The Atheism of a Preacher’s Kid

sarahThis is an article written for the Freethinker (Jan 09 issue) by Sarah Trachtenberg, a freelance writer and amateur stand-up comedian in Boston. She has been published in several national magazines in the US and Canada. She is currently working on a book about the personal experiences of atheists in America, Not My God. Visit Sarah’s blog here.

At age nine, Janet prayed to forgive the man who sexually abused her, an enormous test of her faith. Her Christian background encouraged her to forgive him. Praying did not help, but what did help was when she had nightmares in which she killed her enemies. “My brain avenged me,” she says, calling her nightmares a healing defense mechanism.

The molester, a camp counselor and children’s book author, sexually abused hundreds of children, including Janet. Her father, a preacher, despite warmth and good intentions, did not know how to respond when this ugliness reared its head. Like every little girl, she wanted her father to be angry at the offender and protect her, but her father was “never that person”.

She did not testify at the trial, feeling too angry. Raised to believe that God must have a plan for her, she thought God had allowed the sexual abuse, but did not know why it happenedto her. It took her years to sort it out. Her father couldn’t reconcile that such a bad thing had happened to his daughter since it didn’t fit with his concept of God’s rewards and punishments.

Janet asked her father if people like the sex offender could still go to heaven, and he said yes, which didn’t make sense to her:

As a kid, I thought of heaven as a place with rainbows and unicorns. Child molesters shouldn’t get in.

Her father said that if bad people accepted Jesus with their last dying breath, they got into heaven.

You could be a horrible person your whole life. This seemed wrong to me. What justice system is this? Part of the comfort of religion is that bad people will go to hell, and good people will get rewarded.

As a teenager, Janet dated a boy who was abusive to her, and again, her father knew about it and did not act. When something was bothering him, he went into a room, closed the door, and prayed, while she wanted him to talk and deal with situations directly. She found his passive aggression very frustrating. Both abusive incidents had a huge impact on Janet’s belief system, her concepts of good and bad, trust and deceit, and the realization that her father was not a hero.

Originally from Maine, Janet is in her 30s and lives in New York with her husband. She works in retail and is realizing her goal of being a professional musician.

Janet was a “PK” (preacher’s kid), whose father was a Protestant Methodist minister who went to seminary as a young man; his own father was a minister, as well. Instead of belonging to a single ministry, he filled in at various churches.

He traveled around New England working as a resort minister at ski lodges, starting services in resort towns, and Janet and her sister enjoyed skiing when they tagged along on his travels. In some ways, Janet was very proud of him: he was a cheerful, warm and supportive preacher who comforted the sick, helped the needy, and was a very loving father. But some of his views were callous and unsympathetic, leaving Janet ambivalent about her feelings towards him.

Her parents divorced when Janet was four. Her father didn’t believe a woman should work outside the home and held that wives should obey their husbands, conflicting with Janet’s mother, who wanted to work, or at least have the option.

While her father was “born-again”, her mother came from a Catholic family, but was veering away from Catholicism, saying that the Protestant God was “nicer”.  She did not want her children raised Catholic, and raised Janet and Janet’s sister from her subsequent marriage as Protestant. (Janet’s father officially adopted her half-sister.)

Janet and her mother’s family went to a liberal church where she sang in choir and participated in the youth group. She enjoyed Sunday school and the liberal atmosphere, which did not include yelling about fire and brimstone. It was a positive experience and Janet had trouble giving it up later.

As a child, Janet thought much of the Bible was meant to be interpreted rather than taken literally. Her mother encouraged her to ask questions and even encouraged her to experiment with other churches. Despite this liberalism, no one presented the option of not going to church at all, nor did it occur to Janet. Probably this is the case for many American kids.

Janet’s father, though divorced from her mom, was still at times very involved with his kids. He would get together with his two daughters most weekends and holidays, but since weekends with him were his working hours (Sundays), he didn’t always give his children his full attention.

Sometimes seeing him was good, but other times Janet and her sister felt that they were just in his way. Her dad’s religion often proved an obstacle. “God was first, work second, family third” to Janet’s father, a sentiment he expressed to his family. Janet notes that the statement was reflective of the Bible, in which Jesus told his followers to leave their families to join him.

Janet thought that God was selfish since she wanted to spend time with her dad, who was busy writing sermons, checking on people in hospitals, and praying. Often, he would go into a room, close the door, and pray for hours at a time. On the plus side, his absence did allow Janet to bond with her sister, with whom she otherwise did not get along, since during his time alone they only had each other.

Their father told them that he wanted to see them more often, but his work demands trumped this. As the girls got older, Janet’s sister rebelled against the church, having lost interest in visiting their father.

Janet’s maternal grandmother, who was “not a fan of dad”, described him to Janet’s mother:

He was too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.

Her mother quoted this to Janet when, as a teenager, she couldn’t understand why her father always put his work first.

When Janet was 15, her father was witnessing (trying to convert people). Upon meeting a young gay man dying of AIDS, he told the patient that it was his fault and God was punishing him for being gay.

The preacher warned him to accept Jesus’s salvation before he died. Janet couldn’t believe that her father would be so thoughtless to a man dying of a painful disease, but her father was proud of himself, unaware of the pain he caused. But Janet, still a Christian at that time, thought it was the most awful thing she had ever heard.

Similarly, when sponsoring Janet in a walk for AIDS, he commented, “Well, that’ll take care of the gays”. She could not understand the paradox of a warm, loving man being so callous.

Janet gradually detached herself from Christianity during her 20s as she learned more about the Bible and read about how biblical stories were lifted from other mythologies, such as Greco-Roman. Noting that religions could not all be correct, she came to the realization that one’s religion is the result of the nation of birth and who one’s parents were. As a child, she avoided reading Revelations, “the unpleasant stuff”, and as an adult understood that people were cherry-picking the parts that they liked from the Bible.

At 22, Janet still believed in God, but was no longer going to church. Janet’s father wanted to know if, at 22, she was sleeping over at her boyfriend’s apartment, hoping that she was not having premarital sex. When she told him it was none of his business, he said that must mean that she was not a virgin. He told her that he would be very sad if he went to heaven and did not see her there. He wanted to save her soul and was very disappointed, gently telling her that she was going to hell.

After that exchange, she didn’t speak to him for months.

I felt like a good person. If I felt guilty, that was between me and God, not my father.

When she was seriously questioning the existence of God at 25, she mentioned to her father that she was not going to church anymore. He asked her outright if she accepted Jesus, and she said

Not anymore.

Janet discussed atheism with her husband, an atheist, and her mother. But despite her lack of faith and anger at religion – particularly its hypocrisy and greed – Janet couldn’t call herself an “atheist”. She instead called herself agnostic.

Then last year, walking in the snow in Boston with her husband one evening, Janet looked at the stars, and “just saw stars”: “I didn’t think of it as heaven. I thought, oh, they’re just stars, but they’re still amazing.” She had been reading Hitchens and Dawkins, watching related videos on YouTube, and was interested in rational thought.

She talked about this with her mother, who had been thinking the same way, describing her own feelings as agnostic, even though she had been in organized religion for years.

It was fun for Janet to share that moment with her mother, but she mourned the loss of religion, feeling lost. No longer could she believe in heaven, and along with it, the comfort of believing that deceased family members were there, and she would see them again one day. She had to accept that all she could do was to live with the memories of her loved ones.

On the other hand, she was relieved that God couldn’t see you all the time. She describes losing God as liberating, freeing herself from the control of religion, and embracing humanity and her conscience.

I was no longer feeling constantly judged. I no longer felt God was always looking over my shoulder, or that I needed to apologize.

She has not yet told her father that she is an atheist. The closest she came was writing a song called A New Belief, which she professionally recorded and played for her father. Its lyrics were about trying to find reality in a confusing world in which she was raised with a belief system she was now questioning.

When her father said the song bothered him, she said it was about how she was trying to figure out what was going on. He said he knew she was against organized religion and was not a Christian. Janet says that if he knew she was an atheist, he would probably pray for her, thinking he failed to save her soul and that she was going to hell.

She does not believe that coming out to him would do any good, saying it would do nothing except hurt him. For this reason, her father is the only person to whom she isn’t “out”.

Janet is proud that she managed to get through her abusive situations and their aftermath and is in a wonderful relationship now. Despite his loving and amiable personality, Janet asks herself why, if her father is basking in God, he is not happier. In truth, he is often depressed. “It never occurred to him to not follow a religion,” says Janet.

Many people who follow religion believe that it cures people of depression and hopelessness, and often ask atheists how they can get out of bed in the morning. But for Janet, being free of God has proved a positive experience.

Living in the moment is more relevant now that I’m not heavenly-minded, so life as an atheist seems far more important. I have come to celebrate that, rather than mourn the loss of my faith.