Recently, I have read blog post comments by people who describe themselves as former atheists who later turned to religion. Their description of the term “atheist” differs from what I think of when I use the term. Dictionary.com describes an atheist as “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.” So as to not employ the “No True Scotsman” fallacy with regard to people who purport to be atheists-turned-religionists, I thought it would be a good idea to research the similarities and differences among people who are “nones,” “dones,” and atheists. What I found helped me to understand these demographics a bit better.
“Nones” is the name given by pollsters to represent the growing number of people who report that they do not identify with any particular religion; people who are indifferent towards organized religion. This seems to be a broad category that consists of a variety of different groups. Some people identifying as “nones” were not raised in religion, or had limited exposure to religion, and thus do not identify strongly enough with any one religion to don a religious label. Other “nones” used to be active in a religion, but are no longer affiliated with any particular sect or congregation. Some of those who are no longer affiliated with a particular congregation consider themselves to be “spiritual, but not religious” while others say they do not believe in the supernatural. There are some “nones” like my brother, who refuses to be part of a church congregation but who is very devout, choosing to follow wherever he believes “the Holy Spirit” or some other deity leads him. (Honestly, I am not sure if my brother would identify as a “none.” It would depend on the wording of the question, as he refers to himself as “a follower of Christ.”) Agnostics and atheists are “nones” by nature, as they do not identify with a religion. While agnostics and atheists characterize themselves as “nones,” not all “nones” may be characterized as agnostics or atheists. As you can see, the moniker “nones” encompasses a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs regarding the supernatural or deities.
The “dones” are people who were once very involved in a religion but who have chosen to walk away. They are often referred to as being “unchurched” or “dechurched.” While many (like my brother) retain their faith, they no longer attend traditional religious services. Some “dones” are a subset of the “nones” to the degree that they do not consider themselves members of a congregation, but they may still identify with a religion to the extent that they did not lose their faith. As I am an atheist and my brother is a devout though unchurched Christian, I consider us to be polar opposites in the “done” category.
Not to be forgotten are agnostics and atheists. Agnostics and atheists would fall into the category of “nones” in that they do not express affiliation with a particular religion. Some agnostics and atheists may be atheists by default, having not been raised in a religious household — my kids fall into this category. My kids can offer reasons why they do not believe in a deity or deities, but they do not feel strongly either positively or negatively toward any religion. Some default agnostics and atheists may not possess strong reasons why they do not believe in deities other than the fact that they were not indoctrinated into believing in the supernatural; other agnostics and atheists not raised in a religion may have strong arguments as to why they are atheists. Some agnostics and atheists were raised in a religious household, and we became “dones” to the extent that we are finished with religion and then took it a step further by ceasing to believe in deities. Those of us who are “nones,” “dones,” and agnostics or atheists have often studies a great deal about our former religion’s claims as well as history, archaeology, biology, mythology, and so forth. We seek evidence that either supports or does not support religious claims, and we can generally give reasons to support our claims that deities do not or are likely not to exist. Some of us who are “nones,” “dones,” and agnostics or atheists feel strongly that certain sects of religion are harmful to members and to those that members themselves persecute outside their religion.
Do you consider yourself to be a “none”, a “done”, an agnostic or atheist, or perhaps some combination?
A Sunday morning in June in New Jersey can often be warm, sunny, and beautiful. Many people are outside biking, walking, running, gardening, walking their dog, or just sitting outside enjoying the day. I’m a runner, and in the running community, one typically plans one’s longest run of the week on Saturday or Sunday morning when one is most likely to have two to four hours to spend on a run. We even have a phrase for it for those who choose Sunday — the Church of the Sunday Long Run.
This past Sunday, I went out for a nice run and took a slightly different route that led me past a small Lutheran church. About thirty to forty people were outside in folding chairs listening to the minister conducting the service. It makes sense when you have a small congregation to take them outdoors on a nice day. But what struck me were the automatic split-second thoughts and reactions that entered my brain.
First, there was a sense of guilt and shame for not going to church on Sunday morning. I haven’t attended church services (outside the occasional funeral) in more than 10 years. I stopped believing in God and Christian doctrines several years ago as well. My husband is also an agnostic atheist, and we have raised our now-teenaged kids without religion. But somehow, that quick jolt of guilt and shame flooded my brain. This was followed by the second thought: “Oh, crap, I’m wearing a tank top and shorts and am running during church time in front of all these religious people.” I don’t believe there is anything bad about someone wearing a tank top and running shorts while they are running. It’s appropriate attire if the weather cooperates and the runner feels comfortable in that attire. But I recognized the deep-seated “indoctrination” surrounding appropriate attire for church and for “religious people” to see.
These thoughts were a bit of a shock for me, but they indicate just how thoroughly indoctrinated people can be, especially when they are brought up in a religious setting from childhood. From the time I was three years old, my family attended Southern Baptist church twice on Sundays and once on Wednesday evenings. If you didn’t go to church at one of these times, you’d better be throwing up or in a hospital. There were rules about appropriate attire for each type of service. Sunday morning attire was the most formal, as Sunday morning church service was the week’s first worship event, where we showed God our reverence for Him by donning our best clothing and (theoretically at least) donning our most submissive and humble spirits. Sunday and Wednesday evening services were more casual — I suppose one could say that “business casual” was the appropriate attire for those services. A tank top and shorts would not have been deemed acceptable for any of these services.
In the fields of education and psychology, it is well established that children develop abstract reasoning skills during the age range of 11-16, with most children developing abstract thinking around age 13-14. This is why children in seventh grade are often tested to find out if they are ready to take algebra in eighth grade (about 13-14 years old) or if they should wait. Abstract thinking involves the ability to think about objects, concepts, or ideas which are not physically present. Within abstract thinking is the ability to think critically, to use the scientific method, to use reasoning skills, to be able to conceptualize and manipulate objects in one’s mind, and to develop spatial skills. Most religious groups understand that it is vitally important to indoctrinate children in the 4-14 age group because once they reach the stage of abstract reasoning, many will reject religious indoctrination. As many of Bruce’s readers who were indoctrinated as children know, it is VERY difficult to undo doctrines that were taught to us during those critical years. Conversely, my nonreligious kids read all religious stories in the same vein that they read “Harry Potter” or any other literary works of fiction. Religious folks understand that if you don’t indoctrinate them when they are young, you have to wait until people are at their most vulnerable and then approach them with a “cure-all” salvation message.
In 1977, the song “Easy” by the Commodores (written by Lionel Richie) became popular. Before my mom became more religious, we used to listen to the easy listening radio station that played this song a lot. As a kid, I never understood the chorus. Sunday morning was never easy. How could the Commodores claim that Sunday morning was easy? We had to get up early – not as early as for work and school, but early still – eat breakfast and get dressed in our best for an hour of Sunday school and at least an hour of worship service. Afterward, we would go home and have pot roast or whatever else Grandma was able to put in the oven to cook slowly until we returned home for Sunday dinner. Sometimes, as a special treat, my Grandpa would go to Kentucky Fried Chicken and pick up a bucket of chicken and sides for us. We would be home for a few hours before having to go back to church for Sunday evening worship. For being a day of “rest,” Sunday was pretty busy. Only heathens, apostates, atheists, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and backsliders did not go to church on Sunday, so I figured the Commodores must fall into one of those categories. That was too bad, because I kind of liked Lionel Richie.
As a deconvert, I learned that the Commodores were right – Sunday morning CAN be easy.
“Easy” by Commodores
That’s why I’m easy
I’m easy like Sunday morning
That’s why I’m easy
I’m easy like Sunday morning
How many of you who were raised in a very religious household still experience a sudden pang of guilt or shame in reaction to some religious stimulus? [I call these experiences Fundamentalist hangovers. Ten years after my divorce from Jesus, and I still occasionally have guilty feelings such as the ones mentioned in this post. – Bruce]
Great White Throne Pictures presents: “This Is Your Life, ObstacleChick”
Presented in Technicolor
ObstacleChick’s Extended Family
ObstacleChick’s Schoolteachers and Administrators
ObstacleChick’s Sunday School Teachers
ObstacleChick’s Pastor, Youth Pastor, and Music Minister
The Pious Girls from Church & School
Limited Engagement Showing ONLY at Great White Throne Cinema
When I was an adolescent and teen attending a Southern Baptist Church and Evangelical Christian school, my friends and I were taught as much fundamentalist evangelical doctrine as possible. Those who grew up in evangelical fundamentalist Christianity know that the number one priority of Christian parents is to make sure their children are saved; the sooner the better. Every teaching is geared toward indoctrinating children and making sure they know that they are sinners in need of salvation through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. There is no more important message that Christian parents, pastors, Sunday school teachers, Christian schoolteachers, and Christian staff can spread than this one. All children need to know that if they do not repent of their sins and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, they will spend eternity tormented in hell in the afterlife. And because you could be hit by a bus in the next few minutes, you’d better do it NOW. After death, there will be no do-overs. There will be no further opportunities. There will be no appeals granted. Nada. Zilch. End of the road.
As we teens grew older, our youth pastor made sure to impart to us as much information as possible about salvation, eschatology, and the afterlife to us so we would understand the urgency of making the right decision regarding salvation. He also made sure we understood that certain behaviors were unacceptable for young Christians growing in Christ and presenting a witness to the “world.” As the majority of students in the youth group attended public school, we heard less harping on “sins” of rock music, movies, magazines, etc., than those of us who attended Christian school heard, but it was clear that participating in many of these activities could hurt our “witness” to our peers, and they did harp on premarital sex and alcohol as mega-evils. At the Christian school, they didn’t hold back any punches preaching against the evils of rock music, the evils of dancing, the evils of alcohol, the evils of premarital sex, the evils of attending the roller-skating rink, the evils of movies, etc. There wasn’t really much left that wasn’t evil except for Classical music, the Beach Boys, Christian movies and books, church, and Christian school activities. (Yet two girls at my high school were still expelled for getting pregnant, and three boys were expelled for attending a party where alcohol was served.)
The eschatology is fuzzy to me now, with concepts of the rapture, pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, the mark of the beast, the anti-Christ, and so forth, but I did understand that at some point after death everyone would have to go to the Great White Throne Judgment where our fate would be determined. Would it be eternity in heaven, or would it be eternity in hell? (Cue music: DA DA DAAAAA!)
My teenage understanding of the Great White Throne Judgment was that that there would be God on a throne, Jesus on a throne, and somehow the Holy Spirit would be there too, though I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to see him as he was a spirit and whether a spirit could sit on a throne. Maybe we would get special afterlife vision that would allow us to see spirits. There would be angels and seraphim and cherubim and all people who had ever lived would be there, waiting to be judged, waiting to hear their fate.
At the Great White Throne Judgment, the way it was explained to us, each person’s life would be shown for all to see, and then the judgment would be handed out. As an avid reader, I was well-versed in visualizing scenes, and for the Great White Throne Judgment I envisioned a scene in which everything was white, the Trinity (were? was?) located on thrones on a raised platform, and masses of people stretched out before them. There was a very large movie screen near the Trinity, and when each person’s name was called that person would step forward so their life movie could be played on the movie screen. The Trinity would then render (their? his?) verdict, and the person would be escorted by seraphim, cherubim, or maybe St. Peter (I wasn’t clear on who the escorts were) to the proper exit to their eternal designation.
As we teens envisioned this Great White Throne Judgment, we were exhorted by youth ministry staff to make sure our movie was G-rated so we wouldn’t stand up there embarrassed before the masses of humanity. Who wants their sweet Grandma to see them participating in evils such as (gasp) dancing, or drinking alcohol, or — dare we even mention it — premarital sex? Surely not! Not only did we need to keep our actions G-rated, we must also keep our thoughts G-rated as somehow those would be shown on the Great White Throne Movie Screen.
As the whole sequence of events was still confusing to me, I believed somehow that when people died, they could see what was happening on earth. When my great-grandmother Granny died when I was twelve years old, I was upset for several reasons. First, I really liked hanging out with Granny. She lived down the street, and she was my nice great-grandmother, not mean like Grandma F who lived with us. Granny would make biscuits and ham for me, and we enjoyed cleaning and rearranging her numerous knick-knacks while she told stories. Second, the only time I ever saw my grandfather cry was when he came home to tell us his mother died. That tore me up, and I cried too. Third, because I thought Granny could then see me that she would be able to see me taking a shower and doing other embarrassing things. In addition to grieving for the loss of Granny, I was upset for a long time just knowing that Granny was watching me all the time.
Not understanding the whole timeline of when the Great White Throne Judgment was, I thought maybe there was some sort of neutral after-death holding place where Granny and everyone else could see what people on earth were doing. My mom said when you died you went to sleep and woke up in heaven, but I knew there was a Great White Throne Judgment in there somewhere. And there had to be some sort of holding place because thousands of years might pass before the END TIMES. Another issue was how long would this whole Great White Judgment Movie Festival take? I mean, I knew eternity had no limits, and that a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years are as a day, but what were the logistics of this Great White Throne Judgment Movie Festival? It must take thousands of years, or days in deity terms. My mom said God wasn’t bound by time, so it didn’t matter, but I still couldn’t comprehend.
But what I did comprehend was how much I DREADED the Great White Throne Judgment. I was fearful of dying. I was afraid I would die and wake up in the Great White Throne Cinema with billions of other people, waiting in agony for my movie to be played and for everyone I knew to see all the naughty, mean, jealous, lustful thoughts I harbored. The Pious Girls at school and church would learn what I REALLY thought of them. My teachers would know that I sat in the back of class and talked and passed notes and then would be on the phone at night with my friends explaining what they’d all missed in class while I was bored and entertaining us all. My grandparents and mom would know that I had listened to rock music and watched MTV at my aunt & uncle’s house. It was going to be bad.
I dreaded death. The greatest relief of my existence would be if the Trinity told me I was destined for eternity in heaven. But getting through the movie viewing . . . I dreaded it beyond everything. Maybe I would get lucky and be last and everyone would have been sent to their fate, but I knew chances were slim to none.
What a damaging thing to teach impressionable youth, to manipulate their fear of hell and judgment to impress upon them the need to believe the right thing and to stay away from certain activities.
As an agnostic atheist, I don’t believe in any of that anymore. It took a long time to get over my fear of hell though. That was the last thing to leave me when I deconverted — even though I didn’t believe in god anymore, I was still afraid of hell. I had to literally reason with myself about my unrealistic fear of hell. But now, I no longer fear death. Do I want to die today? No, because there are still things I want to do in life. But I don’t fear the Great White Throne Movie experience.
What is religious fundamentalism? Typically, it is an unwavering and unapologetic belief in the absolute authority of a religious text or texts. Adherents believe their religion is the one true religion and that its precepts should govern all aspects of life. The ultimate goal is the governance of everyone’s lives under the rules and standards of the religion’s holy book(s). Rules are comprehensive, encompassing behavior, dress, gender roles, and access to information, media, and technology. Adherents believe that their religious beliefs and practices should be exempt from criticism, and any form of criticism is labeled as heresy or persecution. There are many types of religious fundamentalists throughout the world, but here in the United States we are most familiar with fundamentalist evangelical Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, orthodox and Hasidic Jews, and Old Order Amish (which are fundamentalist in their adherence to their religious text, but not with regard to forcing their beliefs on those outside their community).
As disparate as these groups may seem on the surface, they have much in common. Each group believes that its holy text is an absolute, inerrant authority for all aspects of life. It is not uncommon for these groups to separate themselves from their surrounding communities, focusing almost exclusively on staying within their religious communities with regard to their worship activities, leisure activities, and even employment. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, for example, must be work for an employer that is flexible with regard to Jewish holy days and for leaving work early on Fridays for Shabbas. Not in all cases, but frequently children are sent to sect-approved/operated schools. In Amish communities, education is forbidden past 8th grade, and in communities that have their own schools, the teachers are young women within the community who have no education past 8th grade. For Hasidic Jews, girls and boys attend gender-segregated schools. Boys attend yeshivas where the focus of education is on studying the Talmud. Little attention is given to other subjects, and evolution is not taught. Among Evangelicals, it is popular to either home school one’s children or to send them to a fundamentalist Christian school, where, again, evolution is not taught to children. Fundamentalist Muslims often send their children to madrasas where the focus is on religious education. In some Muslim-controlled countries, girls are not educated.
Fundamentalists of all stripes give great authority to religious leaders who often dictate the rules of each separatist community. In Amish communities, there is a bishop, two or three ministers, and a deacon. Each must be nominated, but lots (similar to drawing straws) are drawn to determine which man receives which position. The leaders are responsible for the spiritual education of their congregation as well as making sure the Ordnung — the set of rules specific to each community — is followed. Each church district’s leaders set specific rules for its community, which is why there can be slight differences from one Amish community to another. In Evangelical sects and churches, great authority is given to pastors. Bruce has spoken about this a number of times, so there’s no need for me to expound on the matter here. In Orthodox or Hasidic communities, the rebbe is the authority, and he sets the rules specific to that local community. Rules may include color of stockings women are required to wear or what books are allowed in the Hasidic libraries. In fundamentalist Muslim communities, the imam is the ultimate authority, and he may issue fatwas or rules specific to his community. (Please note that all leaders are male.)
In each of these fundamentalist religions, gender roles are specifically defined in traditional ways. Men are considered to be the leaders of the family, the breadwinners, the final authorities in the household; the ones who commune most closely with their deity. Women are considered to be the nurturers, the caretakers of children, submissive to the authority of their husbands. Typically, women are not allowed to work outside the home in many fundamentalist sects/churches. Amish women are, however, permitted to sell their goods at markets or operate roadside stands for home-grown and home-baked goods. Women are not allowed any positions of leadership beyond teaching women or young children. Marriage is considered to be between one man and one woman, and these communities are not known for acceptance of LBGTQ people.
Dress codes are important among these communities. The Amish are easily identified as their clothing styles have not changed in centuries. They are referred to as “Plain People” because their styles are simple, solid colors typically limited to black, brown, burgundy, blue, purple or green (though some communities may allow other colors). Women wear dresses and aprons secured with straight pins (no buttons, which are considered vain), and they wear a white kappe (head covering) so they may pray at any time. Men wear dark suits with hook & eye closures (no buttons and no fancy belt buckles), suspenders, and a black or straw hat.
For fundamentalist Christians, there is often no exact standard of dress other than “modesty” for women, though many fundamentalist Baptist churches have complex, exacting dress codes. Many fundamentalist Christian women wear skirts or dresses at least knee length, no low-cut tops, and they typically wear sleeves. Women will be shamed for showing too much skin or wearing something too tight.
Hasidic communities have strict hair and clothing rules as well. Married women must keep their hair short and wear a sheitel wig; women wear dresses or skirts; their sleeves must be at least three-quarter length; they must wear thick, opaque stockings (often black, occasionally flesh colored though that is forbidden in some communities); and a lot of black, loose clothing, though blouses or sweaters may be colorful. Married men must sport a beard and side curls (payot) which they can never cut. Most men wear a white button-down shirt and black pants and jacket. A yarmulke must be worn at all times, and when praying, men wear a tallit, or prayer shawl, with tzitzit, or fringe, to remind them of God’s commandments.
Fundamentalist Muslim women must be covered in mixed company, and the culture determines how much covering is required. The most extreme version is the burqa with the niqab (face covering). Men may wear a taqiyah or cap when praying.
Each of these fundamentalist religions believes secularism is the greatest threat to their sect, churches, and beliefs. Access to secular libraries or media may be prohibited, restricted, or discouraged. Often, only books approved by church leaders are permitted to be read. The Amish prohibit technology altogether, though they are allowed to check out elder-approved books at public libraries. Fundamentalist Christians are generally admonished to limit their media access to “G-rated” or Christian-published format. Many Hasidic communities forbid access to secular libraries. In fundamentalist Muslim-controlled countries, all media are controlled by the religious leaders, thus preventing people from accessing any non-approved content. Each of these groups limits media access for “moral” reasons, but they also want to prevent community members from accessing any knowledge that may contradict their sect’s teachings.
While some of Amish people vote, they do not seek public office, and their pacifism prevents them from joining the military. They also are not visibly active in campaigning. Myriads of articles have been written — particularly before and after the 2016 presidential election — concerning the political activism of evangelical Christians. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews are known for their political activism for candidates sympathetic to their communities, particularly as it is an “honor” for Jewish men to collect welfare and food stamps so they can exclusively focus their time on Talmudic studies. As far as fundamentalist Islam is concerned, there are many countries in which fundamentalist Islam controls government.
In Bruce’s recent post Life After Jesus: Moving from a God-Shaped Hole to a Knowledge-Shaped Hole he talks about restrictions that fundamentalist Christian authorities put on secular influences. Indeed, venturing beyond fundamentalist-bubble-approved media is considered a temptation by Satan and demonic forces, potentially leading someone to everlasting torment in hell. Pastors try to scare their flocks into not watching the latest season of “Cosmos” or “Game of Thrones”; that rock music leads to the “Highway to Hell”; that evolution is Satan’s greatest deception. Amish and Hasidic communities threaten members with excommunication if they do not adhere to community standards. For the skeptical or curious in these communities, fear of being cut off from family and friends is a real concern. In addition, many members (particularly women) are poorly educated and lack job skills, so escaping these communities is, at best, a risky venture. Mission to Amish People (MAP) and Charity Christian Fellowship are organizations that help Amish people leave their communities, and Footsteps is an organization that helps Hasidic Jews leave theirs. Organizations such as these offer practical and emotional support to deconverts. Those of us in the real world realize that knowledge is power, and fundamentalists do their best to limit knowledge, thus limiting the power of their flocks.
I look at all these groups and think, there’s no way I could live in one of those communities. After I graduated from high school, I did my best to escape the clutches of fundamentalist Christianity. Fortunately, I possessed a college degree from a highly ranked secular university and developed marketable skills, so I was able to support myself financially. Many in these communities, particularly women, are purposely raised without these skills, ensuring reliance on the community. It is my firm conviction that any group that purposefully restricts access to knowledge and education and discourages contact with outsiders is inherently harmful and potentially abusive. Those in power may thrive within these systems, but the systems themselves are designed to benefit those in power at the expense of the powerless.
(If you are interested in finding out more about the Old Order Amish, I recommend the book Amish Society by John A. Hostetler for a comprehensive examination. For those who have access to Netflix and are interested in deconverts from Hasidic Judaism, I recommend the documentary One of Us regarding the Hasidic community in Brooklyn and in Rockland County, New York. Both are communities with which I am familiar as I live in proximity to both).
Now, for a bit of levity: Amish Paradise by Weird Al Yankovic
The number one goal of Evangelical Christian churches is to save souls from eternal damnation in hell. Therefore, the general plan of salvation is taught to children from a very young age. Terms like “getting saved,” “making a profession of faith,” “getting your heart/life right with Jesus” are bandied about quite a bit, all with the intention of making sure children and teens publicly announce that they have accepted Jesus into their lives as their personal Lord and Savior. Children are taught that we are all sinners; that as sinners our punishment in the afterlife is eternity in hell — a place of torment and fire and demons; that God loved us so much that he sent his son Jesus to earth to die on a cross in our place — for our sins — and that he rose from the dead; that all we need to do to be saved from an eternity in hell is to pray to God/Jesus, confessing and repenting of our sins, and asking Jesus into our hearts. The “Sinner’s Prayer” is the typical vehicle to salvation, and there are many versions. Here are a few basic ones listed below:
Bill Graham Version
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior.
In Your Name. Amen.
CRU Version — Formerly Campus Crusade for Christ
Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.
The Sinner’s Prayer for Children
Dear God, I know that I am a sinner. I know that you sent Jesus to be my Savior, and that He died on the cross to take the punishment for my sins. I know that Jesus rose from the dead and is coming back someday. Please forgive me of all of my sins, and come into my life and change me. Please guide me in my life and help me to follow you for the rest of my life. Thank you for saving me and taking me to heaven when I die.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Ministry-to-Children Sinner’s Prayer
Jesus – I know that you made me and want me to obey you with all my heart. I know I have disobeyed and wanted to be my own boss. I have thought and done things against your directions. I am sorry. I know that you gave up his life to save me from these sins and make me your child again. I accept your promises and ask you to please save me now and forever.
Children’s Version from SBC Voices
Dear God, I know I’m a sinner. I know my sin deserves to be punished. I believe Christ died for me and rose from the grave. I trust Jesus alone as my Savior. Thank you for the forgiveness and everlasting life I now have.
In Jesus’ name, amen.
Among Southern Baptists, that’s all you need to do – once you’re saved, you’re always saved. You aren’t always in good standing with the Man Upstairs, but you’ll be safe from eternal hellfire and damnation.
At some point, typically in childhood, people raised in Evangelical churches will pray the “Sinner’s Prayer.” What follow is my list of Top 5 Reasons People Pray the Sinner’s Prayer.
Fear of Hell
Who wants to spend eternity being tortured by fiery flames in a place where the “worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44)? Eternity is a long time, longer than most of our human brains can comprehend.
Pressure From Parents
Good Evangelical parents know that their number-one duty is to make sure their children are saved from eternal damnation in hell. Good parents CANNOT rest easy until they know that their child is safe from eternity in hell and that one day they will be reunited in the afterlife in heaven. My grandparents and my mom pestered me to death until I finally picked a day that I would go forward at the altar call and get it over and done with. (Note about myself: hell scared the hell out of me. But I do not like being told what to do, I like doing things in my own time and on my own terms, and if you pester me I will definitely not do whatever it is you pester me about. Also, at that age I did not like being the center of attention, and going forward to the altar in front of the entire church and having the whole congregation shake my hand was one of the least appealing things I could imagine doing.)
All Your Friends are Doing It/Emotional Appeal
If children have not made a public profession of faith in early childhood, they certainly will in adolescence or teenage years if their families consistently attend an Evangelical church. It isn’t uncommon for groups of adolescents or teens to make their profession of faith together at the end of a church retreat. Church retreats are designed to be fun but are also very emotionally oriented, as the youth pastor will talk about getting right with Jesus, living your life for Jesus, making sure you are following God’s will for your life early on so you don’t get into trouble and make a ton of mistakes in life. Youth pastors harp on the evils and dangers of rock music, alcohol, taking drugs, dancing, hanging with the “wrong crowd,” and having premarital sex.
Youth retreats would end each evening with an emotional altar call with many teenagers on their knees crying with the youth pastor and adult counselors chaperoning the retreat. It was common after a youth retreat for a long baptismal service to capture in baptism all those young, new converts for Jesus. The more teens who were baptized, the more successful the retreat.
Fear That You Didn’t Do it Right Before
I must have said the sinner’s prayer a dozen times during my teenage years, though I didn’t go to the altar again. The sinner’s prayer is so simple that sometimes I was afraid I didn’t do it right prior, or that it didn’t take, so just to be sure I would do it again just to reassure myself that I wouldn’t spend eternity in hell.
A Desire to Fit In
In the church where I grew up, only members – that is, those who had been baptized in that particular church or who had moved their letter from an approved church – could participate in communion and in voting. I didn’t care about voting, but I sure cared about being able to take communion while all my peers were taking communion – the last thing a teen wants is to have to pass the communion plate while his or her friends are able to partake in the grape juice and wafers (or broken Saltine crackers if the congregation couldn’t afford the wafer tablets).
Does anyone notice how often feelings and emotions are manipulated with the salvation message? Fear is the biggest motivator – fear of hell primarily, fear of being separated from loved ones after death, fear of dying in the next three seconds and never getting a second chance. Without the fear of hell, I probably would have just gone down for an altar call, gotten baptized, and then I would have fit into the congregation. I don’t think I would have actually prayed a sinner’s prayer and meant it. Sure, I wanted to be a good person, but the fear of hell led me to pray the sinner’s prayer in private over and over and over again. I knew I had to go down to the altar call once, because the Bible said that we must do so publicly in order to be saved. And why would I – what would have been the reward for praying such a prayer without fear of eternal damnation in hell?
What was your experience with “getting saved” and praying the “Sinner’s Prayer”? Did you have any other reasons for praying the “Sinner’s Prayer”? Please let us know with a comment!
A recent research survey from Barna Group shows that more members of Generation Z — people born 1999-2015 — than any other generation consider themselves to be atheist, agnostic, or non-religious. Fully thirty-five percent of Generation Z members self-identify as atheist, agnostic or non-religious. By comparison, thirty percent of millennials, thirty percent of Generation X, and twenty-six percent of Baby Boomers self-report within this group. Additionally, thirteen-percent of Generation Z respondents identify as atheist as opposed to seven percent of millennials.
Many have speculated as to why so many within the younger generations are abandoning identification with or the practice of religion, and there are many factors at play. With the widespread availability of internet access, media access, and social media, people are able to connect with others from a variety of backgrounds from around the world. Anyone with a smartphone can look up any information on demand. And interestingly, Generation Z are more savvy when it comes to understanding that much of what they see on social media is fantasy – there are filter apps, apps for changing one’s appearance, lighting, etc. As my eighteen-year-old daughter says, there is absolutely no reason anyone would post an unflattering picture of themselves on social media – you can make any photo, any selfie, look the way you want it to look. Many in this generation understand that nothing is as it seems and everything is about marketing.
I asked my kids what they and their friends think about religion. As background, I grew up in Tennessee in a Southern Baptist family and attended a fundamentalist evangelical Christian school from grades five through twelve. I was taught young earth creationism and was thoroughly indoctrinated with the fundamentalist evangelical doctrines of salvation (virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for our sins), inerrancy of the scriptures and literal truth of the Bible, original sin, and so forth. My husband was raised nominally Catholic, which means he was baptized as an infant, received first communion at age seven or eight, attended church sporadically (mostly on Christmas and Easter), sometimes gave up something for Lent, didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, and didn’t know what kind of Christian he was when I asked him early in our relationship. His family members were raised Catholic, but many barely attend mass, and the millennial cousins don’t practice the religion at all. My husband and I attended a progressive Christian church until our kids were about seven and five years old, and other than the occasional funeral or friend’s bar or bat mitzvah, the kids haven’t attended a religious service since.
For geographical reference, we live in Bergen County, New Jersey, minutes from Manhattan. The school district that my kids attend is comprised of families from middle-class to wealthy socio-economic status. About thirty-five percent of the students are Asian (primarily Korean but also Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Indian). Most students identify as Caucasian, and there are a handful of Latino and African American students. There are enough Jewish families in our district that the schools close on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My kids have a few classmates who are observant Muslim girls, choosing to wear the hijab. My kids know classmates who label themselves as Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Jains, Hindu, Sikh, Protestant Christians (primarily progressive), and non-religious.
My son was born in 2002 and is sixteen years old. I asked him what his thoughts were about religion. His response: “Honestly, I don’t think about it much. I don’t need religion or want it, I don’t have an interest in finding out more about it, and I can’t see how my life would be improved by it. I don’t believe in any gods. I don’t remember attending church when I was little, and I remember we attended some funerals and my friend’s bar mitzvah service. If you want to be a Muslim, or a Christian, or a Catholic, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist, you go for it and do you. Do it on your own terms, but I don’t need to be involved in it.” I asked him if people have asked him what his religion was, and he said yes. His response is, “We aren’t doing religion right now,” and he said they don’t ask him more about it. I asked him if he thought people tried to force their religion into politics, or if he thought they should or shouldn’t. He said, “I think some people try to force their religion on others because they can’t help it. They believe a certain way and they think other people should follow their ideas. They don’t understand what separation of church and state means even though we learn it in history class. They are so wrapped up in what they think is right and wrong that they try to get others to do things their way too.” I asked him if his friends practice religion regularly, and he said it varies. One friend’s family is devoutly Catholic and won’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, but that doesn’t stop my son from ordering the most meat-laden meal at Taco Bell in front of his friend. As my son said, “His religious food rules are his issue, not mine.”
My eighteen-year-old daughter is taking an English course called World Mythology and Archetypes in Literature. I didn’t realize how little my kids knew about religious stories until one night my daughter said, “I just don’t get the point of Jesus. I mean, he’s dead, so what’s the big deal about him? I said so in class today, and several people agreed with me.” (I nearly fell out of my chair). I informed her that many Christians believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and now lives in heaven. She said, “Seriously? People actually believe that? I thought they knew that was just a story. So for the sake of argument, what does Jesus do now?” I told her that people pray to him for things – healing, to find a close parking spot, to get an A on a test. She said, “So if they’re praying to Jesus what is God doing? I thought people prayed to God.” I told her that some Christian sects believe in the trinity, that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all God but separate too. She said, “That makes no sense. Is that like the three branches of government?” Another day she said, “Who is the dude who made everything bleed and then the frogs and flies came?” I almost choked on my tea at this description of Moses.
Bible stories do sound so ridiculous when explained from scratch to an unfamiliar audience. This is why religions work hard to indoctrinate and capture the four- to fourteen-year-old demographic. It is well known within the educational community that children’s critical analytical thinking skills and ability to understand abstract concepts are not developed until they reach their early teen years. That is why algebra is typically not taught before that age range, as children’s thought processes aren’t adequately developed. Therefore, it makes complete sense to indoctrinate children with religious concepts before they can analyze the concepts and make well-thought-out decisions.
But as Millennials, who are dropping out of religion, age and have children and do not introduce their children to religion, it is unlikely that those children will participate in religion. Proselytizing is not the most effective way to gain new religious members. Sure, religious groups may pick up a few new members in times of disaster (remember the increase in religious participation after 9/11) or through help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, but by and large people aren’t knocking on church doors asking to be let in. And I doubt that all those Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons who go around knocking on doors pick up very many members either.
Historically, people would remain throughout their lifetimes in the religion in which they were indoctrinated. I always thought that Catholicism was particularly brilliant with their concept of sacraments. The Church basically “owned” a person from cradle to grave. For centuries, the Catholic Church was the center of all village life, and it even controlled government. For one to be in good standing with the church, and thus in good standing with government, one needed to complete one’s sacraments and give money to the church. Whether one believed or not — and who knows, as most peasants were illiterate and masses were conducted in Latin — one was tied in to the community. But as things changed with the Reformation, with colonization of The New World, with the expansion of travel and technology, the church’s central role is rapidly diminishing in first world areas. The world in which my Generation Z children live is vastly different from the one my Baby Boomer parents inhabited. Very few of my Millennial family members and coworkers are raising their children in religion. Does that mean that religion is dying? One can hope . . .
On a side note, my kids don’t identify themselves as atheists. They just say they aren’t religious, or that they don’t practice a religion. My husband and I identify as agnostic atheists. While my children are atheists, they do not feel the need to label themselves as such. I don’t know if the difference is that my husband and I had a religious label at one point and feel the need to definitively differentiate ourselves from religion whereas our kids do not feel that need. What are your thoughts?
Growing up in Fundamentalist churches, I knew that divorce was a wicked thing, and could never be forgotten or erased — unlike something such as murder. The reason was because divorce was a state in which one was continually living. Murder was a one-time act. Adultery could have an end. Even a child out of wedlock was the error of a few minutes. Once those acts were over, it was done, forgiven, time to move on. Divorce was something that couldn’t be undone, and it was never over.
Enter the poor kid whose dad had been divorced. Twice. That was me.
Sermon after sermon, I heard pastors preach against divorce. I heard how divorce kept you from pastoring a church; how divorce marked you as a second-class Christian; how God couldn’t fully use you because of this permanent stain on your life. I cringed when this subject would come up. My dad, who was a faithful Christian, would swallow that shit and agree with it. It must have hurt him horribly, but he accepted this as Biblical truth. It didn’t matter why he had been divorced, he just had. End of story.
I went to a Christian school for several years that helped reinforce this shame. My biological mother lived in the same city, and I would visit her every other weekend. When people would ask what I did on the weekends I visited her, I would say I went to a friend’s house. I couldn’t face the shame of having divorced parents.
When I got kicked out of the Christian school and attended a public school, I still had that shame. My biological mom wanted to take me on a school-sponsored ski trip, so she filled out the paperwork so I could go. When school officials saw her address, they told me I was in the wrong school zone. Instead of telling them the truth, I made up a BS story about how she worked in a different city, and that’s why she had the post office box listed as her address.
I don’t blame my dad for his divorces. They happened, and there’s nothing that can change that. Whatever the reasons for the divorces — right or wrong — I was collateral damage. In the 70s and 80s, Evangelical churches were so much different from what they are today on the matter of divorce. They still clung to the belief that divorce caused irreparable harm and that divorcees were second-class citizens. It wasn’t fair, nor was it right.
Those “loving” churches made a little boy feel shame over his dad’s past actions, and shame for having two moms; shame over something I didn’t do or have any control over. Is it any wonder that I left Christianity behind?
I posit that if one asked 10 different people to define “modesty,” there would be 10 different answers. Context is important, as “modesty” can refer to one’s demeanor or to one’s mode of dress. Dictionary.com defines “modesty” as follows:
the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc. simplicity; moderation.
While I know better than to engage people in controversial topics on social media, sometimes I still give in and make comments. My brother (and his wife) and I get along really well in person, as long as we do not discuss religion or politics. We enjoy watching movies, having sushi or Mexican food, or having a glass of wine together. But I avoid the topics of religion or politics with them like the plague. Why? Because we hold diametrically opposite views on those subjects. My brother and sister-in-law are more than a decade younger than I am. My brother and I were not raised in the same household – I lived with my grandparents and great-grandmother, and a few years with my mom living there too, and I would visit on weekends at my mom and step-dad’s house. I was sent to fundamentalist Christian school from 5th-12th grades, then studied at secular university and graduate school. A couple of years after college, I moved to suburban New Jersey about 20 minutes from Manhattan.
My brother, on the other hand, grew up in my mom and step-dad’s house. He went to public school after being expelled in 3rd grade from the fundamentalist Christian school from which I had graduated (yes, expelled in 3rd grade – he was considered too stubborn to be allowed to remain in the school). When he was in middle school, they moved from a suburban area about 20 minutes from Nashville to rural farmland about 45 minutes from Nashville, and he still lives in that area today. After graduation from high school, he never pursued university education and was married with a full-time job by the time he was 20 years old. My brother and his wife are evangelical Christians, though they haven’t found a church with which they agree. He is staunchly pro-Trump, anti-abortion, anti-marriage equality, and a gun collector (though he is adamantly for gun safety, he is not in favor of restrictions). He baptized his sons in the bathtub when they were 6 and 7 years old after getting them to pray the “sinner’s prayer.”
He doesn’t know that I am an agnostic atheist. He thinks I am “liberal” but he doesn’t know the extent. I think he could handle my differences in political beliefs more than my differences in religious beliefs. Eventually, my family’s lack of belief will come out because my daughter is moving to Nashville in the fall to go to college, and she has no qualms about expressing her non-religious, pro-feminist, left-leaning beliefs.
Recently my brother posted on social media this Matt Walsh piece titled The Four Terrible Things That Are Destroying Boys In Our Culture. In my opinion, Matt Walsh shows his misogynistic colors in his rant against feminism in modern culture. It is apparent that Matt’s white cis-gendered male patriarchal superiority is being threatened by the machinations of liberal, evil feminists. Knowing I could not comment the extent of my feelings on my brother’s post, I posted this:
“He goes to school and his female classmates are dressed like strippers. He goes anywhere and that’s how the women are dressed.” Where does this guy live that all girls and women are dressed like strippers? I apparently need to up my game and improve my stripper attire!
My brother responded:
I would not have used the word strippers. It is a harsh word. However, I completely understand the point he was trying to make. We are a nation where words like chastity, modesty, and holiness have become bad words while the opposite actions and attitudes are celebrated. We have truly become a nation that has forgotten how to blush. The prophet Jeremiah warned ancient Israel about the same thing in the book of Jeremiah.
I couldn’t take it at that point, so I responded:
Modesty is a function of perception. Hasidic Jews and fundamentalist Muslims look at me in my workplace attire – typically pants and a shirt, never low cut – and they consider that immodest. I have had this conversation with many people, but as a woman I find that there is no universal standard for “modesty.” People sometimes say, it is common sense. No, it isn’t. You have fundamentalist religionists who have their own standards of modesty (typically those modesty standards focus on covering up women as much as possible, but Hasidic men. for example. have to wear beards and black pants and button-down shirts at all times). I refuse to be held to other groups’ standards of modesty. Fabricated female modesty rules also send messages about men and women and taking responsibility for one’s actions that I don’t want to get into on a social media post but I would be happy to discuss my opinion in person.
A person’s mode of attire does send certain messages. If I am dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt, I am signaling that I am in a casual mode. If I am dressed in a cocktail dress and heels, I am signaling that I am going somewhere special, perhaps to a wedding or a gala. Wearing shorts, a tank top, and running shoes signals that I am going out for a run on a warm day. Sporting a Yankees shirt signals that I am possibly going to a Yankees game, or at least I am supporting the team for that day. Donning a heavy coat, gloves, boots, and a hat signals that it is cold outside, and that I am attempting to stay warm. If I see someone wearing a US Postal Service uniform, I will assume that the person works for the US Postal Service. Someone wearing a military uniform is probably active military personnel. These are all situations in which clothing signals a message.
However, what if I am wearing a mid-thigh length sleeveless black dress and high heels? Would someone assume that I am dressed to go to a fancy social function, or would they assume that I am a prostitute? That depends on one’s perspective. The fundamentalist religious person who believes that the human body should be covered up as much as possible will automatically assume that I do not share their values in terms of “modesty.” I am not one of their membership. I am an “other.” Am I lacking in morals? Am I indeed a prostitute, or am I just lacking in “modesty”? Do they consider my bare arm and bare calf to be literally offensive to them, or do they just take it as a signal that I do not adhere to their rules? Does the fact that I am dressed differently mean that I should be treated differently? Should they avoid me, or should they try to proselytize to me in order to inform me of the error of my ways? Is my uncovered status a signal that they have the right to touch me without permission? At what point would adding clothing to my person make me more acceptable in their eyes?
Some guy driving a delivery van cat-called at me while I was out walking the other day. Nothing I was wearing was tight or revealing in any way. I was wearing long pants, a jacket, and a button-down shirt. Apparently, that’s “hot” in certain circles. It’s further proof that no matter what you’re wearing, someone is going to interpret it in whatever way they wish. Obviously, if you are working in a job or attending a school that has a dress code, you must comply with that dress code during working/school hours, but otherwise, wear what makes you comfortable and move on.
What follows is an email I received from a former Fundamentalist Christian who is now an agnostic.
Edited for readability and length, and to maintain the author’s privacy and anonymity
I want to tell you I am sorry for an article I wrote about you years ago on my blog. I wrote of your falling away, and that you had not really been saved. I had the same thing later said to me by an IFB pastor when I deconverted. He told me since I was doubting — at that time — I must not have really been saved. He seemed to write me off as an evil person who was charcoal for God’s furnace. This much I know: I was sincere and had believed. Now having experienced this myself, I realized I was lied to about the concept of being born again. I came to see no evidence for any Holy Spirit directing anyone. Sadly, I said the same to you, so I apologize. I was wrong.
I deconverted about 7 months ago. I am no longer a Christian.
I have had thoughts of blogging again, but, for now it is best that I do not write about religion. I have talked about my deconversion elsewhere and how bible prophecy and conspiracy and the IFB churches misled me. I have cried over a lost 16 years in this system, but at least now my mind has cleared.
You were right about my “fairies” article being nutty as well. Somehow, when I went into Christianity, I became afraid of everything. I had a very skewed view of the world. I never saw fairies or anything like that, but testing reality by the Bible broke my reality tester in general. The fundamentalist church got me to distrust science and it shut down my ability to think rationally. Magical thinking took over as fundamentalist preachers pounded a fear of hell and demons into my brain. Getting too deep into conspiracy theories also took a toll. I believe there are a lot of lies and corruption in the world, but I figured out I was being lied to by people who WANTED me to be afraid. I also found that most of the conspiracies I believed were bunk.
I read all the articles you wrote against my posts and I started reading here regularly. I got out my old journals at home and started reading some old books; things I had written from my first deconversion too, when I left my family’s Catholic faith. I felt guilty over regularly reading this blog — an “atheist” blog. It is hard to even explain how Christianity got a hold of me, but I had severe disabilities and almost died, and I believe trauma made me more vulnerable and open to certain religious beliefs. I also lived in a very rural conservative town, surrounded by numerous evangelical Christians.
Becoming a Christian as I dealt with severe health problem and trauma gave me new hope. But, as time passed, I realized Christianity had given me promises that were not panning out in my life. Prayers were never answered. If someone were dying and I prayed for the them, most of the time they still died. I never saw any evidence of an intervening God, despite my strong beliefs and faith. After attending two Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches and a Calvary Chapel church, I stopped attending church, telling people that churches were rotten — and many are. I ended up leaving organized Christianity altogether. I was also weary of blaming myself for everything and, as a disabled person, I was tired of being told I was not to be loved or accepted; that I should continually pray for healing. Conservative Christians, outside of a few nice individuals, viewed me as someone to be pitied or someone who needed “fixed.” On my blog, I wrote against authoritarianism and other aspects of Christianity I despised, and it got to the point where I said to myself, “What am I doing here?”
I kept non-Christian friends, contrary to the rules in the churches I was once a part of. When I left organized Christianity, I was told by people in these churches that “I never really fit in.” My husband — who is an agnostic — was respectful of my beliefs, but thankfully he never converted. In another area of my life, I removed people I believed were toxic abusers. I am happily married, but I had abusive family members. I studied narcissism and abuse for the sake of my recovery from these things. I realized as I studied that God seemed to operate just like abusers — making threats of eternal punishment in hell to keep people in line.
IFB churches and fundamentalist Christianity bring out mental illness in people. I believe I now have my brain back, and I am teaching myself to use rational thought and critical thinking again. I became honest about how damaging fundamentalism was and how it negatively affected our society. I support your endeavors to warn people. If I can be of any help please tell me.
One reason for my deconversion is that while I desired and yearned for a loving God, the God of Christianity and the Bible was often cruel and capricious. I read the entire Bible from cover to cover. I read verses such as Ezekiel 9, where God ordered the killing of babies and children. The whole God’s “mysterious ways” argument no longer, in my mind, excused such injustices. I also started having thoughts about Jesus’ crucifixion, asking myself, “What kind of God would allow his own son to suffer and die like that to fix a system he himself supposedly created?” A lot of it made no sense to me. I also started getting creeped out by the whole blood sacrifice foundation of Christianity. I am disabled and live with a lot of pain. I realized, in the midst of my suffering, that God was not bringing me solace or comfort. Shortly before my deconversion, I had to be honest with myself. I didn’t like the person Christianity had turned me into. It separated me from other people. I realized I didn’t like Yahweh that much. and in my heart of hearts, I was actually scared of him, and did not see him as a kind, loving deity. His threats of hell sounded just like the manipulation and control used by human abusers.
While I had exposed with my writing many of the evils found in Christianity, I never considered looking for that elusive unicorn called the TRUE CHRISTIAN since I already thought I was one. Once I realized that I was looking for something that did not exist, the whole artifice collapsed. I also came to see that I became way too involved with conspiracy theories, finally realizing that using a 2,000-year-old religious book by which to test things is not a good idea. On deconversion boards, I talked about my blog, and people told me that they, too, became more and more immersed in conspiracy theories as time went on. One topic I think you should cover if you ever get a chance is how fundamentalist Christianity gets people to believe almost anything. This is how Trump took over so easily. Trump, by the way, was the gasoline poured on my deconversion fire. I came out against Trump on my blog — from a new world order perspective — and as a result I lost lots of readers. I was sickened by Christian support for Trump, and I openly protest Trump in my local community. I now consider myself a progressive. I remember all the grief I got for protesting against war while an IFB church member. I now see how Christianity has been used as a vehicle to control people politically, and how it has helped the powerful and rich to abuse people, advance racism, and other evil agendas. Even the conspiracy theory nonsense was part of the game.
I am now part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I still have some positive thoughts about spirituality and some of the moral teachings of Jesus, but I am no longer a Christian. I consider myself an agnostic.
I am a much happier person since leaving Christianity, and a lot of the guilt and fear has lifted. You are helping people with this blog. I know reading here helped me too.
I was listening to some songs from the late 1980s today. One song led to another, and I started looking at top 10 playlists from ‘88 and ‘89. As I was reminiscing about the songs, I got to thinking about how I used to have to sneak around to listen to these songs.
I loved secular pop music and would tape record hours of music at night, using my boom box, so I could listen in private over the next few days. I would also watch MTV when I babysat, or any other chance I got. During the 80s, there was a heavy emphasis on movie music, so movies and music became tied together in my mind. I missed out watching those movies, and didn’t have constant access to the music I liked, so I was always frustrated because I couldn’t get any fulfillment.
I realized, today, that what makes me melancholy about some music videos and movies is there are huge gaps in my experience with “the world.” There were things I loved or wanted to experience so badly, but they were just out of reach; almost like a mirage in the desert. I liked the styles of clothing people wore. They seemed happy, the boy always had a girl, things just seemed right. Even then, I knew that it was just a video, but I always wanted to have these experiences for myself. An example of this is one of my favorite songs, “How Can I Fall?” by Breathe. It features a very stylized game of stickball on the streets of New York, along with two beautiful girls. I first saw that video and thought it would be so cool to experience something like that, knowing that I would never be allowed to hang out on a street corner and would be in trouble if I was caught with a girl. Neither of those things stopped me from wanting the experience, though.
I feel cheated because I was not allowed to have the experiences most other teens had. Even the kids in the churches I attended were given way more freedom than I had. They watched movies (on a VCR, because that was so much different from going to the movies), hung out at the mall, wore stylish clothes, and had friends of the opposite sex. Even those church teens had a more normal life than I did. That was what I wanted, too.
I was told that missing out on those things kept me from trouble. Probably so, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. All of the adults, my parents included, lived through the 50s and 60s and enjoyed the normal freedoms children were allowed to have. The restrictions that were placed on me, and all of the Evangelical/IFB teens, from the 70s until now, are rules created by old white men who were pushing back against what they perceived was wrong with society. The rules were set up and enforced so they could keep their power. Those men are no different from the Pharisees that Jesus condemned in the Bible. Outwardly, they seemed holy; inwardly they hated minorities, were whoremongers, adulterers, pedophiles, drunks, and everything else they preached against.
So, now when I listen to the songs from the 80s and early 90s, it is always with a bit of sadness, realizing they represent a time in life when I missed out on many of the things “worldly” youths experienced. And I understand, now, that I missed out because of fearful men who hated anything new.
Growing up in an Evangelical environment, I learned that we are supposed to assess everything through the lens of godliness. That means we should discern whether our thoughts, actions, movies or television shows we watch, songs we listen to, articles of clothing we wear, relationships we have, and articles or books we read glorify God or detract from godliness. This is a large task that requires a lot of attention.
Many Christians I knew at my Southern Baptist church or at my Evangelical school went through the motions of religious practice without taking it to extremes, but some people took it quite seriously. I always found it overwhelming to pay the necessary attention to every single aspect of life to determine whether it met the standards of godliness. My grandmother, who had her own library of Christian concordances, history books, and books by Christian apologists, as well as Christian novels, spent large amounts of time trying to live up to what she considered her God’s standards for godliness. Everything was intently scrutinized to determine whether each was godly enough.
Our family loved watching “The Sound of Music” when it was broadcast on TV each year. We could sing along with all the songs, and we all cheered when the naughty nuns stole car parts from the Nazis’ cars so they could not pursue the Von Trapp family as they fled through the mountains to neutral Switzerland. However, one year, my grandmother determined that one of the songs, “Something Good,” taught an ungodly doctrine. This song was sung by Maria and Captain von Trapp after they declared their love for each other. Here are the main lyrics:
“Something Good” by Richard Rodgers
Perhaps I had a wicked childhood Perhaps I had a miserable youth But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past There must have been a moment of truth For here you are, standing there, loving me Whether or not you should So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good Nothing comes from nothing Nothing ever could So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good
First, my grandmother said good things in our lives come through the grace and mercy of God, not through anything we do ourselves. Yes, our actions have consequences, but all good things come from Heaven above. The second issue she had with the song was with the line “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.” In her mind, God created the heavens and earth and all therein from nothing, so therefore everything came from nothing and God made nothing into something. And technically there wasn’t “nothing” because there was God (yeah, I don’t get it either). I must admit, I thought she was nit-picking a fun, wholesome, uplifting movie, but I don’t think she watched it again until she started suffering from dementia.
Grandma believed that God developed hierarchies for us to follow. She believed that wives were under their husbands’ authority; that children were under their parents’ authority; that everyone is under God’s authority. She ran the household this way too, but in a loving way. At one point, we were a four-generation household, with my great-grandmother, my grandparents, my mom, and me. Eventually, my mom married again and moved out, but Grandma adhered to her hierarchy. Grandpa was head of household, so he could do whatever he wanted and was to be catered to at all times. Grandma’s mother was next, as children are commanded to honor their parents, and my great-grandmother’s whims were catered to as well. Technically, I was lowest on the totem pole, but Grandma considered herself God’s servant and put herself in the lowest position, eventually to the detriment of her health.
The hierarchy was amusing with regard to television. My great-grandmother was barely mobile, so using her walker, she would go from her bedroom to the table for breakfast, then to her chair where she watched television all day. (My grandma served my great-grandmother’s meals at her chair on a TV tray.) In the morning was news; then “preaching shows” (typically Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker whom I thought looked like a clown with all the makeup); then “The Price is Right,” followed by noon news and an afternoon of her soap operas; then evening news and a full slate of prime time shows and/or a movie. My great-grandmother controlled what we watched. Grandpa bought another television so he could watch sports or movies in another room. Grandma didn’t approve of a lot of the programming on television, but because she considered herself submissive to Grandpa and to her mother, she rarely said anything. I loved being able to watch movies and shows with the word “damn” or “oh my god” (which Grandma considered blasphemous). Grandpa’s favorite movie was “Patton” with George C. Scott in the lead, and even the edited-for-TV version was unacceptable by Grandma’s standards. The only time Grandma intervened was one day on my great-grandmother’s soap opera there was a male stripper and my great-grandma got a little too excited about it. Grandma said, “That’s it, I’m not having that filth in my house anymore,” whereupon my great-grandmother had a tantrum, hauled herself out of her chair, and took five minutes to go twenty feet down the hall with her walker to her bedroom where she sequestered herself and sulked the rest of the day. About a week later she was allowed to watch television again. Grandma herself didn’t watch much television outside of the news and Billy Graham Crusades, and she only listened to Christian radio talk shows like “The Christian Jew Hour” or shows by pastors such as James Dobson.
Grandma did not believe we should play games with regular playing cards because they were a “tool of gambling.” She would play Rook because those were not playing cards. She did allow me to play solitaire with a deck of cards, but only because I was not playing with another player and gambling, and because her beloved father had enjoyed solitaire so much when he was alive. We weren’t allowed to play rummy in her house — I had to play it at my mom and stepdad’s house. Grandma wouldn’t allow me to play with dice either, because they were also tools of gambling — so games like Yahtzee and Monopoly were forbidden as well. Grandma never understood that literally ANYTHING could become a tool for gambling.
There were a couple of extremely pious girls who attended my church and school. They could, and often did, judge other people’s words and actions “in love,” “correcting” their peers in their testimony to others. During the 1980s, certain television shows such as “Magnum PI” and “The A-Team” were popular. Mr. T was known for saying, “I pity the fool….” A lot of us kids would quote Mr. T, and the word “fool” became a part of our vocabulary. Of course, one day on the school bus, I said “fool” and one of these lovely girls took it upon herself to let me know that it was ungodly to say “fool” because of this verse:
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:22)
What I didn’t consider at the time is that it may have been Wednesday. On Wednesdays, one of the pious girls was required by her family to fast at lunchtime and to give the money her lunch would have cost to charity. So she may have just been hungry.
The pious girls determined that the only music they would listen to included “Beach Boys” songs, classical music, and any music played at our church and school. They were suspicious about the music played on the Christian radio station. It was too “worldly” or “liberal” because drums and electrical instruments were used in some of the songs. Their exclamatory word of choice was “fudge.” My Grandma used to say “I’ll Swanee” as her exclamatory word until one day (who knows how) she determined that saying “I’ll Swanee” was ungodly, as it was a replacement swear word. Thereafter, she stifled any response other than “Oh.” Grandma allowed me to listen to classical music or to gospel music and anything by the Bill Gaither Trio, but all other music was considered ungodly. (Please read Christian Swear Words.)
This level of discernment made me anxious and took up a lot of energy while growing up. Honestly, I couldn’t keep up with it all. A lot of it was confusing, and I longed to be free to enjoy life without worrying about every single word, action, or situation being godly enough. When I stayed at my mom and stepdad’s house, there was a lot more freedom of speech and action, but I would have to switch back into high-vigilance mode at my grandparents’ house and at school. It was a relief to let it all go as I moved further away from Evangelical Christianity. Interestingly, as my grandmother succumbed to dementia and no longer remembered all the religious strictures, she became a lot happier, childlike, and fun. There was a lot I missed about her intellectually, but as she became more forgetful, she enjoyed a lot of things again like movies and baseball (we never knew she was an Atlanta Braves fan until she suffered dementia, and I have no idea when or why baseball became ungodly). Don’t get me wrong, my grandmother was a very loving and caring person who did a lot of things to help others (as anonymously as possible), and I loved her dearly, but some of her standards were a lot to handle.
Did the home you grow up in have a code of godliness or what Baptists call “standards”? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section.
Mrs. C: Recently, you posted on social media a statement to which I really wanted to respond, but I chose to refrain. Why? Because I know that social media is a poor place to debate political, religious, or social issues, so I remained silent. Your post is as follows: “How to fix America….put Jesus back in all the places you asked Him to leave: Home, School, Government, Church and Your Heart.”
For four years, you were my high school math teacher at a K-12 fundamentalist Christian school. Starting my senior year, you had just retired, yet when your replacement — a former student with a master’s degree in math — could not handle five preparatory classes and quit after six weeks, you came back to finish the school year. In fact, I heard that you continued to teach for fifteen years after your originally planned retirement date. You were committed to teaching students, and I’m sure you could have told us a lot about your religious beliefs had women been allowed to speak in chapel services at school. As it was, all teachers were required to be Christian and to follow certain rules of conduct even outside school (like not going to movie theaters), so there was no doubt that the “witness” of the teachers for Jesus was apparent to students both inside and outside campus boundaries.
With regard to your post, I’m sure that the sentiment makes complete sense to you, living in a suburb of Nashville where the majority of your neighbors identify as some sort of Christian – specifically Evangelical Christian. Sure, you may disagree on finer points of doctrine such as whether musical instruments should be used in worship service, or whether women should wear skirts/dresses to worship services, but I suspect that the vast majority of your neighbors would agree (or at least state that they agree) that Jesus should be present in all aspects of private and public life, and that America is going to hell in a handbasket because the Evangelical God is not a mandatory part of public life.
I would like you to think about other areas of the country, areas which are more diverse in population. For example, I live in a town in New Jersey, just 20 minutes from Manhattan. Our town was settled by mostly Italian Catholic families. As time went on, more and more residents moved in with names like Torres, Patel, Silverstein, and Qureshi. Today, about thirty percent of the town is populated by families with names like Kim, Takahashi, and Chang. While the majority of residents are still Catholic, there is a large demographic of protestant Asians, a smaller demographic of Jewish residents, and a handful of Hindus and Muslims, as well as a few non-religious or atheists like my family. Our elementary school used to start teaching Italian to students beginning in third grade, but parents petitioned the school to begin teaching the arguably more useful Spanish instead. Our school district is made up of seven towns with demographics similar to our town, and we have a large enough Jewish population that the school district is closed on Jewish holidays.
Mrs. C, you speak of bringing Jesus back to the schools, and I assume you mean you would like to see mandatory prayer in the schools. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that mandatory prayers would occur during homeroom, and the prayers are supposed to be prayed to generic “God” and not specifically to Jesus. Under this scenario, Mrs. Shapiro or Mr. Elqariani could lead prayers to a generic “God” and not necessarily feel offended. However, I’m not sure to whom Ms. Patel would pray as Hindus have many gods. Would she just pray to a generic “God” even though her gods have many names? Maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe just a generic prayer over the loudspeaker system each morning would suffice. But, I’m not sure that solves your issue of putting Jesus specifically back into schools.
Definitely, I AM overthinking this. Since I’ve been out of Evangelical Christianity for twenty-five years, I almost forgot the number one rule of Fundamentalist l Christianity: that it is imperative to proselytize anyone who doesn’t believe in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That is, no matter how devout or moral people of another religion or no religion might be, if they have not made a confession of sin and profession of faith in the life, substitutionary atonement of Jesus and his resurrection three days later, they are lost and require evangelistic intervention from believers. Without Jesus, they are destined for eternal torment in hell. I was going through different scenarios where prayers could be given in public schools, thinking of allowing Muslim students to pray to Allah, allowing Buddhist students to offer prayers as they wish, and for Hindu students to pray as their belief allows. But that isn’t what you want, is it, Mrs. C? When you say that Jesus should be put back into schools, that is LITERALLY what you mean. Not that students of other religions should be mandated to pray, either in general or to the deity of their choosing. Not that volunteer imams or priests or rabbis should visit the school and offer prayers. No, those clerics are unsaved or apostates. You believe that the number one priority of Evangelical Christians is to witness to the “lost.” And while you may grudgingly permit those of other faiths to pray in an occasional gesture of ecumenicism, what you really want is your version of Christianity to be the one faith to which everyone is exposed. Most of all, you want public school students to hear prayers to YOUR deity –the Evangelical Christian God.
How about we look at a different scenario, Mrs. C? Let’s say your grandson goes to my district’s high school. He plays soccer and really wants to make the varsity team. He goes to tryouts and notices before practice that most of the boys who were on the team last year are kneeling on prayer rugs and praying to Allah with Mr. Assad, the coach. Your grandson notices this happens every day. He and the other boys really want to be favorably noticed by Mr. Assad in order to secure a spot on the team, so your grandson goes home and asks his parents to buy him a prayer rug. I suspect, Mrs. C, that you would have a fit.
Maybe these questions are part of the reason why judges saw the merit in upholding the establishment clause in our Constitution. Why don’t we leave Jesus where he belongs — in the privacy of your home, heart, and church — and let our public spaces be free of religion.