of atheist problem, like that posed by the most Reverend E.F. Briggs. (Because when E.F. Briggs talks, people tune out.) E.F. Briggs of the slogan: “Anti-God is Anti-American / Anti-American is Treason / Traitors lead to Civil War.” Apparently not believing in God is now a federal crime. Or at least sufficient cause for public lynching. On the other hand, who could ever feel truly threatened by a “lunatic atheist”? (A religious nut, that’s who.)
That’s not the kind of atheist problem I have in mind, though. I mean the kind that we normal atheists deal with everyday from our slightly-less-nutty religious culture.
I’ll tell you from the start, this is going to be deeply offensive. If you’re not an atheist, or you can’t take people making crude jokes referencing your beliefs, please go do something else now. Maybe go watch this year’s Christmas episode of Family Guy. Then you can come back here and these jokes will actually seem quite tame in comparison.
Or if you really want to know what it’s like to be an atheist…
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No one raised in a religious environment wants to come out atheist. Few people who grew up in the US would want to use that word. And when I finally told one of my close friends that I was an atheist, she said, “Oh no! You lost your faith?!” But after I explained exactly what I believed and why, her tone softened. “Oh, that’s pretty much what I think, too.”
Or as Julia Sweeney described it in her solo show Letting Go of God:
I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I’d said I didn’t believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether.
The last time I wrote to you, I was a Christian fundamentalist. Now, I’m not.
That’s not quite true. The last time I wrote to you, I still gave a nod to Christian fundamentalism. Now, I do not.
In April, that house of cards collapsed. And while the fundamentalist dogma runs deep, I think you’ll find I’m largely the same guy you knew, but hopefully new and improved.
This is my coming-out post.