I was raised without a religion. My father and stepmother never really talked about God, or Jesus, or the Old Testament. They didn’t talk about Jerusalem or even Vishnu. Throughout my childhood, they mostly just stayed quiet on the subject. Raised in Georgia, though, this doesn’t mean that I was exempt from the culture that surrounds the so-called “Bible Belt”. It just means that I grew up confused about the whole situation; and that my peers around me grew up confused about why I was confused.
Although my immediate family didn’t believe in God, they never forced their beliefs – or lack thereof – onto me. They had both grown up in rural Northern Georgia, near the Tennessee line, in a setting commonly known to be a stifling, inflexible Christian environment. When they got married, they decided that they wouldn’t tell me what to believe and thought that it would be best to let me decide what was best for myself in the area of religion. Growing up, I honestly never gave much thought about the subject. It wasn’t until late elementary school that I began to realize I was a bit different from everyone around me.
It became popular to discuss churches, scripture, and the like around the lunch table. I always waited nervously, palms slightly clammy, for someone to ask me what church I went to. I was afraid to tell them I didn’t belong to a church, afraid that once that information was out, I wouldn’t belong anywhere in the mix of children at my school. “Oh, my church is two towns over,” became my standard answer for these inquiries. I began to think that perhaps I needed to do a bit of research on my own time, so I hurried to my school’s sadly limited library and checked out a plethora of books, their subjects ranging from Hinduism to the life of Jesus Christ. Although religion didn’t feel natural to me, I was determined to have something to discuss at the lunch table. Unfortunately, I was a lazy child, and once I had figured out exactly how much work went into memorizing scriptures or multiple Gods and Goddesses, I decided to table the issue for the time being.
Then came middle school. I had a new best friend, Amanda, whose family attended church twice a week. When I would spend Saturday nights at her house, I always had to pack my nice clothes for church the following morning. The ritual of going to church itself never bothered me much; I thought that it was nice the way people would congregate to talk about Jesus’ unwavering love for them. However, I never felt anything when I listened to the preachers booming voice. One morning, as I watched Amanda’s mother’s eyes well up from the pure emotion she was overcome with from the sermon, I knew that I didn’t belong there. I decided that I had to, once and for all, market myself as non-Christian.
This probably doesn’t sound like a big decision. I’m not sure though, if people who belong to organized religions can realize how cliquey they are with those of the same belief set. I knew from hearing my friends talk about atheists and agnostics that they were not looked upon favorably by most of my fellow students. I remained resolved, however. From then on, when I was asked what church I went to, I would respond with a simple, “I don’t go to church.” I wanted to be as brief as possible with it. Sadly, that wasn’t enough for many of my friends. I began to become alienated by those I had been so close to, including Amanda. They told me that I was going to Hell and that they couldn’t associate with me anymore. I became increasingly bitter and resentful of religion in general, angry that it could make people feel that they had to disregard you completely if you didn’t sit in a pew every Sunday.
In high school, I became even more vocal about my lack of beliefs, refusing to let myself feel that I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t believe in God. I no longer tried to hide my beliefs, instead I chimed in whenever I heard others talking about religion. This, however, still did not stop other students from belittling me because of the beliefs that I held. In tenth grade, on the first day of my World History class, my teacher, Coach Bunkley, talked to us about the role religion would play in our studies that year. He asked us to raise our hands if we were Baptist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim. When he realized that I had refrained from raising my hand, I confessed to him and the class that I was an atheist.
“She’s a devil worshiper!” yelled a boy in the back of the class. Everyone began to laugh as I felt my face turn red. “I don’t even believe in the devil,” I muttered, although no one heard me. After that day, the boy who dubbed me “the devil worshiper” began taunting me increasingly in class, throwing things at me and holding out his cross necklace in my direction while speaking in tongues whenever he came near me. His bullying got so bad that when we left class one day he and his friends shoved me up against a locker, chastising me for not being a Christian. Amazingly, although my friends saw what was happening, no one ever stood up for me. What hurt the most was that they would just laugh along, too afraid of getting bullied to say anything back in my defense.
Now I am nineteen. I have tried to leave the bad memories behind me, but every once in a while they still resurface in my mind. Religion is odd. It can make people do terrible and disgusting things, but can also make them do amazing and kind things. My parents tried to save myself from the scarring of religion that they were subject to when they were my age, yet I still could not escape it. Whether we like it or not, religion is an important topic. It plays an extreme part in the lives of individuals and the masses, from holidays, to politics, to entertainment. Religion is an unstoppable force that helps to transform the world, in both good and bad ways.
Despite the horrible treatment I was subjected to growing up, I don’t believe that all Christians are bad people. I have many friends and family members who are religious, and I still love them dearly. I only wish that we lived in a society where all religious people could feel the same about those who don’t subscribe to any doctrine. I wish that parents could have the forethought to stress acceptance to their children when discussing religion, and to not just assume that they will understand that section of Jesus’ words.
Too often, we allow ourselves to be divided based on religion. If you believe that people are sinning for not believing in God, that’s entirely your prerogative. If I end up being wrong about religion and I burn in Hell for eternity when I pass away, that is my business. However, the least we can each do as compassionate human beings is ensure that no human has to feel as if they are in Hell while they are living.