How a Child Became a Freethinker: Theresa Lii

This essay received an Honorable Mention in FFRF’s 2009 College Essay Competition, which was a prize of $250, including $50 donated by Dean and Dorea Schramm.

Seven-year-olds dispense the title of “cool” perhaps a little too liberally. Pterodactyls, tree houses and flying in hot-air balloons were certainly on my list of “cool” things. I must  admit, however, that I once thought undergoing Christian baptism was also pretty cool.

Whether or not this notion holds true, baptism was surely a practice that would have helped ease my juvenile social anxiety. Like many young and impressionable girls of my age, I simply wanted to fit in with the rest of my class. A surprising majority of my friends were already baptized, full-fledged members of Christian churches. In contrast, I had never settled down at one particular church long enough for a baptism because my parents had shuttled me from church to church trying to find free day care. 

One evening, after coming home from an after-school youth activity, I gathered enough pluck to ask my father, “Daddy, can I have a baptism?” An immigrant from Taiwan, he had not been indoctrinated into any organized religion. Surprised by my question, he raised an eyebrow, crouched down to my eye level and asked why I wanted to be baptized.

I said that all the other students at my elementary school were baptized and I felt “weird” not to be. He reassured me that I wasn’t weird, but afterward he frowned gravely and said, “I don’t think you should be making that kind of decision by yourself right now. Becoming baptized is an important event that you shouldn’t take lightly. Let’s wait until you are older, OK? If you still want a baptism when you enter middle school, you can have one.” 

I was deeply disappointed and, like most children who are told to wait, I did not understand why I had to wait. But I would come to realize that waiting was the best course of action I could have ever taken with regard to my development as a freethinker. 

As I grew older, I steadily put together my own views of what I felt was “right” and “wrong.” This task was aided by parents and teachers who reprimanded me in ways that forced me to evaluate my morals, even if I did not understand what “morals” meant.

For example, I vividly remember when my second-grade teacher caught me pocketing a handful of my classmate’s Jolly Rancher candies. She could have just said, “Stealing is bad and you shouldn’t do it,” and be done with it. But instead, she asked me, “How would you feel if Anna stole your candy?” Of course, with much guilt, I admitted that I would feel awful and subsequently gave the candies back to their rightful eater. Simple moral lessons such as that helped prepare me for my eventual rejection of religion.

Sitting in the pews every Sunday, I felt increasingly uncomfortable listening to strangers telling me how I should run my life without really explaining anything. If I had a tough question about something in the bible, they frequently told me that “It is God’s word” or that I should “Take Jesus into your heart and ask him.”

Those answers seemed meaningless. To me, bible verses seemed more like mere inspiration than solid explanation. The only piece of biblical advice that stuck to me was, “Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other person.” But, as shown by the Jolly Rancher incident, I didn’t need religion to tell me that.

In addition to enduring moral discomfort, I failed to understand how many of the events and miracles detailed in the bible could have realistically occurred. I tried my hardest to believe, to briefly set aside reason and to be enthralled, like others, by the great stories of the bible. It was not that I lacked imagination (reading fantasy stories and drawing mythical beasts took up most of my leisure time), but I had irrevocably set intellectual boundaries between fiction and fact. When I went to church, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being the odd one out, of being the only one who wondered, “Are these only made-up stories?”

How could I force myself to believe in events that clearly violated the natural laws of the universe? Perhaps I was too closed-minded. Perhaps I was too distrustful. At any rate, I was the literalist the church didn’t want. 

By the time I had entered middle school, I had lost interest in becoming a bona fide churchgoer. In perhaps an ironic twist of fate, my father decided to attend church regularly, and he soon underwent baptism himself. Since then, every Sunday breakfast he participated in the futile exercise of convincing me to join him for morning service. 

“No, Dad, going to church is not going to make me a better person.”

Well, we both knew it wasn’t.

“No, Dad, I don’t think the pastor can help me with anything.”

That’s why I have friends.

“No, Dad, I’m not going to spend half my morning gossiping with all the other Chinese parents about where their kids are going to college.”

I’m not even kidding.

Although I always declined his earnest request to attend church, he never grew angry with me. Nor did he ever force me to go to church against my will, and I am thankful for that. I realize that many people never had a choice when they were young. Had my father agreed to my request for a baptism when I was 7, I probably still would have eventually rejected religion, but I might have gone through a more turbulent disengagement with it. Instead, my father’s attitude toward religion gave me room to mature as an independent thinker.

Although I cannot boast of a tormented, earth-shattering moment of realization that I was an atheist, I am glad that my realization formed peacefully, like a gentle spray of orchid blossoms.

In a perfect world, every child would be offered the opportunity to accept or reject religion, with no strings attached. Unfortunately, many children have religion forced upon them by their parents when they are too young to fully understand their religion.

I am saying that parents who are religious should step back and give their children the option to opt out — like my father did.

Theresa Lii is a sophomore at Brown University. She is planning to major in neuroscience and pursue a medical degree. Her interests include research, science writing and making art.

Freedom From Religion Foundation