I’ll never forget the foot sores. I was huddled between friends on a church floor when I first heard about them. It was late and Cindy, the warm and loving woman who ran our youth group, sat across the room. Quiet fell over the group as she addressed us in the kind of voice reserved for important conversations at sleepovers. She recalled the harrowing experience of growing up with chronic sores on her feet. They were incredibly painful, she explained, and they sometimes kept her from wearing sneakers or playing outside with her sister. My memory of the sores, which I never actually saw, is still visceral: red, bloody, sensitive to the touch. She and her parents tried everything to make them go away, she said, but nothing worked.
She told us that one night, she decided to ask God for help. She repeated the prayer for us just as she remembered it: a humble request, neither greedy nor entitled, but desperate nonetheless. The next morning, she told the dead-quiet room, the sores were gone. The bottoms of her feet were perfectly smooth. Healed. I had chills. She explained that the only reason it worked, in her opinion, was due to her complete and total faith in God.
The story came during a time in my life where I was, for the very first time, questioning the existence of a higher power. I’d spent the majority of elementary school nervous that an old white man with a white beard was watching me (whether it was Santa or God varied day-to-day). Unfamiliar with the concept of omnipotence, I imagined my life like a channel he flipped through every once in a while. Whenever I did something bad, I quietly hoped he was tuned in elsewhere. It’s all pretty creepy in hindsight. Very Truman Show.
I didn’t grow up in an explicitly Christian household. Scripture was never quoted over dinner, there were no crosses on the walls, I’m not even sure we had a Bible. But we believed in God, attended a Methodist church every Sunday and joined age-appropriate choirs with a dogmatic sense of responsibility. We went to church like we brushed our teeth. Mom told us God was real like she told us China was real, and why in the world would I doubt the existence of China?
When I got older and understood that believing in him was a big part of the deal, it dawned on me that there was an alternative option. But once something is baked into your kid brain as truth, it’s hard to unlearn. There was a long period wherein I performed unspoken tests: If God is real, this paper will fall off the table. The paper, which was already at risk of falling, would drift to the ground and I’d think, whoa. I really wanted to believe.
A year into high school, at 15, I stopped attending church. I was feeling increasingly disconnected from the youth group and sports started taking precedence on weekends. My mom never forced me back unless on special occasions — it just wasn’t her style — and the physical displacement gave me a new sense of objectivity. I got comfortable with the idea that I couldn’t know if there was a God. More than that, I got cozy with the fact that I thought it increasingly unlikely.
When I went away to college, my distance from the church was cemented in a more tangible way. When I’d return home and join my mom for a holiday service, I saw the whole place with new eyes. It’s not that I found the sermons outrageous — it was a liberal-minded church, after all — it’s that it all suddenly struck me as a little…unquestioned. The robotic call-and-response. The praising of an invisible spirit. I didn’t feel unsettled by the people themselves (everyone who attends my old church is lovely and kind), but I couldn’t shake my surprise at how different a little time and distance made the whole thing seem to me. It made me feel like I’d been manipulated. Like my impressionable kid brain hadn’t been given all the options.
Throughout college, I carried a distinct antipathy for the concept of organized religion. Why did people need a reason to be good? It didn’t help that religious extremism was a major source of war and oppression during that time and still is. Over the years, though, I’ve softened a lot. I’ve grown to appreciate the community benefits of religion and the emotional ones, too. I’ve also transitioned out of that arrogant time in my life when I assumed I had all the right answers. But true, too, is that once I separated my consciousness from the Christian dogma back in college, atheism has felt like home to me. I’m grateful for the religious freedom that enables me, and all of us, to decide that for ourselves.