Escape from the Woo Zoo: How Someone Else’s Fight Told Me Who I Am

This is part of our Teen Skepchick series, Escape from the Woo Zoo, in which regular people tell stories of how they gave up unsubstantiated beliefs in favor of evidence and skepticism.

When I was young, my mom was in charge of the after school care across town, so I rode the bus from my school to her’s every weekday. There were people I knew, people I didn’t. There were also some people who went to my school. It wasn’t a bad setup, really. I got some homework done, ran around outside, forced to socialize with kids my own age. No. It wasn’t bad at all.

And it was here that I found my first piece of evidence that perhaps the world wasn’t what I had been taught.

It’s never easy to realize that you’re different from the people close to you. It’s that horrible, nagging feeling that nobody understands you, least of all the people who raised you and the people who have been your friends for the past decade. It’s lonely and a little bit terrifying.

I don’t mean to say that I am different in any material sense. I have no great talent or musical acumen. I suppose I have slightly above average intelligence, but nothing to give anyone any notice. My heart bleeds for every butterfly to hit a car windshield, both literally and metaphorically. But again, this is not entirely uncommon, even for my little town. I imagine it’s just something that happens to everyone: the realization that the person you are is not the same person everyone assumes you to be.

But let me back up.

I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic grade school. (I suspect I only stopped there because that was all my town had to offer.) I picture it as more or less the same as other grade schools. There were no nuns in habits with scary rulers. We just studied religion – complete with textbooks – every other day. (Also, we were only allowed to dress up as saints for Halloween. But that was probably just an offshoot of the religion thing.)

Religion class, while I’m sure included its fair share of Biblical story-telling, focused mostly on questions of ethics. Should Bill steal Sally’s apple? Should Janet pick a fight with Anthony? Except for the rules that pertained to sex – which I concluded had little relevance to my life then –  everything pretty much boiled down to one simple rule: don’t do anything that hurts someone (and an after-added corollary: except in defense of others.) Easy. Every Christian, as far as my first grade mind was concerned, had their own Hippocratic oath: do no harm. It totally never occurred to me that people would behave badly. On purpose.

I know. I was such a sheltered marshmallow.

Which brings me back to my years at my mom’s after school program.

The incident I am about to relay to you is so dull and is of so little consequence that I’m surprised I remember it at all. I’m sure nobody else does. But it seems to have had a reverberating effect on my life.

You see, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe everything I was told, but most importantly, I wanted to believe that being a Christian made you good, whatever that means. (This is, perhaps, only an unconscious message. But it’s one of which my teachers should have been aware. After all, who has ever heard the phrase “good little atheist girl”?)

That is, until one random day after school. I was totally minding my own business, doing…something. Who knows? Then, out of nowhere, comes the sound of a good-sized kerfuffle. You know, the kind that indicates that there’s a fight brewing. I do what any hot-blooded Midwestern school kid would do: I ran over to watch.

I was shocked to find that I knew one of fighters. I don’t remember his name today, or even what he looked like. But I knew him then. He went to my church, which meant that he knew better.

I confronted him about it when the fight had been broken up. What possible need was there for violence? Christians don’t do things like that. He told me to shut up and go away.

I know it’s wrong to pin the wrongdoings of one individual – let alone the asshattery of a prepubescent boy – on an entire group. I don’t mean to do that here. I wasn’t so much hurt by the interaction as I was befuddled by it. It was one thing to mess up. We all sin, as I was told daily. But he didn’t even seem sorry. For some reason, this snapped some synapses to attention.

If you can claim to be a Christian while purposefully hurting someone, what was the point?

This is nothing. Even as I write this I can’t help but think how ridiculous it is that this one event – which is one of many embarrassing interactions with boys – should take up so much brain space. It doesn’t make sense.

In addition, this cannot have been the first time I was exposed some jerk-store. But this was the first time the contradiction had been so stark. I’m sure it had almost zero effect on me that the time, but experience clung to the inside of my brain case like a barnacle. Or maybe a stalactite is a better analogy; this was just the first limestone-saturated water droplet that became a stone monument to my disbelief.

I think it’s fair to say that who I am today is directly related to that particular crisis of faith. (Although it’s so insignificant, I hesitate to call it that.) The seam of my neatly hemmed in existence had been snipped, and slowly unraveled over the intervening years. But I managed to weave something even more fantastic in its place. The world became utterly knowable. There were things to learn and problems to solve. And those answers are much more interesting and wonderful and terrifying than what I had previously believed.

It took me years to fully come to terms with my lack of belief. Even though I never had a very strong faith, I believe I even mourned the loss. But I’m simply not that person. I have come through the other side more certain of who I am.

I am a person who will pay money to see Ira Glass live. I am a person who will stand in line for hours to get David Sedaris’ autograph. I am a person who will sit and watch it rain for hours.

I am not someone who dresses up for the Renaissance Festival (although I am the type of person to frequent such festivals). I am not the life of the party. And I am not someone who believes in the existence of God, or, indeed, even cares.

And I’m O.K. with that.

Do you have a story of how you rejected the woo? Tell us about it!

Photo credit: Wonderlane



Mindy is an attorney and Managing Editor of Teen Skepchick. She hates the law and loves stars. You can follow her on Twitter and on Google+.

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  1. Fantastic article, Mindy!

    When I was a teenager I had a similar experience, but here the cruelty was aimed at me.

    My church’s youth group was camping on some retreat. We were swimming and someone kept untying by bikini top. There was lots of laughing from both girls and boys. Several were even older than me. I recall leaving the scene yelling that they certainly weren’t acting like Christians. I dealt with this type of treatment at school all the time. I suppose I didn’t expect it with people from church. I certainly didn’t enjoy any youth group activities after that–maybe I didn’t even attend any more.

    It took me a long time to realize that one’s religion didn’t determine the content of one’s character.

    I try to teach my daughter that treating people with respect is extremely important. She’s too young to call herself atheist yet, but I hope she will be a “good” one.

  2. I was a product of Catholic schooling until I was 11 years old … and at that ripe, old age I was thinking about the possibility of the priesthood.

    After my family moved and enrolled me in public school, in a town with a large Jewish population, I finally had a real basis for comparison and contrast. Plus, there was probably some real benefit to breaking the ritual of mandatory prayer and so forth. My natural shyness as a tween precluded me from attending the local church (my parents didn’t spend much time thinking about the rituals and such of religion), so things began “unraveling” from there.

  3. Awesome Mindy.

    When I was in high school we had a 1 period (40 mins) a week ‘Religious Studies’ class. Being the Aspie I am, I could not help but question how it was religious studies when it was totally about christian views and the bible and not about all religions and contrasting them into how we form some sort of ethical view of the world depending upon the randomness of our birth.

    Coming from Scot Protestants on my paternal side and stauch Anglicans on my maternal, I was sandwiched into an expectation that I would believe in and follow the views of my elders.

    Unfortunately, not much of the bible made sense to me. I had to question the inequities and downright contradictions and paradoxes I read in it. When I questioned the teacher presenting the class with these, I was basically told to shut up and listen. That made me question whether it was a ‘study’ class or just indoctrination or brainwashing into belief. That got me into a lot of trouble. I was sent to the Deputy Principal and asked to desist my trouble making (aka questioning). I didn’t. I kept asking pointed questions based upon my research of the bible which resulted in more visits. It was eventually suggested that I spend that period in the library doing other studies. The DP knew that I would as I basically lived in there anyway. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, I had had my own Epicurian Moment and knew there was no god.

    One day, I was bored as I’d read everything in it that interested me anyway, and wandered off to the local Council Library (he didn’t say which Library to spend the time in….). There I found D.T. Suzuki’s Essays In Zen Buddhism. I had a second moment of realisation and I remember laughing so hard I was crying.

    Distinct from the christian view of original sin and never being able to move beyond that to evolve spiritually to something more, here was a philosophy that basically said that you could, and that others had done it before. Better still, you could find your own path. Incredibly liberating for a young teen (IIRC 13yo) though with my difficult home life, I did not make my views clear to anyone else. I eschewed church and any other obvious signs of belief with a variety of excuses until I left home.

    I remained what I consider a Buddhist until a few years ago, even living in a Buddhist school for a couple of years and being a vegetarian for several because that was what I considered to be basic practice.

    Then came along that bastard Dawkins and ‘that’ book, which of course I read as soon as I could. He clearly had read my own thoughts and summarised them as I would never have been able to do. Even the tone sounded like me.

    Since then I have accepted that these is no god, and finally gotten over it.

  4. Great column. I’ve been an athiest since I was old enough to think about it, so I’m always interested in peoples accounts of how they came to the bright side.

    My mother went to catholic school from first grade through 12th, then lived in a catholic dorm at the University of Toronto in the fifties. As a result she’s a confirmed athiest. One of her stories to your point was the time someone was writing offensive notes about the nuns in the message book by the phone. (The dorm had one phone, in the entrance hall). Somehow the finger got pointed at her, and they’d actually started the process to throw her out, when one of the other students was caught in the act. That girl was one of the nuns favorites, so that was the end of it.

  5. Recent story from my daughters, ages 12 and 16. We were at a pirate-themed event at our local UU church, and as good Pastafarians, we went in full pirate regalia. My youngest had added some bling to her outfit, including a necklace with a purple stone in it. Some well-intentioned woo-pusher came up to them and said “Oooh – amethyst! What crystal energies does amethyst give you? ” My older daughter replied “It’s a rock.” Woo-lady pressed on with “Well in some beliefs…” My youngest interrupted with “In our belief, it’s a rock.” I’m so proud of them!

  6. Loved reading your article, Mindy :).

    How did I escape the woo? Here’s the little series of events that led me here^^:

    There were a number of reasons that caused me to doubt the existence of God:

    1) The fact that ‘we’ were right and had the truth, and everyone else was wrong and damned for it. I remember asking these questions when I was little. >What about people whose parents are hindu? Everyone believes what they believe is right, just as much as I believe. >What about the people who have never (and never will) hear of Jesus? I used to come up with all sorts of scenarios like ‘what about a tribe in the middle of an inaccessible jungle that noone but themselves know about?’ The answer given was that people who had never heard the truth can’t be judged for what they don’t know, so they were ‘safe’. I then argued that maybe people would be better off if we didn’t send missionaries out to ‘enlighten’ them lest they make the wrong decision!

    2) The fact that I was doing a science degree at university, and a lot of the ‘mysteries’ of the world had very rational explanations. A lot of what made me believe the bible was that the events seemed to line up with nature and history. I really believed in creationism (after all, you can’t just cherry pick your way through the scriptures taking what you like. If I was going to believe it was God’s word, I had to believe that it was infallible and just as God intended it to be. I was either going to believe it all, or believe none of it). I had made the decision in my later years of high school, that if science could prove that creationism was wrong and the evolution was right, there was no way that I could believe in the rest of the bible. At university, evolution was a core theme as I was majoring in zoology and ecology. I had always taken natural selection as fact because it was blatantly obvious when you looked at the world. But, I very much doubted macroevolution. Through my studies, I realised how flimsy and wrong the arguments were that the creationists made to disprove evolution. Science taught me how to think sceptically.

    3) The fact that I was in a fundamental sect. If I had stayed with my ‘Anglican-on-the-side’ kind of religion, I’d have probably never felt the pressure to be on one side of the fence or the other. Before I decided to be serious about God, I used to think of him and pray to him, but all I really knew about him was from Sunday school. I could quite happily (and easily) partition him off when I wanted to. One day, I jumped in feet first because as I mentioned previously, I was either going be all in or all out (God doesn’t like ‘lukewarm’, remember? :P). I really began to study the bible for myself, in all its detail. The deeper I got in to everything, the more questions I began to have. I was always able to find some excuse, though, and put the doubts to the back of my mind. One thing I have learnt from this experience is that there is no way that you can argue about religion with a believer. This is because logical thought and reason are left behind, blinded by that love (or loyalty?) that you have for God. I’ve been there. You can always find some excuse.

    When I moved away to university, away from the people I knew, the church, the expectations, it was like things slowly began to become clearer. You know that story about how when something is so close to you face that it fills your entire field of view? You don’t realise that the image is blurry until it is moved away, and all of a sudden your entire world opens up. I can’t believe the kinds of things that I used to believe. Many of them seem so stupid now, but I honestly couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see that then.

    It took my first year and a half at uni before I felt like I wasn’t going to get struck down by lightening for even entertaining the doubts I had. By my fourth year, I felt pretty comfortable with the conclusion I had arrived at – that the bible wasn’t true, and God wasn’t real. I still couldn’t vocalise those thoughts, however. Two and a half years on, I can actually write this without feeling bitterness and resentment, and can talk about God (or my lack of him) in casual conversation.

    Thus ends my spiel!! Sorry, I got a little carried away :P I feel like such a weight has been lifted off my shoulders :) Thanks!

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