'I Lost My Father to Jesus Christ'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our Choosing Your Religion special project has run its course, and we’ve already aired a ton of your personal stories and reflections centered on the question “What Was Your Biggest Religious Choice?,” but there are still many more excellent emails worth posting, so we’ll continue to do so every Sunday, indefinitely. This next one comes from Maria, who as a teenager chose secular works of art over her family’s stifling religion and grew to favor the lessons of a Swedish auteur over her father’s:

I’m so pleased with the “Choosing My Religion” series! Much like the reader who submitted “The Security Blanket of Christianity Was Actually Smothering Me” and the accompanied email from Libby Anne, my biggest religious choice stemmed from the non-choice I faced during my childhood/teen years: I grew up in a self-proclaimed “non denominational” Christian church, one that boasts a literal interpretation of the Bible—one that, after many deep-internet sessions, I’ve found to be a cult.

I have only truly felt “myself” for the past five years, and I’ve thrown myself into books, film, and the depths of Spotify to counter years of starvation in these areas. This year I received Bergman on Bergman as a Christmas gift and found that Ingmar Bergman grew up with a strict religious father, a parish minister prone to harsh physical and psychological punishments. In these interviews, Bergman explores the effect such an upbringing had on his psyche, noting Christianity’s penchant for shame:

If I’ve objected strongly to Christianity, it has been because Christianity is deeply branded by a very virulent humiliation motif. One of its main tenets is, ‘I, a miserable sinner, born in sin, who have sinned all my days, etc.’ Our way of living and behaving under this punishment is completely atavistic.

He expands upon his objection to Christianity and its effects, thinking of his idol, August Strindberg:

It was just that [Strindberg] expressed things which I’d experienced and which I couldn’t find words for. I was stuffed with inhibitions—that’s something we mustn’t forget in this connection. I had difficulty in speaking, sometimes I even stammered a little, as I still do at times to this day. I also found it hard to express myself in writing—a tremendous resistance. I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t sing. I played a little, but wasn’t much of a hand at any musical instrument, either—I found it hard to read the music. I couldn’t dance. I was shut in every way.

I identified strongly with these words, and became even more obsessed with my personal narrative, as well as the effects of mandatory religious devotion on children.

My dad and step-mom were “reached out” to in the park where I played as a first grader. Until this point, my father wasn’t religious at all. He wore his hair long, was a devout vegan, he self-published an autobiographical comic, and looked like an extra from Slacker.

At first, he was outraged and offended at the invite. His (then) girlfriend was more receptive and started going to their church. She was drawn in by their seeming niceness and well-behaved kids; these folks emitted undeniable confidence.

After attending many church functions and completing their set of Bible studies, she was “born again” and became a Christian / “Disciple.” She promptly moved out of our house with the new conviction that to live with a man before marriage (read: premarital sex) is a sin in need of repentance.

My dad was heartbroken, unfulfilled by his art, unresolved over his failed marriage to my mother, and was moved in observance of his ex’s extreme change. When it became clear that he would permanently lose her if he did not convert, my dad followed suit.

He was transformed into a completely different person. One of the core beliefs of the church is living for your “treasure in heaven,” taking pride in possessing a strict outsider attitude towards the temporal world. With his newfound doctrine, he passed judgments on his extended and immediate family. He burned many bridges, losing friends from within the art community.

I was denied access to anything deemed “impure,” anything declared ungodly or “worldly.” Any piece of media that I watched, read, listened to, looked at, etc. was to be screened. This meant censorship of movies, TV, music, books, internet, questionable company (anyone outside of the church), extracurricular activities, teachings on evolution, overnight field trips … anything that contradicted their beliefs was a crude waste of time.

When you have someone consistently telling you that the things that you enjoy are sinful, evil, superficial, unimportant, negative, you may start hearing and believing, as I did: you are sinful, you are evil, you are unimportant. I felt that I lost my father to Jesus Christ, and it was not safe to be myself.

I went along with everything, believing what I was taught. I think I wanted to “win” my dad back—his approval. I was baptized at 13. My dad was thrilled with the choice, which in retrospect was not a choice at all. After all, I was a kid only getting one side of the story, being told that this story was The story.

I tried very hard to be the best little Christian. I invited my schoolmates to church, reached out to strangers at the mall, read the Bible and prayed daily, attended summer camps, Friday “devotionals,” Tuesday bible discussion group, Wednesday “mid-week” church service, and regular Sunday service. I had a “discipler” with whom I was to check in, reporting any sin, sharing “good news” of successful outreaches and getting life advice (approval) regularly.

When I left these beliefs behind at 15, the majority of my knowledge base was nullified. Having been programmed to devalue the secular, I was left with crushing depression and anxiety. My reason for living was revealed to be false logically, scientifically, and so on.

I left home after a falling out at 19, as it became too hard to live in their household as a non-believer. Since then, I’ve been trying to understand myself (and them), trying to deprogram.

These years following my departure from the church have been tumultuous. I am now 25 and have moved eight times. I’ve broken up with a few boyfriends who really loved me. I have had nine different jobs. I have a good amount of credit card debt. You could say my personal life has been unstable, and that I struggle with impulse control.

This year, I’ve been trying a new form of therapy: DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. In a recent session, my therapist wrote down two phrases and suggested that I look at them everyday until our next session, taking note of any feelings that arise:

1. I have to hide my interests and authentic self or else I’ll be rejected and unloved.

2. I have to prove my interests and authentic self or else I’ll be rejected and unloved.

She articulated the constant internal conflict that I feel which contributes to extreme self-hate, depression and anxiety. I am always seeking love and wanting to share myself and to be validated because I was not validated or loved in a healthy way in my childhood.

At the same time, I’m crippled by potential or perceived rejection: Anything not overtly positive is understood to be negative. I understand this now to be hyper-vigilance as a result of excessive criticism and control. My behaviors and symptoms are defense mechanisms, acting as a form of PTSD.

I was deprived of so many experiences and pieces of media, and I feel triggered when I don’t know or haven’t done something. I feel like a perpetual alien, always playing catch-up, feeling shame for not knowing the *thing* everyone else knew ages ago.

I’ll end with another Bergman quote, as there are no neat conclusions:

My basic view of things is—not to have any basic view of things. From having been exceedingly dogmatic, my views on life have gradually dissolved. They don’t exist any longer.