Rescuing the Perishing: By Mary Peterson

Unlike my religious counterparts, I actually want to help people, not just sing hymns about it.

This essayist was awarded $500 from the Foundation.

By Mary Peterson

A sense of hypocrisy and condemnation floats around the room like morning fog on the coastline. The already pious air toward those who are not “born-again” resides among the moody congregation. This is not a large room by any means, but big enough to hold approximately 30 old oak pews that can sit eight to ten people each. It’s a Sunday night at an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church in a small Midwestern town. This is the type of church that prides itself on irreverent discrimination. After all, it is natural to look down on anything that differs from the born-again “norm.” Some of the parishioners are crying as they make their way forward to the altar through the main aisle. They are begging god to save them. One man is sobbing so intensely that his shoulders rise and fall violently, and it looks as if his frail stance will no longer support his weight. They cry for repentance. They cry for love. They cry to be saved. They cry to have the void in their lives filled. However, they receive nothing but a saltine cracker and a small paper cup filled with warm grape juice.

This is how I became a freethinker. My childhood was dictated by the church. The church told me what to wear, what to think, how to act, whom and what to believe. My earliest memories involved church ceremonies and traditions. However, unlike many of my young born-again peers, I had doubts. I simply did not understand why the same people who taught me to love, also taught me to hate with such a violent passion. They taught me to hate those who were different. Those of other races, sexual orientations and religions were not to be trusted. The sermon of salvation also had an underlying message of discrimination. As a young girl, I thought to myself: am I defined by nothing more than my gender? My very first moment of doubt came when I asked my mother if I could ever be a pastor. She merely looked past me, never in my eyes, and said, “You will be a strong wife and mother, but not a pastor.”

Ever since that fateful day, my faith in the church slowly eroded. I began to notice hypocrisy more and more. However, for many years I never had the courage to say anything to my friends or family. I realized that a man who cries for repentance one day, then buys pornographic magazines at the local gas stop, is not really repenting. The woman who claims to love her friends, but then gossips about them within the same breath, may not be truthful. The Sunday school teacher who says abstinence only, but has a 12-year-old child while she has only been married for ten years, might be putting on an act. Like a fly on the wall, I merely observed these situations without ever uttering a single word. After all, children are to be seen, not heard, especially inferior little girls.

I can remember the moment the switch flipped in my mind. I felt as if there was a cartoon light bulb above my head. It was a Sunday morning in that same Baptist church. Everyone rose in gracious obedience at the command of the pastor to sing the final hymn of the sermon, “Rescue the Perishing.” As I hummed the words:

Rescue the Perishing, Care for the dying
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen
Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more

I had the realization that none of this was happening. Religion was supposed to be about kindness. We were supposed to help those in need. Love without discrimination. My heart and mind stopped. I gazed about the large sanctuary. When was the last time these righteous church-goers helped anyone besides themselves?

It was then that I made the silent pledge to myself that after that day, I would no longer sit back in silence. A freethinking path, one without foggy ideologies of religion, was born. I was born-again, but not in the Baptist sense of the phrase. That next Sunday, as my parents coerced me into going to church, I realized that I could no longer sit around idly as blatant lies were being spread. I began to freely speak my mind that had been sitting dormant for far too long. Consequently, and much to my parents’ chagrin, I was not invited back to church. Apparently, the righteous do not like having their hypocrisies exposed.

My parents were mortified. How could their good Christian girl disagree with the holy men of god! My father did not talk to me for three months. My mother preferred to stay in denial. To her, this was a phase, something I would outgrow. Unfortunately for her, my new line of thinking grew as I found out I was not alone in this line of thought. I found new friends, new role models. Eventually my parents came to the realization that a strong religious faith did not define our relationship. I will never forget the first words my father said to me after those three long months: “You are my daughter, and god does not define my love for you.” Ever since that day, my relationship with my parents has been like that of any other average young adult.

The path I traveled in order to arrive at atheism has often inspired me on many levels. For instance, in the communities in which I have resided, I have always made it a priority to be involved in progressive freethinking groups. My participation ranges from progressive political campaigns to various community involvement projects. For me, it is important to be involved in projects that are focused on helping people. This is the reason I have chosen to be involved in the medical field. Unlike my religious counterparts, I actually want to help people, not just sing hymns about it. Hopefully, with this way of thinking, I can never forget or get trapped into the hypocrisy of religion ever again.

Sometimes people get detoured from a progressive, freethinking path because of cynicism. Doubters believe that one person cannot make a difference. However, I wholeheartedly disagree. Last year, I experienced one of the happiest days of my life. My parents called to inform me that they had left the church. Never in my life had I considered this to be possible. Without the church, my parents are also finding new strengths within themselves. Last fall, my mother volunteered on a progressive political campaign. The same woman who once told me that being a housewife was the most a woman could offer god was now forming her own opinions and standing within the community.

My path to choosing reason over faith may not be a conventional one. However, I know for a fact that it has made me into the person I am today. Religion has made me who I am, but it is no longer what I am. Reason dictates that if people need help, we are to help without judgment. If people need love, we are to love without discrimination. In order to truly rescue the perishing, we must do so on our own accord, without religious hypocrisy looming over our heads.

“I will be a senior at the University of South Dakota in the fall. I am majoring in communication disorders and plan to go to graduate school to receive a clinical doctorate in the field of audiology. I have been involved with college and community groups including: college Democrats, campus women’s coalition and volunteer tutoring.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation