“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I can’t count the number of times I heard that when I was growing up. And I believed it. I had doubts about many of the teachings of the fundamentalist denomination in which I was raised, but I was sure that God had a plan for my life and I was determined to find it.
Many skeptics will say that fundamentalists always believe that “god’s voice sounds a lot like their own.” That is to say, what they believe is god’s will for them is what they want for themselves. However, having been raised in fundamentalism and searched for god’s will, I have a somewhat different view. I think that people who have a positive self image do, indeed, believe that what they want for themselves is god’s will for them. However, for those of us who had a very low self image, we believed that what we did NOT want for ourselves, was god’s will for us. After all, we didn’t deserve anything good. And some of us paid dearly for that belief.
As a child, growing up, my family was totally immersed in religion. We went to Sunday school and morning worship service on Sunday mornings, youth group and an evangelical service on Sunday evenings, and prayer meeting on Wednesday nights. Once a year, our local church held a revival and we went to church every night for a week. Once a year, the district had camp meeting, and we went to a church service every night for a week. Altar calls were common at the end of the Sunday evening services and there were always altar calls at the end of the service every night of the revival and camp meeting. Even if the sermon didn’t have much of an effect on you, the music alone could raise emotions. After singing Just As I Am, Almost Persuaded, and Tell Mother I’ll Be There, anyone would feel the need to go to the altar to pray. I recall one night when I felt a strong need to pray. I “knew” I was a “Christian” but I guess I felt that I wasn’t a good enough Christian. So, I went to the altar. Within seconds, my father was kneeling beside me with his arm around me, praying for me. Soon, everyone who had gone to the altar was surrounded by family and friends, all focussing on the one person “in need.” Soon, I, and the others, felt better and we got up and everyone hugged each other. We felt emotionally drained but something about the experience made us feel better. Some people even felt euphoric. We felt strengthened and ready to go face “the world” again.
I went to public schools but was not allowed to go to movies or dances, so my social life was almost entirely with my “church friends.” I attended a Christian college and remained a Christian, and still quite naïve, when I attended a state university for grad school. After grad school, I became a professor at a Christian college. During my first year of teaching, a student of mine asked me if I would write to a very intelligent friend of his who just happened to be in a federal prison. Yes, you can see it coming. I wrote to him and soon, I started visiting him on occasional weekends. He was amazingly intelligent and articulate. He was also quite open about his crimes of bank robbery. He expressed an intense desire to get his life straightened out and demonstrated it by taking college courses in prison. I still believe that he really did want to get his life straightened out. What I didn’t understand at the time, was the psychology of it all. I had a lot to learn.
By the time my “pen pal” got out of prison, we were engaged. Yes, I knew that the bible said, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with an unbeliever” but I genuinely believed that it was god’s will and, therefore my duty, my obligation, to salvage this poor lost soul, and that eventually, he would become a believer. That, of course, never happened.
We were soon married and my real world education began. The first thing I discovered was that he was an alcoholic. When he was in prison, alcohol was not available so there was no indication of a problem. Having never been exposed to alcoholism, I knew virtually nothing about it. Still being a naïve little Christian, I believed that prayer and love were all that was needed to help him. So I kept loving him and praying for him. Didn’t work. Nevertheless, when his daughter from a previous marriage needed us, I welcomed her with open arms. At the time, she was a ward of the court, and had been placed in a foster home in which there was a teen aged boy and no father in the home. You guessed it. She was fifteen and pregnant. She wanted to keep the baby but in order to do so, she had to live with a parent or guardian, so we took her in. Living together was difficult for all of us so I insisted that we all had to go to counselling, which we did. The therapist concluded that group therapy would be the best approach for us, but that we should go to different groups. I got more help than my (then) husband or his daughter.
When you have a good therapist, group therapy is amazing. I learned a lot about myself and about the real world. A second, very critical thing I learned about my ex-husband was that he was a sociopath. I had never heard the word sociopath and had no idea that people like that existed. Sociopathy is not a mental illness; it is a personality disorder, also called antisocial personality disorder. Most psychologists agree that sociopaths cannot be treated. This bit of information created a conundrum for me. How could god create sociopaths if they could not change? And, if my ex-husband couldn’t change, how could it have been god’s will for me to marry him? These questions contributed to my growing doubts about my religious teachings, and to my eventual deconversion. Even after I realized that my husband could not be helped, and my faith was slipping away, I continued with my group therapy because I was getting help.
The therapist was an amazing man and he ran therapy groups very effectively. One of the rules was that whenever someone in the group needed a hug from another person in the group, they could simply ask for it and they would get it. On one occasion, a woman in my group was dealing with some very difficult issues and she said, “I need a hug from Lois.” (That’s me.) I gave her a hug and it seemed that the emotion began to spread throughout the group. As emotions came to the surface, more people expressed the need for a hug. Several individuals dealt tearfully with some very deep, emotional issues and a lot of healing took place. Although it was emotionally exhausting, it was also exhilarating. In the midst of all of the emotion, I suddenly had an “ah ha” moment. It just hit me, “This is an altar call!”
Afterward, I tried to make sense of this new awareness. What did I experience in the therapy session that was like an altar call? How are therapy sessions and altar calls similar, and how do they differ? I reasoned that humans are social animals and, therefore, we have some basic social needs. We need a sense of belonging, a sense of acceptance, and we need touch from other human beings.
Both group therapy sessions and altar calls meet these needs to some extent. However, altar calls come with a lot of strings attached. First, you have to affirm that you have “accepted Christ as your personal saviour” and that you have given your life to “him.” To retain the acceptance and understanding of the church family, you have to meet some rigid conditions. You must continue to believe the doctrine and dogma, or, at least, mouth the rhetoric. You must follow the rules, both written and unwritten. In some denominations or religions, you must look the right way, talk the right way, and must not be friendly with the “wrong” people. However, as I had discovered, belief is not a choice. It isn’t possible to decide to believe something that you have come to realize simply can’t be true. But as soon as you let people know that you no longer believe in the doctrine, or that you don’t even believe in god any more, you are no longer welcome in the community. You lose everything you had gained by being part of the community. And pretending that you still believe, that is, living a lie, is a miserable state in which to find yourself. Leaving religion is painful.
What about the therapy group? The needs that are met in a therapy group have no strings attached. People in the groups are dealing with their own issues and therefore, understand and accept you for who you are. It doesn’t matter what you profess to believe or not believe. However, being in a therapy group is temporary. Eventually, you have to move on and leave the group. Then you have to find a way to have your human needs met in another way. My experiences, including group therapy, helped me to begin to understand the human need for a community. We need communities that are welcoming and that do not have any strings attached.
To conclude my personal story, I ended the marriage and, for a time, lived a lie while I looked for a way to support myself so I could leave my job. I loved teaching, but the college would not employ anyone who did not profess to be a Christian. Eventually, I obtained a post doctoral fellowship and quit my job, got out of town, and left the country, literally. I moved to western Canada and started my life over from scratch. Now, many years have passed and I have a wonderful life. I have become part of a secular community and am discovering unconditional acceptance. But I’ll never forget that “ah ha” moment and the realization that everyone has genuine human needs. I’ve made it my goal to reach out to people who are facing situations similar to those I faced when I left my religion, and to introduce them to a secular community.
Human needs are real; answers in religion are not. Human needs can only be met by other humans who care.