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.
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.
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 oneI 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.
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.
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.