The Night I Saw the Light
by Gina Allen
I first saw the light one night when I was sixteen years old. It was initially a very
small light - the beam from the flashlight that enabled me to read under the bedcovers
when I was supposed to be sleeping. That night I was reading a Little Blue Book that had
been given to me by my boyfriend. It was Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Necessity of
I usually say that until the moment I opened the book I was a very religious young
woman, but I suppose I had actually been outgrowing my religion for a while. For one
thing, my boyfriend, a freethinker, had been giving me books like this and had been making
me defend my religious beliefs - which I had difficulty doing to his satisfaction, and my
So I was prepared for Shelley and his atheism even though I didn't know it. And, as I
read, the light got brighter and brighter. Not from the flashlight I was reading with but
from my mind absorbing what I read. Shelley's logic shattered, in one memorable night, all
the Sunday school lessons, Bible studies, and sermons I had been exposed to for years.
My first reaction was fury, a fury so strong that I risked confronting my father the
next morning at breakfast. "You can't possibly believe all that god stuff! Do
you?" I demanded. "You're an intelligent, educated man. God is as much a hoax as
Santa Claus and not nearly as much fun. And only kids believe in Santa."
His response made me even angrier. This pillar of the religious community, this trustee
of the local Presbyterian church, this man who supported the church financially and
attended services every Sunday told me calmly that no, he didn't believe what the church
taught. But he did believe that without the church there would be no morality in the
world. Children learned right and wrong in the church, and adults lived righteous lives
because they believed in God and heaven and hell.
I have since learned that this attitude is not unusual among many who appear to be
religious. They are less concerned with their own spirituality than with the conduct of
others. They see themselves as superior, able to understand their religion as mythology
and still conduct their lives morally. But they don't think the ordinary person can do
that, so they count on religion to keep the masses under control. Indeed, throughout
history such "superior" men have used religion to regulate their slaves and
In my first heady release from religion I too thought it was the only thing that had
kept me "good." My life would change: I could sin. As a teenager, for me the
three great sins were smoking, drinking, and premarital sex.
I told my boyfriend that I had seen the light. He was glad. He said he thought I was
too intelligent to stay caught up in religion forever. Then I told him that we could sin
together. We could drink, and smoke, and have sex. He looked at me as if I were crazy. I
could do those things if I wished, he said, but he was in training. As captain of the
high-school football team, a star basketball player, and a Golden Gloves boxer, he was
always in training.
He wasn't "good" because he believed in a god but because he wanted to be an
athlete. Slowly it dawned on me that I hadn't been "good" because I believed in
a god but because I loved my family and friends, enjoyed my studies and my music, and
wanted to prepare myself for all life's possibilities.
I have never, ever regretted the night I saw the light. I shall be ever grateful to the
young athlete who gave me that Little Blue Book (and to the publishers of Little Blue
Books). I have stopped being personally furious with the Christian religion that duped me
as a child, but I continue to be alarmed at religion when it hurts people, stunts their
growth, and practices sexism and racism.
When I visit my family I go to church with them. I cringe through the Apostles' Creed.
How narrow and restrictive it is! I cringe through the hymns, too. I'm a pacifist, so
"Onward Christian Soldiers" is repugnant. And "Amazing Grace" - which
asks God "to save a wretch like me" - shows how destructive religion can be of
self-esteem. It spreads guilt instead of joy. It denies nature and closes minds to
So except for an annual journey back to my roots in family and the Presbyterian church,
I have not returned to religion, nor have I missed it. My associates since the night I saw
the light have been people with whom I share common interests and goals, people trying to
make this world better, not hoping for heaven. Like Abou Ben Adhem, in Leigh Hunt's wise
poem, they are moral because they love this earth and those with whom they share it. I
trust they can say the same about me.
Gina Allen was the author of several books and articles for adults and juveniles,
including the best-seller Intimacy, which she coauthored with Clement Martin.