I grew up in a Southern small town, where the churches were filled with people who never missed an opportunity to tell you what God thought of things. My parents were not excessively religious, but going to church every Sunday was just what decent people did. It is called Southern Protestantism, and it’s kind of hard to explain to outsiders. To be decent, to be well-respected in your town, you had to go to church every Sunday. If you did not, you were looked down on, like the parents of the kids who lived in the run-down duplexes in the poor part of town, whose fathers were not married to their mothers and whose teachers did not know their names. My father came from that side of the tracks, and he had no intention of returning, and so we went to church. In the South, going to church is as much a class thing as a religious one.
I remember one Sunday morning, sitting in a packed church service at age ten wondering to myself, “Do all these adults around me really believe this shit? That an invisible being controls everything and tells us what to do?” I was ten! But even then all that getting up at 6 a.m. and singing hymns about a preggo girl who told everybody she was a virgin (yeah, right!) just seemed dumb.
But hell, I thought, these are grown-ups. They must know something I don’t know. I will trust them.
Soon I was ushered off to the church youth group, where I was given all kinds of arguments that swayed my natural skepticism: Christianity is the only religion that has a savior who died and then rose to life again. The Bible was written by God. The fact that Christianity has survived for so long proves that it is the true faith. God wants you to have faith in him; that is why you cannot see him. Men are made in God’s image and so that is why you should forget about the fact that you are smarter than most of the boys in your class and devote your life to cooking and cleaning for them. You ate the apple and so that is why you have menstrual cramps. You were created by God to serve men. People who are not baptized go to hell, even if they were good people all their lives.
And so I became a born-again Christian, because I did not want to go to hell. I did not want to piss off this “god,” who seemed to be very easy to piss off. I also became a born-again Christian because I loved Jesus. I was truly in awe of the sacrifice someone would make so that I could escape my "original sin" (even though I didn't remember committing it). But in all my years as a born-again Christian, I never accepted the argument that I was inferior because I was a woman. My parents had instilled in me a belief in my own self-worth that contrasted sharply with what the church told me. Even though it was stated clearly over and over again in the Bible, I figured God must not really mean it. There must be some mistake. There was no way you could convince me I was inferior to the boys in my class, many of whom spent the whole school day sniffing glue.
When I went to college I was president of my campus religious organization. I had a close friend who was gay. Before I met him, I was as homophobic as any other eighteen-year-old campus crusader, but the fact that he was a great person created another dilemma for my Christianity. Why would God send such a nice guy to hell, just for being born with a desire for other males? Again, I figured God just must not really mean it when he wrote in the Bible that gays should be put to death.
I remember the very first moment when I allowed myself to truly question this religion I professed. I was in college, standing in my kitchen making Ramen noodles and reading the Bible. I had decided to read the Bible all the way through, from beginning to end, and it had gone fine through the first 18 chapters of Genesis. But then there was a problem. I got to Genesis 19. Here, two angels of God have come to Sodom and are staying in Lot’s house. When a crowd of men from the city surround Lot’s house, asking for Lot to turn the angels over to them, Lot offers the crowd his virgin daughters, to do with as they please. Here it is below, from the New Oxford Annotated Bible:
Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Gen. 19: 6-9)
Some have written that this passage is supposed to show how wrong rape is, but it seemed to me instead that this passage teaches us that rape is wrong only if it is rape of the two (male) angels. Lot is a “good” man in this story. He is the one guy in Sodom whom God chooses to save. Thus, the story tells us that you can give your daughters over to a bloodthirsty crowd for it to “do to them as you please” and still be considered by God to be a righteous man.
This story is repeated in Judges 19, except this time it is a Levite who is passing through Gibeah and who stays at an old man’s house. Again, a crowd of men surrounds the house, calling for the old man to turn over the Levite “so that we may have intercourse with him.” But the old man goes out to them and says,
“No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. (Judges 19: 22-26)
When the Levite goes out to get her the next morning, he finds her dead on the doorstep of the house. Yeah. You have to be seventeen to get into an R rated movie, but they put this kind of story in the hands of little children at Vacation Bible School.
These passages are not the worst of what the almighty Bible has to offer, but they are the ones that made me finally ask myself, What kind of religious book teaches something so disgustingly immoral? What kind of deity would hate women that much, to portray as good a man who would put his own daughter out to a crowd of crazed men to be raped and killed? Then I realized, Hey, maybe this book was not written by a deity. Maybe it was written by regular old humans (and not very nice ones at that)! I know that for most non-religious people, this will not seem like a major epiphany. But if you have been raised in a community that drills into your head that the Bible is the word of the Creator, and that it is the most important thing in life – more important than your job, more important than your own family, even – then that moment when you realize that it is all just a big lie is a pretty big moment.
As a Christian, I was constantly asked to “witness,” to give testimony about that moment I found God. When I was a teenager, we all had our “when I got saved” story that we would tell in church meetings. Now, though, what is so special to me is the moment I realized that all the religious stuff was just made up. This was the moment I started on my journey out of Southern Protestant Christianity and toward atheism (with fun and rewarding stops in Quakerism, goddess spirituality, and paganism).
I’m wondering if other atheists had moments like this? I’ve left the comments section below available to anonymous posts. If anyone would like to share the story of your own “moment,” I would love to hear it.