Kids are sponges. They’ll believe anything you tell them, because they’re hard-wired to learn as much as they can about the world around them in the shortest amount of time.
We adults sometimes take pleasure in exploiting this vulnerability–like the Calvin and Hobbes strips where Calvin asks his dad how something works, and his dad gives him an outrageous explanation that is humorously false to the reader, yet Calvin hangs on his every word with wide-eyed amazement at how the world works.
Part of raising children is sharing our version of the world with them. We do our best to tell them how the world works, and they believe it, until they experience it for themselves. There comes a moment when they start to question what they’ve been taught. There’s probably a psychological term for it–when an adolescent first discovers that the world isn’t what she thought it was.
This is how it is with religion: Children raised in religious homes are indoctrinated and raised according to religious teachings. Children learn, through various texts and teachings, how the world works–how it was created, why we’re here, what happens when we die, etc…
They are given all the answers in terms they can understand. And, when they begin to mature intellectually–when they start to question what they’ve been taught–they are either encouraged to scrutinize and explore their faith on their terms or they are told that doubt is a “test of faith” that can be passed or failed.
I’m not here to argue which coming-of-age method is better (though I have my personal opinion, which I think the majority probably share). I’m here to share my experience and to look back on all the conflicting information that was fed to me by all the different adults in my life–all the well-meaning adults with all the different doctrines and all the different explanations.
My hometown is very religious. To this day, there are many evangelicals who believe it is their life’s work to put the fear of God into as many children and adolescents as possible.
I attended the Methodist church growing up. It was a comfortable, welcoming, friendly place to learn about God, without sneaky agenda or aggressive technique. We liked potlucks, pie-throwing contests, musical gatherings, mission-based youth projects, and camping. None of these extra-curricular activities were used to rope people in so we could then give them a pamphlet, a Bible, and a scripted message about God. In fact, as a child, I wasn’t even taught what to say to someone who didn’t believe.
But, for some of my friends, I wasn’t Christian enough. I didn’t believe the right things strongly enough. I was too ambiguous about whether everything in the Bible was literally true. I wasn’t trying to convert people at every turn. I wasn’t sharing my Christian joy enough.
And this confused me. My church seemed friendly and fun. Who wouldn’t want to go to church?? But I had adults from other churches telling me I should be trying harder to convert my friends. I should be going to the right church with the right people who would lift me up.
It all started to fall apart for me by 8th grade. In 8th grade, we switched churches, and I volunteered at Vacation Bible School, where we taught little kids about Pharaoh, Moses, and those pesky Egyptians. We sang delightful songs about all the first-born babies being righteously killed, and we played games about the army of Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea:
“Can you make it through the sea kids before the water collapses and drowns you? Run as fast as you can!”
High school was even more of an eye-opener. I saw friends congratulated for recruiting the most people to church. I saw others break down, cry, and accept Jesus at Christian music concerts. I saw adults and teens alike hero-worship a teacher who taught religious doctrine and conservative politics under the guise of US history. I saw a baccalaureate ceremony turn into a fiery speech for anyone in the audience who hadn’t yet found Jesus (congrats graduates, you’ve earned yourself an alter call!). And people stood up and applauded for minutes.
I remember writing on the back of one my test papers in US History, that, thanks to this class, I had realized I wasn’t a Christian. My teacher wrote back saying that he hoped I found the Truth one day. I can’t imagine how my writing must have crushed him–after all that hard work he’d put into indoctrinating us. He was in the habit of gaining converts, not losing those who had been Christian once.
I never felt Godly enough. It was like there was some sort of secret among the Christian elite that I was not privy to. Like I had somehow missed the God train, and I was too far gone to be recovered. I had been raised in the wrong church–I’d already been exposed to all of it, so my Christian friends couldn’t exploit my vulnerability with the life-changing newness of the Gospel.
And I wondered to myself why I couldn’t just believe it all. Why couldn’t I just believe everything in the Bible and make it my mission in life to convert all my friends. Why couldn’t I just, unquestioningly, unfalteringly believe it.
I couldn’t do it. Maybe I was too far gone. Maybe my eyes had been opened to the conflicting doctrine, the arguing adults, the murky waters of ulterior motives, the greyness of the world. I discovered that the world wasn’t black and white, and there was no going back. I discovered that right and wrong were subjective, that good and bad were debatable. There was no clear answer to me then, and to this day, there is still no clear answer. And I thank God for it.
I have no answers. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what God is. And I’m convinced that all those people who tried to indoctrinate me, who tried to convert me, and who finally gave up don’t know either. They have their explanation for things, and it’s good for them. It gives them hope, comfort, and purpose in life, and that is a beautiful thing.
I am at peace with my ambiguity. I’m at peace with my vagueness . I’m at peace with my unknowable, mysterious, unconvincing God, who is ever out of reach, but who is, nevertheless, there.
Now how do I indoctrinate my future children with that explanation?