“No thank you, we’re atheists,” I respond with a smile to yet another invitation to church. It happens a lot here in southeastern Missouri.
I wasn’t always an atheist. For many years I was what you might call a hyper-fundamentalist, but I wasn’t always that, either. My parents did the church thing for a couple of years when I was very young. Our family moved from Vermont to Missouri when I was ten. My mother, though she believed in God, was quite put off by fundamental Christians in this area. She encouraged me to seek my own truths, to find my own way, but as her way was the Bible I guess I felt mine should be too. I didn’t take it very seriously until a friend invited me to church when I was eighteen. By then, I was definitely beginning to find my own way, and my own way included getting as much attention as I could from men, both young and old. When I became pregnant, shame and grief overwhelmed me, but the church had answers. I could be washed clean, they said. Sins forgiven, they said. I bought it, hook, line, and purple jelly worm.
I was able to convince the father of my child to marry me, and we tied the knot a month before my daughter was born. Both the birth and the marriage were on the table as the only way out of my deep shame. It didn’t occur to me to handle it any other way. Only one person, an internet friend in Australia, suggested abortion, and I was mad at him for days. For better or worse, my husband and I moved in together and began a family. For the first time in my life, my mind was filled with visions for my future. (Prior to this I had lived happily in each moment—such lack of thought thrusts many young people into this situation.) Life would be much like that of my parents, with Mom at home and Dad hard-working, together raising happy children and enjoying the poverty version of a rich and full life, with Kenny Loggins singing “Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey,” in the background. I was so grateful to God for orchestrating this, for creating something beautiful out of my sin.
Such was the beginning of fourteen years of giving an imaginary credit for everything in my life.
I’m a loyal, steadfast person—stubborn, if you will. When I turn my mind to something, I give it my all. I put the past behind me and put everything into faith, motherhood, and wifehood. I studied the Bible, prayed, attended church; I engaged with my daughter and learned what good parenting looked like. I spoiled my husband with hearty meals, hearty encouragement, hearty sex, and a clean house.
But my husband didn’t take to faith and home like I did. The more settled I became, the more unsettled he became. He doted on our little girl, but soon he dropped any religious pretense he’d donned in the beginning of our relationship in order to keep me with him. Now, he had little attention for me and began going out. Later, I learned that he drank, did drugs, and slept around.
Before long I was pregnant with #2. I was happy with this. I’d seen firsthand what it was like to be an only child. I wanted my little girl to have at least one companion. But, it was difficult when my husband was away, when the money was tight because he’d lost another job. I leaned heavily on God and on church friends. I struggled to practice forgiveness, patience, love, but I’d given my life to God, it was no longer my own. His will be done.
After we had our third child, my husband came around and began to put forth some effort. It was an improvement, but it wasn’t enough. We struggled in every way and had little going for us.
I trusted that nothing in my life was happening without God’s notice, that his perfect will was being done. I read the scriptures and meditated on them. “I know the plans I have for you,” the Lord said. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.” Yes! It was all in his hands.
We visited churches occasionally, studied with friends, but for the most part I studied on my own (my husband preferred watching movies). It didn’t matter what any teacher said, I only cared what the scripture said.
I had become quite certain that since I belonged to God, bought with the blood of Jesus, this included my reproductive system. My husband, as usual, had no opinion, so we continued to welcome pregnancies. We had a child every odd-numbered year we were together. Seven children total. For twelve years, I was either pregnant or nursing an infant. My youngest is now potty-trained, but to think that I’ve spent fourteen years changing diapers!
The marriage was rough—lonely, one-sided. He didn’t like to work, and he only enjoyed the religion for the controversy. He loved to be different from other people. I felt like I lived with seven, sweet children and a rebellious teenager. The responsibilities of raising the children, keeping the house, keeping our meager finances in order, finding my husband work; it all fell to me. I was starting to suffer depression. I drew upon my strength in God to keep things together for my children, but I had no hope for myself. I often blamed myself for our sad marriage; maybe I wasn’t pretty enough, kind enough, faithful enough, maybe I didn’t do enough. My husband began sleeping outside in a hammock, only entering my bed for sex. We began to argue—not violently, but more than we had since his running-around days. He wanted to sell our home and load our family into a small camper and travel. He thought we could live more inexpensively that way, parking in free parks, going when and where we pleased, working when we needed to. His plan was so full of holes I could have used it to strain pasta. But, I had learned well what a submissive wife looked like, and it meant that he had the final say regarding our family. I was terrified. The stress was suffocating. I tried to take each day as it came, homeschooling the children, putting food on the table, selling things to pay the bills, while my husband lay in his hammock watching movies or reading up on how to convert a 1-ton van into a camper bus.
And then we got distracted by some Bible study. I don’t even know what the latest controversial thing was, but my husband jumped on it. Soon, I was dragged into it and gave it my all. I studied the new thing for a couple weeks, which led to more questions and more new things, until—within the month—we were both questioning the validity of the New Testament. Why stop there, I wondered? And in the following couple of weeks I studied the Bible with truly skeptical eyes for the first time. This was it, the culmination of a decade and half of studying: one particular day it all clicked, and I realized I’d been had. There was nothing supernatural about the Bible, it was the work of man; whether hopeful, delusional, and/or power-hungry, didn’t matter.
And that was that.
That was two years ago. It was scary at first, as liberation often is. I went through a deistic phase, believing there was a god, just not one who got involved, but my skepticism had taken me fully into science. I had become quite a stickler about evidence and, after much study and reasoning, I soon dubbed myself an atheist.
Without the Bible and church to tell me about morals, my bumpy, question-paved road also led me to a humanistic worldview. I took a close look at my marriage and considered how I wanted to spend my life. I was not here for God’s purpose and had no reason to believe in an afterlife. I had one shot, and I wasn’t going to spend it in misery, not when I could do something about it, not when I had realized that every bit of strength I thought I’d received from God had actually come from within me.
Let that really sink in. The tin man’s heart, the lion’s courage, the scarecrow’s brain … there all along. And I was the wizard behind the curtain, to boot. Oh, Auntie Em! There’s no place like home!
It was me that had persevered, me that kept a roof over our heads, me that got us through hard times, me that managed to raise seven healthy, happy children, in spite of everything. That was me, that wasn’t God and it sure wasn’t my husband.
It was difficult—oh so very difficult—after years of death-to-self indoctrination, to consider my own role and my own needs. It took more courage and strength than I’d ever had to muster to stand up for myself and my children and do what was best for us.
A few months after laying down the Bible, I put the final nail in the coffin … my marriage. My husband left town and hasn’t returned, even to see the kids. He doesn’t contribute a dime, and he only writes them a note every couple of months. I surrounded myself with loved ones and eventually partnered up with a wonderful atheist man.
A tumultuous, unexpected journey, but worth every step. Every aspect of my life has taken on greater significance and is more enriching. I never dreamed my children and I could be so happy.