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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Devils, Demons and Damnation: The Stuff Dreams Are Made From

The imaginations of children are interesting; they can literally be a devil’s playground. My childhood imagination was exactly that.

Perhaps you remember your own imagination as a child. Pretending to be a soldier in the midst of battle, tree limbs become weapons of war. Maybe you lived the life of an L.A. fashion model as you pranced your Barbie around and whisked her off on dates with Ken. Tea time for your teddy bears and other various stuffed animals made for an afternoon’s delight. Slabs of pressed mud (yes, literally dirt and water from the ground) became the most delicious cakes and pies imaginable (though most of us never actually tasted one). It’s amazing how realistic one’s imagination can make what is otherwise unrealistic. A child’s imagination can and usually does bring much joy and happiness; but it can also bring about quite the opposite reaction, at the most inopportune times.

I have a 6 year old son. He’s quite a happy-go-lucky sort of little guy. He’s never been exposed to religion or the fairy tale stories of heaven and hell, talking donkey’s, men that live for 3 days inside giant fish or boats large enough to house the entire planet’s animal kingdom. In fact, only recently did he hear the term “hell” from one of the next door neighbor’s children. He was perplexed. She tried to explain it to him (at the time it was unbeknownst to me), but her explanation resulted in a quirky looking raised eyebrow and an expression of disbelief. My wife later told me his amusing expression was followed by him exclaiming “that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. It makes absolutely no sense!” He’s not mentioned it since. Despite never having been exposed to religion and all of it’s larger than life tales, my son’s imagination still runs rampant. There is a certain fear that abounds at night time. Scary creatures behind closet doors. Things that go bump in the night. A brief creaking from a wooden rafter as the house settles is enough to cause real alarm. Pure imagination. In our house, we even decided to forego Santa Claus, opting instead for honesty about Christmas and where presents come from. Still, my son’s imagination is a thing of beauty...and at times the penultimate fear factory.

Add the teachings and beliefs of charismatic fundamentalist Pentecostalism during a child’s early and formative years and the results can be disastrous. Such was the case for me. 

My childhood was like a scene out of Nightmare on Elm Street. Strangely enough we weren’t allowed to watch horror movies. That sort of movie was poison for the mind, a portal through which Satan could enter and his demon minions could literally take possession of one’s soul. It was ok that I was never exposed to such movies and secularism, there was more than enough scary stuff at church and in my daily listenings to my parents. I was lucky enough to spend years and years hearing my dad tell stories of literally seeing Satan one night perched sitting atop the footboard of his bed. I heard stories of casting out demons, stories of demons and ghoulish minions from hell who were somehow able to manifest in the physical realm and torment human beings. I watched men and women, and sad as this might be, children, being “possessed” by the Holy Spirit and speaking in unknown languages. Twice weekly on Sunday, every Wednesday night, and frequent random weeknights (wherever/whenever the trendy revival was taking place) I was witness to people being “slain in the spirit,” falling out on the floor and sometimes lurching and writhing as if they had no control over their own bodies. This is the stuff my dreams were made of.

I spent many years lying in bed literally terrified. It is difficult to explain the intensity and very real nature of the fear I was overcome with as bedtime approached. Scared and alone I lied in bed wondering when an evil demon would jump from behind the closet to drag me to another dimension; where I would spend eternity alone and helpless never seeing my mommy and daddy again. I was afraid to go to sleep, but equally as afraid of staying awake. My dreams were filled with scenes from the rapture --- Jesus would return to rescue his saints but I...I was always left behind to suffer in hell because I wasn’t prepared. Yes, at the age of 7 or 8 years old, this is what filled my mind. My dreams were often times replays of something I’d seen at church but magnified in that strange way that only a dream can exaggerate. When my eyes closed and my breathing slowed, I slipped off to mind assembled dreams that were more torturous than anything I've experienced since.

I could continue on and give a lecture on some of the psychology of dreams, childrens' imaginations and how they are affected by religion versus that of their non-religious counterparts. I’m afraid this blog entry has already passed the length that most people are willing to actually read. But let me end with this rhetorical question. If you were told of a mother and father who repeatedly tells their son at any minute they might decide to beat them with such force that it nearly kills them, causing the child to live in a constant state of intense fear of being beaten to death, would you consider this child abuse? I think most of us would, including the average Christian. Even the sort of Christians I was raised among. Why are religious parents given a free pass to tell their children of places where you burn forever, suffering for eternity if they tell a lie or don’t ask an invisible man for forgiveness? Why do we given parents a free pass to fill their children’s heads with stories of Satan and demons and possession?

I've since learned to “enjoy” the fear that accompanies nightmares, much like someone who enjoys the fear that goes along with a fast twisty roller coaster or a haunted house. It was a coping mechanism I developed after suffering for years. My nightmares are rarely of a religious nature since achieving full deconversion from Christianity. But when I recall my childhood, my teenage years and those years that constitute the early portion of adulthood, I can still feel the deep sense of despair and intense fear I felt then. I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

The Atheist Nurse
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  1. I really do think that what happened to you is a form of abuse and you are right, there is a free pass. I have no idea what it must be like as I was fortunate as hell to be raised in a non religious home but I can imagine the residual guilt, uncertainty, threats, loss, pain, betrayal and so must be a huge burden.
    I do have some experience with having non believer children however. My daughter is 13 and son is 9, both following in my footsteps. Their dad and I are divorced but he is also an atheist. My daughter has had many confrontations with her friends about this. We live in a conservative area in central PA so naturally most of her friends are hard core Christians. She has been told many times that she is going to hell and that she MUST believe in Jesus. And this is coming from friends. Luckily she is amazingly mature and is willing to hold her ground despite the peer pressure. I have a lot of hope for her future and later teen years. My son doesn't think about it too much but he just told me that a bunch of kids were talking about Jesus or something and he told them that he had never heard of what they were talking about which was of course met with incredulity and mocking. Jerks. It's tough but I'm hoping that in the end it just makes them stronger, more confident and self assured. In my daughters case I'm actually glad that she is able to remain friends with so many people with such a different world view from her. It teaches both her and them to respect and tolerate their differences. Maybe the next time one of their parents or pastors talks about some immoral atheists they will think "Hey I know an atheist and she's pretty cool". Maybe it's a long shot but who knows?

  2. I agree with you -- it is beneficial to be the atheist who is "cool." It is good to show others we are not the baby eaters they imagine us to be. Take an honest approach with your children, allow them to see everyone's views and evidence or lack of...and they will figure it out. I've been told that many children of atheist parents go through phases where they say they are "christian" or they "believe in Jesus." Don't be alarmed. When it's all said and done, your children will have been provided unlimited resources, truth and allowed to discover for themselves. They'll end up well rounded regardless of what they choose to believe. Sounds to me like you know what you're doing. ;-) PS: I love hearing from parents like know there are children out there being raised without the fears I had to endure. Good on you for being that parent.