Escape from the Woo Zoo

Escape from the Woo Zoo: How Someone Else’s Fight Told Me Who I Am

This is part of our Teen Skepchick series, Escape from the Woo Zoo, in which regular people tell stories of how they gave up unsubstantiated beliefs in favor of evidence and skepticism.

When I was young, my mom was in charge of the after school care across town, so I rode the bus from my school to her’s every weekday. There were people I knew, people I didn’t. There were also some people who went to my school. It wasn’t a bad setup, really. I got some homework done, ran around outside, forced to socialize with kids my own age. No. It wasn’t bad at all.

And it was here that I found my first piece of evidence that perhaps the world wasn’t what I had been taught.

It’s never easy to realize that you’re different from the people close to you. It’s that horrible, nagging feeling that nobody understands you, least of all the people who raised you and the people who have been your friends for the past decade. It’s lonely and a little bit terrifying.

I don’t mean to say that I am different in any material sense. I have no great talent or musical acumen. I suppose I have slightly above average intelligence, but nothing to give anyone any notice. My heart bleeds for every butterfly to hit a car windshield, both literally and metaphorically. But again, this is not entirely uncommon, even for my little town. I imagine it’s just something that happens to everyone: the realization that the person you are is not the same person everyone assumes you to be.

But let me back up.

I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic grade school. (I suspect I only stopped there because that was all my town had to offer.) I picture it as more or less the same as other grade schools. There were no nuns in habits with scary rulers. We just studied religion – complete with textbooks – every other day. (Also, we were only allowed to dress up as saints for Halloween. But that was probably just an offshoot of the religion thing.)

Religion class, while I’m sure included its fair share of Biblical story-telling, focused mostly on questions of ethics. Should Bill steal Sally’s apple? Should Janet pick a fight with Anthony? Except for the rules that pertained to sex – which I concluded had little relevance to my life then –  everything pretty much boiled down to one simple rule: don’t do anything that hurts someone (and an after-added corollary: except in defense of others.) Easy. Every Christian, as far as my first grade mind was concerned, had their own Hippocratic oath: do no harm. It totally never occurred to me that people would behave badly. On purpose.

I know. I was such a sheltered marshmallow.

Which brings me back to my years at my mom’s after school program.

The incident I am about to relay to you is so dull and is of so little consequence that I’m surprised I remember it at all. I’m sure nobody else does. But it seems to have had a reverberating effect on my life.

You see, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe everything I was told, but most importantly, I wanted to believe that being a Christian made you good, whatever that means. (This is, perhaps, only an unconscious message. But it’s one of which my teachers should have been aware. After all, who has ever heard the phrase “good little atheist girl”?)

That is, until one random day after school. I was totally minding my own business, doing…something. Who knows? Then, out of nowhere, comes the sound of a good-sized kerfuffle. You know, the kind that indicates that there’s a fight brewing. I do what any hot-blooded Midwestern school kid would do: I ran over to watch.

I was shocked to find that I knew one of fighters. I don’t remember his name today, or even what he looked like. But I knew him then. He went to my church, which meant that he knew better.

I confronted him about it when the fight had been broken up. What possible need was there for violence? Christians don’t do things like that. He told me to shut up and go away.

I know it’s wrong to pin the wrongdoings of one individual – let alone the asshattery of a prepubescent boy – on an entire group. I don’t mean to do that here. I wasn’t so much hurt by the interaction as I was befuddled by it. It was one thing to mess up. We all sin, as I was told daily. But he didn’t even seem sorry. For some reason, this snapped some synapses to attention.

If you can claim to be a Christian while purposefully hurting someone, what was the point?

This is nothing. Even as I write this I can’t help but think how ridiculous it is that this one event – which is one of many embarrassing interactions with boys – should take up so much brain space. It doesn’t make sense.

In addition, this cannot have been the first time I was exposed some jerk-store. But this was the first time the contradiction had been so stark. I’m sure it had almost zero effect on me that the time, but experience clung to the inside of my brain case like a barnacle. Or maybe a stalactite is a better analogy; this was just the first limestone-saturated water droplet that became a stone monument to my disbelief.

I think it’s fair to say that who I am today is directly related to that particular crisis of faith. (Although it’s so insignificant, I hesitate to call it that.) The seam of my neatly hemmed in existence had been snipped, and slowly unraveled over the intervening years. But I managed to weave something even more fantastic in its place. The world became utterly knowable. There were things to learn and problems to solve. And those answers are much more interesting and wonderful and terrifying than what I had previously believed.

It took me years to fully come to terms with my lack of belief. Even though I never had a very strong faith, I believe I even mourned the loss. But I’m simply not that person. I have come through the other side more certain of who I am.

I am a person who will pay money to see Ira Glass live. I am a person who will stand in line for hours to get David Sedaris’ autograph. I am a person who will sit and watch it rain for hours.

I am not someone who dresses up for the Renaissance Festival (although I am the type of person to frequent such festivals). I am not the life of the party. And I am not someone who believes in the existence of God, or, indeed, even cares.

And I’m O.K. with that.

Do you have a story of how you rejected the woo? Tell us about it!

Photo credit: Wonderlane

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Mindy

Mindy

Mindy is an attorney and Managing Editor of Teen Skepchick. She hates the law and loves stars. You can follow her on Twitter and on Google+.

13 Comments

  1. March 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm —

    Thanks for sharing your story. You emphasized the overall triviality of the event that made you realize religion didn’t make sense — I actually think that may be quite common. I know that I had a similar epiphany over something even more trivial. I grew up in the bible belt, among Baptists, and as such, I accepted the idea that people who did bad thing like swearing, smoking, sex out of wedlock, etc., would go to hell. I was too young to want to do any of those things, so the harshness of that wasn’t really apparent (I was about 6 or 7).

    But then I went to see ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’. There was a scene in it where Indy and what’s-her-name (Willie?) shared a tent, and somehow I put two and two together: they weren’t married, and they had had sex (gasp!). I tried to picture Indiana Jones burning in hell, and I realized how completely silly that kind of punishment would be for an act that harmed no one. And that was pretty much the end of Christianity for me, because I couldn’t ever uncritically accept its claims any more, and they kept not making sense when scrutinized.

  2. March 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm —

    I’m a late arrival to the skeptic community and to atheism. I still have vague fears in the back of my head that pull me in the direction of agnosticism more often than not.

    I have to say, though, my first real severing of the ties with my Christianity was when I slept with my first boyfriend. I’d made a “pact” that I’d save myself for marriage. That pact went out the window after two months of dating. The thing was, I blamed myself for not being strong enough to stick with my promise. So instead of “asking for forgiveness”, I pretended God wasn’t there for the next… oh 10 years. And while pretending, I realized… he isn’t really there.

    Little things along the way added to my take down of my belief; mental abuse, post-pardom depression, loneliness. But I’d say that my reaction to that one decision I made is what started me on this path.

    And since I’ve discovered Skepchik and other such sites, I’ve continued to learn more about critical thinking and skepticism. So kudos to all of you who contribute to this site and others for making this a safe place for people like me to explore and learn without feeling scolded or foolish for not knowing.

  3. Hanna
    March 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm —

    Thanks for sharing your story. You emphasized the overall triviality of the event that made you realize religion didn’t make sense — I actually think that may be quite common. I know that I had a similar epiphany over something even more trivial. I grew up in the bible belt, among Baptists, and as such, I accepted the idea that people who did bad thing like swearing, smoking, sex out of wedlock, etc., would go to hell. I was too young to want to do any of those things, so the harshness of that wasn’t really apparent (I was about 6 or 7).

    But then I went to see ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’. There was a scene in it where Indy and what’s-her-name (Willie?) shared a tent, and somehow I put two and two together: they weren’t married, and they had had sex (gasp!). I tried to picture Indiana Jones burning in hell, and I realized how completely silly that kind of punishment would be for an act that harmed no one. And that was pretty much the end of Christianity for me, because I couldn’t ever uncritically accept its claims any more, and they kept not making sense when scrutinized.

  4. March 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm —

    Has anyone looked over the Woo Zoo? I’d love to see a Woo Zoo Review.

  5. April 21, 2011 at 10:44 am —

    Becoming Free

    Blame it on my parents.  They always told me to “think for yourself”.  I doubt they ever considered what would happen if I really did that. 

    Now, I suspect what they meant was, “Think what we tell you but do it in your own words.”  Too late.  When I was 13, I began to question everything and soon the total absurdity of religion became apparent. 

    Because I have been “encouraged” (forced) to read the bible several times, it was easy for me to see the contradictions in the book, what christians professed to believe, and how they really lived.

    When I refused to go with them to their church, they said they would “Make me go.” 

    I asked them, “How are you going to make me? How will forcing me to attend church change my mind?”  Already, their attitude was starting to harden me against everything else they would tell me.

    Their next idea was to have their minister talk to me.  I told them it was a waste of everyone’s time.  They persisted and had him come to the house to “Talk some sense into me.”  (as if they ever works for anyone)  After about 15 minutes, of him quoting the bible to me and me pointing out that he was either wrong in his quotes or showing him how it said something else in another place, he became very angry and told me I was going to hell.  I suspect it was because I knew the bible better than he did and was, at age 13, able to prove how ridiculous his arguments were.

    I told him, “If there is a Hell I’ll see you there.  Save me a nice place, OK?”  He said I was an impertinent, disrespectful child.  By then, I was angry myself and for the first time, I told a christian that he was a hypocrite, a liar, and a fool.  My parents insisted that I apologize.  I refused and left the room to a lot of yelling and threats.

    For the next four years, I heard about this at least once a week.  So the night I graduated high school, I left my parent’s home and didn’t see them again for well over a year.  By then, with the credits I had accumulated in high school and summer school,  I had completed a couple of years of college.  Fortunately, I was able to pay for this myself.  I was entering the army and wanted to try to make peace with them, but had to listen to the same old recriminations and arguments again. 

    The next time I saw them was two years later when I was getting married.  After several years of an on-again, off-again relationship they finally agreed to just not discuss it any more.  I’d like to say that worked, but  subtle hints slowly became outright condemnation.  Then I took a job transfer from Ohio to Arizona, so family meetings were rare enough to become occasions for something other than contention.

    What did I learn?  Even your family can turn against you if you refuse to share in their illusions.  There are times if you are to become your own person you must stand firm in what you know to be true.

  6. James Smith
    April 21, 2011 at 11:15 am —

    Becoming Free

    Blame it on my parents.  They always told me to “think for yourself”.  I doubt they ever considered what would happen if I really did that. 

    Now, I suspect what they meant was, “Think what we tell you but do it in your own words.”  Too late.  When I was 13, I began to question everything and soon the total absurdity of religion became apparent. 

    Because I have been “encouraged” (forced) to read the bible several times, it was easy for me to see the contradictions in the book, what christians professed to believe, and how they really lived.

    When I refused to go with them to their church, they said they would “Make me go.” 

    I asked them, “How are you going to make me? How will forcing me to attend church change my mind?”  Already, their attitude was starting to harden me against everything else they would tell me.

    Their next idea was to have their minister talk to me.  I told them it was a waste of everyone’s time.  They persisted and had him come to the house to “Talk some sense into me.”  (as if they ever works for anyone)  After about 15 minutes, of him quoting the bible to me and me pointing out that he was either wrong in his quotes or showing him how it said something else in another place, he became very angry and told me I was going to hell.  I suspect it was because I knew the bible better than he did and was, at age 13, able to prove how ridiculous his arguments were.

    I told him, “If there is a Hell I’ll see you there.  Save me a nice place, OK?”  He said I was an impertinent, disrespectful child.  By then, I was angry myself and for the first time, I told a christian that he was a hypocrite, a liar, and a fool.  My parents insisted that I apologize.  I refused and left the room to a lot of yelling and threats.

    For the next four years, I heard about this at least once a week.  So the night I graduated high school, I left my parent’s home and didn’t see them again for well over a year.  By then, with the credits I had accumulated in high school and summer school,  I had completed a couple of years of college.  Fortunately, I was able to pay for this myself.  I was entering the army and wanted to try to make peace with them, but had to listen to the same old recriminations and arguments again. 

    The next time I saw them was two years later when I was getting married.  After several years of an on-again, off-again relationship they finally agreed to just not discuss it any more.  I’d like to say that worked, but  subtle hints slowly became outright condemnation.  Then I took a job transfer from Ohio to Arizona, so family meetings were rare enough to become occasions for something other than contention.

    What did I learn?  Even your family can turn against you if you refuse to share in their illusions.  There are times if you are to become your own person you must stand firm in what you know to be true.

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