I was raised Presbyterian. At least in our town, it seemed pretty vanilla as far as Christianity is concerned. I don’t remember ever learning much about scary God or really old testament God. It was more about Jesus and love and being good. I felt pretty tight with the Big Man and His Son. I knew they were looking over me.
Then, one summer at around the age of 7, I went to vacation bible school with my friends who were BAPTIST. This had zero meaning to me, and I truly enjoyed my week there until the closing night. There was typical singing and praying. Then the minister said a prayer. It started out asking God to visit each child and PUNISH any child who had failed to ask for forgiveness from God. He asked that God keep each child awake all night until forgiveness had been given. WHAT?? This had nothing to do with Jesus loving me or little lights of mine.
I began to quietly freak out. I wasn’t clear on forgiveness, what my sins were, or really how to go about asking for anything other than dolls and bicycles from God. That night, I sat in my bed crying and afraid. The more I cried, the more I was convinced God was keeping me up because I had never asked him for forgiveness. The more I couldn’t sleep, the more I waited for God to appear and scare the “living hell” right out of me.
I called for my parents several times. They were confused and tried to comfort me; I just cried. Finally, late into the night, I decided to write a prayer that I promised God I would recite every night for the rest of my life. I recited it every night for many years and couldn’t actually fall asleep unless I recited it. Here it is.
Dear God, Dear Jesus -(I didn’t include the Holy Ghost, but I think at age 7 I wasn’t sure how the Holy Ghost was different from the other two, and I was afraid of ghosts)
Please forgive me for all the bad things I’ve said or done since the last time I prayed. Please forgive my family and friends for all the bad things they’ve said or done since the late time I prayed. Please make sure nothing bad happens to me. Please make sure nothing bad happens to my family and friends. Please make sure no robbers get me. Please make sure robbers don’t get any of my friends and family. Please forgive the robbers and other bad people. Please don’t visit me. I’m too scared to see you. Please try not to keep me up at night because I need sleep. I promise to try harder about my sins (I’m obviously wasn’t clear on what was considered a sin except robbing people). Please don’t ever let my grandpa die. If he has to die, can you please make sure he dies after I do? I love you very much, God. I love you very much, Jesus. I love you very much, Jesus. I love you very much, God– (I thought Jesus might get hurt feelings if he had to always be second in my prayers. Although, by all accounts, he was second).
After my official bedtime prayer had been written, I returned to my Presbyterian life and continued to attend Sunday school, sing in the church choir, and participate in youth group. I loved all of it, but not because of the religious part. I loved the friends I made, the singing, the community service work and the snacks. I didn’t feel much about those guys who were still coming to get me. I looked for them once in a while. I searched in the bible, in the church, in the eyes of my more pious family members and in my own self. I never found a thing.
As I grew older, I decided the best way to find them was to become a member of the church. There were a series of courses and discussions you had to complete. I was very successful in all of this work. I knew the bible and the teachings; I could answer the questions to all of the tests. I was going to be an excellent member.
The last day before finally becoming a member, each student had to meet with the minister. I knew him well. He’d baptized me and had been my minister for my entire life. We discussed if I was ready and my commitments to the church. I WAS ready. I was going to finally be a member of the club. I was going to get unlimited snacks and be able to sing all the hymns! We were almost finished with our meeting, and he asked me if I had any further questions. I only had one. I flatly asked, “Do you just have to know he’s real without any proof?” Ultimately, the answer was yes. I had to know in my heart and believe blindly. That’s faith, I supposed. I couldn’t find it. There wasn’t any faith inside of me. I tried. I waited. That night, instead of my normal “please don’t visit me prayer”, I begged them to show up, to show me something that would convince me. They never came because they weren’t real. For me, they weren’t real. From then on, I changed my focus to other clubs, like travel soccer and community service groups. I couldn’t be a fake member of the God club. Although, I loved everything about my church, my friends and the club, I couldn’t live a lie. I’ve never looked back, and I’ve never felt I was missing anything since I realized there was nothing there to miss. However, I do occasionally sing “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”. It’s a classic.
And that’s how I became an atheist. Amen!