Evangelical Christians have a phenomenon known as the Conversion Story, and these stories are used to illustrate how one used to live an empty life of sin before they prayed a bunch and “found” Jesus. The more gruesome the story, the better the conversion. Similarly, I have a Skeptic Conversion Story about my experiences with religion and how I managed to break free to embrace science and reason.
I grew up in the Bible Belt (for non-Americans, this is the ultra-religious southeastern part of the US, also known as the Stroke Belt for our love of fried cuisines). Religion used to be part of my daily life, whether I liked it or not. My household wasn’t overly religious, although we went to church regularly and prayed before dinner (which is how I learned to pray in less than 5 seconds). In my town, there was a church on every corner and giant crosses in people’s yards declaring JESUS SAVES. Occasionally I would pick up what looked like a $20 bill on the street to find out it was just a cruelly-placed Bible verse. But I thought there were certain safe-havens of science, like my doctor’s office. I mean, there were still Bibles in the waiting area, but to me that was normal.
I had been seeing the same doctor who had delivered me as a baby, so I trusted his authority. When I was 18 years old, I had a pre-college physical exam and my mom asked the doctor if I needed a gynecological exam too. He looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “That depends. Is Mary planning on having sex before marriage?” If Mom wasn’t there, I would’ve said something different, but instead I just said, “No.”
This interaction made me uncomfortable, but I knew another young women who didn’t get her first exam until she was married (at the age of 18), so I figured this was also normal. But in the back of my mind I made a note to change doctors once I moved away to college and find one who would give me something other than a “pre-marital” exam.
A few years later, I was about to graduate college and I wouldn’t be on my parents’ (or any) insurance for a while, so while I was visiting my hometown I decided to schedule a physical just to make sure I didn’t need any last minute medical procedures while I was uninsured. I remembered the uncomfortableness with my childhood doctor, so made sure that I was seeing a different doctor that day.
The physical was uneventful, except for when the physician made a remark that I had gotten my good looks from my mom (good thing I had a paper thin gown on!). A week later, I received my results in the mail and as I nervously opened the bulky letter a badly-photocopied pamphlet fell out. The words on the front said: Where will you spend eternity?
(Click on the pics for the pamphlet in its fullsize glory)
I was thinking, “Oh shit, what showed up in my scans?” But there was nothing, I was a healthy young woman. I scanned through the rest of the pamphlet and it was the typical Christian bullshit about saving my soul, except it was from my Doctor’s office.
Then I saw the office motto: Serving Christ Through Medicine. The whole time I had been seeing religious doctors and I had no idea—until it dawned on me that maybe it wasn’t normal for a waiting room to be full of Bibles and children’s Bible Story books. Or how it was weird that Veggie Tales was the only DVD they would allow in the children’s section. Or how the doctor’s office played the local preaching radio station instead of generic music. Or all the prayers framed on the walls.
I asked my parents if they had ever received such a pamphlet with their physical results, and they said no. So I thought back to anything I may have said, and all I can think of is that I had mentioned that I had a health exam at a Planned Parenthood. Ding ding ding! Clearly my choice of cheap healthcare indicated what a dirty hell-bound whore that I was.
I never took any official action about the pamphlet. I was young and I didn’t know of anything I could do at that point. It’s been almost seven years and my childhood doctor has since retired, although the practice remains. I have told others about my experience to at least warn them about it, but most people in my hometown don’t care and in fact would like a doctor who prays with them before an examination. But the experience has made me angrier over the years and is part of the reason I don’t live anywhere near my home state.
It wasn’t just this one moment that made me a skeptic, atheist, or feminist, but that experience of being told by a doctor that I was going to hell added to my Conversion Story and galvanized my developing beliefs. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. If any of you have been to doctors who have used religion in their practice, I would love to hear your experiences in the comments.