People often ask me to talk about my history, and my journey to atheism.
As many know, I grew up religious. Not just religious. I grew up fundamentalist Christian. I also used to be extremely conservative and right-wing. Now I’m a bleeding heart liberal secular humanist and feminist. It’s quite a transition, and, honestly, there’s no one story to tell about how I got from point A to point B. It was a long, hard, difficult journey. One that took years. I could write a book.
This is just a chapter.
* * *
Years ago, in what feels like a different lifetime, I had an experience I’ll never really forget.
There used to be this… community. A group of missionaries, led by one particular man, who had dedicated their lives and all their efforts to the goal of bringing Christ’s kingdom to earth. They used to do things like organize protest marches, campaign against blasphemous movies, bring creationists to South Africa, challenge local churches to more closely follow their God’s word, and send missionaries to North Africa.
I call it a community, but more and more, I think of it as a bit of a cult.
I grew up in this cult, and I thrived in it.
As a child, on a protest against abortion or Jesus Christ Superstar or whatever it would happen to be, I used to love being on pamphlet duty. I was able to get people who had refused pamphlets from the adults to take a pamphlet from me. I remember the pride I felt when a woman who had refused a pamphlet from the cult’s leader took one from me, saying she couldn’t say no to a child. The cult’s leader approved. At the tender age of six, I was already a useful and powerful tool.
When I was a teenager, I started going to two week-long camps the cult hosted. These camps would tend to be 7 hours a day of lectures, where we learned (an extremely skewed version of) history, ethics, philosophy, science, apologetics, and critical thinking. Seven hours a day of pure propaganda, where we were taught what was called the “Biblical Worldview”, what it is, and how to defend it against anyone or anything. Every moment of our life scheduled, from waking up to the last cup of hot chocolate before bed. Every moment spent studying, discussing what we’d studied, or thinking about what we’d studied. It was hard work. Grueling, even.
I loved it.
The chance to spend 2 weeks applying my brain to so many really important subjects, history, philosophy, even the hidden messages in entertainment, was bliss for me. I was good at it, brighter than many of the adults, and widely admired for it. Best of all, I could debate.
Not only that, but I could debate with adults, and win.
The cult’s leader still highly approved of me at this stage. Here was a young, politically minded girl who could hold her own in an argument about creation vs evolution with adults, and win. Here was a teenage girl who could be photographed looking young and female while holding up an anti-abortion sign. What a useful tool! What a shield! How can anyone accuse the cult’s leader of being sexist or out of touch when teenage girls not only agree with and admire him but will debate anyone who doesn’t?
This community loved me. And I loved them. I excelled at being a young, right-wing soldier in the army of Christ. I enjoyed it. I was good at it.
But then, one day, I was a woman. And everything changed.
I fell pregnant and got married young. (That’s what abstinence-only education will do to a girl.) Our marriage would later prove to be an unhappy one. But at the time, I was into this cult, so, for a while, so was my husband.
We were on a camp with our toddler. As an extremely young mother and wife, (I couldn’t have been older than 19 or 20) I was not really prepared for the lifestyle change I was experiencing, but I was trying my best. Still, I was tired, and, not unreasonably, was hoping that the camp would be the intellectual pick-me-up I needed in a life that had become extremely mundane and domestic.
But this camp was different.
Not only did I find that my opinion no longer mattered, even when it was party line. There was this overwhelming sense that I was in trouble, specifically for being female.
I’m struggling to find the words to describe the experience. Before, I was treated with respect, if not like an equal, at least like a particularly bright apprentice. But now, I was a woman. A married woman. And it was time for me to step into my new role in life: My husband’s help-meet.
I had grown up studying the Biblical Worldview, I had studied it, understood it, debated it, argued for it. My husband barely understood it, and I’ll never know how much he even believed in it even during our peak Christerical times. But now I was expected to defer to him in all things. Even though I was the person educated in the knowledge needed in certain things, and he was not, I was expected to trust his guidance, and treat him as the final authority. The idea that I would even consider myself an authority on any subject when I now had a husband to be final authority in everything was treated, in itself, sinful.
I was always clever. I was always praised for it. I was always treated like one of the brightest stars.
But suddenly, I was instead expected to feel almost guilty for my gender. I felt a real, consuming hatred, not necessarily for women as individuals, but for womanhood itself. There was this sense that, to be a woman is to be naturally base, prone to wickedness, and degenerate. That women needed to repent of the crime of being a woman, and work actively to work against our baser, wicked desires, by placing ourselves in the care of a man.
It was, in short, the first time I encountered really open misogyny.
Man gets to worship God, but woman’s God is man. That’s the way of the Bible, if you look close enough.
I should mention that I don’t blame my (now ex) husband for any of this. The fact that the poor man dealt with me during my peak Christerical time, and allowed himself to be dragged to this cult’s brainwashing camps, all for love of his child, speaks volumes about his character.
But I want to speak about an experience I had one particular morning. I think that morning’s lectures had been about women in particular – how we must be modest, and obedient. I remember arguing with the cult’s leader, where he told me that a woman’s sexuality is her power, in the same way that a man’s strength is his. If I wore revealing clothing, that was as evil and unfair to men as if he hit me. I remember the argument making me feel uncomfortable and gross. I had never felt so both sexualized and also shamed for my sexuality. My body wasn’t treated as natural, it was treated as a great sin, a crime against humanity, one I had to repent of and be ashamed of. All because this man believed that his (and all men’s) lust was my responsibility, and was trying to force me to agree.
I was already exhausted (because, as I said, I had a toddler with me) but that afternoon I felt drained. It wasn’t just energy that had been sapped from me. It was any sense of happiness, or hope, or peace. I felt angry, resentful, a little bit self-loathing, and deeply, deeply depressed.
And so I used the excuse that was my toddler and claimed that I couldn’t attend the next two hours of lectures. In actual fact, it was my toddler’s nap time, and he was quite willing to go to sleep in his camp cot. I went into my own room and lay down.
Now, I had a history with a different religion: Wicca. As a teenager, all I wanted in the world was to be a witch. I studied Wicca every chance I got, which wasn’t many in a Christian household. It used to make me feel desperately guilty, especially the religious bits, but I was also irresistibly drawn to it.
And I had with me, on that camp, a little pink book about Wicca. It was an insipid little thing – the sort of book that washes down the religions and practices of several cultures, covers them in pink glitter, and sells them to gullible young women for a profit. I knew that the book was trash, and I felt silly even owning it, but I had it with me. And this book had a meditation, where you were given eight symbols. The symbols ranged from a Star of David to the Celtic cross to a pentagram. The book said to meditate on each symbol in order, trying to see each one clearly. I remember finding the meditation amusing, because I suspected most religions and cultures the symbols came from would be horrified to be lobbed together in one little Wiccan meditation like that.
I guess the book was my own subconscious rebellion against a culture, system and religion I felt trapped in. And that explains why, when feeling so particularly resentful, I decided to try this meditation.
Before I start on this, I just want to state the following: I am not religious. I do not believe in gods, or in a spiritual world. But I do believe in the subconscious mind, and in symbols as ways we understand reality. I’m going to sound religious a few times. Try to understand I consider religions to be allegorical, and that when I sound religious I am myself talking allegorically.
I remember in my imagination each symbol was huge. The Celtic cross, for example, was a giant stone statue, ancient and mossy, in a green meadow. I did all eight symbols, and then I fell asleep, and dreamed a dream so vivid, I still remember it as if it were yesterday. (The dream is a little cheesy. Remember, I was very young.)
I was on a beach, at night. The sand looked silvery in the moonlight, and the sea reflected the sky, all blueish purple black and littered with stars. I walked down the beach for a while, until I met something that came out of the sea. It was a mermaid. Silver tail, hair like seaweed, devastatingly beautiful. She didn’t talk, but she gave this overwhelming presence that I would now describe as undeniably feminine, but I wouldn’t be able to explain what that means. All I know is she felt like a personification of womanhood. But not like I had been encouraged to feel about womanhood. There was no baseness, or wickedness, or evil in her. She was pure and good and natural. I hugged her and stayed with her for a while, and then I moved on.
I met a woman. To describe her I’m going to have to sound like a YA novel about vampires, so bear with me.
She had skin like moonlight – marble white, and it shone like the moon. She had raven hair and violet eyes. She wore a cloak that look like it was made from the sky itself, midnight and covered in stars. And she had a raven. Now I can’t remember if she was a raven first, and turned into a woman, or if a raven sat on her shoulder, but I remember that, with her, came a raven.
She told me to walk with her, and took me to a place where we could see a giant bonfire. Figures danced in front of the bonfire, wild figures from mythology. I couldn’t tell you them all, but even now I remember the fawns. The music that drifted across the beach was also wild, and I remember the feeling that I was witnessing almost a drunken ecstasy. These creatures were feeling exactly the opposite of what I had been feeling that week.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“They are my children.” I remember that, those words. And then she told me to join them, or that I was her child, or something like that, and I went to the bonfire, and spent the rest of the dream dancing with the creatures.
When I woke up, I obviously thought I’d met the Goddess.
Despite the fact that it still took me years to give up Christianity, I was also always half Wiccan after that. Of course, no matter what I tried, I never encountered her in a dream or meditation again.
I have since come to realize what happened.
It’s well known that our dreams tend to be how our subconscious works through information. I was feeling incredibly trapped in a stifled, misogynistic, and patriarchal situation, and my mind was rebelling against that situation. Becoming “the goddess’s child” didn’t mean literally meeting a literal goddess and worshiping her. It meant rejecting, entirely, the cause of the situation I was in: The patriarchal, masculine focused form of Christianity that this cult were into. The God of the Bible was a God of light, so my Goddess came to me at midnight. The Biblical worldview was structured and constrained, so the Goddess’s children were wild and uncontrolled. The God of the Bible condemned witchcraft, so the goddess had a raven, a bird still associated with witchcraft. The God of the Bible was masculine, so my Goddess was feminine. The God of the Bible rejected womanhood as evil and undesirable, so my Goddess came to me after I had literally embraced womanhood in the form of a mermaid. The God of the Bible was like the hero of a cheesy YA novel about a paladin, so my Goddess was like a cheesy YA novel about vampires.
The entire thing was my subconscious screaming at me that my gender was not a crime, that this religion was not for me, and that I needed to get out.
Some Wiccans have this belief, originating I think in ancient Rome’s religion, and it’s that we all have a direct link to the divine. A “higher self”, “genius” if you’re male, “juno” if you’re female, that is you, but the deity part of you. So it’s always perfect, and always working to the good. Wiccans are encouraged to have a good personal relationship with their own “higher selves”, making them offerings and asking for their guidance.
I don’t believe in a higher self, but I do believe in a subconscious self. I also believe that most prayer, religious meditation, and deities are a form of communicating with one’s subconscious self. I believe that people are attracted to deities who personify everything they subconsciously desire for themselves.
I was a Christian out of fear – I had been raised to it, told it was the only truth, and taught to believe it with all my mind. I was a Wiccan out of desire. I wanted to get away from that cult, and the Goddess was a symbol of everything the Christian God (as I experienced him) wasn’t.
And I am an atheist out of self-awareness.
There is not perfect, divine part of me. There is only a subconscious me.
I didn’t meet the goddess, I met a symbol that my own mind had created in order to communicate something I knew on a fundamental level to be true with a mind that was struggling to accept it.
I know prayer works. I know meditation works. Because, as mental exercises, both link you to the part of you that feels perfect because, to you, it is perfect. Our subconscious is what guides us. We can convince our minds of all sorts of things, but it’s what we absorb and accept in our “hearts” or “souls” or subconscious’ that feels true. Of course when we go deep enough into our own minds to encounter it, it feels like we’ve “met god”. And of course this is why everyone’s god, even in extremely structured religions like Christianity, seems to be so different.
I’ve experienced what it feels like to “meet God”. I’ve experienced what it feels like to “meet the Goddess”. I’m glad I practiced Wicca as well as Christianity, and the fact that one of these religions was such a modern invention, because experiencing the “spirituality” of both was how I was able to recognize what I was really experiencing each time.
I’m not saying it’s ever been a bad thing. Even now, I still meditate. I still dream. I still occasionally “meet a goddess” that turns out to be a symbol that my subconscious is throwing at me. I find that when I am aware of my subconscious, and have a “relationship” with it, I do live a better life.
But I’ve seen what can happen when people become so convinced that this person they’re speaking to in prayer is perfect, divine, and irrefutably right.
We don’t live in a perfect society, and our subconscious’ can absorb beliefs like homophobia, racism, and misogyny. Even modern Pagans have groups who are horrifically racist, and even modern Wiccans have covens who are bizarrely transphobic. And they are as convinced that they are right as the Westboro Baptist Church is convinced that they alone are the true Christians.
And that’s the danger. And that’s why I wrote this.
Part of having a “relationship” with my subconscious means sometimes I find things there that are wrong. Sometimes I find a streak of racism, or a thread of misogyny, and the only way to deal with it is to drag it out into the open, examine it in daylight, and deal with it.
I’m not saying you can’t do this as a religious person. I’m not saying an atheist who doesn’t meditate doesn’t do this. (Meditation and prayer just tend to make it easier, because it’s time you spend by yourself, basically talking to yourself and listening for the part of you that doesn’t need to go through the process of developing a complete though to answer.) But I do think the religious tend to deify their subconscious, and the non-religious tend to ignore its influence.
That’s why, I believe, there’s such a strong streak of unexamined misogyny in both so many Christian and atheist communities. That’s why, I believe, atheism doesn’t seem to fix all the nastier aspects of religion, and why atheist communities can be just as narrow-minded, bigoted, and unscientific as religious ones. That’s why, I believe, you get good people and bad people in literally every single belief system. That’s why, when I’m told “a true Christian” this, or a “real Wiccan” that, or even “any real atheist should” something else, I roll my eyes.
Does no one else get it? We’re all just talking to ourselves. And that’s OK. Good, even.
But the mistake we’re making is we think that our core beliefs, our subconscious minds, what we know in our soul and our hearts and our bones, our Goddesses and Gods, are irrefutably, fundamentally, good and right.
And that’s dangerous. And probably why there’s so much trouble in the world.
Occultists have a maxim. “As above, so below”. What is true for one level of reality is true for all others. They have a point.
We humans are flawed. So, then, are our gods. Just because we wish that subconscious level of ourselves is perfect, always good, always true, doesn’t mean it is.