Religious indoctrination is a hell of a drug. Especially when it’s delivered by people that are sincere in their belief, sincere in their love for you, and think they’re saving you from evil and your soul from eternal torment. Especially when it starts at an age during which your impression of the world is that anything is possible.
When I was six, I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a bear in my bedroom. I was terrified and stayed utterly still because I had no idea how one dealt with having a bear in their bedroom. I did not have much capability of logical thought yet. I didn’t know there weren’t bears in my state, and that if there were, it was extremely unlikely they would have been able to get to the second floor of our old farmhouse and be crouched quietly inside the bedroom I shared with my three sisters. I woke up and saw a bear and so there was a bear. After my eyes adjusted to the darkness I finally realized the bear was actually the easy chair.
During this time I was being soused in the magical thinking of conservative evangelical Christianity. I was born hopelessly stained by the sin of Adam and Eve. I was destined for an eternity of torment in Hell. There was no way to live a sinless life – I had already sinned in my young life. Every lie and act of disobedience towards my parents, every mean thing I might have done to a sibling, had already doomed me to Hell and were proof I was born with a heart full of sin. I had to be punished for that sin. There was, of course, an escape. Salvation through Jesus Christ.
Jesus had died because of my sins, and taken punishment in my place, and all I had to do was accept that act and believe in Jesus and ta-da! Salvation! Of course, it wasn’t enough to say every little syllable. You had to believe, and there had to be evidence of belief. If you said you believed but continued to live a selfish life full of sin, it was proof that you did not, in fact, believe. You had to love God and if you loved God, you obeyed Him. Love meant devoting yourself to living out His will in your life.
There were all sorts of clever mechanisms to enforce this world view. Doubt was presented as sin, for an example. Don’t be like doubting Thomas, requiring proof of the Resurrection. You must believe without seeing. The Devil would try to deceive you. Don’t fall for his tricks. Sin was tempting. It was fun, seductive, desirable. Of course, that was only in the short term. Eventually sin would ruin you, in this life and the next. The Devil will tell you lies and you will want to believe those lies. Read your Bible, participate in your community, pray without ceasing.
Another enforcement mechanism was to say that true religion meant keeping oneself unstained by the world. Secular things were often bad, and if not outright sinful, could lull you into accepting sin. You had to be very careful with anything not explicitly or implicitly Christian. Listen to Christian music, read Christian books, watch Christian television and movies. Go to church as often as you could. All of this would provide protection and keep you safe from becoming backslidden. All of this would help you stay fervently, zealously devoted to God. (If you weren’t fervently, zealously devoted to God, were you really even saved at all?)
There were additional things you could do, too, like homeschool your children so they couldn’t be indoctrinated by those liberal government schools. There you could undertake the very important task of teaching them the Truth, as presented in the Bible, the place for you to learn God’s will. The Bible was the literal truth, preserved through millennia for everyone’s benefit. In it we could learn that the Earth was created in six days just a few millennia ago, disproving evolution and the doubt evolution cast on the whole notion of the Garden of Eden and the reason humans became sinful and in need of salvation.
You couldn’t challenge the underlying assumption, you see. Mankind started in a sinless, innocent state, and then we disobeyed God and after that, were born doomed to sin and rebel against Him, destined for Hell, until God saved us by becoming flesh and taking our punishment Himself. We were sinning sinners that had to believe and be saved. We had to love God and obey God and seek His will for our life.
The fact that conservative evangelical Christianity’s version of God’s will for our life diverged from the actual Gospel texts was cleverly hidden. Jesus did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. If we loved God, we would keep God’s commandments, and those commandments started with the Old Testament and the laws given to Israel. Of course, the commandments that were focused on always had to do with the preservation of the proper hierarchy. Men obeyed God, women obeyed men, children obeyed their parents. As long as everyone lived in submission to the proper authority we could be assured we were following God’s will for our life, and if we were following God’s will for our life, maybe we were actually saved.
Of course, if we were following God’s will just to escape Hell and not because we truly loved and worshiped God, perhaps we weren’t really saved. I did not feel love for the being that I’d been told to believe in but which I could not hear or touch or see. I had to assure myself that love wasn’t a feeling, love was action. I could not be saved through works, but faith without works was dead, so works were still required. I still had to perform obedience in order to show that my faith was real. But was it, really? That question continued to gnaw at me.