Few people are as surprised by my militant atheism as they are by how I came by it.
When I tell these people that my parents were extremely devout fundamentalist Christians, they aren’t so surprised. It’s a common story, isn’t it? Call it “rebellion” if you like, but it is uncanny how the most Christian of parents tend to produce the most atheist of children. At least, that has been my experience.
No, none of that is surprising – it is what comes after that is unexpected.
For a long time while I was growing up, I didn’t really understand that my family was different. I didn’t have much exposure to the outside world, as I was homeschooled along with my younger brother, Charlie. Our days went something like this:
6:00 a.m. – We would wake up, dress, and kneel at the foot of our beds for morning prayer. In the morning, we prayed the rosary. Charlie always hated it, but I found the repetition to be soothing. I liked the routine feel of its chanting.
7:00 a.m. – Breakfast. We weren’t allowed to eat much, as my parents wanted to teach us the importance of fasting. Jesus didn’t have much to eat, so neither would we. We usually each had some toast and that was it.
8:00 a.m. – Morning Bible study. We learned to recite many passages aloud. We wrote essays on the more involved stories. We often focused on the Old Testament, as our parents believed it was undervalued in current society – not that we knew anything about society, current or otherwise.
12:00 p.m. – Lunch, thank God, was more substantial. It was accompanied by a lively discussion of what we’d learned in “class” just a few moments before.
1:00 p.m. – At this point, we had another hour of prayer by ourselves. Once again, we knelt in front of our beds on the cold wooden floor. I learned more about endurance from those hours of kneeling than I could have learned anywhere else.
2:00 p.m. – Here were our “normal” classes. Math, science, literature. God still intruded in these most secular of subjects. He was unavoidable, really. But at least we learned something substantial during this time, biased or not.
6:00 p.m. – Supper.
7:00 p.m. – Family study session. Father would read to us from the Bible and we would murmur in assent. We’d sing some hymns and rejoice in all of God’s heavenly glory.
8:00 p.m. – An hour of prayer.
9:00 p.m. – Finally, we’d be allowed to sleep.
This was how I passed each day of my childhood. As Spartan as it may seem, I must remind you that it’s nothing illegal. Many other children receive the same treatment as Charlie and I did. It typically goes unnoticed. The children grow up so sheltered that they are bred perfectly to take their parents’ places. Then, they raise their own children to be much the same. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, and it receives very little attention in our society.
But I digress.
My point is that life continued in exactly this fashion until the summer I turned ten and Charlie turned seven. That’s when my parents began staying up late at night, whispering. That’s when they began making strange phone calls. That’s when the routine changed.
That’s when they signed us up for summer camp…
They were very excited about the prospect – so excited, in fact, that they talked about it non-stop. It was a camp for kids like us, they said. Religious kids. Good kids. And we would get to learn about God with these kids. We would have friends. We were going to learn so much. God was going to be very, very pleased.
I won’t pretend that I wasn’t excited by the prospect of having friends – in the past few years, I had begun to want a playmate of my own age. Of course, by that time I knew better than to bring it up with my parents. They didn’t respond well to us children having wants or desires. These desires were sinful, of course.
But as exciting as the prospect was, I was somewhat… less than pleased about the whole affair. I was a creature of habit. I liked the routine, the repetition. And this was something entirely new and alien. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself trust it. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t even trust my own parents. It was so out of character for them. I had something of a premonition.
A premonition that proved to be true.
Camp started on June 16th. Perhaps it seems strange to remember everything so sharply. Most memories fade over time. Unfortunately, the following days aren’t just any memories. Regardless, the 16th is forever imprinted in my mind. It was the day that my parents loaded my brother and me up with our two backpacks, and we set out on the road.
My first clue that something was wrong was that backpack. The camp was supposed to last two weeks, but we only had a small pack with a few changes of clothes, a toothbrush, and a cross for each of us. I had thought to ask my parents why we were taking so little, but I figured that it was an issue easily solved with obedience and trust. We’d be taken care of. Who cared about the particulars?