Out Amongst the Stars: Defeating the Legacy of Religious Indoctrination
It’s the nature of revelations, I suppose, to come at unexpected times and in unexpected places. Mine came about four years ago at a Planetary Society event hosted by Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. When Tyson spoke about his oft-quoted position on humankind being composed of stardust, something suddenly made sense to me that I’d been wrestling and grappling with for several years by that point.
I should lend some context to this, so you can understand why my entire existential paradigm shifted in this moment. You see, I was raised in a quaint little Cotswold town just outside of Oxford, in a fundamental Christian home, attended a fundamental Christian church, and was educated at a fundamental Christian school. My father, who never declared himself a believer or non-believer, didn’t attend church, but he fully supported the environments in which I existed. My mother, in fierce matriarchal fashion, did what she thought was best for me, and made sure I was indoctrinated from my very core with Biblical values and beliefs, to the extreme.
My home life as a child was mostly happy, right up until my parents divorced when I was 12. The school I had attended since age 7 was run by the same church I attended with my mother and one of my older sisters. At the time of the divorce, my friends and teachers and church leaders appeared to rally around me, spending time with me and talking with me. And they also prayed for me. Which, on the face of it, is an endearing response — it’s what the church expects the church to do during trying times — but the contents of the prayers were mostly veiled insults towards my father. I recall one teacher praying for me to be “released” from the “binding evil passed down” from my father (he’d cheated on my mother, which catalyzed the divorce). My first thought was “Wait a minute, you’re calling my father evil…that’s my dad you’re talking about, and I love him”. And then it struck me that it was even more nefarious than that…. “Wait another minute…you’ve just called ME evil, by association. F*** you!”.
I never said these things out loud, of course. The threat of punishment for disrespect and disobedience was too great for my 12 year old mind, and the fear of consequence for calling that out controlled me. Besides, I’d been indoctrinated to believe that those rebellious thoughts of mine were just Satan tempting me in to sin, and I should resist them.
My school life was an array of turbulence. I’ve always struggled academically, not because I couldn’t grasp concepts, but because I got bored easily. I’m smart (there’s no way to say that without sounding egotistical), way smarter than my school could cater for, so I’d get bored with curriculum that didn’t challenge me enough. I excelled when I wanted to, but most of the time I just didn’t want to because the subject matters weren’t interesting. And so my end of year reports reflected that up-and-down nature. “James is intelligent, but has a tendency to be lazy/silly/disruptive/checked out/absent/[insert behavioural descriptor of a woefully under-challenged smart kid]”.
A big part of that was the education system my school subscribed to — Accelerated Christian Education (ACE). Let me make this crystal clear: ACE is possibly the worst and most dangerous educative curriculum I could imagine. In hindsight, I’ve often said, it’s amazing to me how well adjusted and successful I’ve been in my life so far, considering that my most intellectually formative years were spent being indoctrinated to the extreme with complete and utter nonsense.
For example, I was taught that the Loch Ness Monster exists and is proof that Darwin’s evolution is false, and the only logical conclusion is that everything was created by God.
I was taught that an actual, real-life dinosaur was caught by a fishing vessel, and is proof that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark, and therefore the story of Noah’s Ark was true.
I was taught that the nuclear fusion that happens in the Sun is a myth and that the sun is actually shrinking, therefore proving that the earth is only about 10,000 years old (yeah, connect the dots on that one…).
Even to the most elementary of thinkers, these are crazy notions. I remember questioning the Loch Ness Monster verbosity a few years later, during a GCSE science class. The response from my teacher was a trite deflection on what “worldly science” thinks it knows versus what “us believers” know to be actually true.
Needless to say, I’ve long since concluded that the educational value of ACE from a pure knowledge point of view is akin to mythology and folklore. It’s useless.
More worryingly, though, is the subtext behind the education. You see, it was all forcefully and unapologetically driven by Biblical content and interpretation. Aside from the asinine un-science, it also taught me that women should be a man’s subject, to be completely subservient to men, with unquestionable obedience, and any independent thought or expression of self-will is an evil, abhorrent sin. It taught me that white skin is the best skin, and the disenfranchisement of black communities, black families, and black individuals is not only acceptable, it’s “God’s will”. It taught me that free thought, logical thinking, rational application of knowledge, and curiosity manifested in questioning why or how things are in the natural world, are the brain-products of Satan; the manifestation of sin in my life.
Here’s the kicker: These were the subversive conclusions that I reached based not on direct communication as a taught subject matter (nobody ever said “women are inferior to men”, or “white people are better than black people”), but as an observed end point of the way women and minority races were treated in ACE material, in my school, in my church, and the reinforcement that those views received by the actions of those in leadership around me.
To this day, it disgusts me that those were the views I held as a child. Worth bearing in mind, though, is my family situation. I have five sisters, all of them older than me. Anything that diluted their value in the world left a cast iron impression on me that, even now, remains unbroken.
My church life reinforced all of this. On Sunday, biblical verses were lifted out of context to instill belief by fear. In Sunday school, submission to the Bible was drilled home using the same tactics, disguised under various versions of “This life is a test, and is preparing us for our eternal life in Heaven”. And the judgmental, divisive contempt for any non-compliance was subtly and consistently woven in to the everyday fabric of my life by those around me who had any form of power. In recent years, I’ve described that time spent in church as like sitting through a Twilight marathon; it’s all sparkles and self-loathing.
I remember an occasion not long after my parents’ divorce where this was exemplified in the most puerile form of thinly veiled insult imaginable. I was at a post office with my father, and just as we joined the line for service, in walks a man who was both a teacher at the school and an elder in the church. He warmly greeted us, with a smile and handshake for my dad, and ruffling my hair like I was his own son. “Oh I’m so sorry to hear about the divorce, Colin.” He said to my dad, “But then again, you don’t walk in the light like Maureen, do you, so…these things are to be expected I guess…”. Now, my father is not an angry man, but I saw rage in his eyes in that moment. This elder grinned, and left. I remember distinctly thinking what a terrible, hurtful, alienating thing that is to say to a man who, by his own admitted bad behaviour, was fighting to stay in his kids’ lives.
The thing that we all must realize, at both a collective and an individual level, is that the world never stops turning. These situations, as reprehensible as they were, were just a few amongst dozens. And mine were just dozens amongst countless numbers of individuals who’ve experienced the same and worse at the hands of like-minded religious men.
And so it goes, my life went on. I spent time on detentions. I got whacked with a length of bamboo cane several times by my ACE school’s headmaster (I remember a creepily gratuitous grin on his face on more than one of the occasions). I became viewed as a problem child. But I tried. I worked as hard as I knew how. My grades improved and I sat my GCSEs and got some good results. And then, like any normal kid I guess, I went to the local 6th form college, got my A-levels, then went on to college and got a degree. The abnormal things that came before didn’t stop me from experiencing a normal progression of life.
I’d remained in the church after leaving school. I wasn’t very active, and I was a “bad Christian” because I didn’t read my Bible and rarely prayed. But I stuck it out. It was all I knew to do. And eventually I moved to a new city to start a new job, and joined a new church, and went through the new holy motions there too.
In 2002 I moved to California, and that’s where it all started to unravel. I joined a church and married a girl and on the surface I had it all; a good paying job, a nice house, holidays twice a year. It was picture perfect. But inside, the echoes of my former years began to boomerang. I found myself inwardly questioning the things being said by my pastor, my worship team, my in-laws…my wife. I’d wake from nightmares of the punishments received in the headmasters office, sweating and swearing that I could feel the splintering crack of the bamboo across my legs. I wrestled for years, squirming internally, never speaking about it because, well, “questioning is a manifestation of sin”. And then in 2011, I snapped. I couldn’t do it anymore. The hardest question I had wrestled with for years was “Why do I believe what I say I believe?”, and it dawned in me late that year: I believed those things because I was told to believe those things.
“Oh no. No no no. This can’t be. I’ve lived 33 years of my life and not arrived at my own conclusions? I’ve never thought rationally and critically about what I believe? I’ve never gone through the exercise of separating fact from fiction?
Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit.”
Sadly, it was exactly the case. I sunk in to a depression. I started taking medication. My marriage fell apart and we divorced. My performance at work suffered. I withdrew socially, preferring time with my own thoughts and feelings to grapple with the enormity of the realization that I’d been living with a delusional mindset since I was a kid. Those that promised to be full of hope and grace and support were full of judgment and exclusion. And God? Where was he? Where was the one person who said he’d never leave me or forsake me?
I eventually emerged from the catacombs of my mind with a determination. If I knew that I didn’t believe what I said I had once believed, what do I stand for? What do I believe in? What is life about? Where is my hope? Suddenly, my academic mind came alive. I read, and I researched. I took classes. I went to conferences and seminars. I read the Bible from start to finish, twice (the second time because I couldn’t quite believe that the first read through was so horrifically contradicting and hopeless). I read the Qu’ran. I read entire books on the tenets of Krishna. I read about astrophysics and quantum physics. I read “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. I read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. I read the third volume of “Principia” by Isaac Newton. And soaked it all up like a sponge. I’d never been so hungry for information in my entire life.
You probably know where this is going.
It was somewhere towards the end of Principia that a new friend of mine invited me to go with her to a presentation in Los Angeles by Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The subject of the evening was “Out Amongst The Stars, In Amongst Our Hearts”. It was an exploration of how our advancements in understanding the universe have led to advancements in understanding mankind. And half way through, Tyson dropped the line that opened my eyes:
“I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up. Many people feel small, because they’re small and the Universe is big. But I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”
In an instant, my life made sense. In one moment, I realized that I didn’t need a book or a person or church or a god for me to be a good person. It suddenly became comfortable for me to embrace a rational, evidential existence, rather than live in fear that my moral condition was being judged in a drive-by damnation from a far-away, absent deity.
My old life had been built around a profundity of discomfort with the arrogant apologetics-driven Christian fundamentalism. I was once devout through fear in both faith and religion, but have since found more fulfillment, purpose, joy, and freedom by rejecting those things and forging a secularist path of my own. In other words, it’s not just that I’m good without god; it’s that I’m better without god.
Every day I wake up with a passion to live today as full as I can. To be the best person I can be. To give to this world in a kind, honest, compassionate manner. And at night when I go to bed, I’ll often look out at the night sky and smile at the infinite beyond. I don’t feel small. I don’t feel inconsequential. I don’t feel useless. I don’t feel afraid. Why? Because I’m a star.