When I was a teen, in the 1970s, a lot was made of the “born again” experience. People who had strayed and come back to the fold toured the country selling their music or books and telling their stories from church to church. I was skeptical, as were my mom and most of my family. Not of the born-again experience, but of the attention they got because they had strayed.
We lived on the straight and narrow, doing all the right things, avoiding intoxicating substances, reading the bible, going to church every week, and what did we get? We got asked to pick up another volunteer job at church!
I was born into the family business of Christian missionary work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on a medical and educational mission in central Angola, Africa. My father had done the same 30 years earlier. My grandfather, a physician, and my grandmother, a nurse, arrived at Bongo mission in 1931, the year before my dad was born.
As is the tradition in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I was baptized as a young person, after I was theoretically able to understand the church’s doctrines and make the decision for myself. Since my grandfather was an ordained minister and a physician, he prepared me for baptism and then baptized me in a tank at the back of the church at sundown on the Sabbath. Though I understood the theology of my church as well as I could, I never had the spiritual rebirth some people claim from their baptism.
We soon left Angola due to the civil war and landed in southern California. Throughout my life, I had doubts about the theology I was being taught. During church I sometimes ignored the sermon and read entire chapters of the bible, delighting in the poetry of the Song of Solomon, but at the same time recognizing the unbelievable violence of the Old Testament of the Protestant bible. The most troubling part of the bible to me became the creation accounts and subsequent dramatic stories of the “first family.” I read Joseph Campbell and learned that the Judeo-Christian account of creation closely follows many other ancient myths. It was clear that, instead of being a true account of the beginning of the world, what I was taught was a myth.
At the same time, I began learning more about evolution. Even though most science classes I took glossed over the theory of evolution through natural selection, the documentaries I loved repeatedly spoke in terms of the millions of years of the age of a fossil, or the time in the distant past when a mountain range was uplifted in a tectonic collision, an age of great volcanism, glaciers forming wide U-shaped valleys and the action of eons of weathering that formed its unique features.
According to most conservative or evangelical Protestant denominations, including the Seventh-day Adventists, the earth is young. The story of creation can only be pushed back to around 10,000 years ago if the genealogies of the Old Testament are true. Yet I learned of the great basin bristlecone pine in the desert mountains of California that lived nearly 5,000 years, and that standing dead trees could be cored and a 10,000-year history of climate could be deduced. That meant a relatively stable environment for the trees for many thousands of years. This also meant the tectonic mountain-building and glaciations that came before the tree cores predated the “creation” of the world.
My religious upbringing was a hard habit to break. Even though I soon had no substantial belief in the theology of my church, I continued to attend. Most of the time I avoided the theology of the church by helping in youth departments, or by working as an audiovisual technician, thus avoiding sitting in the pews and listening to sermons. The turning point came just a few years ago. I met a wonderful woman with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I had known for a while that I was not like the other girls and that I was probably a lesbian, but when we met we fell in love almost instantly.
She had converted to the Seventh-day Adventist Church but was raised as a Catholic and had been a nun until her order found her opinions about sexuality unacceptable and led her out in the middle of the night, gave her a bus ticket and told her never to return to the community. Soon we were living together and pledged our love to each other in our own private marriage commitment.
We attended church together in the beginning. The congregation where some of my extended family and I attended in the Puget Sound area was rather liberal and accepting. Even so, we felt the need to modify the expression of our love when we were there. There was tacit tolerance of our presence, but never true acceptance. The pastor’s wife was probably the most supportive; she is a caring and unassuming person who accepted us both as valuable additions to the church community.
Another member, the wife of a retired church employee, had written a book about her journey when she found out her son was gay. But all this understanding was undercover. The church officially disapproves of GLBT people’s relationships. I had already pledged not to financially support the church because of their official stands on evolution, marriage and GLBT people, but I was still giving my time. The words to a song I sang as a member of the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus kept coming back to me: “Never give your self to that you wish to be free from.” My partner and I never returned.
As a newly unchurched person, one of the “none of the above,” I began to explore what I really believed in. I admitted to myself that I did not believe in God; I also recognized my long history of unbelief even when I was an active church member. I told my partner that I was an atheist. I devoured Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion cover to cover and watched his BBC documentary “The Root of all Evil?” When Christopher Hitchens wrote God Is Not Great, he opened up a whole new world to me. I finally had my “born again” experience.
I am now an animal science student on the pre-vet track at Washington State University. Without exception, every bit of science I learn is imbued with the theory of evolution. It unifies all sciences under a rational theory and gives us all the ability to make our own hypotheses and test them. The hypothesis that there is a god may be testable and falsifiable, but that isn’t the point for me.
The point is to ground my life in the true morality of natural humanism, and to fight for GLBT rights, including marriage for all people regardless of gender. The point is to fight for the separation of church and state so that we all—religious, secular, humanist, Buddhist, Taoist, deist and atheist—can live our lives free from intrusion of fundamentalist religion in our secular society.
The point is to treat all people with respect, not because we are “children of God,” but because we are all human.
Carolyn Parsons is a junior animal sciences major at Washington State University and hopes to become a veterinarian. Though she has rejected the religion of her family, she hasn’t rejected their hope of helping people in desperate need, such as the people of Angola. Carolyn hopes to use animal health to improve the lives of people in central Angola, who closely depend on animals and have few resources to keep those animals healthy and productive.
(If you did the math correctly from the essay, you realize that Carolyn is not the age of a typical college student.) When she is not showing off her gray hair, she is involved in WSU’s Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center as a member of the speakers’ bureau and is an occasional GLBT panel member. This fall she’ll be working a few hours a week at WSU’s veterinary teaching hospital as a part of an undergraduate internship which gives students hands-on exposure to large, small and exotic animal health.