I grew up in rural Buhl, Idaho – population ~3500. I was raised Lutheran, dragged to Sunday school and church most Sundays in my early years. Later on I was forced to attend Confirmation classes (very similar to Catechism classes that Catholics make their children take).
I remember sitting in the first row of Sunday school when I was about 5 years old and the teacher was talking about being saved. She said that you had to accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal savior in order to have everlasting life and go to heaven (a good place). She said if you didn’t do this, you would go to hell – a place where you would be tortured forever. She also mentioned that it was our responsibility to go out into the world and tell our friends and strangers about Jesus so that they would also have the chance to be saved from this suffering.
I don’t remember too much else being said about hell. But, being five, I had quite the active imagination and it didn’t take long for me to become terrified of this place where I would tortured, any number or ways, for forever… and ever… and ever.
This church I attended, St. John’s Lutheran Church, was not a “hell-fire-brimstone-condemn you all” type church. It was fairly liberal, especially compared to others in the area. Hell was brought up rarely, and only in a matter-of-fact way. One thing was made clear – Jesus was the only way to avoid this horrible place.
It didn’t take me long to start doubting the existence of God. It basically started as soon as I got to school and was exposed to science (got some answers for how the earth and universe came to be) and history and geography (oh look at all of the OTHER religions).
The thing that bothered me the most was what would happen to anyone who never heard of Jesus Christ. Or, what happened if they had just heard about him, but died, before they were able to convert? These questions, and questions like them, literally kept me up at night. (Is it any wonder that I have anxiety and insomnia issues?) These questions made me first question the benevolence of God, which then led me to question the existence of this god.
By the time I was in middle school I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t say this to anyone, but I did ask for permission to quit my confirmation classes. I was denied this opportunity. I found the classes completely useless, and in fact, I cheated in order to pass the memorization assignments that were due every week. I didn’t want to waste my time on crap, while I was learning so many interesting things at real school.
After I was confirmed, I stopped going to church. My sisters still had to go, and I did go to their confirmation ceremony. The pastor, (same guy that confirmed me just two years previously), had completely forgotten me, so I didn’t get my bread and wine. I was not impressed.
In 1997 my stepfather molested one of my sisters. This church, a church that my mom, my sisters and I had belonged to before he had even moved to Idaho, decided to stand by him instead of the rest of us. The pastor never reached out to us, and the entire congregation turned their backs on us. The child molester continued to be accepted into the fold. I can’t even begin to tell you how hurtful this was to our family. It makes me angry to this day. It was also another, and I believe final, nail into the coffin of my faith. It didn’t help my faith in humanity either.
That year was also the year that I graduated high school. I had planned to move away and attend a university out of state, but due my step-father’s actions, all of the money that was to go toward my education, ended up going toward his lawyer. So, I stayed home and attended a two-year college for the following two years.
During college, I was introduced to ICQ (an instant messenger), which would be key to escaping Idaho, and the literal hell that I was in. Six months before my final class of my second year I started chatting with Barry Walker – whose profile simply stated “Looking for my future ex-wife.” One thing led to another, and the day after my last final, I hopped on a plane for Massachusetts to meet Barry in person. I never used the return ticket.
Before I left Idaho I was only honest about my non-belief with the people that I chatted with online. I don’t remember most of my coming out stories, but two in particular stick out the most.
The first is when I told my mother, which occurred about a year after I moved to Massachusetts and was living in Waltham. The first words out of her mouth were, “Well that’s what I get for sending you to college.” Never mind the fact she didn’t pay a dollar toward my education (It was all grants and scholarships. I owned my own car, paid for its insurance, and even most all of my own food at that point.)
And the second is when I was telling a new friend who turned out to be a fundamentalist Christian. We would be best friends for eight years, but you never would have guessed it from this conversation:
Me: I’m an atheist
Her: You don’t believe in God?
Her: Then why don’t you just kill yourself?
Me: ?!?!?! Why would I want to kill myself when I believe that this life is all that I have? Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to make the most of it?
My mind still boggles at the thought process involved that would make you think that a lack of belief in God would make you think that THIS life isn’t worth living.
Since coming out to my family back in ~2000 I haven’t looked back. I do not hide the fact that I’m atheist from anyone. I have gotten some backlash, but it has been worth it. Even though I still grieve over the loss of my best friend – who took offense to my “Threatening children with a made-up hell is child abuse” picture on g-chat (three (or so) years after I had it on my profile), it is still worth it.
Being open with your atheism is worth it, because you can not put a price on living authentically. When you hide it, or outright deny it – you are doing yourself and others a great disservice. You are not allowing yourself to live as yourself, and you are not allowing others to know you for who you really are.
I hope that my story can help you make that choice to come out and be open as atheist or agnostic. You owe it to yourself.