It has become a common trope that religion and the belief in a God are the result of a mental illness and that insult has been hurled at theists quite often in recent years. I can't say if that's true or not. I don't have the psychological training to make an assessment like that but I can say that in my own life mental illness played a role in my time as a Christian. Although the further I get from those years of frustration and pain the more I think that for me it was likely the mental illness that created the need for the belief in a God and not the other way around, as many like to claim. In the end, at my lowest point, I believe it was my own skepticism properly applied that allowed me to recognize that there was something wrong and my eventual atheism that allowed me to rise above the crashing tides of depression and anxiety.
My atheism saved my soul.
A Sunday Morning Awakening
I wasn't raised in a religious home. In fact, I can't think of being exposed to religion at all as a young child except for two memories. First were the evangelical shows on Sunday mornings that so often got in the way of my cartoon viewing. These are important to a 6 year old and I was lucky enough to grow up with episodes of The Thunderbirds and Battle of the Planets to compensate for the enormous drag of puerile shows like The Smurfs and the all-time worst cartoon, The Mighty Hercules. (Seriously. If you've never seen this one it's worthwhile going to YouTube and looking up clips from this piece of shit.) Being exposed to anime at such a young age freed my mind and allowed my imagination to run wild. It also produced my first real crush on a girl. At 7 or 8 years old I was already keenly aware of how alluring a young woman in a mini dress with thigh high boots and a bitchin' helmet can be.
(photo credit :http://elias-chatzoudis.deviantart.com/)
It might also explain my affinity for cosplay women today.
Preachers Expose Themselves to Me
Anyways, before those cartoons would air on Sunday mornings I would have to sit through various Christian preachers standing at the pulpit and bellowing at the top of their lungs. I can't say that I remember understanding what it was that was being preached but I do remember how strange it was for hundreds of people to choose to be in an audience while an old man yelled at them for stuff that they had done wrong. It was also bewildering that this would air on TV as well. "Who would choose to watch this," I would think while I played with my Transformer in my pajamas. I can still feel the roughness of that old brown flecked muslin-like fabric that upholstered that downstairs couch.
That has to say something about how little these men held my interest. I would rather run my fingernails over the ribs of the couch's fabric, making soft zipper like noises, than pay any attention to these men. And it was always men. This is around 1980 and there were far fewer women preaching back then and if there was one that would routinely be on TV shows doing it I certainly don't remember it. It was always some old grey haired guy, far older than my grandpa but with far more hair than he, perfectly styled like a helmet of hairspray protecting each strand from the violent jerking of his head as he'd slam his book on the wooden pulpit before him. I suppose that he looked this way to inspire trust in those that were watching him, but even then I didn't trust men like this. There was something fishy about a man that claimed to know more than everyone else in the room and the only thing stranger was the number of people sitting, listening and never challenging a word that came out of his mouth.
That Book In Your Hotel Room
My other exposure to religion as a child was when the Gideons showed up and offered everyone a free book. And it was a tiny little book. The tiniest book I had ever seen and the pages of paper within were so thin that I could see through them. It wouldn't be until high school that I would realize that those pages would be perfect for using to roll up a certain plant for consumption. The book had a red, leather-like cover with the title in plain, gold embossed letters: New Testament and Psalms. I was a prolific reader at this point and had already worked my way through the entire series of Encyclopedia Brown series and, of course, the Choose Your Own Adventure series. As I looked at this book in my hand I wondered why, if this was the "New" Testament and I read an awful lot that I had never read or even heard of the "Old" Testament. And what the hell was a testament or a p-salm? I tried reading through this gift on a few occasions that year but found it to be bland and contradictory. I had gone and looked up the word testament. The word seemed to mean that it was a final, definitive version of the thoughts and wishes of a person that was to be passed on to those that would be left behind after he was dead. But there were 4 different versions of this supposed "definitive", historical guy and they all contradicted each other. I eventually put the book down and at age eight I had officially critiqued my first reading of the Bible. I turned instead to The Hobbit and began my journey from the Shire into a world of far superior storytelling.
A Round Peg in a Square Hole2
This was also the time in my life when I truly began to feel different from everyone else. I was a smart kid and I could finish my work far before the rest of my classmates did. I had begun reading before my first day of kindergarten. My mother still likes to tell the story of me sitting on her lap at the age of five reading the TV Guide to her. When grade one came around my teacher tried to encourage my reading abilities and would have me read to the class on Friday afternoons rather than her doing it as she had always done before. I was also far ahead of most of the class when it came to my math skills. By the time grade three came around I had already been put into an accelerated math curriculum and in grade 4 they skipped me a grade in math all together.
I had also been having a hard time making friends and fitting in. Like most kids I began to make up stories about my life, telling lies in an attempt to fit in with the other kids that had the latest gadgets or the best TV's or the nicest houses. I would get busted all the time but rather than learn the lesson that lying wasn't the way to get people to like you or help you fit in, I learned the lesson that I just had to do it better. Get busted less often. Cover my tracks. I was on the outside of most of the cliques that had begun to form and was feeling more and more left out. I was ready to do anything, say anything to get myself back into the groups that I could only watch from the outside.
Poor and Panicking
My family didn't have a lot of money when I was young and for a time at this point in my life we were living off of my father’s unemployment insurance and the small amount of cash that my mom could bring in. I'm not saying that we ever did without or went hungry but we certainly didn't have the nicest cars, the newest and coolest clothes or the newest TV. I didn't receive an allowance but if I really wanted something I could ask for it and if it was reasonable, I would get it. I had a couple GI Joe action figures while my friends had nearly all of them. My parents did the best they could and gave to us kids before they would ever give to themselves.
It was at this time that all of the things pushing against me in the world would overwhelm me and at 8 years old I suffered my first panic attack.