It was the summer after freshman year and I was having a crisis. Growing up was memorizing Bible verses, my mother’s lilting soprano guiding me and my sister through hymns before bedtime, Thanksgivings with at least thirty-five of my relatives clasping hands to listen to my grandfather pray. I don’t know what happened that year, but by the end of it I knew that something was off. The songs at church were hollow, answers fleeting and desperate. So I went to Peru.
We were allowed 28 pounds to bring with us for two months, my personal supply of butterscotch candy contraband was a luxury I barely afforded. It was not your typical mission trip for a 14 year old girl. First there was bootcamp in Florida. We wore combat boots laced to mid calf and shouldn’t show our upper arms. There was no running water and the obstacle course included army crawling to avoid being hit with swinging balls labeled with deadly sins. Lectures stretched three or four hours. This was not the Kumbaya I had in mind. The owner of the organization told us Bootcamp would break us so thoroughly, we would turn to God. Fifteen days later, when we boarded the bus to the airport, I remained unconvinced.
Peru wore me down. We worked nine hour days clearing inexorable jungle plants for an orphanage. If we weren’t working, we were memorizing Bible verses, reciting every known Christian song, or divided up for teaching on how the sexes ought to behave. A few weeks into it I was as firmly convinced as the rest of my friends. God was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, salvation was mine, eternal life and unconditional love lay at my boots.
When I returned to Washington, I was in for a rude awakening. Despite my new-found direction I was miserable. I denounced my favorite books because of the atheist themes, diverted to only listening to Christian music, suffered through the idea that I couldn’t take a high paying job and ought to become a missionary instead. I felt that my unhappiness was my own inadequacy.
After about six months my catalyst was a philosophical incompatibility. If God told me to love all people equally, I could not value one person over another. I could not love my best friend over the boy in my Spanish class who told everyone my Ayn Rand novels were pornographic. Nothing more for those who strive to improve themselves and the lives of others, create beautiful art, or pioneer for humanity. Perhaps through the influence of individualistic American values, I felt so against the doctrines of loving equally, of never being enough for the person you serve, of denial of self that I rejected it. I realized that I had only forced myself to believe out of an emperor’s new clothes style fear of exclusion, not because it resonated with my soul.
Atheism wasn’t easy. My parents commented I was likely worshipping the devil. My baby sister still tells me I am going to hell. Although it hurt me to see my family feeling betrayed, I felt more alive than I had all my life. The world transformed into a virtual buffet of intellectual opportunities, and I no longer had to skip dessert.
My transition away Christianity was my coming of age anthem. Through it I found my self-esteem, a crucial missing factor in my younger years. It was the first of many deeply ingrained beliefs I discarded. My break with my family and culture on the religious front gave me the confidence to be a feminist, pro-gay marriage, and on a more personal level, to change my path from lawyer to writer. I know that if I hadn’t gone to Peru, I might still be hanging on to my childhood. So when asked if I wish I’d canceled the trip, I reply “God forbid.”
P.S. If you want some atheist inspiration, sign up for Teen Missions International trip. 🙂