My Long Apostasy: Eric R. Schmidt

This is one of several honorable mention” essays in FFRF’s 2007 contest for college students. Eric received $100 for his essay.

By Eric R. Schmidt

I was a fourth-grader at a small evangelical Christian school in southeastern Wisconsin and had just returned from a field trip to the local planetarium. My “science” teacher gave my classmates and me several guidelines beforehand: If the tour guide described the Big Bang theory or told us that the universe was “billions of years old,” we were to ignore him until he stopped talking “like an atheist.” As a nonbeliever, she cautioned, he had not yet discovered the biblical scientific truth–that the Earth was 6,000 years old, created by God in six 24-hour days. Of course, the Big Bang was mentioned during the tour, as were the blasphemous “billions of years.” Like all good Christian students, we proudly refused to believe it. Back at school, my teacher congratulated us for our strength in the face of the Devil’s lies.

I have never seen my father so angry as when I told him about that experience. Growing up, we had spent hours in our backyard gazing at constellations through his telescope. He had always been passionate about science, avidly reading scientific publications. When he sent me to Heritage Christian Elementary School, he expected me to get a moral education, but he was unaware that evangelical Christianity approved so strongly of pseudo-science. He firmly told me not to distrust or laugh at scientists, telling me that the Earth indeed was extremely old, and that the Genesis account of creation was poetry, not science.

The next week he went in to speak with my teacher, who promptly handed him some creationist literature. He told her what he knew about science, and I like to think he showed her what it means to be a freethinker. Very soon afterward, I transferred to public school.


Of course, paranoid distrust of scientific inquiry was not Heritage’s worst offense. Religion as taught there was a horrifying combination of fear tactics, guilt, and superstition. Shortly after the planetarium experience, I began suffering from severe childhood-onset Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD); I also developed a terrible stuttering problem which usually left me unable even to say my name.

Although I was certainly genetically predisposed to the disorder, being told constantly that I needed to “accept Jesus Christ into my heart” to avoid the physical tortures of Hell was, for me, the initial OCD trigger. The standard was maddeningly ambiguous; what did it mean to actually “accept” Jesus Christ into one’s heart? Did it require a specific sequence of words or level of sincerity? I was profoundly confused and scared, and for years I would invite Jesus Christ into my heart every night (usually multiple times), wanting to make sure I “got it right.” It did not help, either, that I was Catholic at an evangelical Christian school. When my classmates discovered my Catholic background, they openly questioned whether I could go to heaven at all.

I was also taught about the Rapture–Christ’s promise to return at an unknown hour, taking all “saved” people to Heaven with him and leaving the rest behind to face the Anti-Christ and Armageddon. Thus, when I prayed compulsively–trying to pray perfectly–I felt I was doing so against the clock. The urgency was unbearable. Within an evangelical context, my stuttering problem was not caused by this paranoid, abusive worldview–it was God’s punishment for my being so depraved and imperfect.

The hell of OCD and anxiety-induced stuttering continued well after I left Heritage. My severe OCD symptoms continued until my sophomore year of high school, when I finally found the right treatment for my complex case. I no longer stutter, and my OCD is thankfully under control. Objectively looking at the religious mental abuse which triggered my condition has been of great help. Billions of people worldwide, from nearly every religion, have been victim to the same mind games in which religion specializes. I am not alone and, indeed, my story is less brutal than some. Yet, having OCD, ironically, showed me the truth about religion. In hindsight, it is no surprise that my OCD became entangled with religious paranoia and dread. Religion is the most tragic obsession or compulsion sufferable.

Were there ever moments growing up when religion seemed transcendent or life-affirming? Yes, but they were the calm before the storm–the moments when my OCD-wracked brain thought I was practicing religion or praying to God perfectly, only to be devastated later by even more brutal anxiety.

When I realized what religion had put me through, my eventual apostasy was inevitable. Initially, knowing I was rejecting something my family and friends valued was terrifying. My grandmother always assumed I would be confirmed into the Catholic Church, but my break from religion began just before I was to take confirmation classes. It was difficult explaining how adamant I was against confirmation, yet I successfully articulated my reservations to my parents, and remain the first person in my family not to be confirmed.

My most private fear was that leaving religion would render my life meaningless. In truth, doing so has brought me more joy and meaning than faith ever could. Secular humanism replaces self-hatred, indoctrination and rigidity, with critical thinking, meaningful human relationships, and tolerance. Instead of telling others why they should be joyful (or stealing their joy outright), atheism aims toward the purer joy of being human. For me, it has been the antidote to years of self-doubt and religious confusion, and an essential part of my recovery from OCD.

None of my friends who graduated high school at Heritage encountered the writings of James Joyce before college. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man encourages rebellion against oppressive institutions, especially religion. I read Portrait of the Artist during my senior year of public high school, in which the young Stephen Dedalus breaks away from his faith and homeland. From it I learned how universal religious trauma is. In one scene, Stephen becomes physically ill after hours of fixating on the alleged horrors of hell; I could cite dozens of similar experiences during my own childhood. Joyce demolished any guilt I still retained for leaving religion. I shared Stephen’s ultimate triumph, and he remains my literary hero. After I finished Portrait of the Artist I suddenly knew what I needed to do with my life: I needed to read more books like that, devoting myself to academic pursuits concerning humans as something other than religious pawns.

Indeed, I am an aspiring college professor and take intellectual thought very seriously. Intellectualism is the great, unceasing challenge to religion; it dignifies humankind and celebrates critical inquiry. Literature teaches us who we are, while political science codifies the institutions we create to function together. Humanism is about studying humans in their essence–not as fallen creatures struggling to obey, but as a species of unprecedented intellectual and emotional depth, more impressive and complicated than any religious system.

Thus my growth has largely been about a break from faith. The major world religion that once made my life so difficult describes itself as “the greatest story ever told.” Yet self-discovery and abandoning religion are much truer, less insulting stories. The apostasy narrative may well emerge as the great story of modern humankind. It has been for me.

Eric R. Schmidt is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majoring in English literature and political science. A volunteer for the Wisconsin Union Directorate, he is currently working to bring notable atheist and agnostic speakers to campus. An avid movie buff, Eric also writes film reviews for The Daily Cardinal, a student paper at UW. In his spare time, he can be found absorbing international news, reading serious fiction and debating politics with friends.

Freedom From Religion Foundation