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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 Atheism.

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 own.

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 subjugate women.

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 scientific knowledge.

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.


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