This is excerpted from a talk given to Alabama Freethought Association at Lake Hypatia, July 4, 1997.
Born again! Brothers and sisters, it's testifying time, and I am here to tell you I have been born again. Yea, truly, I have passed from darkness into light and from death into life. Say "A-People!"
I was born the first time in 1938 in a little cotton mill town in South Carolina. Like all children, I was born a freethinker.
Children come into this world with an enormous curiosity and absolutely no prejudices or preconceived notions. They eagerly learn from experimentation and observation. The infant does not wait until she acquires the skill of language and then ask whether her toes are a source of nourishment. She pops them into her mouth and finds out for herself. But over and over adults squelch this inquisitive spirit and tell children that they must learn from the voice of authority.
I was born into an atmosphere that was particularly lethal to any kind of free thinking regarding religion. My parents were devout Southern Baptists. From the time I was two weeks old, I was taken to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, and every Wednesday evening. And that was just for starters. There were Vacation Bible Schools, revivals, church organizations, and on and on. At church, I was taught that the Bible is the inspired word of God, completely accurate and free of error, and I was subjected to countless hours of hellfire and damnation preaching.
The religious indoctrination I received at church was supplemented on every hand. We prayed and read the Bible at home. We had daily prayer and Bible reading in school. Every Friday a preacher came to school and conducted a chapel service, complete with sermon. Quite literally, everybody I knew was a Protestant Christian, and most of them were fundamentalists. There were very few Catholics in our town, no Jews or Muslims, and I had never even heard of an atheist. Of course there were people who didn't go to church, but we didn't associate with them.
I learned early that doubts and criticisms concerning religion were taboo. But I stubbornly continued thinking for myself. And that led to the very worst experience of my life.
When I was 11 or 12, our church had a mission study course with nightly classes for every age group. The purpose of the course was to remind us that people all over the world were dying and going to hell because they had never heard of Jesus and that we had an obligation to send missionaries to convert them. My class was studying about Africa.
One evening we heard a story about a young African woman who had given birth to twins. This was not a joyous occasion for her. According to the beliefs of her tribe, the birth of twins meant that the gods had placed a curse on the mother. The only way to remove the curse was to sacrifice the babies. So the young mother dutifully drowned the babies in the holy river.
I was horrified. I thought of those tiny infants, struggling to breathe and filling their little lungs with muddy water, and I wanted to cry. But my greatest sympathy, by far, was for the mother. I knew that the babies' ordeal would be short. On the other hand, I imagined that, as long as she lived, the mother would be tormented by her memories of that tragic event.
Then I had a far more horrible thought. According to what I had been taught, that mother would certainly go to hell!
So I interrupted the teacher and asked, "Will that mother go to hell?"
The teacher replied, "Of course she will, unless somebody tells her about Jesus and she gets saved. Besides, she murdered her own babies!"
I argued passionately in the mother's defense, pointing out that she could not possibly get saved since she had never heard the gospel, and that what my teacher construed as murder was in actuality a sacrifice, a supreme effort to please whatever god there might be.
The teacher was unmoved. Serenely, and apparently without any compassion at all for the young mother, she confidently asserted that the mother would go to hell unless she accepted Jesus as her personal Saviour. Salvation could be attained only through accepting Jesus. Without that, no sacrifice, no effort to please God, counted for anything. And God did not make allowances for those who had never heard of Jesus.
I tried another tactic. "Will I go to hell?"
"Of course not!"
"Because you have been saved and baptized and joined the church."
"Well," I said, "I can tell you one thing. If I had a baby and God Almighty walked right up to me and looked me in the eye and told me to drown my baby, I would not do it! I would tell God where to go and how to get there."
Those of you who had a religious upbringing, or who were raised according to the rule that children never questioned authority, can imagine the shock wave that went through the room, but I persisted. "Does that mean I would go to hell?"
The teacher, now highly annoyed, assured me that although it would be very wrong to disobey God (who certainly would not ask me to drown a baby anyway), I would still go to heaven because I had been saved. "Once saved, always saved."
"I have known about Jesus all my life, and I have been saved. So no matter how much I disobey God, I will go to heaven. That woman can't accept Jesus because she has never even heard of Him. So no matter how much she tries to please God, she will go to hell. Is that how it works?"
I asked about the fate of the sacrificed babies. The teacher assured me that they had gone straight to heaven because they had not reached the "age of accountability." When I pointed out that the mother, because of her ignorance, had not reached the age of accountability either, the teacher gave me to understand that the discussion was closed.
At home I tried to discuss the subject with my parents. They cut me off even more quickly than the teacher had done. They agreed that the woman was going to hell. Like my teacher, they seemed to have no questions about God's justice, no compassion for that poor young mother.
I went to Mrs. Puckett, a lovely young woman who was the wife of our Minister of Music and Education. To her everlasting credit, she broke down and cried. She said, "Carol, every time I think about things like that, I almost go crazy. It seems so unfair that God would condemn somebody for something she can't help. But that's what the Bible teaches, so we just have to have faith that God knows best and that someday we will understand."
I couldn't get the subject off my mind. One day I went to the very back of our lot, so far from the house that my parents couldn't see or hear me. I shook my fist at the sky and, using the very worst language I knew then, I yelled, "God damn you, God! If that's the kind of god you are, you can just send me to hell with the heathens, because I sure don't want to be in heaven with you!"
I felt clean, cleaner than I had for several weeks, cleaner than I would for a long time to come. But I was terrified. God might open the earth and cause me to plummet into hell that very second.
I had no one to talk to about my concerns, nothing to read that might help me. I continued to think, and I became convinced that I was the victim of the most vicious joke imaginable. I had not asked to be born, and I certainly had not asked for an immortal soul. The idea of living forever had always seemed grotesque to me. But I had been taught that God had given me an immortal soul. Now I was faced with a terrible decision. I could reject God and spend eternity suffering indescribable torment. Or I could accept Jesus and spend eternity in heaven, praising a God who was completely devoid of love, mercy, or simple justice.
I had recurring nightmares. One night I would die and go to hell. Another night I would go to heaven. Both places were horrible, but heaven was the worst.
I noticed that no one else seemed to have a problem with any of this. All the adults I knew seemed to be confident that God was loving and just and perfect. I became convinced that something was terribly wrong with me, that there must be within me some deep and unusually hideous vein of sin that would make me think as I did. Otherwise, how could I fear a God that everybody else adored? I decided that the only thing I could do was to truly accept Jesus and try as hard as I could to squelch my doubts and be a good Christian. Maybe some day I would understand and have peace of mind.
For the next 45 years I tried.
Al, too, had been raised with the fear of hell. When our older children were quite small, we decided that we did not want them to be traumatized as we had been. But we had been so thoroughly brainwashed that it never occurred to us that we could simply give up religion. So we converted to the Episcopal Church, a move that almost caused both families to disown us. Some years later, we became Methodists.
We were good Christians. We had prayers and Bible reading at home. We tithed our income. We attended church faithfully. And I became the quintessential church lady! I taught Sunday School, played the piano, cooked church suppers, wrote for religious publications; served as delegate to church conventions. On several occasions, I even preached.
The older I got, the more experience I had, the more I learned of the world, the more doubts and questions I had. I spent hours studying the Bible, looking for answers. And I put myself through unbelievable mental acrobatics, trying to convince myself that the absurdities I read there were true, that the immoralities attributed to God were really good if I only had wisdom to understand God's great plan.
And I paid a tremendous price for my great "faith." All my adult life I suffered from depression. Many times the only thing that kept me from committing suicide was the fear of hell. From time to time, I would experience irrational fears. I remember a period of several weeks when I, a grown woman with school-age children, would hide under the bed if the phone rang when I was home alone. Always I was burdened with a feeling of guilt and unworthiness. If anything at all went wrong for me or my family, it was surely because I had done something I should not have done, or had failed to do something I should have done. Unable to make myself perfect, I tried to make my husband and children perfect, and succeeded only in making them miserable and resentful. Seeking help, I went to doctors, a psychologist, and ministers. I took pills, went through counseling, and prayed. Nothing helped.
Eight years ago we moved to Alabama and immediately started looking for a church to attend. Over and over, we ran into some of the uglier aspects of Christianity, things we had managed to shield ourselves from for years. At the more affluent churches, people were so cold and snobbish they wouldn't speak to us. At the less affluent churches, preachers were illiterate or given to hellfire-damnation preaching.
On a Sunday morning in January 1995, I asked Al what church he wanted to attend. He looked me in the eye and slowly, deliberately, said something I had never expected to hear. "I have decided that I do not want to go to any church, anywhere, anytime, for any reason, ever again as long as I live."
I felt as if he had opened a massive door and told me that I might walk out of a dark and dismal dungeon into the blessed sunshine. I did not immediately realize it, but in that moment I was born again--as a freethinker.
In the coming days and weeks, Al and I found ourselves talking more freely than ever before about everything--childhood memories, emotions, personal beliefs--and a 42-year-old marriage began to seem like a honeymoon. We became a lot more open-minded and a lot less judgmental, and our relationships with our teenage daughters improved immensely. We began to read and think about things we wouldn't have considered previously. One night as I was reading Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian, it suddenly dawned on me that I was an atheist. I had probably been an atheist for years, if only I'd had the sense to know it and the courage and honesty to admit it.
Yes, I have been born again. Since that wonderful Sunday morning two and a half years ago, I have not experienced a moment of depression, and I have enjoyed life more than I ever dreamed possible. It makes me wonder how much mental illness is the result of religion.
In March of 1995, we met Gloria Hershiser and she brought us to an Alabama Freethought Association meeting.
I haven't told you this story because I think I am important, but because I think it sheds some light on what is going on in our society today. Ever since the Romans stopped persecuting the Christians 1600 years ago, Christians have been trying to impose their beliefs and practices on everybody else. But in America today we have a movement that is perhaps unprecedented in that so many ordinary lay people are dedicated to establishing Christian fundamentalism as the basis of American life and government. The movement is incredibly well organized and well financed. And it is making progress!
The religious right has succeeded in seating many people sympathetic to their cause in almost every governmental body imaginable, from local school boards to Congress. Even the Supreme Court is more "conservative" than it has been in years. Our First Amendment rights are in danger.
I can't tell you the motives of the people leading this movement, although I personally believe that Pat Robertson, Roy Moore, and others of that ilk are primarily interested in money and power. I can tell you that they could not get anywhere if it were not for the multitudes of loyal followers who watch their TV shows, attend their rallies, give millions and millions of dollars to the cause, and obediently trot off to the polls to vote as the Christian Coalition says they should.
And I can tell you about those people, because I was once one of them.
We sometimes characterize them as stupid, and some of them are. But overall, they are as intelligent as the rest of the population. We call them ignorant, but their numbers include many well-educated people. And many of them are good, kind, loving, and honest people who would do anything to help a neighbor.
What makes them such fanatics, such enemies of scientific education, so sure that freethinkers are destroying society, so opposed to church-state separation?
They are motivated by the most basic instincts known to humankind: the instinct of self-preservation and the instinct to protect their young. When you have been thoroughly brainwashed with the idea that you will suffer for all eternity if you do not believe correctly, when that perfidious idea has penetrated so deeply into your subconscious that you cannot get away from it day or night, then you must believe. And you must insure that your children believe. You cannot entertain ideas that might challenge that belief. You cannot let your children be exposed to ideas, such as the theory of evolution, that might weaken their faith. You fight to preserve that faith with the same determined fierceness you and I would show in fighting to protect a child from a torturer.
If you are frightened enough, if your leaders convince you that something as basic as separation of church and state is a threat to the faith, no means of fighting seems too extreme. So you applaud and support a governor who threatens to use armed force to keep prayer and the Ten Commandments in the courtroom. And you never gain enough. You fight to get prayer in schools, knowing that if you win that battle, you will go right to work fighting to get Bible study in schools.
Fanatics are formidable opponents, for they are willing to fight against all odds and to give so much. And, more often then we might like to think, fanatics win.
We are in real danger of losing our rights if we do not stand up and fight. We must write letters to public officials and newspapers. We must demonstrate when that is appropriate. We must talk to friends, neighbors, and relatives, telling them that we respect their right to hold their own beliefs, but strongly oppose any effort to limit freedom of, and from, religion. We must do this even when there is a danger that people we love will cut us out of their lives. And that is a real danger, as I have learned from experience. We must keep informed and, on every possible occasion, vote for those who stand for Constitutional rights. And we must put our money where our mouths are, paying dues and giving contributions to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other groups that are fighting for church-state separation. Freedom is not free; going to court to protect freedom costs a lot of money.
If we are too lazy, too apathetic, too fearful to do these things, there is a real danger that our grandchildren will live in a theocracy where, once again, freethinkers will be burned at the stake.
I have been born again as a freethinker, and I am enormously thankful. But being born counts very little. It is what we do with life that is important. I want my life to make a difference. I want it to matter to somebody that I was here. So I have determined that, however ineffective my efforts may be, as long as I have one active brain cell left, I will fight to preserve our freedoms, to ensure that no coalition of church and state can ever exercise tyranny over the minds of my children and grandchildren. I hope that all of you will make the same pledge.
The writer is a Foundation member living in Alabama.