This is not a story about the loss of faith or its restoration (sorry, not sorry). This is the story of awakening. Of autonomy. Of going from closed to open. This is a story of reclamation.
I was raised in a religious household. We called ourselves born-again Christians. My mom was a Sunday school teacher. At service on Sundays, she would play the tambourine during worship. Each colored strand that weights the tambourine represents a different thing, such as faith or atonement. The movements can be basic or complex. My mother played the tambourine beautifully, and when my sister and I were older, we played our own. In summer we went to Bible school or something called Missionette camp. I led a prayer group at school and later taught Sunday school myself.
The cover of my Bible was made of soft white leather, and I carried it everywhere. I read it backward and forward. I believed. But in high school I started to question that belief. I saw what others did with it, turning faith into a weapon to use against anyone deemed “other.” I saw the damage it dealt on a global scale. Parts of the doctrine started to rub against my own feelings of right and wrong. A vengeful God that tells his followers to forgive. A God that condemns innocent people to an eternity of suffering for not believing, not worshiping, not bending at the knees. A God that drove Saul mad so David–that adulterous murderer–could be king, while his followers claim mankind has free will. Though I continued to appreciate the teachings of Jesus, I couldn’t ignore the hypocrisy of the whole nor the crimes committed by so many who claim to be his followers, followers who say one can’t know God’s will and then declare their own will God’s. Followers who believe they can do anything they want and then simply ask for forgiveness after and still have a place in a heavenly kingdom.
I finally decided that, if the God of born-again Christians does exist, I don’t like him. In college, I took a Bible as Literature course, and I was able to put the whole in context. I was able to let go of religion’s baggage and move about in the world as myself, free and open. I was able to appreciate more, love more, make space for more. Over time, I became an atheist. I don’t believe in a higher power, though I’m not afraid of being proven wrong. If there is a higher power, it is so complex humans can’t comprehend it, let alone affix a pronoun to it. And I most definitely don’t believe in an afterlife, which makes this one all the more precious to me.
I know what some reading this might be thinking. #notallchristians. Yes, not all Christians are hypocritical, bigoted, and close-minded. But too many of them are, and instead of alleviating suffering, they increase it worldwide. When I was in high school, I was part of the queer kid group without realizing it at the time. I didn’t know my orientation or gender identity yet. I didn’t have the language for it. I just knew I was different, and in that difference, lay a great deal of fear. I was my own oppressor. I was the oppressor of my friends, some of whom may have needed someone to confide in, and I wasn’t that safe person for them because of my faith and my affiliation with people who told them and me that who we are is a sin, is cause for eternal damnation, and must be wiped from the earth. How small are those people and how large a weight is their god, whom they push up the mountain every day, getting nowhere.
But humans are resilient. We others, those of us who survive, trade conditional love for something more enduring, and we are trying to create a world that makes space for difference. Chosen family. Open hearts. Actions motivated by compassion. Lives built around self reflection and a commitment to reality, no matter how hard it might be, instead of denial in the name of comfort.
I escaped for a long while from that world of militant, hate-speech Christianity. And when I moved back to my red hometown, I watched it from a distance, feeling guilty for propping it up in my youth. When it tried to take away the rights of trans youth in my area, my sister and I confronted it. I told the story of my gender identity and experience for the first time, standing before the school board on the grounds where I was bullied as a child. The school board adopted their anti-transgender policy anyway, but I hope that record of resistance makes a difference to someone someday. I hope the hearts of a couple people in the audience were changed or at least shaken.
One of the things I told the school board was that trans people like me exist, whether they like it or not. And then I was diagnosed with cancer. This is a small town, and I’m sure a few people who learned this news walked away with a smirk on their faces. On Facebook, a friend from high school called things like cancer God’s will. I wonder if part of her motivation for saying so is that she believes that my cancer is a punishment for being trans or godless or a “left wing liberal,” as she called me in the comments of a post, where she also described to someone I don’t know where I live. I reported that comment to Facebook, but they didn’t feel it violated the privacy portion of their community guidelines. So I wondered during the week following if someone would come by and tag my house, break the windows, assault me while I took the garbage out. She didn’t make me rethink my atheism or moral compass, but she did shake my faith in friendship.
When I received my diagnosis, Christianity jumped in to try to stake a claim on my life again. People said they would pray for me. The cancer institute sent me a chaplain. Christians on social media tried to send me the word of their god, which I probably know better than most of them. Now, many people of faith believe, is the time a person returns to faith. After all, it’s easier to force someone to do something when they have a gun pointed at their head. But religion holds no comfort for me, nor power over me. Death is a part of life. If I survive this cancer, I will still die one day. Death can’t be prayed or Jesused away. I know who I am, and once you know that, it’s harder for others to have control over you.
No one’s god gave me cancer, unless their god is money. Greed caused my cancer. Toxins that produce profits, which justify the consequences to their creators. But I guess God is a convenient scapegoat. After all, why bother trying to change anything if you believe it’s God’s will? Let Monsanto continue to spray glyphosate on what will become children’s breakfast cereal, and your every meal. Let factories dump waste into water systems. Let corporations fill products with carcinogens. Just wrap it up in a flag and call it God’s will. Make your god the murderer, so you don’t have to acknowledge the blood on your hands.
To be fair, there’s a group of people who have made science their religion, using it to justify their own biases and hatred and callousness. Even though my cancer was caused by human pollution, the people in this group claim it is not God’s but science’s will. Natural selection. In the movie adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars, Van Houten tells Hazel, “You are a failed experiment in mutation.” According to this view, I am a weak or imperfect specimen and am meant to die out, making more room for those who can resist the toxins I couldn’t. Dressed in a hood, or saluted by a raised arm, and enacted, this philosophy might be called eugenics.
And then there are the capitalists and their slaves, whose religion is money. They believe a person becomes useless and therefore worthless as soon as illness or injury renders them unable to produce, to contribute to their machine. The folks who believe my life ended as soon as I received my diagnosis. The folks saying I’m expendable so that the economy doesn’t crash. The people saying so many lives are expendable so that the comfort of a few can continue. This they also wrap in a flag and call patriotism, call freedom. I have the freedom to work or die.
I hate the saying, “No atheists in a foxhole.” Even Sam Smith, whom I adore, has a song with a line, “Everyone prays in the end.” I’m an atheist in a foxhole, and I’m not praying. I’m enjoying the life I have left–a life that’s richer without religion–in all its complexity, even the painful parts. I’m committing to love myself, imperfect as I am. I’m reaching for a better world, in whatever small way I can, while acknowledging just how tiny I am. I’m trying to spend more time in love and as little as possible in hate. So please, save your prayers.