The Non-Christian’s Field Guide to Growing Up in Oklahoma

As a non-Christian, it’s weird to grow up in a state where everyone seems to be a devoted member of a protestant denomination. Here’s what it’s like to grow up in Oklahoma as a non-Christian.

*****

The Non-Christian's Field Guild to Growing Up in Oklahoma

I’m five or six, and have never been to church.

Mom says the family down the street are strict Christians. I don’t know what that means. But I like playing with those kids, and they like me too. I like how they have a lot of brothers and sisters.

I think it’s novel that they don’t go to school. They say they home school, but to my well-trained eye, there is nothing schoolish about their home–no cafeteria, no gym, no playground, no industrial soap smell that makes your stomach tighten up because you think about your mom leaving you for the day and having to be nice to the blonde girls that call you fat and ugly.

The family at the other end of the street home schools too. I play with those kids as well. One day, we’re all in their yard and I hang my jacket around the neck of a statue. The oldest sister yanks it off and tells me never to do that again because you can’t hang stuff on Mary. I look at the statue that’s about as tall as me. The only Mary I know is my cousin, and she looks nothing like this statue, nor could I imagine her in a head scarf.

*****

When I ask my mom why we don’t go to church, her explanations don’t make sense to me. There’s probably too much nuance for a kid who still believes that Santa is real.

When I ask my dad, he says that organizations are corrupt, and that I have everything I need in my heart.

I have everything I need in my heart. Click To Tweet

*****

The summer before the fourth grade, I go to Vacation Bible School one day with my friend, Sami. Everyone else is a Christian, and true to elementary school form, it’s clear that it’s their right to ostracize me because I am not. VBS is a big deal, so I understand. All the kids I know from school get to do it every summer, and I absolutely have to do it too or I will straight up die.

However, when I actually go, it’s a far cry from the cool thing I was told it would be. The building is a big old church, but the room we’re shoved in smells like a pile of diapers and old milk. It’s clear that this is a room for babies, and we’re in there because that’s the only space for us. The tables are too short for us too, but we sit at them anyway while we work on our coloring sheets. To me, the characters look like cartoonish versions of The Ten Commandments — bearded men with staffs and cloth covering their heads.

At the end of the day, I am beyond ready to leave. The one saving grace is that we get a piece of Dubble Bubble before we go. The catch? We have to memorize John 3:16 and recite it back to the teenagers who have been left in charge of us.

My memorization skills are on point, and perhaps the main reason I do well in academic environments. I hear it once and repeat it verbatim while the other kids struggle. By the time all the kids are done, my Dubble Bubble has lost it’s flavor.

Have you read this one yet?  The Real Beauty and the Beast Controversy!

Ten years later, I will remember that verse while watching an episode of Monday Night Raw, and I will spend the rest of the evening rewriting that verse to better fit with the whole Austin 3:16 thing:

For Vince McMahon so loved the ring, that he gave his only begotten wrestler, that whosoever challengeth him should not perish, but have a big ol’ can of whoop ass.

*****

In middle school, the cool kids wear bracelets that say “W.W.J.D.” woven right into the bands. They stack them on their wrists like bright colored stripes declaring their coolness. I ask where they get them. When I find out, I make my mom take me to Mardel, because I think those bracelets would look so cool with my bucket hat and a pair of khaki cargo shorts. (I’ve always been attracted to really terrible fashions.)

While wearing them to school, I’m confronted.

“Marisa, you aren’t a Christian so you can’t wear those.”

I fail to see what religion has to do with bracelets. (This is years before Madonna and her red Kabbalah string.) To me, these bracelets are as meaningless as the overpriced accessories in a Delia’s catalog that my parents won’t buy me, or those terrible black platform slides everyone wore in the late 1990s.

Is faith another thing like fashion that is meant to be exclusive? It totally feels like it.

“You weren’t even baptized,” my confronter continues. “And if you haven’t chosen a faith and been saved by the time you’re eight, then you’re going to hell.”

This is news to me. And frankly, it seems like a lot of little inane check boxes to ensure I don’t go to hell, but I don’t say that. Instead, I resort to the only method I’ve ever known to keep people off my ass — humor. I assure this friend that I do go to church — the Church of Agnosticism. I tell her we’re just like her church, and we even have a van for youth groups.

She rolls her eyes at me.

All through school, everyone will roll their eyes at me when I talk about my religious beliefs, or the lack thereof. It’s like their faith is only strong when they thump their Bibles at me. Sure, we can have someone’s older brother buy us alcohol and do all manner of illegal things together, but they make it clear I’m still the bad person.

After college, those friends will leave their churches, and then act like they are the first people who have ever questioned the existence of God or the need for religion. They fill the hole left by their former faith by proseletyzing everyone into their new fundamentalist anti-religious mindset. They are just as zealous about telling me how there is no God as they were about telling me I would go to Hell for not being religious. I may not believe in religion, but I also don’t fervently believe in the lack of one

I may not believe in religion, but I also don't fervently believe in the lack of one. Click To Tweet

*****

In high school, all the girls with “Worth the Wait” rings will lose their virginity LIGHT YEARS before I do. At the time, I don’t question this. All the cool girls are pretty white Christian girls, so it’s only logical that those cool kids would be the ones to have sex first. I’m led to believe that it’s worth it to wait for the first boyfriend you get sophomore year of high school.

Have you read this one yet?  Knock on the Damn Door

Which would be really funny if those poor girls didn’t grow up to be women who believed that they were somehow less because they weren’t virgins.

One day, a college friend will tell me how her youth pastor told her that she was like a chewed up piece of gum because she wasn’t a virgin. Luckily, the university offered affordable counseling services to help her undo years of being told she was garbage by a person she should’ve been able to go to for advice.

*****

In college, Persian family comes to visit. It’s the first time as an adult that I see Dad interact with his brothers. It’s the first time I actually pay attention to the stories they tell.

As my aunts argue in the kitchen about the proper way to make kashke bademjan, at the dining room table my dad tells a story about him and his brothers stealing shoes outside a mosque in Iran. They would wait for the call to prayer, and grab the shoes they wanted. Secretly, I hope this is a rite of passage for all Bahá’í children in Tehran.

The talk turns to the Revolution, to all the movie theaters and bowling alleys that are no longer there, to a world I will probably never see without the western lens. I will always hold a grudge against organized religion for this. It doesn’t matter what kind of religion it is. The imposition of religion will always mean that people don’t get to live their lives, experience the world that should be theirs by birthright or heritage, or be themselves.

I will always hold a grudge against organized religion for this. Click To Tweet

*****

In an early twenties fit of existentialism, I post some lyrics from The Hold Steady on Facebook. For the most part, they don’t mean a whole lot to me when I post them. I just type them in there because 1.) I’m in my early twenties, 2.) they’ve been stuck in my head all day, and 3.) I think it makes me seem super cool and deep and like maybe I’m the sort of person that someone would want to hang out with.

(At the time, it’s quite clear that very few people actually want to hang out with me.)

The lyrics in question are:

Lord, I’m sorry to question your wisdom
But my faith has been wavering
Won’t you show me a sign
Let me know that you’re listening?

The rest of the lyrics make it clear (at least, to me) that the song is about Holly, a fictional character in a lot of The Hold Steady’s songs. She drifts between being a devout Catholic to a strung out street kid. Her life is so incredibly different from mine, and for that reason I’m enamored with this character. I don’t want to be an addict, but I wouldn’t mind having a whole series of songs written about me.

Since it’s a pre-smartphone era or maybe just a time before I have one, I close up my laptop and go to work. But when I come back to Facebook the next day, I see that some dude who knew some friends of mine in high school has commented on the status.

Have you read this one yet?  As I Write This

I can’t remember the exact comment, but it was something like “This is exactly how I feel. This is why I’m an atheist. Once I asked God to levitate a blade of grass and it didn’t happen so I stopped believing.”

I don’t respond to or like his comment. It sounds incredibly dumb to me. Firstly, he doesn’t know what band I’m referencing, so he’s clearly not in the hip rocker dude demographic that I’m trying to attract. Secondly, why would God, or any god, levitate a blade of grass for a petulant little white boy from an Oklahoma suburb?

Later in the day, I receive a private message from him. He wants to hang out. I’m apparently his manic pixie non-Christian girl. I try to avoid him the way any girl in her early twenties tries to avoid the unwanted advances of boy — by being nice. Naturally, it doesn’t work.

In the end, he writes me messages where it is clear that he is not only entitled to have God make a blade of grass levitate, but he is also entitled to my time because he misinterpreted the meaning of the song lyrics in my Facebook status, and thought I was the original author. He makes it clear that I am obligated to hang out with him because atheists in Oklahoma have to stick together, and he thinks we are compatible.

I block him.

I will forever associate atheism with whiny assholes on the internet, which isn’t fair because some of my best friends are very nice atheists. Though, it should be noted that it’s also not fair that I associate a lot of modern Christianity with how creeped out I am by Joel Osteen’s smile, especially since a lot of my best friends are also Christians.

*****

If there is a wedding or a funeral on my mom’s side of the family, I not only get super excited for the impending Mexican food, but a little distressed for the impending Catholic ceremony.

We always sit in the back because we don’t know when to kneel or stand. We also have no intention of getting in line for communion. And we don’t confess either, and I have no idea what I would confess simply because I follow my own moral compass, and generally only feel bad or guilty after eating obscene amounts of junk food. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I had a whole bag of Doritos for breakfast.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I had a whole bag of Doritos for breakfast. Click To Tweet

*****

Now days I struggle to explain what I believe. It doesn’t fit into a codified system. I’ve picked and chosen elements from various spiritual simulacra to create my own religion.

Magic is real. Miracles happen. All the prophets had great ideas. All religions have both amazing and terrible members. Books can give you the moral guidance you need. Music can put the fire in your belly. Yoga can give you the introspection to help you know your heart. I’m high on poetry like 85% of the time. Curse words are a necessary evil. Empathy is a virtue. Many things are true at once. All the answers reside within you if you just take the time to sit with your thoughts long enough.

This will never be satisfactory for the devout. But that’s okay. It’s good enough for me.

Thanks for sharing!
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16 comments

  1. There are several things I appreciate about what you’ve written here, and several things that grieve me, too. The things that grieve me most are the inept ways the church tries to communicate its virtues (e.g. the youth pastor and the chewed up piece of gum). While I believe in the virtues wholeheartedly, even I, a devout evangelical as they say, would grimace if I were counseled the way you’ve described and as I have observed in my Christian subculture.

    The things I appreciate the most are your honest reflections and your openness to relationships with those whose worldviews are different than your own. On both sides of religion, there are many who can’t dialogue about matters of faith and belief while engaging in a respectful manner, let alone actually maintaining friendly relationships with those of differing worldviews. Once again, as a devout evangelical, I am thankful for those who challenge my worldview respectfully and can be my friend regardless of our different ideologies. May there be more of your tribe, Marisa.

    • Thank you, Rachel. And I know that a lot of what I’ve described here are outliers. I know that not all youth pastors are like that, just as not all atheists are like that. The majority of my interactions with people of faith, as well as with atheists have been incredibly positive. And I’m honored to have so many friends who readily share their worldview with me in an open and honest way. I do think, however, that the negative things have carved notches into my view though, and trip me up every time. I think I have a knee-jerk reaction toward stereotyping, and I constantly have to check it when I meet someone new.

      And for your part, I want to thank you for being a devout evangelical who is always open and honest and makes faith seem not so scary or elite to an outsider. May there be more of your tribe too.

    • Rachel said all the things I was thinking, but more eloquently than I could.

  2. All of this! I grew up Catholic Lite (meaning I can count on my hands the number of times we went mass, and my parents were insanely strict, but about nothing having to do with religion). Both of them growing up in uber-religious households scarred them adequately and they tried to spare our brother and I from the guilt/shame they were taught growing up. The guilt thing might be hereditary, but we were largely unshamed.
    I was super jealous of my friends who weren’t allowed to watch anything but 7th Heaven or Touched by an Angel. Coveted WWJD bracelets. As a middle schooler, I felt so out of place for being the only teen girl I know without a “True Love Waits” ring.
    We’d go to Baptist vacation bible schools every summer because they were free and my parents needed childcare. That’s too where I learned: I was going to hell, being baptised as a baby was dumb, I wasn’t baptised in time, Catholics aren’t Christians, losing your virginity will make you disgusting and useless to any man, and Santa isn’t real.
    I tried to get into church in high school; I was still desperate to fit in. I’m 1st gen American and even though I don’t “look ” like I’m from a different cultural background, I was always self-conscious about being the weird kid or standing out because of it. As much as I tried, I always felt like an outsider and was made to feel like even more of an outsider. Literally ALL of the things that made me self-conscious were related to not being from a Baptist family growing up in Broken Arrow.
    Looking back, I feel so crazy for being so obsessed with just being another “normal” American kid – or you know, what I thought was normal. Especially because so many of those friends growing up became teen moms or have completely gone the opposite direction in raising their kids because of how screwed up they feel their childhood made them.
    I am not religious nowadays (my husband stopped going to church as well after realizing what it’s like having family – me – who tells you what they need from you instead of blaming God for it or shaming you about it), but I’m a firm believer in the Golden Rule, expecting the best in people, running, community, yoga and good vibes.

    • It’s so weird how many Oklahomans I’ve talked to have said that their outsiderness comes from not being raised in a particular church. For me, it was Church of Christ because all my friends were in it and they constantly told me how terrible I was for not being in it.

  3. This is so incredibly insightful and thoughtful. What I’m most impressed at is your ability to recognize and call out all the ways that religion was ugly toward you, yet not hold a grudge.

    You’re so right. There are bad people and good people in every organized religion and everyone will use it for good or evil or somewhere in-between. That’s unfortunate, but I have to believe that there are more kind people out there than mean ones.

    At the end of the day (or the millennia) we can only answer for ourselves and hopefully would be able to say that we loved our neighbor and did no harm.

    • I think my personal experience was way more about the town I grew up in than Christianity itself. As an adult, I’m friends with tons of people who go to church multiple times a week and are the loveliest, kindest, most open-minded people I’ve ever met. Wish I knew more people like that when I was a kid!

    • There are definitely more good ones than bad ones. But I think as a kid, your moral compass is so black and white that even if someone does something to you that is even moderately unkind, you automatically put them into the bad category. It definitely takes some growing up to see that even the worst of people have something good about them, and that the majority of people are pretty great. I definitely think most people will be able to say that they loved their neighbor and did no harm.

  4. Hey Marisa,

    Thank you for this. There is so much familiar here, and although I am not an evangelical like Rachel—if anything, I’m a recovering evangelical—some of what I read here grieves me because of how much I can relate. For so many, faith—whatever faith—isn’t about finding the light of God inside ourselves, inside community, inside the world and bringing it out but about finding a place in the world where we never have to see anything but ourselves reflected back at us. Too often, the practice of religion is the practice of extreme narcissism disguised as something else—as concern for the world, as righteousness, as compassion—when it’s really the opposite. We’re all just looking for a place to safe, and so many people find it not in their own goodness but in impugning the goodness of others. We’re all looking for belonging, and too many people find it in excluding others rather than welcoming them. We all want some sense of certainty in this chaotic world, and too often, people replace real stability with the impulse to bash others over the head with their “truth.” It grieves me, and while I do have a deep, abiding faith, a real sense of a real, personal God of some kind out there and in here somewhere, I feel like it’s impossible for me to be a part of an organized religion. Add to that the fact that, in America, in 2016, religion is so married to politics, and that I believe in my deepest soul that the truly religious can have nothing whatsoever to do with the quests for earthly power, I keep it all at arms’ length, grieving all the while for what it costs to keep my soul safe this way.

    All of which is to say, thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Thank you, Nate. Clearly there is an essay/blog post that you need to write about all this, because the insights you have in this comment are so perfect. And it reminds me of a fellow PW grad who made her non-fiction book assignment about starting a new church. It was called the Church of the Big Front Porch, and every Wednesday for a semester she invited over close friends to have a beer on her front porch and together they would sit and talk about everything. If I remember correctly, it was equal parts religion and therapy and gabfest. It sounds perfect.

      I bring this all up to say that maybe you’re more of the Church of the Big Front Porch type. I’m a Church on the Back Patio girl myself.

  5. Thank you for writing this, Marisa. It probably should have been written a very long time ago. If you don’t mind, I have shared a link to your post on my own “blog” (if you don’t want me to I’ll delete the post, or rewrite it because this really deserves a lot of shares). Anyway, as a non-theist here’s my beef with some of my fellow non-theists: Some of them are so fanatical about it it’s as if they’re making a “religion” out of non-religion, and not only does that not make sense to me, I think it’s anaethema to keeping life in balance. You can preach about God/Insert Whichever Supreme Being Here until you’re blue in the face and be obsessed with that and turn a bunch of other people off. Likewise, someone can bloviate about what Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or that lot have written or said, and get obsessed with that too, and turn off a bunch of people (I have an otherwise wonderful, sweet friend who is kinda like that). Yeah this rambles a bit it’s late and I’m sleepy. Longtime reader, first time caller.

    • Firstly, I love shares so share away! Secondly, thanks for commenting, ya first timer.

      And I completely agree about people who turn a non-religion into their religion. It’s like they aggressively need to preach to you the lack of a gospel. I would say, as an adult, I probably run into more of those than people who try to turn me onto a specific faith. As a kid though, it was definitely the other way around.

  6. I appreciate this more than you know. I was brought up in the Southern Baptist church. I never felt that this was me. However, I also never pretended to be something that I wasn’t which brought upon a lot of self-righteous indignation from others that were fine with pretending. Parenting teenage girls myself now, we have allowed them to make decisions for themselves. One daughter is perfectly fine being an agnostic 16 y/o that has never held a boy’s hand, let alone anything else. My youngest desperately searches for answers and believes that the church holds the answers she seeks, although she hasn’t found one that has had any answers yet. I will be sharing this with my oldest, for nothing more than validation for her. Thank you.

    • I think it’s awesome that you let your daughters make their own religious decisions. I think that’s really important, and I hope I have such an open mind when it comes to my own children someday. And tell your oldest daughter that things really get a lot better when you get older. It’s hard when you’re in school because everyone gets pigeonholed into a stereotype.

  7. I was raised as a member of the Methodist faith in northeast Kansas. Perhaps if I’d been Jewish, Muslim, or non-Christian, I’d have experienced some of what you felt, but my friends belonged to such a variety of denominations that there never seemed to be any pressure toward religious conformity. Nor did my peers take much notice as I gradually drifted from Christianity and religion in general.
    When I moved to Oklahoma in my late twenties, I was astonished at the pervasiveness of conservative Christianity. I had assumed that because of their geographic proximity, there wouldn’t be much difference between the two states.
    I don’t know that it pertains much to what you’ve written, but I stumbled across this map a few years ago and found it fascinating. It helped me appreciate having grown up where and how I did.
    http://www.businessinsider.com/the-religious-makeup-of-america-2015-4

    • That’s really interesting that just north in Kansas that it’s so different. And pervasive is definitely the best way to describe conservative Christianity in Oklahoma. And thanks for the link. That’s really interesting.

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