Sprouting Out of Religious Servility: Decisions of a Disbeliever in the Bible Belt (September 2002)

In the Mississippi Delta, we don’t rear our children; we raise them. From the moment our feet touch the black soil of the Bible belt, a religion takes root. Apostolic, Baptist, or Methodist. Catholic or Episcopalian. Presbyterian or Pentecostal. We have more varieties of Christians in Clarksdale than we have crops. But as any good farmer knows, a few fledgling roots don’t guarantee a productive plant, just as a religious childhood doesn’t always produce the faith-wielding, god-fearing Christians our families would have us be.

Like many others of my kind, my religious affiliation was decided during my infancy. From the moment my umbilical cord was cut, my grandmother dubbed me a Christian of the Baptistus Southernus variety. Decorated in sundresses and lace bonnets, I spent my mornings visiting with the matrons of the nursery and feasting on hordes of saltine crackers. As I grew and spelling lists and math problems filled my weekdays, Sunday mornings became mandatory religious time. From 9 a.m. to noon I put together puzzles of Daniel in the Lions’ Den, memorized the “verse of the week” for its obligatory recital, and sat quietly in my seat until the bell rang and my grandmother rewarded my studiousness with a trip to Burger King.

For years I lived the same scheduled existence: five days of elementary education, one day of rest, and a half day of religious exultation. Not until I was ten years old did the church experience begin to grow stale. I can’t say that my ascension into the double digits of life caused me to reevaluate my existence. No flaming crape myrtle called my name, no cotton fields parted, and most certainly no shining crop duster came to lead me to my promised land of enlightenment. None of the Biblical signs that God so readily produced in the Old Testament appeared to me.

Though I could understand that he might save the premium-quality exhibitions for the bourgeoisie of his believers, I did think that he might deliver a few answers to his many proletarians. But alas, such faith is rarely rewarded, and I soon learned that a straight answer in a church was about as easy to find as a capitalistic newspaper in the U.S.S.R.

Any question, any skepticism of a religious event became a testimony of heresy. When I occasionally raised my hand, I’d have to endure the stifled laughs or rolled eyes of my classmates as my teacher patiently explained, “Well, Jennifer, all these people talking about evolution are just wrong. Just go read Genesis, and it’ll tell you what really happened.”

Instead of the truth, I learned to smile and nod. Questions were pointless since they inevitably resulted in the same answer: “Because the Bible says so.”

As the Sundays slid away, so did my religious drive. Every Saturday night I went to sleep with dread, and every Sunday morning I sat in church with apathy.

But deep roots are hard to unearth, and despite my misgivings, my ten-year religious regimen kept my soul embedded within the church walls. Not until the winter of my fifth-grade year, when my grandmother’s foot surgery made her a benched and bedded church-spectator, did I receive a reprieve from Oakhurst Baptist Church. For six glorious weeks my Sunday shoes caught dust on the rack in my closet, my dresses reveled in their wrinkles, and the only sermons I received were from the Rugrats and Rocko’s Modern Life.

While my friends’ parents ordered them to church every Sunday, often enlisting sleepover buddies into the Sunday school service as well, my mother and father never commented on my leave from church. For though they might claim their Southern Baptist roots, both of my parents have been declared A.W.O.L. from Oakhurst Baptist since the year of my birth, so my absence from the weekly sermons caused very few tensions on the homefront.

No, I’d never received any pressure from within my own home. My grandmother was my only church-going relative, and by the coming of spring, with her big toe healed and a Bible in her purse, she was determined to lead me back to the church.
“Now you’re gonna be goin’ with me to church this Sunday, ain’t ya, Jennifer,” she’d say each Friday as she picked me up from school. “It’s gettin’ ’bout time you got baptized, ’cause you know the only way you’ll be goin’ to heaven is if you accept Jesus Christ into your heart.”

But despite the threat of swinging upside down with Satan for eternity, my absences in church continued to mount until finally it became easier to count the few days I did attend instead of those I didn’t. I can’t even use all of my fingers to count the number of times I’ve seen the inside of Oakhurst Baptist since I entered middle school. Even in these last three years, when I have finally begun to realize just what my lack of religious conviction really means, I’ve only entered a church to look at the pretty stained-glass windows and stairways or to cover the Governor’s special-guest sermon at Rena Laura Baptist Church for the local newspaper.

Yet ever since I chose to wander away from the faithful herd of my forefathers and sojourn into the land of freethought, the Baptists in my community have demonstrated to me why the shepherd is their token mascot. Throughout high school, many of my past co-congregates tried to drive me back to the chapel. Due to their tenacity, I’m not even sure if I heard more recruitment speeches from colleges or Christians during my senior year.

I will admit, though, that church did teach me one thing. During all of their coaxing and cajoling, I have used the same wisdom I learned back in fourth-grade Sunday school. I smile. I nod. I wait for an opening, and I run like hell

It’s not that I don’t have respect for them. Just because someone else prefers McDonald’s while I like Burger King doesn’t mean that I’m going to try to get them hooked on my fast food. If they wish to congregate, sing songs, and pass around the offering plate, that’s perfectly fine with me. Just don’t make me a part of it.

Most of the people around me just don’t understand that I can’t see the point of religion. Age aside, I’m no different now than I was when I went to Oakhurst Baptist. I still know the difference between right and wrong. I know what is kind and just and what is cruel and unfair. I still have the same eyes, the same hands and body I had when I entered this world. They may have changed a bit with age, but I doubt a dip in the Baptismal tub is going to alter them any more than the pool in my backyard.

So why is it that so many of the Southern Baptist persuasion condemn my lifestyle as unholy, sacrilegious, or dare I say it, profane? And for that matter, just what is profanity? Is it not profane for a man to pledge his soul to an institution not because he believes in its creed, but because it has a gym full of Nordic Tracs and a free basketball court? Is it not profane for a preacher to perform the funeral of a young man, yet afterwards, declare that the boy went to Hell? Is it not profane for a body of people to run an institution so that only those of a certain race may join its congregation?

I don’t need a man with a degree in God to tell me what profanity is. I see it every day, whether it be from Christians, Jews, Muslims, or pagans. Just because a man clings to his religion doesn’t mean he’s immune to his own nature. We’re all humans, capable of creation and destruction, love and war, good and evil. Religion doesn’t change this. It’s not a first-class ticket to a higher existence. It’s nothing more than a support group, a means for one to come to terms with life.

To say that a building is sacred is absurd. People built the churches, the cathedrals, and the synagogues. People painted the frescoes and adorned the altars just as they beheaded the disbelievers and expelled opponents from their native lands. No god has ever stepped down from heaven to take a look around and leave a to-do list for his followers. Humankind’s own nature drives all religions, and so each and every faith is just as much evil as it is good.

Why then should I live my life according to a book that is no more holy than Gulliver’s Travels or Computers for Dummies? The information found in the Bible is at times as vulgar as any of Swift’s stories and occasionally as basic as most of the instructions for my Gateway. But because of the importance and reverence that backs its words, the Bible must not only be believed, but be followed blindly. The devoted Christian does not simply choose to respect certain parts and disregard others. He must make every word his creed for living and declare all other contradictions to be blasphemy.

I, myself, cannot forfeit my freedom just for a few loosely interpreted parables and threats of a Miltonesque afterlife. I refuse to live in shackles, to sacrifice my intelligence to superstitions and cripple my potential with the tenets of faith.

Though I may have been raised on the soils of Christianity, I outgrew my religious roots the moment I sprouted a free mind. I need no dogma, doctrine, or deacon, no religious label to establish my variety of life. I know what I am, who I am, and what I wish to become, and no homegrown heaven or hell will ever change that.

Freedom From Religion Foundation