‘I grew up in a strict Southern Baptist home.’

This is the canned answer I give for my complete ignorance of anything secular before the year 2000. My world was incredibly small, consisting exclusively of Christian music, television and books.

Guilt was an enormous part of what kept me locked into Christianity. I’d say it was a healthy 60%, the other 40% being a tangled mess of fear and obligation. God was watching not only my every action, but could see into the deepest recesses of my mind, could see the thoughts that I’d never imagine sharing with other people. I remember being taught to hold a box in my mind, in which I kept all the things that my sinful human nature urged me to do or think. I had to be vigilant and keep those things away from the purity that I was supposed to embody. On occasion, a stray thought would pop into my head that maybe, just maybe all this stuff wasn’t real. As soon as it showed up I immediately pushed it away, terrified that God would see it and disown me.

When I was 10 my mother met my stepfather in church and married him. He turned out to be a terrible man, the worst kind really. I was 15 when my mother went to the church asking for help. She was told that to divorce him would be a sin of equal measure. So she slept on the floor in front of my door for months before finally sending me to live with my aunt.

I won’t tell you that I didn’t get anything good from the church, because it just wouldn’t be true. My whole life at the time was lived there. We went to church Sunday morning and evening, Tuesdays for outreach, and Wednesdays for youth group. My entire friend base was at church. That said, no matter where I went I never felt like I belonged. My whole life, no matter what the situation or company, I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole. Even through all of the things I had to endure, I felt like God had a plan for my life and though I couldn’t see it, everything would work out for good in the end. My faith gave me hope and an acceptance I never felt with any human I encountered. I felt like even though no one else in the world knew who I was, God knew because he made me.

Believe it or not, my existential crisis came only a few short years ago when my ex husband started reading about the Sumerian Tablets. I found out there was an entirely separate text that followed the Bible closely, telling many of the same stories with a whole different twist. This cracked the door to allow me to start thinking critically, imagining a group of people getting together with an idea to organize the masses. Rules were key, then a way to enforce the rules even when no one was around to catch the perpetrator. It’s genius really. Bad things happening to you? You must have sinned somewhere. Pray fervently, repent and things will get better. Not getting better? God has a plan that our tiny minds can’t comprehend.

At this point most of my family are still in the church. I don’t begrudge them their faith though. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, living without faith when that’s all you’ve ever known. It’s devastating to think we’re all alone and that nobody cares if our entire planet lives or dies, much less just one person. I know it was for me. So when I’m at a family gathering I’m silent while my uncle blesses the meal and I show appropriate gratitude when someone offers to pray for me. My mother, one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, believes wholeheartedly and that’s ok. She rarely tells me she’s going to pray for me anymore, but I have no doubt that she does it regularly. I think when she allows herself to think about it that she has a deep sadness that my brother and I aren’t going to be in heaven with her because we don’t believe. I’m so very sorry that she has to live with that, but I can’t live a lie for her comfort. My brother is much more vocal about religion, not really caring what anyone thinks or believes. He’s quick to call you an idiot for believing in fairy tales. ‘Live and let live’ is more my speed.

I now have 2 daughters of my own, 15 and 11. When they were little, I took them to church though not as regularly as I went when I was their age. I still felt a need for them to be surrounded by the church at that point. They went to three or four vacation bible schools every summer. Obviously I don’t feel the same now.

I don’t want my girls to grow up with the crippling guilt that I still, at 35, haven’t been able to shake. On the other hand, I don’t want to shove my beliefs down their throat either. Wouldn’t it be just the same thing that happened to me? I can only hope that I’m raising them with a tolerance for all people and their choices. I’ve told them that they can believe anything they want,  as long as it’s an informed decision and they’re not just following a crowd. I’m not sure if it’s working. Maybe it’s only causing more confusion. They hear my brother scream “Atheist!” from the rooftops during the week, then go visit my aunt and are shown Rapture movies that terrify them into crying and questioning whether or not I’m going to be left behind.

It’s been a rough ride but I’m finally able to whisper the word ‘atheist.’ I still have the urge to look over my shoulder when I do, but that will get better with time, I’m sure. One of the most underrated and invaluable lessons I’ve learned through this experience is to trust myself and to welcome my own questions.