What It's Like Growing Up Hyper-Religious
One of my earliest memories is walking down the main aisle of my childhood church – a red brick building with green carpet, wood panel walls, and no windows– sliding my fingers along the sloping armrests of each row. I’m maybe 6 years old. I know most of the friendly faces, and I smile back at them. I’m happy to be immersed in the warm environment, taking in the piano melodies coming from the stage. This is the feeling that defines my childhood: happiness strictly confined within the boundaries of religion.
Growing up, every friend I made, every social event I attended, and every creative activity I participated in centered on my church. If a person didn’t go to my church, I didn’t know them. If an activity didn’t take place on church property, I probably wasn’t, for one reason or another, allowed to be part of it. The first books I ever owned had titles like All about Noah’s Ark and The Illustrated Children’s Bible. There was a phase when I was maybe five years old and my siblings and I weren’t allowed to watch Disney movies because they weren’t biblical enough. For a large part of my adolescence, I only listened to Christian music.
The only years I was not educated at home were spent in a religious school run by people without teaching degrees in a broken down white chapel. We hunched over christian textbooks in an old church with torn, stained carpet. Half the rooms didn’t have doors or proper desks.
When I took a dual enrollment class in high school, it was the first time I ever stepped foot in a classroom. Period. Not just the first time I stepped foot on a college campus, but the first time I sat in a room with proper desks and people (almost) my age and studied. I signed up for the class and a grant to cover my tuition and books on my own. I was sure taking advanced classes was the only way I’d be accepted into college based on my homeschooling background.
I spent my teenage years praying about which college I should go to and felt certain that God had a perfect plan for where I should go. Years and months went by and although I was accepted by my two top choice schools, there was no way I could attend anywhere besides a community college. The scholarships never came in, and asking my parents for thousands of dollars to make up the tuition felt absurd and pointless.
More than that, I was too afraid to go.
I’d spent my whole life protected - too scared to deviate from my parent’s expectations. They thought I would leave high school, get a job until I found someone to marry, and then settle into marriage and motherhood like God intended. I eventually worked up the courage to tell my family I wanted to go away to college, but they put it out of their minds. They were as scared for me to leave as I was.
One day in April when the housing deposit and final decisions were needed, I realized I officially wouldn’t be attending my dream school. I distinctly remember walking up the street to my grandparents’ house feeling the weight of the anger and sadness hit me all at once. It’s not that I blame religion for my lot in life, but looking back, I find it so frustrating that I spent so much time believing God would make a way when in the end my insulated, religious life had made me too afraid to go away to college in the first place.
There’s a certain kind of anxiety that comes from believing that every decision of your life should be dictated by God. I never learned to make decisions on my own because I was waiting for God to give me the right answer. I was always incredibly afraid of doing the “wrong” thing because everything that was “wrong” was a sin and the path to what was “right” for me was never clear.
When it came to decision making and most anything else, my church had an intense focus on emotionless acts. Feelings were seen as the tempting fruit that would lead you do something outside God’s will. If I couldn’t navigate life by what felt right, I had to navigate it based on the scriptures I knew. The only problem? I was constantly being corrected on my interpretation of the scriptures by the teachings of my church. I couldn’t trust my emotions, and I couldn’t trust my own reading of the scripture which left me paralyzed and unable to make decisions at all. I became completely dependant on my church leadership without realizing it. There were countless opportunities I didn’t take because I was waiting for God’s direct guidance. There were dozens of activities I dropped out of because I felt that God wouldn’t want me involved in them, usually for reasons I’d deem silly now.
Religion serves its purpose. It brings many people (including me) comfort, but as I look back on the experiences I had with religion as a child, it’s difficult not to feel the tension between the “right” ideologies I was taught and the negative impact they have on me even as an adult. I’ve read so many stories online of people who grew up in church and ultimately decided to leave their religion. Often the weight of every teaching we’ve internalized is too difficult for us to describe and too murky for other people to understand the depths to which the struggles go.
As an adult, I believe a faith that cannot stand up to a critical eye is no faith at all. I question everything I think and believe. How else will I root out the beliefs within me that only breed contempt for myself and others? I’m not a religion hater. I’m not even an unbeliever. I am, however, at a stage in my life in which I feel it’s necessary to reframe my ideas regarding church and religion. When so many of the ideologies you’ve been taught don’t stack up to the trials of life, you have to tear down your religion brick by brick and see which parts are worth keeping and which aren’t. I spent several years as an adult absent from church before I felt ready to return. Now I want to figure out my own path to a spirituality I can live out. I want to know that every belief I hold is hard-won on and completely mine. I want to lay down at night and know that I did the best I could and left the world a little better than it was when I woke up.