I lost my innocence in July of 1990. Not yet the part of summer when malaise settles in and even the town pool is tiresome, my twin sister Betsy and I were happily eating white bread and mayo sandwiches one afternoon when our dad walked into the kitchen and announced, There’s no Santa! And there’s no Easter Bunny!
Childhood was over.
After we went back to school the following August, Betsy
and I entered a new set among our peers: the non-believers. We considered ourselves worldly and mature because we knew the truth. Elevated above the believers, this made up for losing Santa. We were both cruel and kind with our knowledge. He still believes in Santa. We said it loudly to be mean, softly to be nice, recognizing that with knowledge, comes power.
But Betsy and I were not merely non-believers when it came to Santa; we were non-believers when it came to God. Had our dad walked into the kitchen and announced, There’s no God!, we would have blinked and continued to eat. Our parents never indulged in creation myths or dreams of everlasting life, not even to comfort us when our golden retriever died. Would we see her in Heaven? No, we would not. There is no Heaven. The only thing good to come out of Christianity, our parents told us, was soul music.
Of course God was a myth. He created the planet in six days, made the first woman out of a man’s rib, and his son’s image appears on shower mold and pieces of toast that the faithful find and save. Ridiculous. The Bible, the supposed true account of the origin of life, seemed like a really long novel with sticky pages. Besides, if God were as kind and benevolent as people said, he wouldn’t have let my new bike get run over when I left it in the driveway.
For this, we were different from our neighbors. Our atheism in a rural town in the Appalachians made us seem rare and misplaced. When one of my third grade classmates asked where I was baptized, I didn’t know what she was talking about. What was baptism? I had heard of Hell, of course, but I didn’t know that Hell was your soul’s final home just because your parents hadn’t put you in a white dress and let a preacher dunk you in river.
I was both fascinated and terrified by this strange Christian ritual. Did it hurt? It sounded like it hurt. I didn’t want to wear a white dress or get dunked in the river, but as my peers talked, I started to think that I’d be the only person in my class to land in Hell. Bobby Queen gave us Indian burns on the bus, but he’d get into Heaven just because his parents had prepared his mortal soul. I made my bed with hardly any fight, and yet I was going to Hell just because I had never been baptized. I was furious with my parents. They, after all, were safe. When I told my mom that I wanted to be baptized no matter how much it hurt, she said that it was fine if someday I wanted to join a church, but there was plenty of time to think about it. She made salvation seem like drinking or sex—adult things that I was free to choose but shouldn’t until I was a little older. And when I was older, I chose to believe my parents instead of my neighbors.
In my rural hometown, more than one of my eighth grade classmates went over the mountains to Dollywood, Tennessee to marry older boyfriends, a ring in one hand and a permission slip in the other, and yet my siblings and I were the only children around who weren’t believers. But even with neighbors who believed that my family would be left on the apocalyptic planet while they ascended to sunny heavens, I am glad I grew up there, a few miles down the road from a sixty-foot cross on the top of Mount Lynn Lowry. There are no suburbs, no sprawl, no leash laws or automatic sprinklers in my Christian hometown. There aren’t even neighborhoods—just small collections of houses occupied by generations of the same family: the Queens in one valley, the Hensleys in another. It is my home, God-fearing and un-air conditioned, with 3574 believers and my little family.
The lack of religion in our young lives was a point of contention for our grandparents. For them—two Baptist, two Catholic—a life without God spying on your every thought was no life at all. This is how they raised their children, and it’s how our parents would have raised us had they not lost their faith.
Both of my parents were religious kids. They didn’t just go to sermons because they had to; they wanted to. They really believed in Heaven, Hell, salvation, and punishment. My father became more involved in his Baptist church after having what he describes as a “deeply religious experience” while at a Christian summer camp. He says he remembers little about this experience other than he felt God as an almost tangible force, but perhaps he’s just embarrassed to have once felt the presence of a god that, to him, so clearly doesn’t exist. But back then, he believed.
A few years after his revelation, my father began studying at the American University of Beirut. He was one of the few Americans in a school populated by Arabs and Europeans. He was also one of the few Christians. There was no church to go to, but he silently prayed over meals and read the Bible his parents had given him just before his plane took off to the other side of the world.
1967, just before my father was to graduate, Israel attacked several neighboring states. My father watched Israeli bombers fly over his adopted home on their way to kill Arabic civilians. These neighbors were enemies because they had different stories about how the world was made, about who owned sacred lands, and my dad saw this as much as he had seen God a few years before. He was evacuated from Lebanon and spent the next year traveling in Europe and Asia, doing what he wanted without God to ruin his fun. The transition from Christian to agnostic to atheist took years of thought and analysis and the works of Marx and Nietzsche and Darwin, but by the time I was born, there was no Jesus in our house.
At the same time that my young father prayed at Good Hope Baptist Church, my mom was committing to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A model student at St. John’s Catholic School, my mom planned to become a nun when she grew up. She would have been happy to sacrifice marriage and kids and sinning to serve God and the Pope. She led with her younger sisters to St. John’s each morning, their hands in prayer, whispering to Jesus as they walked.
When my mom was sixteen, she attended a school dance with a few friends and their dates. The girls wore modest party dresses and the boys wore coats and ties. The rest of my mom’s friends passed through the door to the gym decorated with streamers and with a real band playing, but my mother and her date were stopped at the door by the headmaster, Father Matthews. Father Matthews, soon to be Monsignor Matthews, accused my mother and her date of showing disrespect even though they hadn’t said a word since they arrived, even to each other, nervous about this new thing, dating. An obedient Catholic, my mother didn’t protest. Father Matthews called my grandfather and demanded that he pick up his daughter. When my grandfather arrived, furious, he saw my mom—the most pious of his daughters—was as humble and polite as always. The problem wasn’t that my mother was misbehaving; it was that her date was black.
The next day, Father Matthews called my grandfather to inform him that his daughter had been expelled from St. John’s. He gave no explanation. My grandfather pulled the rest of his seven children out of Catholic schools and enrolled them in public schools for the first time. Sometime between graduating from public school and the end of the Vietnam War, my mom found the Rolling Stones, birth control, activism, and atheism.
Like my mom, my grandparents never forgave the church for what Father Matthews did. When I spoke to my grandmother recently, she told me that she had a wonderful time celebrating her eighty-fifth birthday at the slot machines in Atlantic City and that if she saw Father Matthews today, she’d kick him in the shins.
Although our parents rejected religion in their own lives and never made it a part of their kids lives, they realized that banning us from attending church could lead to teenage rebellion, and dabbling in Christianity was better than vandalism and skipping school. When my older brother Adam wanted to join a youth group, they didn’t object, and so he went to a church basement on Sunday evenings to hang out with his friends and eat cookies and drink soda that the Christian moms brought. Adam didn’t pray with the others during youth group, but he bowed his head politely and didn’t mention that our pet beagle’s name was Darwin.
My brother’s attendance at the Cullowhee United Methodist Church youth group ended after the pastor screened Hells Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n Roll. Through careful analysis of the lyrics of Van Halen, Led Zepplin, and Metallica, the host—who struggled with a love of rock ‘n roll until he saw the light—revealed the consequences of the devil’s music. He played songs backwards to reveal Satanist lyrics and showed videos of Gene Simmons, his face painted, his tongue wagging dangerously, obviously not a man of God. Along with spiritual degradation that would surely lead to promiscuity, violence, drugs, and suicide, Hells Bells claimed that listening to loud rock ‘n roll could cause brain damage. In the vein of the then ubiquitous television commercials that showed an egg in a sizzling frying pan with a stentorian voice warning, This is your brain on drugs, the movie claimed that rock ‘n roll could boil an egg and, therefore, your brain. Adam, who listened to Nirvana loud enough to leave him with a permanent ringing in his ears, was done with youth group.
The school science fair was around the time my brother quit youth group. To our parents’ delight, Adam decided to disprove Hells Bell’s. His research was impeccable. He started with a control group—half dozen white eggs sitting in silence. He then placed another group of eggs in front of a speaker blasting AC/DC at 120 decibels. The family stood at the end of the driveway during that phase of the experiment because the music was so loud that it was actually painful. Afterwards, when Adam cracked both the control group eggs and the experimental eggs, they were all raw. We had omelets for lunch.
Adam displayed his project with pictures of Mick Jagger Gene Simmons cut from Rolling Stone Magazine and Polaroid’s of his eggs pre- and post-exposure. He typed up his aim, hypothesis, methodology, and results: Hell’s Bells has misleading information, which means some of the other statements in the movie might not be true; that is, God might not be true.
While our parents have been proud of plenty of our accomplishments—they framed my pictures from art class, gave Betsy a globe when she won the sixth grade geography bee, clapped at talent shows and swim meets—it was Adam’s science fair project that they really treasured, despite the fact that he didn’t bring home a medal and the speakers were never the same.
There was a brief time when religion was the cause of a strange dynamic in our family. As a junior in high school, Betsy attended a protest at the School of the Americas, a Georgia military operation that trains Latin American soldiers and police to kill and torture their countrymen in support of American interests. Betsy spent much of the protest behind a barbed wire fence with Jesuit priests and nuns who risked their lives working for human rights and social justice in Central America. My sister was inspired by their stories, and when she returned home, she said she had something to tell us as we sat around the dinner table. I waited for her confession of lesbianism, but the next words out of her mouth were far more shocking: I’ve found Jesus. It was the ultimate rebellion.
Betsy lost Jesus after a few days of us asking if she wanted to pray over dinner or watch Pat Robertson preaching against fornication and homosexuality on the Christian Broadcasting Network. You can go to church when the rest of us are eating pancakes at home, our dad said. Betsy’s love of Jesus was weaker than her love of pancakes and for this we were all glad. Indeed, years later, when I came out of the closet, it was a non-issue. When I asked my mom who told her, she said, “No one. Your father has gaydar,” and asked when she could meet my girlfriend.
Not long after Betsy’s brief-lived turn to Christianity, Christian Heritage Week was celebrated at our high school. While the principal praying over the loud speaker would have too clearly crossed the line between church and state, the school administration found it acceptable that a student member of one of the school’s many Christian clubs read from the Bible during morning announcements. When we told our mom about this, she was both outraged and gleeful to have an opportunity to piss off the school administration and the religious community. After my mom called the ACLU, Christian Heritage Week was over for good.
Our mom’s actions won us no popularity with our neighbors. They didn’t understand how we could develop a sense of right and wrong without Jesus, as though morality can only be learned from the Bible.
Fundamentally, our upbringing without God wasn’t all that different from theirs with God. Christian parents taught the Golden Rule and ours taught us Kant’s categorical imperative, but the message was the same; that is, be good. And although we spent Sunday mornings eating pancakes when everyone else was at church, we all grew up with a sense that there was a power beyond us, a power that could punish, but mostly save. Their higher power was God. Ours was our parents, who knew everything about Santa and the Easter Bunny and soul music and rock ‘n roll and finding Jesus and losing him. They were all-knowing when I was throwing a tennis ball against my bedroom door; omnipresent when I started a small and completely manageable fire in the backyard; all-powerful when it came to piano lessons and homework. And when bad things happened, when I fell off my bike or the monkey bars or attic ladder when I was looking for Christmas presents, there they were, with Band-Aids and hugs and the reassurance that I wasn’t going to hell.