It was not for want of opportunity, though, in the theoretically formative years. Some of my strongest early memories are set in the now-defunct People's Fellowship Tabernacle, Vancouver, an independent fundamentalist church set up by a hardliner who went solo after splitting from the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1940s, on doctrinal grounds. His biggest sticking point, it seems, was that he was not merely a bible literalist; he was adamant that the King James Version was the only translation directly inspired by God, while all other translations were part of a satanic plot to destroy the true remnant church from the inside. He was also my uncle by marriage, affable enough at extended-family functions, but a terror behind the pulpit.
It took me a long time to work out that the PFT was the next thing to a religious cult, though in a pretty benign form. Uncle Mark, a graduate of "Bible Bill" Aberhart's Prophetic Bible Institute in Calgary, saw the Book of Revelation as an accurate forecast of tomorrow's news; that is, he could be relied upon to make a one-to-one match between the headlines and some dire end-times prophecy on any given day. It was the sixties, the height of the Cold War, so of course the Soviet Union, Israel, the Pope, the US, and Mao Tse-Tung ("the Yellow Peril") all had their parts to play in God's apocalyptic melodrama. We were Pre-Tribs, meaning the Rapture was expected to take place before the Tribulation, so - with all the signs of the Second Coming clearly spelled out in the daily papers - we could expect to be whisked into the safety of heaven "in the twinkling of an eye" at any moment.
Except, of course, I could expect no such thing, because I had never been born again. As a small child, I had listened with interest to the Sunday school stories and sucked up the hymns like a thirsty sponge, but I had learned to let the sermons wash over me like so much white noise. Crucially, however, I had also been the faintly embarrassed observer of many, many iterations of that powerful rite of conversion, the classic altar call. For those of you who have never experienced a revival meeting or a Sunday evening service in an evangelical church, an altar call is the part of the program where the minister invites any who feel under conviction of sin to come to the front and publicly accept Jesus into their hearts, or reconfirm their existing commitment, or simply repent of their sins. (Note: there is rarely an actual altar.) But that bare description does no justice to the psychodrama of the event.
No evangelist worth his thank offering will simply issue the sacred invitation in the same manner as he would announce, say, a coffee social in the church basement after the service. The ground will be prepared with a sermon designed to make you feel frightened and unworthy: all of us are sinners, wicked to the core, fully deserving of the eternal hellfire which God has prepared for our punishment. And there is no hiding from it, because God sees your every deed, and knows every tiny, dirty secret of your heart. He writes it all down, too. Then, when you are properly quaking with guilt and fear, the emphasis shifts from the stern God who hates sin, to the gentle Jesus who loves the sinner. That is the segue to the actual altar call. The congregation rises and sings softly in prayer mode, eyes closed, heads bent, while the preacher does a kind of voice-over: Come! Come to Jesus! Come now, before it is too late! The song is almost invariably Just as I Am.
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Now, altar calls in some churches can apparently get very exciting, especially with Pentecostals and Holy Rollers and televangelists and such. But my Uncle Mark held that the "gifts of the spirit" - things like faith healing, speaking in tongues, and dancing in the spirit - had been a limited-time offer, which expired in the age of the Apostles. We were now in the Dispensation of Faith, he said, and people who spoke in tongues etc. nowadays were being duped by the devil, and opening themselves up to a Satanic takeover. Hence, even the congregational shouts of Hallelujah! and Praise the Lord! had to be fairly restrained. This was a little hard on the old Pentecostal lags in the PFT flock, who still loved a bit of holy bellowing now and then. But the PFT altar calls were not without drama of their own kind.
Picture the congregation swaying gently to the strains of the hymn, eyes shut, one large temporary organism in a kind of ecstatic communal trance. Here and there in the pews, though, a few celebrants would be doing a bad job of restraining their sobs and holding back their tears. The song would go on. The floodgates would open. Eventually, five or six sinners would totter weeping up the aisle, where Uncle Mark would greet them joyously and kneel with them in prayer. When they turned and testified to the still-crooning congregation about the Lord's goodness and the sweetness of surrender, the old Pentecostal lags would be permitted a few hallelujahs. On especially good nights, the deacons would help out with the overflow at the nonexistent altar. At last, Uncle Mark would end the proceedings with a long - often very long - parting blessing.
Now, I was never one of those who tottered up the aisle to be prayed over, though other children and teenagers did. What I remember best is singing along like a good little Christian, but with my eyes open - just open a slit, of course, just enough so I could observe the people around me. It had to be surreptitious because, even if God couldn't see me peeking, Uncle Mark might. And what I mostly felt, beyond bored and tired, was left out. Excluded. All around me, everybody, including my family, appeared to be united by some powerful emotion that I had no part in. I felt nothing, neither the shared emotion, nor the presence of God, though Uncle Mark confidently assured us the deity was both present, and taking a lively interest in the proceedings. And I did not feel too bad about being an outsider, either, because (though it sounds awful to admit it) the whole business struck me as more than a bit silly.
This, naturally, had to be kept to myself. For one thing, an honest reaction would have been plain rude; worse, much worse, it would catch me up in the loving but inexorable playing out of the grownups' concern for my immortal soul. It would get me wept over and prayed over; I would be testified to, fussed at, grieved for, conferred about, and spiritually counselled. No, I was not about to let myself in for that.
I did have one ironic advantage. Nobody thought to ask why I never answered the altar call because, quite fortuitously, I had armoured myself against it with something that happened when I was five. I had been hearing about "asking Jesus into your heart" for as long as I could understand words, and thought I might as well give it a try one day, to see what happened. Nothing happened. I was unimpressed. I started to tell my mother, actually to complain, but her outburst of joy at the words "I asked Jesus into my heart" stopped me cold. Even at five years old, I could see when silence was golden. At the time, allowing her to believe I was born again was very much better than disappointing her with the honest truth. And how the wicked prosper! That little lie-by-omission saved me a pile of trouble later on, as it was assumed I would not need to be "led to the Lord." Hence, no pressure at the altar calls, and no parental anxiety about the state of my soul.
My tactful silence on the matter lasted until I left home at twenty. Meantime, I walked the walk and talked the talk, even with nonreligious friends - though my deception continued to be mainly by omission rather than by actively proclaiming a salvation that had not occurred. Awkward questions occasionally popped out - the result in one case was that Uncle Mark took out a subscription to the Institute for Creation Research newsletter on my behalf - but generally I pottered along quite happily through a loved and secure childhood, keeping my secret safe.
But Uncle Mark's hellfire sermons were not entirely without effect. It is fairly straightforward to admit to yourself that you do not find God to be a credible proposition. It is not so easy to be sure that you will not be punished for it. What if I was wrong? That hellfire thing sounded mighty unpleasant. I also had a few bad moments now and then when I came home to an empty house, and became worried that everyone else had been Raptured away while I was out. But the more I learned about what other sects, cults, and religions believed, all with an assurance and fervour equal to that of Uncle Mark and my parents, the better I was able to put my family's beliefs into perspective. When I left home, I quietly put the pretence away forever.
Now, I've compared notes with other atheists from a similar background - you often find a little knot of us at atheist/skeptic conferences, quizzing each other merrily on Bible trivia and the Baptist hymnal - and many of them had experiences similar to mine: early realization that they did not believe, years of tactfully keeping shtum about it, and eventual disengagement without much fuss or drama. Few feel embittered, or self-identify as "survivors," unless the church they left was particularly cultish or oppressive. None felt any urge to replace one ideology with another. Clearly, we were the lucky ones.
The situation now? My parents are no longer an issue; my father is dead, my mother deep in dementia. My sibs, who still hold to the faith, know perfectly well that I am an atheist, and wish that I weren't, but it has not poisoned our relationships. We love and amuse each other, and live virtually identical lifestyles, except that I am free to sleep in longer on Sunday mornings. They have all moved away from hardline fundamentalism to a degree that would shock our late Uncle Mark; in fact, they are typical of what many hardline atheists regard as more dangerous than the fundie lunatic fringe: liberal, educated Christians, socially responsible, ecologically aware, intelligent, charitable, kindly, and open to diversity. In short, the sort of Christians who give religion a good name.
For a long time, my question has been: why me? Out of six similarly nurtured children, why did one of us drop the baggage and amble away, while the rest continued in the faith? Contrary to some of the hardline atheist rhetoric, my siblings and a great many other religious people are not stupid, irrational, brainwashed, delusional, fanatical, or anti-science. And yet they believe.
Long discussions with one sister have been somewhat illuminating. Like me, she found the altar calls embarrassing and manipulative. Like me, she failed to feel the presence of God that the rest of the celebrants apparently felt. Like me, she recognized the unbelievable nature of much of what we were expected to believe. But she drew a different conclusion from mine: God was up there, all right, and her doubts were no more than a sign of her wickedness and lack of worth, not to mention her arrogance and pride. She kept on struggling well into her twenties, until she could convince herself that some things were beyond mortal comprehension, so it did not matter if they made no sense to her - as long as they made sense to God, the universe would unfold as it should. A critical difference between us was that she, by her own account, had the proverbial "God-shaped hole" in her life, whereas I did not. She felt she needed God to be there, or life would have no meaning. For my part, I had many questions about the universe, but the meaning of life was never one of them. So what about that God-shaped hole?
I had a kind of epiphany about it a few years ago. That sister and I had been having a long email debate about religion, frustrating because I could not understand how such a bright, thoughtful woman could believe such palpably unreasonable things. Inconceivable! Then she began annoying me with one of those canards that Christians often apply to atheists, that I was only an atheist because I was angry with God. With gritted teeth, I was wrestling with how to explain to her that I could not be angry at somebody else's imaginary friend. Then it hit me. She found my unbelief as unimaginable as I found her faith. No God? Inconceivable! Literally. I had always discounted the "God-shaped hole" as being no more than an especially irritating bit of Christian rhetoric, never having had one myself, but I began to wonder whether it might be a genuine phenomenon - for some people.