A program of the Center for Inquiry
It’s often said that the fastest way to become an atheist is to read the Bible. While there’s truth to that statement, it’s an oversimplification. Becoming an atheist doesn’t happen overnight. For me, it’s been a lifelong process.
I was raised in a family of Seventh-day Adventists, members of an apocalyptic cult that has a nightmare scenario laid out for the “last days” in which the cult will be the target of persecution, first in the United States, then globally.
Ellen G. White (1827–1915), the founder and “prophet” of Adventism—or, as I prefer to call it, being a stickler for accuracy, “Sadventism”—wrote stacks of books about the “visions” God gave her. Among those visions was the “prophecy” of the “Sunday law,” which is the focal point of the last-days scenario. It goes like this: all mainstream Christianity follows the “beast” of Revelation—the Catholic Church—by worshipping on Sunday. Sadventists (confused about the difference between Christians and Jews—no pork or shellfish for either, by the way) worship on Saturday according to the fourth commandment. One day, or perhaps later this afternoon, the Sunday-keepers will take over the U.S. government and legislate Sunday as a day of worship for all. Devious back-room deals are being made in secret even now! The Sadventists will then become the scapegoats for everything bad that happens because they refuse to worship on Sunday. They’ll be hunted down, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. (No mention of Jews or Muslims or just plain nonbelievers in this scenario—America wasn’t quite so diverse back then.)
As far back as I can remember in my life, I was terrified of this happening. Whenever a television show was interrupted for a “special news bulletin,” I had a panic attack as I waited to see if Walter Cronkite was about to announce the “Sunday law.” My parents thought that I was afraid because I enjoyed watching horror movies on television (no movie theaters for Sadventists) and reading scary comic books and novels. That wasn’t it. I used to lie awake at night—as a small child, remember—trying to think of quick, painless ways to kill myself when the “time of trouble” started so that I wouldn’t have to go through it. When I slept, I dreamed of being hunted down by Sunday-keepers.
The horror movies and books were a fun vacation from my normal state of abject terror. Oddly, my parents allowed them, even though fiction was forbidden by White (God showed her that reading it causes insanity and physical paralysis). But my parents constantly reminded me that I was making Jesus cry and Satan had me by the nose—that I was bad.
I attended Sadventist schools from first grade into college. Sadventism was all I knew, and its teachings were reinforced by everyone around me, young and old. It wasn’t a matter of being convinced; it was a matter of not knowing anything else. My interest in the wrong movies, books, and television shows made me an ongoing “project” among friends, teachers, pastors, and especially my parents. I was constantly told how hard the devil was working on me, that he was in me, that there was something very wrong with me.
I was a child, so I believed it. I learned very early to hate myself. I’m almost fifty as I write this, and I’ve discovered that if something like that is part of your worldview from the beginning, it’s difficult to turn off even after you know better. The cult’s teachings and the behavior of its members—especially my parents—damaged me in ways that will be with me in one form or another until I die.
At the same time, even while I was swallowing all this—and being traumatized by it—it didn’t make sense to me. I had so many questions, but they didn’t go over well. My questions were many, but they’re best exemplified by my reaction to the story of Abraham and Isaac from the book of Genesis.
God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to a mountain, bind him, and sacrifice him to God like an animal. I was told by teachers and pastors that Abraham was “saddened” by this, but the Bible does not agree. Abraham doesn’t question God or even hesitate. He takes his trusting, unwitting boy to the mountain, binds him, and raises the knife. In the instant before Abraham commits murder, God stops him and says he just wanted to see if Abraham really loved him.
I was horrified by this story because I immediately put myself in Isaac’s position. My father was physically abusive, so it wasn’t a great stretch. The Bible story doesn’t give a thought to Isaac’s experience or reaction. But when I read it, I was Isaac, which led me to question the “love” of a god who would ask someone to do such a thing, to say nothing of the “love” of a father who would unhesitatingly do it.
I was told this was a beautiful example of God’s love. That made no sense to me. It awakened me to the possibility that God might one day ask me to kill someone I cared about to show my love for him. Or that he might tell someone else to prove their love for him by killing me. This would be perfectly in keeping with what everyone around me believed. This would not be shocking or horrifying. It would simply be God being God.
When I expressed my feelings about this story, the responses all suggested something I’d already heard a lot—that there was something very wrong with me because I couldn’t see all the shiny love inherent in this nightmarish tale. I still don’t see it.
There was so much cognitive dissonance in my life that thinking became difficult. The publication of my first novel resulted in the loss of friends, harassment, vandalism, and threats. It was a horror novel—worse, an erotic horror novel—called Seductions. Sadventism teaches that fiction in general is wicked, so you can imagine its attitude toward horror fiction. I became depressed and began drinking heavily. I spent years in a fog. But I came out of it. Then I decided to learn for myself what I did and did not believe.
I didn’t set out to find reasons not to believe. If anything, I sought to find any shred of truth I could in the things I’d been taught. The conclusion I reached was that I could not believe things that didn’t make sense, that contradicted themselves, and that always, always made me the bad guy.
I had not been given a choice in this as a child. No one asked me if I wanted to be a Seventh-day Adventist, and the only other option I was ever given was damnation. Sadventism or a lake of fire—that’s free will? My long search revealed why no one ever asked: because even a child, if given the choice, would say no.
The reason so many people look forward to a place called “heaven”—which they have no reason to believe exists except that an old collection of barbaric books and their clergymen tell them it does—is that their religious beliefs have made them so miserable. There is no love, peace, or happiness in believing you’re such a horrible person that you made God kill himself.
But as scams go, it’s pretty spectacular.
Ray Garton is the best-selling author of Live Girls and Crucifax (1987 and 1988 respectively, both available from E-Reads Books), as well as dozens of other novels of horror and suspense. He has received the Grand Master Award from the World Horror Convention. This essay is adapted from one that appeared under the title “I Was a Child, So I Believed” in The American Rationalist.