A preemptive confession: This is going to be a difficult post to write. Not because of the memories it will invoke, but because too often those who know my father’s story will blame him for my atheism: “You weren’t exposed to true Christianity as a child, so you fell away,” is the one they usually go for. Or, “Of course you are mad at God, if you’re thinking of your dad’s version.” I’ve even been told damage from my dad’s religion was the reason I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. So, suffice it to say, I’ve heard it all.
Allow me to put your mind to rest, dear reader. I don’t consider my time growing up or my dad’s faith representative of my personal relationship with Christ, such as it used to be. I truly owned my Christianity in college, grew as a Christian around stable, mature, thinking believers who presented me with much more palatable and less warped versions of God. Only after five or so years of this did I walk away. Not from my dad, or my dad’s God. From my own.
So, with that said, let us continue…
Christianity tortured my dad. It preyed on his mentally unstable state, fed his paranoia, and grounded him firmly in a worldview that equated love with fear. He clung to it, and it absolutely ruined him. I didn’t see it at the time, but thinking back on it, I can’t believe how I could have missed it.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, he loved it. He loved Paul (and incidentally hated Peter). He loved the epistles. He loved reading Hebrew dictionaries trying to puzzle out words. He wrote heavy metal love songs to Jesus in the basement, posted them on YouTube, and then argued with people in the comments about the minutiae of salvation. He wrote books on Biblical interpretation, paid out of the family savings for 500 copies at a vanity printer, and stored them in boxes in his bedroom closet. Truly, the Ultimate Fanboy.
But as much as remembering some of these incidents make me laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, I can’t deny it tortured him. He was constantly being whacked around from dogma to dogma, clinging to whichever ones protected his children most from the wrath of a vengeful deity. As much as he proclaimed the love and grace of Jesus, he was terrified of God, of Hell, of doing something wrong and accidentally ruining his kids’ chances at eternal life. For someone who already suffered from crippling mental health issues, this kind of extra weight must have been unbearable. He may have been emotionally abusive, using fear to illicit proclamations of love and loyalty from his family, but that’s exactly what God was doing to him.
Here are just some of the ways this consuming fear manifested in my everyday life growing up:
Kitchen Sink Baptisms
“Baptism isn’t necessary!” he would proclaim. “God doesn’t need water to save us! Jesus’ blood already did that, we are baptized in the Holy Spirit!” But like clockwork, every few years, he would have us congregate in the kitchen. He’d fill up a paper cup with tap water, have us lean backwards over the sink, and dump it over our head. Just to be safe.
Once he even baptized us all at the lake by our house. Our mom made us print-out diplomas like we’d just graduated from something. Sin, maybe. (I don’t think he realized that certain church denominations consider multiple baptisms, or baptism after a certain age, or with the wrong kind of water, or by the wrong person to be damning.)
The Many Ages of Accountability
My dad was also obsessed with the age of accountability — that magical number of years where kids take control of their own immortal destiny and decide whether or not they’ll believe in God or go to hell. There were many theories about when the age of accountability actually began. His theory tended to be: a few years older than my oldest child (me).
Coincidentally, as we grew up, the age of accountability also got higher and higher. It was ten, and then twelve, then fifteen. Finally, when I hit eighteen, he decided each person had their own individual age of accountability, which meant that he could pretend that we were always going to be grandfathered into eternity based on our naivety.
Rehearsing The Final Judgement
Sometimes, my dad would give us pop quizzes on what to say to God during our final judgment. He wanted to make sure he prepared us to hold our first face-to-face conversation with God. Sitting in a kitchen chair, my dad would have us approach him, as though he were Christ on his throne. “Why should I let you into Heaven?” he would intone. “Because I was a good person,” I answered.
I clearly remember the disappointment and mild panic in my dad’s eyes. I was immediately banished to our makeshift Hell behind the couch, because the only way to get into Heaven was to say, “Because Jesus died for my sins.”
The Mercy Of Killing Children
One thing that plagued him a lot, something he kept coming back to and trying to reiterate, was the number of kids who were ordered killed in the Old Testament. Even at a very young age, I remember watching him struggle over these passages, trying to come up with an interpretation that wouldn’t scare us — or him.
In the end, he decided it was merciful to kill the children of the Old Testament, because those children would have grown up to be heathens, and then they would have suffered forever in Hell. Those children would feel a moment of pain, and then they’d be with God forever. “Wouldn’t you want to be with God forever?” he’d ask us desperately.
Martyrdom Prep 101
When we weren’t rehearsing how to get into Heaven, we were practicing how to die for Christ. Sometimes the imaginary time travel would take us back to the days of the Colosseum, where Christian martyrs were torn to shreds by tigers because they wouldn’t renounce their faith. Sometimes we would be whisked into the (very near) future, when evil government agents would demand we deny Christ and take the Mark of the Beast or get beheaded. (I lost quite a couple nights of sleep over these particular games.)
“Whatever they do to you, don’t deny Him,” my dad would beg, as though it were about to happen tomorrow. The horror of imagining his kids being brutally murdered in front of him was nothing in comparison to the fear of God’s punishment. Imagine being that afraid.
The Satanic Panic and Pokemon
We never played with Pokemon as kids. We didn’t watch many of the secular Saturday morning shows. Harry Potter was certainly a no-go (for most of my childhood, at least) and even the 1940’s version of The Wizard of Oz was tenuous (“There is no such thing as a good witch!”) My dad even taught us how to listen to records backwards to make sure we weren’t accidentally absorbing hidden satanic messages from the Devil.
Evil was everywhere, ready to jump out and snatch our souls away. Not an amorphous, vague evil, but Evil Incarnate, with nothing better to do, apparently, than inhabit children’s cartoons and subtly imply vaguely secular notions through television screens every weekend. (Although, considering I am now a witch, maybe it worked after all?)
Nothing Like The Great Outdoors
And, of course, the ultimate threat to our young souls: the outside world. There was very little contact with the outside world for us kids, limited to running errands with parents and the occasional family outing. The few friends we had were heavily vetted, media from Out There was meticulously scrutinized. We didn’t even have internet access until I was fifteen.
My dad knew we were chafing at the bit, eager to explore our world. He knew we hated staying inside, being isolated. He knew we were lonely and miserable and probably guessed that we blamed him. But he simply couldn’t bring himself to put us in such spiritual danger. He was willing to sacrifice our entire childhoods to keep us “safe.”
Now of course, looking back with years of theological and biblical study under my belt, I understand how simplistic my dad’s version of Christianity was (although I might argue it was closer to the literal portrayal of God in the Bible than many more lenient denominations). His version of a vengeful God was not shared by 98% of my Christian friends, nor was it ever one that I ascribed to (even as a child). Hopefully, such a fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism is on the way out with this new generation of more moderate believers. That, at least, is my hope.
The most horrible part of this whole story is: the thing that wrecked him sold itself as the cure. The only way to escape the fear of God was to invite in more God. Worse, fear of God probably indicated you were doing something wrong, which of course made you fear God even more. Couple that with an already degrading mind, stressed under the weight of a mental illness his religion had taught him was the sign of spiritual weakness, and you have someone who is unable to love correctly.
Knowing all of this, I can’t blame my dad for perpetrating a message of panic and fear. I can’t blame God either, because God isn’t real. But I can blame the first person who ever walked up to my dad and said, “Repent or you’re going to Hell.” I can blame the churches that fed this lie without considering whether the members of their congregation were mentally or emotionally stable enough to hear such things. I can blame Christianity for what happened to my dad. And I do.