The Subtle Harm of Missed Opportunity
Before I left the nest, I was subjected to a fair amount of religiosity. I happened to be the preacher’s kid (PK), but other than that, I don’t believe my growing up in the church was necessarily atypical of someone from a serious church-going family. As a matter of fact, most of my cousins who were not PK’s were indoctrinated much more heavily than I was.
So, I’d like to do some math on this. This is a really rough estimate of the hours I spent engaged in religious activity as a child/tween/teen – almost always against my will.
- Weekly church service
- Sunday school
- Holiday pageants
- Bible camp
- Pot luck
- Miscellaneous church activity
All told, that’s roughly 5,000 hours I spent directly engaged in church related activity by the time I left for college (perhaps a conservative estimate). This does not include all the time outside of church my family spent talking about god, or praying over meals, or all the other daily thoughts about god that frame a religious child’s life activities.
Fortunately for me I hated all that stuff. I thought hyper-religious people were weird, I hated going to church, I ditched Sunday school every chance I got, and by the time I approached teenage years I knew there was no chance I’d be one of the True-Believers. Also fortunately for me was the fact that while my parents were extremely religious and their lives revolved around the church, they were actually fairly hands-off to let me do my thing. That certainly was not the case for my cousins who really got the full indoctrination cleansing.
So, this is not a complaint about my upbringing, I love my parents and they did the best they could, I mean, they were indoctrinated too, right? This is a complaint about what religious culture values for their children and more importantly what it does not value: science, math, logic, critical thinking and other important intellectual skills. It would not have even occurred to my family to take me to a natural history museum on a Sunday instead of going to church. I can honestly say that science was not a topic of conversation once in the eighteen years I lived at home. Except for possibly the occasional derision (‘scientists are arrogant’ or ‘science can’t know anything about ultimate Truth’) science really didn’t exist in my house.
Then there is all the time I wasted as an adult completely severing myself of all Christian thought. Even though I left the church at eighteen and never looked back, I spent several years in other religious pursuits because I still valued the religious life. I read eastern religious books and tried to reconcile them with my Christian upbringing. I spent years not really believing and not being a practicing Christian, but considered myself a “cultural Christian” because I still held some value that this was somehow good, even though I couldn’t articulate why. All in all, it took me the better part of ten years after I left the house to actually feel comfortable enough to admit my atheism.
But it was not a struggle in my own mind, it was a dialogue between me and my cultural development. I wasn’t one of those believing Christians that walk around, struggling with their own ideas, not sure which anomalies about their Christian worldview are going to crack the system. My cognitive dissonance was with my family and their Christian values. I knew I didn’t share them and to some degree never had. My struggle was with a values system that made absolutely no sense, but was nonetheless continually there, trying to occupy a mind that had always rejected it. My religion was a really bad house guest who had worn out their welcome and now had to go.
I really try not to waste an ounce of my life on regret, but I cannot help but to fantasize about getting those 5,000 hours back. I would replace those hours by instilling the correct values in my younger self instead of the backward values of a religious upbringing. I’d teach myself to value inquiry not authority. I’d teach myself the numbers in math, not the Numbers in the Old Testament. I’d teach myself the value of human dignity and that we are not unworthy, sinful creatures. I’d teach myself to support my claims with evidence and reason, and not to support my arguments with scripture.
Most of all I would teach myself that faith is most definitely not a virtue. Religious people have this most important of values completely backwards. They think faith is the ultimate virtue and knowledge is scornful. I believe the inverse is far more accurate.