The seed of my religious questioning began back in the late 1970s at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Granted, my actual release from religion was a couple of decades down the road, but often, it takes just a hint, just a small push, to cause a person to begin to doubt.
My questioning began with the Baptists—not just any Baptist, but the Southern Baptists.
I don’t know what the dogma is right now in the mid 2010s, but I know that when I grew up in the 1970s, the prevailing dogma of the Southern Baptist Convention was that the Baptists were absolutely, unequivocally right and every other Christian sect or denomination—every single other denomination—was wrong.
My freshman year at Texas Tech University, I met many lovely young women in the dorm. Most of these young women were from the small local towns around Lubbock and the Texas Panhandle, or eastern New Mexico. This part of the United States is very insulated, cut off demographically from large cities because of very long distances. Often, distances of an hour or more stand between these towns in west Texas and eastern New Mexico. Because of such isolation these towns are deeply conservative and rather homogeneous, fearful of any ideas that are different. Texas Tech, in the 1970s, often had the feel of a conservative Christian university. Then craziness would upend the university when Playboy Magazine would show up and photograph some of the young women in sororities in the nude and splash them on their pages, under headings such as, “The Girls of the Southwest Conference.”
Many of my new friends were Southern Baptists. The Baptist Student Union, or BSU at Texas Tech was a slick organization created to bring in new members en masse to the fold. What’s there to loose in going to the welcome event my first week in school? I remember watching a production of a takeoff on The Wizard of Oz. The first song was “Somewhere Over the Caprock,” a play on the geological escarpment just to the east of Lubbock. Ironically, this geological feature is estimated to be 1-2 million years old and formed by erosion. The Sothern Baptist baulks at such earthly ages in general, believing that the Earth is 6,000 years old. As someone who does not particularly care for the music of The Wizard of Oz, the song can unearth itself from my memory banks and give me instant nausea. Two of my new friends, Dorothy and Betsy, were Southern Baptists through and through. Their mission in life was to bring many, many into the fold. I was one of their targets.
By my sophomore year, I was one of the Resident Assistants in one of the dorms at Tech. Both Dorothy and Betsy also joined the RA staff. I recall that our particular dormitory had six or eight RAs. I considered my fellow RAs to be my dear friends. I think they also considered that I was a good friend of theirs, but two of these RAs. Dorothy and Betsy were still not content that I had not joined them as a Southern Baptist. I had grown up in a Methodist church. It was technically an evangelical Methodist church, which really did not completely mesh with the United Methodist doctrine. But it was the neighborhood church in my hometown and my parents had grown up as Methodists, so they carried over their religion and their denomination to their children. My mother was very proud to be a multi-generational Methodist.
Dorothy and Betsey began ramping up the rhetoric to draw me towards their denomination. I remember being told repeatedly that I was going to go to “hell” if I did not accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and join the Southern Baptist Church. The bombardment was constant and because of their railing, I wish that I had the forethought to simply transfer to The University of Texas—Austin, where I had wanted to go to college in the first place. In my naiveté, I stayed in Lubbock and continued to be harassed by my fellow employees.
Under such harassment, I ended up joining a VERY PROGRESSIVE United Methodist congregation where I was able to feel somewhat at home. I used this church and the attached Wesley Foundation as a haven from the attempted intimidation of my fellow Southern Baptist RAs.
Even after my graduation from Texas Tech, I contacted these two ladies in an attempt to rekindle my friendship with them. But, I suppose, both of them saw me as a danger to their beliefs and both rejected me as a continued friend rather than allow me into their lives. Granted, they were both highly involved in the church. One of them even spent time in South America on mission work. She told me of a horrible automobile accident in Peru where she was injured and a woman in the car with her was killed. A horrendous experience, to say the least, but I was willing to continue to be friends with her and listen and learn from her. But she told me that it was her goal to listen only to God and know at any and every given moment what God wanted her to do. Apparently, God did not want me in her life. Neither one ever contacted me again.
Over the years I have played our friendship over and over in my mind. I’ve tried to adapt my thinking to theirs and the Southern Baptist theology. However, what I have found is that the dogma of the Southern Baptists is limiting and hate-inducing. I find that the hatred and exclusiveness continues in the Southern Baptist model and has only become more dogmatic and distasteful to me.
Moreover, if a Christian organization is so defensive against and abhorrent of its fellow denominations, what does it say about that organization? For me, if I must be a part of a specific denomination that causes me to feel uncomfortable around all other people who are not like me, then I cannot be a part of that organization. I concluded that I was living in a hell on earth just being around these women who were trying to force me to believe the way they believed, even though I found their beliefs to be stifling and, frankly, insulting against many of my fellow human beings. If I don’t want to spend time on earth with those who think this way, why would I want to spend an eternity with them? The answer to me was that I did not want to have anything to do with their beliefs. So not only did I begin questioning the Southern Baptist idea of life, I began questioning the Christian ideas in the 20th and 21st centuries. Really, this is what the Southern Baptist dogma taught me to do—question religion on its fundamental level.
So I am grateful for my fellow Southern Baptists students who began to open my eyes, not just to the absurdity of the Southern Baptist beliefs, but to the absurdity of the beliefs in which I was steeped. For better or for worse, my time at Texas Tech University, a public university inundated in religious zeal, helped me to understand how religion became a negative force in my life.
Thus, my journey began…