Vignette: Grappling With Religious Indoctrination

The topic is one that I didn’t think I would grapple with so much in my lifetime. Being born and raised in a family where dysfunction is the norm has its benefits. One of those benefits is being blissful in your ignorance, and if there’s one thing my family was, it was ignorant and unwilling to question the important topics in life such as God and religion1.

“Time makes more converts than reason.” –Thomas Paine

As a young boy, I remember my mother always being quite concerned with finding the right church and with finding some sort of “spiritual home”. It was always so important to mom that we belonged to some sort of church. And so, this led us to try a number of different churches throughout my young life.

The first time I remember church shopping, I recall driving around a city just a few miles away from my childhood home. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I recall sitting in the backseat of mom’s little blue car, and her driving up to the church building and saying, “This looks like a nice church to attend.” We went in and attended the service that day, and I recall being shipped off to a small room partway through the service to attend Sunday school, then reunited with mom afterward. We met in a common area called fellowship hall, ate some pastries, then went back home. I remember thinking how strange that initial experience was. Up to that point, I had never given religion any thought and had never so much as considered the concept of an external deity or god. It was really strange to me that all these people met together, and at that point I had no concept of the Bible or religion.

According to my mother, we had found our spiritual home, and we began to attend the Methodist church in that nearby city. Our Sundays were soon filled with waking up, driving off to church, and attending Sunday school. At this church, like at most protestant churches I have since attended, the young people attend the first few segments of the service with their parents. This particular Methodist church was a small to medium-sized church – seventy-five or so congregants on any given Sunday. This certainly wasn’t a “mega church” (although we would try that later, as I’ll get to).

The services at the churches we attended would generally include a musical prelude by the pianist or organist. Being musically inclined as I was, I always particularly enjoyed this part of the service. The music was generally pretty good, and I might even get to see a handbell choir or hear a really nice song sung by the choir.

The children would then be directed to head off to their Sunday school classes. I would dutifully comply, and I recall that our first church had a small, shared common area where the children would gather for their own “mini service” before breaking out into smaller groups for individual or small group study.

I remember my very first Sunday school class, where we recited the well-known phrase, “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.” During our children’s classes after that, we were introduced to Cain and Abel, Abraham, Joseph and his brothers, God and Ishmael, Noah’s Ark and the great flood, and Daniel in the lion’s den, and all the other classic children’s Bible stories.

I’ll never forget the first time we learned the story of Cain and Abel, and talked about it in Sunday school. It was that day that I first felt (at just five years old) the overwhelming sense that something was wrong. It felt really confusing at the time – but who was I to question what I was learning? As a group of six small children sat around a small table, our Sunday school teacher read to us:

One day Cain brought, as an offering to Jehovah, some fruit and grain that he had grown. Abel, too, brought some of the best animals of his flock and sacrificed their fat pieces to Jehovah. Jehovah was pleased with Abel and his offering, but Cain and his offering did not please him.

I remember thinking, “Whoa! Who is this Jehovah guy? And why does he care what people bring him?” And that wasn’t even the shocking part of the story. The teacher continued:

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go into the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain struck his brother Abel and killed him.

I was mortified.

Then I remember the teacher turning to all of us and asking us what we thought the moral of the story was. While I couldn’t have expressed it then, it was unbelievable to me that 5 and 6-year-olds were being asked to recognize the moral of such a story! Not to mention, the story is far too overwhelming for such a young person to understand. Even in the most watered-down children’s Bible, the language and concepts are far beyond what young children can recognize. Quite simply, they don’t have the life experience and exposure to recognize them (and certainly shouldn’t).

While I had a cursory understanding of death, I didn’t know what the moral of the story was. But I wanted to. I was experiencing my first dose of indoctrination. I was just as hungry for knowledge, eager to please, and willing to accept authority as any other children I have since met and taught. Like me, they too are willing to listen to and accept just about anything from respected authority figures. And so it was that I fully accepted that Sunday school teacher’s explanation of the story. She told us that Cain was wrong – it couldn’t have been God, because he’s the good one! Of course God was right to put the mark on Cain to condemn him to lifelong torture and misery, because he’s the good one! Never mind that this was completely counterintuitive – praise God! And, of course, 5 and 6-year-olds should know what a tramp2 is!

Despite the confusion of the Bible, which I recognized as – at the least – confusing for a young boy such as myself, we continued attending. After all, what choice did I have? My mother was driving and I was only 6 years old. I continued to hear more stories like this that were both confusing and counter intuitive (the story of Abraham scared the crap out of me), but I learned to take it on faith that these things that adults that my mother seemed to trust were true. I mean – they must have had some sort of knowledge that I didn’t have. There had to be a reason they all believed this stuff. I remember saying to myself, “It must be true because my mother believes it!”

That said, there was also another hallmark of church life abound at our little Methodist church: community. The church community was vibrant, social, and exciting. I could see that it gave my mom a sense of belonging and somewhere to go. I too enjoyed being around other people and interacting with them. So we, like most other church going families I have since known, really enjoyed the sense of community that the church brought. Even the words chosen churches imply a great sense of community (think fellowship or gathering). Most churches I know have a fellowship hall or a gathering place. It is nice to think that we will have a place to go to call home (most churches will constantly refer to itself as your spiritual home). I have learned that if there is one thing that churches do well, it is community and gathering.

There were plenty of opportunities for me to foster my musical abilities within the church. One of my memories was performing for a church talent show at our Methodist church. I’ll never forget how nervous I was as I was heading up to the stage to perform Captain and Tenille’s Love Will Keep Us Together on stage. It was really my first public music performance on the organ, and everyone was very gracious and receptive to the performance. Despite my turmoil and struggling with questions about what I was hearing and learning about church doctrine to that point, I found an outlet for my musicianship, and so was content to be less concerned about it.

My church experiences would continue after we made a family move to a different city around the time I was in 5th grade. After we moved, it was vital to mom that we find a new church to attend. And so, the church shopping resumed, and we tried a variety of different churches for several months. I recall that my father, who didn’t attend often at our previous church, started joining in the church shopping with us. Mostly, I think, because Mom nagged him about it. We attended a couple Methodist churches, a Catholic church, and a Presbyterian church. For a while, we were attending a Lutheran church called Lord of Life. I’ll never forget how confusing my experience at the Lutheran church was. I was about to learn my first lesson in the inconsistency of religious doctrine at 9 years old.

Just as I was getting settled into the Methodist way of thinking, I was stunned by this new Lutheran church. The very first service we attended felt different. I immediately got the sense that the minister was telling us there was something actually wrong with the congregation. But I didn’t understand quite what that was until after I attended the first couple of services.

The second service we attended at this Lutheran church was a confirmation service, a service in which the young people have reached an age where they will publicly profess their faith3. I remember the verse (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12) that was read by the minister to each confirmed young person:

Lord, we pray for [name], asking that our God will make him worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

By the time the third child stood up to be confirmed, I noticed two things. First, I noticed that we used a different bible than we did at the Methodist church4. I remember thinking this seemed strange. Why did different churches need different bibles? Secondly, I noticed that the verse chosen to celebrate this occasion seemed not to convey a tone of trust and joy for the young person, but quite the opposite! I was overwhelmed by the words “asking that our God will make him worthy of his call”. It seemed to me that, whereas most other celebrations and rituals would celebrate the moving forward to the next step of whatever it was they were for, this was far more a reaffirmation of this young person’s inability to function without God. It seemed like a seized opportunity to remind the person that he is still there, watching you.

Since then I’ve experienced so much more of the contradictory nature of religion and the Bible, much of which I will continue to write about and point out on this blog. If you only begin looking just a little bit, you’ll find no shortage of material. Like me, you will likely be able to write blog posts endlessly on the subject of them. Here are a list of just a few of them, from

  1. Other than spouting off ideas, emotional sense of wonderment, and speculative ideas, my family was by no means deeply philosophical. 
  2. “You shall be a tramp and a wanderer on the earth.” In some translations, a vagabond 
  3. This was officially called the affirmation of baptism in our church’s program. 
  4. Our Methodist church used the New International Version (NIV) and the Lutheran church used the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 

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