Updated: Dec 16, 2022
This article was originally published in Freethought today. ffrf.org
Warm, safe, snuggled in my bed and listening to my one of my brothers reading to me, I shivered with absolute terror. Death and destruction surrounded a small family while they desperately tried to rescue two of each kind of animal from certain death on a handmade boat. A huge storm and flood was coming that was guaranteed to kill every living man, woman, child and animal, with the noted exception of this family and the animals they could rescue.
The scariest thing? I believed it to be true. This was no Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella or other made-up fairy tale, this supposedly really happened. Why did it happen? Because all the people and animals that God created were bad and had to die. And that wasn’t all. Because they were bad, not only would they drown, but they would also burn and suffer forever in a really bad place called hell. At 4 years old, I realized I needed to be good or I would go to hell and burn forever, too.
This story was supposed to teach me morals, but instead it taught me that God was a jerk. I knew that people could be jerks and I supposed that maybe they deserved this punishment. But what did all those animals do? Did they go to hell, too, or was their punishment simply being drowned? Did they not love God enough either?
Of course, I heard all about how good people like my wrinkly old auntie Margaret went to heaven, where they lived in the clouds with all the other good people. Even with the promise of heaven, the punishment seemed a little harsh, and to a little kid, absolutely petrifying.
I would also come to learn during endless Sunday mornings that it wasn’t just innocent animals that would suffer God’s wrath, but anyone who simply didn’t believe in him would also burn in hell. God would sentence you to an afterlife where a red-horned devil would endlessly poke you in the behind with his pitchfork.
My thoughts went to the little kids around the world who were taught to believe in other gods than our own Christian one, or worse yet, no god at all. Would God punish them for simply not knowing about the true god they were supposed to worship? The nice lady at my Sunday school said “Yes, indeed, they would suffer in hell if they didn’t believe.” From a very early age, I learned to be afraid of, and to obey this very powerful jerk. I was taught to fear God.
Then, one day, while playing with my plastic ponies and pondering life, I thought, “If I am only being good so I can go to heaven and not go to hell, am I really being good?” And then an even more horrifying thought occurred to me: “What if God finds out I’m only being good to avoid hell? Will he punish me for that too?”
Panic enveloped me at that point. I knew that if I was bad I could ask for forgiveness and still go heaven, but what if I died right before I had a chance to? I could just see the red guy with the horns and pitchfork twisting his black mustache, wearing an evil grin, hoping for me to steal a cookie just before getting hit by a bus. What if I thought I was being good, but God decided that I was just pretending so that I wouldn’t go to hell? Was anybody really good if they were only doing it to go to heaven and not hell? Could this just be some sort of sick game God was playing and we would all really end up in hell? He did, after all, drown the whole world.
I thought once again that this God fellow was a real jerk, then I knew I was definitely going to hell. God loves me and all the sinners, I was told, even the ones he had to send to hell. Somehow, that information failed to provide any comfort or alleviate my anxiety.
On Dec. 25, 1986, my world would come crashing down. I was 6, and had awoken early, just like every other Christmas morning, and rushed out to the family room to see what Santa had brought. Properly threatened with hell, I had been a good girl all year. Despite my best efforts, the space under the tree was bare. I had failed; I was bad. No presents meant I had upset Santa, and likely God, too. I would have no new toys and I would almost certainly be going to hell. I began to cry.
My mother heard me and came out of her room to find a devastated little girl sobbing in her pink Care Bear nightgown. “I have to tell you something,” she said. She then explained that Santa Claus was a story, and she had been the one that put out the presents every year, and this year, she simply forgot.
I felt deceived and angry. Those feelings dissipated quickly after I opened the box which held what would be my very most prized possession for the next three years. My brand new My Little Pony beauty parlor made forgiving my mother for her deception and forgetfulness easy enough. Santa Claus as a story to get kids to behave made sense, if a little messed up, and I could accept the ruse. However, my belief in this jerk otherwise known as God was another story.
Were these stories of heaven and hell also a way to get people to be good? I was not bold enough to ask the question of the adults, but the seed of doubt had now been planted and would soon grow into a big beautiful tree of logic and reason, and surprisingly, personal morality.
If there was no God, devil, heaven or hell, which I now suspected to be the case, why be a good person at all? Why were there not an enormous number of robbers and murderers running around the world? I knew there were bad people, but it would seem to me that if everyone suspected like I did that there was no God, why weren’t there more bad people than good? Most of the people I knew were nice and good. I was only 6 and thought I was pretty smart, but I couldn’t be the only one to wonder if God was just a scarier version of Santa Claus.
No longer as scared of the big bad red guy with the lake of fire and pointy stick, I left most of these questions unconsidered for a while. After all, there were a few plastic ponies with hair in dire need of braiding.
Morality from within
The question of my own personal morality ended up answering itself for me. After a particularly grueling day of elementary school, I spotted my big brother’s elderly cat in our backyard. Princess was hobbling a little too close to the edge of the pool, and, in my bad mood, I decided I would push her in. She howled and cried as she splashed around in the clear blue water. I immediately fished her out and started to dry her off and tried to console the poor old thing. As she looked up at me with her large milky confused eyes, I knew that I never, ever, wanted to do something like that again. I had watched Jiminy Cricket on TV and had a basic understanding of what a conscience was, but this was real world experience not a cartoon.
Never before had I felt such crippling guilt. I’d swiped a coin or two from the coffee can in my brother’s closet, stuck a finger in a birthday cake, then carefully smoothed over the hole, but never before had I deliberately caused a living being such fright and pain.
At that moment I was the lowest of the low, the very worst person on the face of the planet. If anyone in the history of the world deserved to be poked in the butt for all of eternity with sharp stick, it was me at that moment. That was when I knew I didn’t need God to be good. I simply didn’t want to be a bad person. I didn’t like the way it made me feel, and I couldn’t stand the look in that poor cat’s eyes. There wasn’t a big bad boogieman in this world or beyond that could make me feel as bad as when I did when I pushed that cat into the pool. I understood very clearly that I was very capable of understanding right from wrong without silly scary stories.
My 40th birthday is lurking around the corner, and since my great moral epiphany at age 6, I have done some things that wouldn’t be considered good. But, for the most part, I am proud of my life and the good I do for other people. When I have done things that are wrong, I have no one or nothing to turn to for absolution. I can’t march down to the church and tell a guy behind a screen what I did, mutter a few words and, poof, that dark ugly lump of guilt is magically gone. When I do something wrong, that feeling stays with me, like an ugly stain on a favorite sweater. It reminds me not to do it again. The same thing is true when I do things that are good. That feeling stays with me and reminds me I like doing good for other people.
Teaching my son how it feels to do good for other people also makes me feel good. He is 13 and has never lived with the concept of a reward or punishment in the afterlife, although my husband and I do use real-world rewards and consequences. For instance, a donut after a vaccination, or a loss of his Xbox for a week for saying a four-letter word. He knows that we give blood on a regular basis for the simple fact that it helps people. He knows of and has an active role in which charities we donate to. We celebrate Christmas as a time to give to each other and appreciate what we have. So far it seems we have managed to raise a moral human being without the fear of God or the devil.
When I donate blood, money or time, it makes me feel good. When I make someone smile when they’re having a rough day, maybe saving some poor old cat from the same fate as Princess, it makes me feel good. I don’t need the threat of punishment or promise of reward in an afterlife that I’m not sure even exists to do good for other people. I just need to know that deep down, I don’t like being a jerk.