“We’re all born atheists.”
This sounds like such a simple concept, and in reality, it is; however, the first time I heard it, it hit me like a slap in the face. We’re all born atheists. It shocked me that I hadn’t thought about that before, considering my background in Christianity. But, it’s true. Children are not born with any ingrained sense of the existence of god. Without being told, taught, and brainwashed, no child would ever grow up naturally being a believer. Of course, the issue is that our society is one in which religion is inherited; your parents were taught by their parents, who were taught by THEIR parents, exactly what god is, depending on your particular flavour of religion. Childhood indoctrination occurs in every religious sect on the planet. While I don’t believe most parents do this to their children maliciously, or even intentionally sometimes, I think it’s terribly damaging to the child. It prevents them from learning to think critically, and to think for themselves; it teaches them to be satisfied with “god did it”, which should always be treated as an intellectually unacceptable answer.
I didn’t grow up in an overly religious household. As a child, we prayed before meals, my parents took my brother and I to church most Sundays, and we went to Sunday school. We learned about God, Jesus, Noah, Moses, Jonah… the whole gang. But that was essentially where our “religion” ended. I remember being about 7 years old, and laying in bed thinking. I was suddenly struck with an absolutely terrifying thought- What happens when you die? It’s a bit ironic now, because in my atheistic 7-year-old mind, all I could imagine is what nothingness would be like. My young mind was unable to comprehend the idea that there would be “nothing”… What was that? How would it feel? How could it be possible? It was a very frightening thought. I called my mom into my room, and explained to her, through tears, how I couldn’t understand the nothingness of death. Though I’d never discussed religion or God with my mom before, her words have stuck with me to this day. “Melissa, you don’t have to worry about death. I truly believe that when we die, we’ll go to Heaven.”
Heaven. That struck a bit of a chord with me. I remembered hearing something about that in church, but obviously it hadn’t really stuck with me. I immediately felt better. It was a calming thought; you don’t have to worry about how dark and lonely nothingness is- you’ll live forever! How wonderful! I didn’t give this, God, or religion a modicum of thought after that.
When I was 9, my best friend asked if I wanted to come to camp with her. She said it was on a lake, and we got to swim, go water skiing, play games, and just have fun. What 9-year-old doesn’t want that? So I went. But I was completely unprepared for what else was in store. This was the start of what would become 8 years of attending the same Bible camp, and falling further and further into the spiraling delusion that is Christianity.
Bible camp was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Church was boring. In church, you had to sit quietly and listen to some old preacher talk about who knows what, and then listen to a bunch of other old people sing boring hymns. Church at this bible camp was a completely different experience all together. There was a live band, and upbeat songs, singing and dancing and jumping… it was exciting, and it was fun! I didn’t really understand what it was all about, but it looked like something I wanted to be a part of. So I joined in, and listened to them talk about God and how great he was, and it seemed fine. One night after a worship service, my counselor approached me and asked me if I wanted to invite Jesus into my heart. I admit that I pretended to know what that meant, when in reality, it sounded completely crazy. She explained that I had to pray a specific prayer, and ask Jesus to save me, and I’d be forgiven and seal my fate in Heaven. That sounded pretty ok. Jesus infected my heart that day. And let me tell you, that was a BITCH of an infection to get rid of.
People always say that religion doesn’t hurt anyone. Well, it hurt me. I can honestly say that I suffered psychological trauma as a child of religion. I got home from camp, and was immediately overwhelmed with the fear that my parents, or my brother, hadn’t been properly “saved”. I was a total newbie at this Jesus stuff and I had no idea which prayer had to be said, or which passage read from the Bible. It really was a traumatic experience, being a 9-year-old worrying about the fate of the souls of my family and friends. Worrying that if I did something wrong, and God didn’t forgive me, I could spend eternity in hell myself! That’s really not a comforting feeling for a child. To threaten a child with hell IS abuse.
Richard Dawkins recently caught a lot of flack for some comments he made about the religious indoctrination of children. The issue people had was with the comparison he made with respect to the mental anguish it caused children- something along the lines of “mild sexual abuse”. Having been a child in this situation, I don’t disagree with him. Looking back on my years as a Christian, there were undoubtedly times of happiness, but the overwhelming memory I have is one of anger, sadness, despair, guilt, and overwhelming fear. This is no way for a child to live. Not when there is such a wonderful alternative available. Rather than raising our children to do as we do and believe as we believe, why can’t we raise them to think for themselves? Why can’t we teach them to evaluate evidence and draw their own conclusions? Raising a new generation of critically thinking adults is surely better than a new generation of mindless sheep. So let’s hold ourselves to that standard for the betterment of our children, our future, and society as a whole- don’t indoctrinate. Educate.