Me and religion go way back. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. ((My husband was raised Christian Scientist. We are an alien pair.))
Yeah, I know.
From the time I was born, I was immersed. By the time I was eight, I would go up to doors by myself to preach, the way Witnesses do on Saturday mornings. I got permission to go alone as soon as I could, since having others there made me more nervous. There were times the practice bothered me–I hated running into classmates that way–but times it didn’t. Either way, it was just part of my life.
I was baptized at 11 years old. To become baptized as a Witness, you have to answer a series of questions demonstrating your understanding of the teachings–not a big deal for a bright kid who’d spent about 10 hours a week exposed; you also sign a paper and take an oath dedicating your life to the service of Jehovah. They didn’t have an age requirement to get baptized; the idea was you had to be mature enough the church elders (i.e. minister) opted you had a mature understanding of “the Truth.” ((They hate it when you call it a “church.” Oh well.))
Now, becoming “Dedicated” didn’t mean that much to me at 11. I was younger than most, who tended to do it early to mid-teens. (If someone hadn’t done the deed by their late teens, members of the congregation would start to look at them a little askance. Question their commitment. Think of them as immature at best, or potentially marked as a “bad association” to be avoided by serious Christians.)
Me? I liked being a prodigy , I guess. My dad was an elder and the family was deeply faithful. It was all I knew; it was expected of me at some point, and as far as I knew (at freakin’ 11), it was the right path. I went to a convention at a sports arena, was dunked in a cattle watering tub by some old guy I’d never met, and my mom took pictures. I didn’t even know enough to be self-conscious parading around in my bathing suit in front of the crowd. Heck, I was proud.
The prepubescent decision came back to bite me in the arse when I was 19. Officially, I was thrown out for smoking cigarettes. My rebellious youth, huh? ((I swear to God, this is probably a subconscious reason why I’m loathe to quit smoking. One could say smoking saved my life.)) In reality, I was expelled because I couldn’t bring myself to lie blatantly enough to allow claim I still believed.
But the epiphany was borne from title of a Watchtower article: “The Dangers of Independent Thinking.” The argument was that followers should not question the Organization, who took their authority from God. It created confusion and dissension among the ranks.
The whole concept made me shudder–bugged me all the way down to my DNA. Truth stands up to scrutiny. Right triumphs through reason, not despite of reason. I was willing to accept being told what clothing I could wear, what movies I could see, what company I could keep, and what I would be doing on Saturday mornings, but NOT what I could think. There I drew a hard line.
So as a doubter just a little too honest about it, I was booted. If you’re not baptized, getting kicked out doesn’t mean much. But if you are, you are “Disfellowshipped,” and it means that pretty much everybody you’ve ever known shuns you. Immediate family get to decide, but others are supposed to avoid all personal interaction. Since you’re strongly discouraged from making connections outside the organization, you can see where this is an issue.
I had three older brothers to whom I considered myself close. Each came to visit me individually, intervention style, to tell me if I didn’t change my course they’d no longer consider me their sister. It was brutal, but I didn’t change my course. How could I? I’m not a liar.
My parents never quit talking to me, which I’m glad for. I now hear from one of my brothers every decade or so. My family believes I’m going to be destroyed at an any-second-now Armageddon–where the good people will be granted a perfect, illness-free eternal life in paradise–but people like me, without the “right heart condition,” will be obliterated from the face of the Earth. Cheery, huh?
There were a few years there, you could say I was bitter. For a while, I thought of the organization as a cult, but I’ve downgraded my assessment to high-control religious group. They use isolation and social pressure to keep the flock in line. I am sometimes sad at the loss of my family relationships, but in a choice between those relationship and integrity, I choose integrity. I’m not sorry. I’ve had a better life because of it.
My concept of a higher power has waffled over their years as well, from believer to atheist (after we lost custody) to agnostic to where I am today–a believer in non-traditional concept of “God” as the sum total of all universal energy. While some people may consider this flaky, the upside is that most Christians (or atheists, for that matter), aren’t threatened by the metaphysical stuff. Occasionally you’ll find one that tells you you’re going to Hell or are demon-possessed or something (i.e. the Witness view), but usually, it’s not an issue. I’m glad.
While it would be fair to say I’m not a big fan of organized religion, I don’t begrudge it to anybody else. For me, the higher principle in play is freedom of belief, not which set you choose. I don’t have an emotional need to push others in to believing what I do. Hell–the concept of defining my own beliefs has shaped my life.
I just ask the same courtesy be extended to me.