Reason #1 - The Fear Factor
In my last post, I introduced the social context (a private evangelical Christian school) in which I first learned about fundamentalist Christianity. In this post, I am going to describe and analyze my conversion experience. This post will likely be quite serious, but my next post will probably be about music, so the heaviness should lift a little.
As I mentioned in my last post, not only did the curriculum at my new school contain Bible classes, we also had Chapel once a week, which functioned much like a normal Christian church experience. In addition to these formalized opportunities to learn about Christianity (which included watching this movie* about the rapture, complete with people-less lawnmowers driving into hedges, electric razors spinning in sinks, and people being guillotined in the middle of a thunder storm), there were also numerous informal opportunities that reinforced the underlying message that god was to be our "all in all," from saying grace before our lunch, to discussions of the books we were reading in our spare time, to random comments that Mormons and Catholics were not "true" Christians. The school functioned much as a total institution, and this was especially true for those students whose parents also believed the message being spread by the school.
My parents did not believe. And neither did I...at first.
As you may expect, this caused me a great deal of cognitive dissonance. The authority figures and my peers at school were teaching me things that my parents (also authority figures) did not believe. And perhaps I would never have decided to convert if I had merely noticed the difference of opinion, but for the fact that the influences from the Christian school had one tool that my parents did not have: fear.
Think about this for a minute. There's no long-term penalty for not believing in evolution. Darwin is not invoked as a deity who will smite the unbeliever. People do not have to believe in the wonder and pragmatics of the scientific method to hold a job.** On the other extreme, one could even live their whole life believing that we all descended from an ancient race of super-people, without having to fear anything but occasional ridicule.
But that's not the reality for fundamentalist Christians (and please remember I'm talking about my experience with fundamentalist Christianity, not more liberal varieties). The penalties for non-belief were explicitly clear, and I was frightened of the consequences. To put this another way, at my young age of 12, burning in hell just did not seem like the best choice.
I decided to convert. To my credit (if I'm correctly remembering), I did not convert until Christmas break of my first semester at the school. This means that I did think about this decision for several months, and I remember speaking about it with both my parents and my Bible teacher (although mostly my parents).
So on a cold, dark Northern California evening, right before dinner, I sat down in my closet with the light off and prayed for Jesus to come into my heart and "save" me. Given that I was 12, I think the best interpretation of this event was that I wanted to be saved from eternally burning to death (i.e., I was motivated by fear). But at that moment, and in the many years that followed, I believed in the larger story, that Jesus was a real person who came to earth and died for my sins through his great love for me, and that the only way to get to heaven was through having Jesus live in my heart, not merely by living a good life (the whole concept is described nicely here).
Right after this experience, I went sobbing into the kitchen to find my mom, who was quite concerned at my tears and wanted an explanation. And I told her that I was crying because I was going to go heaven and she and my father were going to go to hell (I wasn't worried about my sister, because she also went to the Christian school, and I was pretty sure she was "saved" already). To this day, I am ashamed of myself for saying those words.
I could analyze my conversion to Christianity in a variety of ways. I've dabbled enough in sociological explanations of conversion to realize that the two variables most likely to predict conversion were present for me: 1) I had intensive interaction with fundamentalist Christians at my school, and 2) I had affective attachments to many of the people at my school, both with friends and faculty (in addition, my best friend at the time, whom I had met at the public school two years earlier, was a fundamentalist Christian). In other words, the social context was ripe for conversion. But this is an incomplete answer to why I converted. I can recognize that the social context was ripe, but my personal analysis always comes back to the "fear factor."
I was not lead to convert through messages of god's love alone, or even through messages of how to live a good life, but also through fear. And although I bought into the love message for a long time (long after I had discarded almost everything else I had formerly believed to be true, and was still clinging to a dying identity), I was always afraid: afraid of not being nice enough to others, afraid of going to hell, afraid somebody would find out that evolution just made a lot more sense to me than young-earth creationism,*** etc.
I suppose when I finally de-converted (the last vestiges held on until I was 19, and a sophomore in college), I had gained enough wisdom to realize that not only did I not believe in the need to be converted, but that living life through fear is no way to live, that any loving god who existed would not want me living life with such a debilitating weight on my shoulders. And I have never looked back.
*My husband now has this movie on our Netflix cue. If, and when, it ever becomes available, he will likely be watching it alone. Once was enough for me.
**For a mind-blowing experience, try to envision a presidential race in the U.S. between an atheist and a Christian (any variety, even Mormon or Catholic - shocking, I know). Despite our claims to want to have church and state separate, we are not always good at practicing what we preach. Hm...
***In 8th grade I was required to write a report debunking Neanderthal Man. I cringe thinking about it now. My husband desperately wants to read it; yes, he is fascinated by my experiences of the fundamentalist Christian school - he became an avowed atheist around the same time I became an avowed Christian.