This is my story. I think it is different than many other people's story so that's why I'm telling it in some detail. It begins in a remote part of northern California where I grew up during the early 70's. Imagine a barely developed countryside with homesteads separated by miles of woodland and connected by a winding dirt road. My nearest neighbors were my cousins who lived about a mile away. Other than my siblings they were the only kids my age I knew until I started school, but I saw them infrequently.

My childhood was dominated by my Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents, who settled the area with my grandfather's siblings' families years before. Their goal, I learned as I grew up, was to move away from the wickedness of the city and raise their families in simplicity with devotion to God until the time of the second coming, which was imminent. Conversely, my parents were much less devout. They were both, apparently, somewhat resentful of their upbringing and rebellious and they got married quite young. My father was a keyboardist in a rock band of little note during the 60's whose biggest claim to fame was probably as the opening band for Steppenwolf. However, their first child took a toll on the touring rock band lifestyle and their second child, myself, ended it. When I was born they moved back to "the ranch" with my grandparents. Of course I knew nothing of this history until many years later. Rock and roll, whatever that was, was a product of the devil as far as I knew. I had no access to television, radio, or music that wasn't prepared for me. Worse, I think my parents didn't have sufficient concern for their children as they were yet preoccupied with becoming adults. They became separated when I was 7 and later divorced. My new step-father was a huge adjustment in that he became significantly more involved with fathering us than my original father. He had discipline in mind, passed on to him from his domineering father, and it was literally the stuff of nightmares for my young self.

It is difficult to convey, or even understand, the extent to which this environment left me socially, intellectually, and emotionally stunted. Unfortunately, this relatively quiet period of my life was over and a tumultuous season, lasting until my 20s, was just beginning.

It was the authoritarian environment, loneliness, curiosity, and realization that my younger cousin was in school that led me to beg my mother to let me go to school. I'm not entirely certain why this proposition represented hardship for my mother but she was initially hard to convince. My brother, 6 years older, was in school but I believe he was getting there with neighbors or perhaps my cousins. In any case, I felt an unnatural desire to learn to read, not to mention escape my home life so I pleaded until she gave in. It was in the middle of the school year but that was of little importance. The school, as it turned out, was little different than the one depicted on the tv show "Little House on the Prairie". It was a one-room schoolhouse with a single teacher. Grades 1 to 12 were ostensibly represented by perhaps as few as 20 students, as far as I can recall.

My memories of this period are fuzzy but of several things I am certain. The first is that I spent no more than a year and a half attending school there. The second is that I learned to read and developed a voracious appetite for it. The third is that the teacher said I was reading books at the 8th grade level. Who had the time to teach me to read with only a single teacher remains a mystery. The fourth is that the teacher was fired and the school disbanded, for reasons which are unknown to me. All the students were transferred to another school, much further away. This was temporary though.

My grandparents were not entirely approving of my mother's new partner, him and her both still being technically married to their original spouses. They eventually drove us away and so my step-father determined to move somewhere even more undeveloped and build his own house on his own property. So that's what he did. He bought some property and a sawmill and set up a simple shack to live in while setting about constructing his dream. The shack, which I am hesitant to even label as such, consisted of several trees with plastic banded around for walls, a wooden floor covered with cardboard for insulation, and clear plastic for a ceiling. It contained a small wood burning stove, a wooden bunk-bed, and offered the wonder of looking at the stars while you fall asleep. I suspect books were hard to come by so we tried to amuse ourselves by exploring the forest when we weren't saddled with work. My older brother took a hobby of tapping the edge of a nickel with a spoon to see how far he could get the sides to flange. He got quite far, it seems. My step-father got as far as getting a well dug and constructing the frame and roof of a 2-story house before we called it quits. He sold that property and we moved back to my grandparents ranch, they and my parents having resolved their differences.

I was entered into my third school in the middle of the third grade. It was a relatively modern school with several hundred students in the closest nearby town. I was not a social butterfly though. A paralyzed mouse would be more accurate. Boys in the playground sensed that I was different and would try to bully me. Not only did I have no clue how to socialize with other children but I was raised a strict vegetarian, the only one in the entire school. School lunches rarely included a non-meat option and the apparently unsympathetic school cook often prepared me something like mustard on white bread. I buried myself in reading and my teacher's assistant, a kindly old woman, took notice. She gifted me with several young adult fiction books which I rapidly consumed. I think back to this teacher and her assistant with much gratitude for providing me with my first exposure to an educated secular understanding of the world.

Until this time my view of the world consisted of the firm belief that God was literally looking over my shoulder at everything I did, that other children my age behaved quite irrationally, and the expectation that mean irrational people are far away and can be avoided when you get out of school. Church was a fairly vague notion though. There was a church building we occasionally attended but Church could be anywhere. A weekly gathering at my grand parents house, or some other family member's house, was church. Anywhere that you could crack open a bible, sing some hymns, and pray together would suffice. It was simplicity, fear, and absolute devotion, that defined my understanding of religion.

In the middle of the fourth grade I was pulled out of school to live with my father and then I had to deal with my parents divorce. There was a custody dispute over me, but none of my other siblings. I eventually had to get on the stand in court to decide which parent would get me. I chose my mother. Around this time, for whatever reason, we moved again, this time to southern California. The shock that I experienced moving from a rural setting where walking down the dirt road was the primary mode of conveyance to a densely populated city was indescribable. Entering school in the fifth grade, I encountered kids who were speaking a foreign language. I understood most of the words they said but they discussed things of which I was absolutely ignorant, such as sex. I had never watched television, movies, or been exposed to culture as they had. The first movie I ever saw in a theater was Clash of the Titans. I was probably in the fifth grade and I was almost not permitted to go because of a brief nude scene. It was wondrous!

I might have caught up with my peers faster had I been given the chance. Unfortunately, I changed schools regularly due to moves, periodically living with my father, elementary to middle school to high-school changes, not having a house to live in, and more exciting stuff I will spare you the trouble to read. I attended 12 schools in 12 grades, if you could call it that. In the 10th grade I found some friends who either didn't notice my oddness, or didn't care. They were the school stoners. I took to getting high and drunk, ditching school and forgetting about my previous academic desires, and staying away from home with a vengeance. This would haunt me in later years though, I believe.

My father eventually re-married and became super-Christian. He has been an elder in every church he has been a member of for many years. When I lived with him off and on Bible study, church-going, prayer at every meal, and all the trappings of faith were ever-present. He speaks with regret of his youth and his lifestyle. He is still an exceptional keyboardist and vocalist, bringing shivers down the spine of the congregation when he sings, but I pity him for his inability to appreciate any music that doesn't "glorify god". I believe he is every bit as rational and intelligent as I am but he has committed himself to a goal and, it seems, he will not waver from it regardless of my best attempts to offer additional points of view. I lived with my father while going to college until I was around 20. I was dating a girl from church so I was active in the church up until that time. My heart was never really in it but I told myself that it was simply to please other people. I constantly questioned what I was being told and I couldn't make sense out of the basic premise of Jesus Christ's crucifixion. I just ignored that logic.

It wasn't until I started living on my own and broke up with the girl from church that I stopped going to church and started actually thinking for myself. Despite dropping religion though, I still suffered. The fear and the doubt that was placed there at such an early age proved quite difficult to dislodge, even after years of rational rejection of religion. My experience with ridding myself of irrational fear leaves me with no doubt that religious indoctrination is absolutely a type of brain-washing, a type of mind-control. It acts on a more primal level than your conscious brain and, therefore, will control your thoughts and behaviors unless conscious effort is made to overrule it.

This is only a brief outline of my formative years and doesn't include all the relevant details. Perhaps it is sufficient to understand why it took me so long, and it was such an ordeal, for me to rid myself of the last vestiges of religion. It may also explain my hostility towards the religion of my family, if not my family itself. I am a very forgiving person, perhaps to a fault, and I accept that my family is what it is without much hostility towards them. I try to help them and I hold out hope that some of them can yet be educated.

I've told parts of this story to very few people. Part of me was always ashamed about my origins. It has become meaningful to me simply to have the courage to tell it. If you have made it this far, I thank you.

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Comment by Tom Thompson on February 26, 2010 at 8:32am
@Thisbe, thanks for the comment and the kind words. There are probably countless details like the nickel I might have included but I would have to write a book to do so. I'm glad you liked that particular one. :)
Comment by Gary Epstein on February 25, 2010 at 4:10pm
Thanks for sharing. Some of us, myself, came from a mixed Jewish-Christian heritage. Neither parent religious perse. I think my journey has taken longer than yours because, I always wanted to believe in a personal and loving God. That death was not the end of me and that all forces act to good.

A quick and objective study of history would suggest there is no loving God in control of anything. Outside of natural diseases and disasters, the greatest evil to mankind is organized religion.

I have become a Buddhist which is not prese a theist.

Nice to meet you.



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