Or How I Came Closer to Atheism While Living in a Christian Country
I remembered that it was hot as hell. Women futilely fanning themselves against the onslaught of body heat and righteousness as they were dressed to the nines in their Sunday best, which included a wide hat, stately dress, gray pantyhose and strappy white shoes with toes protruding so far out that they were gripping the floor for mercy.
This was Jamaica, circa early eighties, where it was damn hot during the summer, and it was summer 13 out of 12 months. My parents, especially my mother, grew up in the church, and now it was her turn to indoctrinate my impressionable brain. I was maybe five or six, and this was the Sunday ritual I had to endure in order to get to the good part of the day: Sunday dinner of rice and peas and roasted chicken.
The clapping, the singing, the swaying, all fascinated me. People cried out in unison, rocked, and declared themselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit, with eyes closed and upturned hands waving. To me, it looked like a show. And then came the main event, when someone opened their mouth, and spoke gibberish. They called that “speaking in tongues.”
THAT was the sign that you were on the right side of Jesus that Sunday.
This whole thing went on for hours, and as a child, I remember thinking it was all so strange. But this was what it meant to be Christian in Jamaica. This was what you had to do, how you had to act, how you had to look. I was seeing the path I was headed down, because if I wanted to go to Heaven, this was the way you had to act on a Sunday.
If I’m honest, even as a child, the whole thing made my eyes roll, but I wanted to try to accept it, to see it, even if I didn’t buy the whole Adam-and-Eve thing (as told by Moses, who was obviously there).
When we moved to the U.S. and found a church, I had to get all dolled up every Sunday. And Florida heat is bad. The humidity alone will render you a puddle before you walk out the door. At least in Jamaica, there was a breeze and mountains. Miami is a flat concrete jungle that can wash out if the tide is right.
As I matured, I was told that when I had my period, I was not allowed in Church, because I was “unclean.” That irked me, but it presented me with an opportunity to have a free Sunday, alone, sleeping in, when I had my period.
That was when I found it: joy.
I discovered the other side of Sundays. The side that didn’t demand that I morph into a trussed-up turkey, or feel like I had to call up a certain amount of saccharine so that I could mouth the right platitudes to get through the day. I could read a book, that had nothing to do the Bible, but was plenty biblical. I could watch TV.
Pretty soon, my annoying period was the best thing on a Sunday.
My unclean ass could stay home.
But something inside me brewed. I realized that over the years, I was trying to fit my round butt into a square Christian hole and it wasn’t working. I dreaded going to church. I argued that if I were really into this “church thing,” it wouldn’t be this much of a struggle inside me. At the age of 16, as a high school student, who was a nerd by many standards, I told my parents that I was done with church.
My mother asked me if I didn’t believe in God anymore. I told her no, which felt truthful at the time. I just couldn’t stand church. The minute I said all of that, I felt something else so indescribably beautiful well inside me: peace.
Over the years, I waded into the secular life, asking myself the necessary questions: Did I believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, evolution, karma, Armageddon,that homosexuality was evil, that sex was a sin…all the hellfire-and-brimstone-from-the-pulpit arguments that made me wonder if I was really a Satanist in disguise…I wasn’t sure I believed in that either, especially since I watched many-a-televangelist cry that seawater when he got caught with this pants around his ankles.
(No, dear, it wasn’t the devil that made you do that.)
I turned my quest inward and slowly reprogrammed myself based on what I thought, knew, understood, saw, learned, read, felt. In a way, I have been detoxing from what I consider a form of brainwashing, because I no longer saw it as beneficial to pretend that the Bible was this infallible truth.
It isn’t, because the last time I checked, the truth didn’t have versions.
All the Bible was to me was a book that told of how the people of the day dealt with the problems of the day. It was a mixture of perspectives and perceptions, many of which we now understand a bit better and can name. When you can’t name something or don’t understand how it happens, it’s comforting to think that there’s someone “up there” making this happen or pulling those strings. Living with the questions is unnerving.
After all these years, I’m learning that living with the questions gives me the freedom to figure things out for myself and create my own path instead of that’s been weathered and worn. This belief system solidified in me, and as I got older, I was bolder in my thought process, because I was coming to terms with the fact that organized, man-made religion, in general, was not for me.
Then came the ultimate test: moving back to Jamaica
The reasons I moved back were myriad, but at the heart of it was that I wasn’t as happy as I knew I could be. In our absence from the country, it seemed that Jamaica had remained stagnant and devolved at the same time. This Christian country had a murder rate that was spiraling out of control, especially on the west side, where we settled. The news headlines were about the body count, and my father shook his head, because it was the same way when we left.
It got to the point where my father was told by state officials that he had to go to a certain part of the parish and was warned off from it because he could get shot. The Minister of National Security declared on national television that the country needed Divine intervention. That pissed me off because considering he was the head of the police, I was thinking they needed to actually follow the laws. But, I guess when the bodies were dropping long and strong on his watch, any port looked good in that storm.
The sick irony of how a Christian country with more churches per square mile than schools was having a problem with citizens who didn’t quite buy into that one itty-bitty commandment. Seeing all of this, my eyes were opened to how easily people could and did use their Christianity as social currency. You say the right words and it brings on bobbing heads followed by an “Amen.” You want someone to give, you tell them that God will bless you more if you give them that bigger bill than the smaller one. That if you gather enough people together and collectively lie, that’s worth more than plain truth.
In a way, Christianity here has robbed people of their ability and need to think critically. To think critically is to question, and to question God is to show ingratitude. You won’t get any blessings if you are ungrateful. Also, remember that the Bible can only be interpreted by the pastor who can take it to mean whatever he or she wants, and because he says so, the Bible also says so, and therefore, it is right.
When you have a nation that is so deeply indoctrinated to the point where religion becomes more of group-think dynamic than a form of enlightenment, it’s akin to cultishness. I’m not into the Charles Manson/Jim Jones/David Koresh thing. Having spent the better part of more than 25 years working on bringing light to some of my darker corners, I learned that in certain hands, religion is a form of mind control. I didn’t take my brain from the wash to put it back in.
To worship at the feet of the shepherd, means you are sheep.
I am not sheep.
I am not interested in dressing up in broad ornate hats, pantyhose when it’s that hot, and ill-fitting white shoes. They remind me of those dramatic Sunday services, that felt more like reality TV than reality. Life has taught me that going against my grain doesn’t work for me.
Living in this Christian country, I’ve realized that the ease with which people use their religion to inflict blunt force trauma against people whom they deem unrighteous is disturbing. The ease with which they also use their religion as a justification for wrongness is sickening. Then there are the positively Pavlovian responses of like-minded religious people when either action is peppered with the right terms. That is particularly frightening, because most of us have seen the destructive side of that behavior.
While my journey on this path has been littered with altered perceptions of me as a person, I can’t be bothered by them. I’ve come to terms with the fact that in a world that demands my submission in one form or another, to draw a line where this is concerned will be interpreted to mean that I’m a lost and confused stray from the flock.
I’ll take my chances with the Big Bad Wolf, thanks!