Don’t You Go to Church?

Being a non-Christian in the United States is not always easy. I know, because I grew up here, and I’ve never been Christian.

Zen and the Art of Childhood

comingbackI was raised essentially Zen Buddhist in the southeast, a region not known for its tolerance and open-mindedness. My mother was Zen; my father and his family were Baptist.

When I was in kindergarten, in 1979, my teacher used to lead the students in Christian prayer before lunchtime. She would do it surreptitiously in the classroom, not in the cafeteria, because prayer in a public school was illegal. When my mother found out, she was irate; she demanded that the school put a stop to it. They didn’t. But in a small southern town, you can’t raise too many waves. My mother dropped it.

In fourth grade, I remember my teacher reading stories to the class — Bible stories. Again, there was nothing we could do.

As I approached puberty, the emotion I most frequently associated with religion was incredulity. Whenever the other children found out that I didn’t go to church, or that I didn’t believe in God, they were incredulous. Aren’t you afraid you’ll go to hell? they’d ask. No, I don’t believe in hell. But the Bible says… I don’t believe the Bible, either. But the Bible says… Why do you believe the Bible? The Bible says… (I’m not making this up.)

For my part, I was incredulous about their beliefs, as well. I was amazed that people could just completely believe every word of a two-thousand-year-old self-contradictory book, without, as it seemed, thought or question. Especially when the Bible had so many things in it that were obviously just wrong — things that contradicted evolution, geology, astronomy, etc.

We were children; we couldn’t argue these things out properly. I couldn’t explain my point of view, and they couldn’t explain theirs. The upshot was that I was just too weird to be friends with them. That was ok with me, though, because I thought they were weird.

A Foreign Homeland

As I grew up, the simple directness of childhood religious conversation became more nuanced, but the results were the same. People asked me what church I went to, or invited me to attend theirs, and I tried to deflect the questions by saying things like “I don’t really go to church”. This would generally end the conversation and any possibility of friendship, too. Their unspoken assumption was this: if you don’t want to go to my church, you don’t want to be my friend.

One result is that I have never, ever felt like I was part of mainstream American culture. I’m not even sure I know what it would feel like to be part of a culture. Effectively, I grew up like an immigrant — except there was no country I had emigrated from.

Eventually I started to hide my beliefs as much as possible. I never lied about it, but neither would I ever bring it up or wear it on my sleeve. I did sport a yin-yang necklace in high school classes, where everyone already knew I was strange and it wouldn’t do any damage. But I didn’t wear it to work or to visit my father’s family. It would have started too many uncomfortable conversations.

Was I religiously discriminated against? It didn’t feel like that. It was more like I was treated like I was slightly insane.

But probably the reason I didn’t feel discriminated against was that I could hide my religion whenever I wanted to. In the South, discrimination can get pretty bad, and there are lots of people who can’t just hide the fact that they’re not white Protestant conservatives.

I decided pretty early on that I would rather not live in the South. I’d heard things were more progressive elsewhere. Not everywhere else, of course; there are plenty of places in the U.S. where the discrimination is just as bad, but less overt. Now I live in western Massachusetts, and I can be open about my beliefs. I don’t introduce myself by saying, “Hi! I’m a Druid! What about you?”, but I have been able to mention my beliefs or rituals in passing, and no one has batted an eye.

A Majority of Minorities

While just about every minority suffers some discrimination here (and some majorities, too — e.g. women), some have had a lot more success fighting it than others. African Americans made a lot of progress at great cost in the middle of the last century, but (at least from what I’ve seen) not much movement has happened since. That is striking compared to the rapid progress made by homosexuals in the last thirty years. Admitting to homosexuality was nearly unthinkable in the 1960’s; it was worse than admitting to insanity. Now it’s still not easy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose your job, your house, and your family.

Why the difference in progress? I’m no sociologist, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s partly because of the 1960’s sexual revolution, partly because of the publicity surrounding HIV, but mostly because straight white Protestants sometimes discover that their children are homosexual, but straight white Protestants never discover that their children are black. If fine, upstanding, rich Southern white people, through the grace of God, sometimes had black children, that would make a world of difference. It would be much more difficult to dehumanize them, which is the first step in discrimination.

It may be that our situation as pagans is more like that of the homosexuals than of the African Americans. We are in the same families as Christians, and we can allow Christians to get to know us and like us before we let on about our differences. This makes it harder to “dehumanize” us. On the other hand, our beliefs directly challenge Christianity in a way that homosexuality doesn’t. If, by some miracle, our numbers swell, and we are perceived as taking believers away from Christ, will we be directly targeted? After all, not long ago, they were setting fire to Christian churches simply because the congregation was the wrong color. Will the sacred groves be burned again?

I no longer think all Christians are insane; I know that Christianity is ultimately a religion of love and tolerance, and many good friends of mine are Christians of that order. But discrimination, especially religious discrimination, has been the hallmark of Western civilization for two thousand years, and its roots run deep.

This essay is cross-posted at Pagan Sojourn.

Comments

  1. Gawd, can I relate to this!

    I was raised in a family of 1970s feminist Wiccans / Cherokee descendants in Chattanooga, Tennessee, known at that time at least as having the highest number of holy rollin churches per square mile of any municipality in the country.

    The principal of my high school was the first deacon of the largest, affluent, all-white Baptist Church in the state. He led the school in public prayer over the intercom speaker every morning – in out-spoken defiance of the Prayer in Public School mandate.

    I was an A student who was nevertheless at WAR with the administration of my school – the discrimination and pressure from some of my teachers was constant and barely endurable.

    At the time, I didn’t have the perspective to realize that the reason none of the other students around me could relate to my outrage was because they had been so regularly force-fed Southern Baptist doctrine at home, from the cradle, they were completely numb to how inappropriate these messages were when they surfaced in the classroom…

    It was actually WORSE – harder – more difficult – to be raised mainstream-religion free in that environment. Getting it from all angles, all the time, was a kind of ironic blessing – like over-stimulated pain receptors that the brain simply stops processing, after a certain point.

    I also want to commend your likening the “passing” of religious affiliation to sexual identity, as opposed to the more common comparison with ethnic minority.

    Belief systems are physically undetectable, in the way that sexual identity often is – lending itself to greater subversion than a visible characteristic.

    I’ve often asked myself just how much of a martyr I needed to be, up there writing my chart prior to this incarnation – if we engineer our life karma and circumstances before coming down here, I’ve often felt I loaded up on graduate-level angst components for this life time:
    to choose to be a priest, a witch, a gay man, in the Bible Belt of the South, with puberty coinciding dead on with the AIDS epidemic – not to mention, with a temper and a Big Mouth – I really must have been looking to crawl through the trenches this time around… : )

    My Guides comfort me by reminding me of the perks we thoughtfully scripted that I can’t be so spoiled as to overlook – that I got the Mercury in Gemini I wanted and globe-dominating English as a first langauge, and that my normal life span should easily coincide with the benefits of the Technological Singularity…

    Here’s to the Grace of Horns – the power we find on the training ground of that which does not kill us… Our greatest flaws can become the jewels in our crowns – our hideous birthmarks, our birthright.

  2. My sister is a hard-core fundamentalist who truly believes I’ll be going to hell. When my father died, I allowed my sister to have the funeral at her church. What a mistake. Her pastor used the occasion to preach against me. He said that heaven is like a theme park, and if you get to the gate and don’t have the money for a ticket, you won’t get in. He said that my dad would be standing inside the park, crying because his “friends” couldn’t be admitted.

    Dad was an agnostic scientist and a lifelong churchgoer because he liked to sing. He would never have attended a church like that, and he’d have been mortified to have all his surviving friends and family members subjected to such an outrageous sermon.

    After the service I heard my sister commend the preacher on his “message,” and he bragged that he “felt the spirit moving” in him. Of course they both know I’m a Druid.

    My sister and I get along okay as long as the subject of religion doesn’t come up. But we’re not close. I’m still smarting from that funeral. As if losing Dad weren’t enough, I got insulted at his memorial service.

    I’m sure this is not the end of my difficulties keeping a relationship with a family member who is so offended by my religious choices. Luckily we don’t see much of each other.

  3. Jeff Lilly says:

    Slade: As usual, whenever I read your stuff, about all I can say is “Wow”. 🙂 The hardest steel takes the hottest fire, doesn’t it? — Rudolf Steiner, the Waldorf guy, says that during the first thirty years or so of your life, you are receiving the karmic “blessings” of your previous incarnations; and in the rest of your life, you are laying down karma for future incarnations. Maybe that sheds some light on your childhood struggles. One thing’s for sure: thank goodness it’s over… Congratulations on the Mercury in Gemini, by the way. I’ve got it too (you can see all my astrological stuff way at the bottom of my About page). What a ride, eh?

    Anne: What your sister did was not just outrageous, it was an outrage. “Heaven is a theme park”… Holy crow. You’ve gotta feel sorry for this preacher, and your sister, if that’s what they’re looking forward to in the afterlife. Boy, are they in for a surprise…

  4. Heaven is a theme park and you have to have money to get in, hu? I guess all the poor Christians are SOL, then.

    I have many of the same issues as Anne does with my family, only they’re Catholic. My belief system isn’t abused or riduculed, it’s just not mentioned. At all. When I try to discuss it, the conversation is promptly changed.

    What I find is Christians, Catholics or not, feel it is their *personal* failure when someone willingly leaves the flock. And it’s salt in their wound when it’s a family member. My tried for years to bring me back in. My steadfast refusal to attend Mass (except weddings and funerals) was finally met with stoney silence. And I’m not sure what is worse: the insults and evangelicalness of my aunts and uncles or their silence.

  5. Oh my GOD! This is like looking in a mirror!

    I, too, live in the southeast, and am seriously considering going to college in western Massachusetts this fall. Seriously. I can relate to every detail of this except that I was, in fact, raised as a Christian (an extremely conservative one). I deconverted last summer, just before going to a Church of God college. My family is still extremely Christian.

    “It was more like I was treated like I was slightly insane.” GREAT line. You know what Christian martyrs say–persecution is easier than ridicule. If Christians constantly blasted my beliefs, it would be easier to deal with, but the constant pity and patronization makes me feel like a criminal, despite my confidence that my deconversion was justified.

  6. Jeff Lilly says:

    David, congratulations on dodging the “Church of God college” bullet. I love New England and would recommend it to anyone, especially if you like perfect summers and spectacular falls and sunny snowy days and mountains and open-minded people. Yeah…

    I think being non-Christian must be much more difficult for people like yourself who grew up in Christianity and moved away from it, as Nio says above. You’ve betrayed your tribe to be true to yourself, and that’s one of the hardest things a social animal can do. Hats off to all of you, for showing true courage.

  7. Jeff,

    You’ve inspired a new serious of childhood religious memoirs I’m calling
    Tales of A Third Grade Heretic.

    🙂

    I’m punctuating with an obvious smiley, as they’re turned off on my WordPress installation – I have painfully discovered these absolutely MUST appear in order for readers to know when to have a sense of humor about their religious experiences.

    Do I need another smiley here, or is one enough?

    I badly need a more sympathetic audience – apparently some of my own readership has decided they can’t handle me at 8 years old – let alone 37 – and are lining up to unsubscribe like I’m giving out advance reader copies of Harry Potter #7.

    Trolling for a smile and a chuckle – I think I just got slapped in my Mercury in Gemini.

    Check out my offensive new post.

    : (

  8. Jeff Lilly says:

    Ouch, Slade! Are you really losing readership over this? I looked at your article, and I thought it was great — hilarious and sad at the same time. I thought it was quite clear that you were disappointed in church, not in religious experience. I can only hope that justice will be served — that an article as well-written as yours will draw in more readers than it turns away.

  9. Also, just for the record, “the Bible” doesn’t *say* anything.

    Ancient Hebrew people wrote things on scrolls that were later collected and compiled into first the Jewish Old Testament and then later the complete Christian Bible.

    It’s a pet peeve of mine. And I really like the Bible.

    Even assuming that what we now have written down bears much of a resemblance at all to what was originally written (and scholarship holds that it probably does, although it may not be exact, certainly the sense of it is preserved, which of course is a warning to make sure any Bible-quote is in context, since the smaller the piece you’re talking about, the more likely it is to be misleading), you’re still talking about something written by a person. God himself didn’t personally write much of anything at all

    Shoot, lots of the historical bits of the Bible were written by people who weren’t even there. Even assuming that Biblical scholars are right about who wrote what (and while there’s always room for doubt, as far as I understand it the scholarship is fairly solid), Moses wasn’t present at the creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, the flood, the days of Abraham, etcetera, and he’s the guy who supposedly wrote Genesis!

    I really wish people would be more specific- instead of saying “the Bible says,” I wish they would say “Paul wrote…” or “it says in the Book of Matthew,” or whatever. the difference is huge. Somehow it’s gotten into peoples’ minds that THE BIBLE tells them something and it’s straight from the mouth of God. That’s ridiculous. even if it did originally come from God, it’s a fairly indirect thing by the time it gets to you, dear Evangelical reader.

    Now you may not believe a word Paul says (Lord knows I often don’t), but at least talking about “what the Bible says” in those terms forces a more realistic understanding of what is being said in the first place.

    And by the way, I grew up Mormon in Knoxville, Tennessee. To most of my Bible-thumping neighbors and classmates, that meant I was pretty much the worst kind of heretic. At least you pagans had the honesty to not belive in Jesus at all. Us Mormons, far worse, claimed to be Christians when we… worshipped… the… WRONG… JESUS!!!! GASP!

  10. Love this article, love the comments. I grew up in New Zealand and in the Presbyterian church, and we were the weird ones in my school because we WENT to church! Hardly anyone else I knew did…

    But hey, but the time I was a teenager, I was asking all the questions the youth group leaders didn’t want to answer… and that was the end of church for me.

    Can’t imagine what the South must be like… Still can’t get my head around the fact that people owned people and those people who owned other people were ok with it…

  11. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kara-Leah, see, after reading your article today, I know why no one in New Zealand goes to church. Isn’t it obvious? There’s no reason to go to church if you’re already in heaven…

    It’s very easy to convince yourself that it’s ok to own other people. All you have to do is convince yourself that they’re not really “people”. And maybe that’s hard for you to imagine, too — but it’s really not hard at all, especially if they look different, talk different, etc. I know, because there are plenty of people in my family back home who think that way…

  12. I loved this post, thanks for sharing. In Hungary, where I live, people are even less open-minded.

  13. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks, Eszter. I have to say, there have been a lot of changes in my hometown and home state over the years. When I was growing up, my relatives would use extremely racist terms as a matter of course. Today — just 40 years later — that would never happen. The state even had a female senator recently. Progress is fitful, uneven, and slow, but it’s happening. I hope the same is true in Hungary. 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] Bible belt, some people would react with disbelief when they found out I wasn’t Christian. Don’t you go to church? They seemed to think I was literally insane. And you can pity an insane person, but you can’t […]

  2. […] indeed experience some prejudice in that regard. You can read more about it in my blog post ” Don’t You Go to Church?” You might also be interested to read some of the comments other Pagans wrote on that blog […]

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