I grew up without a holy book present in my life, and honestly, I think it made me a better person: less afraid, more confident.
When I look back at my childhood, I guess I was a bit of a heathen growing up. My parents didn’t make me attend any kind of religious education, and they weren’t too into it at home, so I grew up without a holy book in my life. And honestly, I think it made me a better person: less afraid, more confident.
The funny thing is that because my household was pretty secular, I didn’t know I was missing out on anything. My sister and I grew up doing chores and helping out around the house, so we learned to be responsible little humans. We met relatives near and far, so we learned about kinship obligations (the Jorgensen family reunions in Michigan were always a blast; we could pick blueberries and eat them ’til we got a stomachache!). We had the big talks with our parents about what good and less-good ways of being in the world were.
If I ended up with messed-up ideas about how I was unworthy, I largely credit those to growing up in the Los Angeles area, where it was pretty damn clear that I would never meet the prevalent beauty standards.
If I had to be exposed to religious ideas, it was because we had to occasionally attend weddings and funerals inside places of worship. I mostly zoned out when holy books were read from, since they didn’t seem relevant to me at all. I guess I paid a bit more attention to the Torah, since when I was in middle school a bunch of friends went through bar and bat mitzvahs, and we had one set of Orthodox Jewish relatives we occasionally met up with. But none of it really resonated with me.
Then I took AP English in 12th grade. My teacher taught us textual analysis and lots of things, and she also made us read a ton of passages from the Bible, since biblical allusions form a large part of the literary canon.
She was clearly in the right, but I was resentful at the time. I didn’t think a two-thousand-year-old book was relevant to my life in the least bit.
And you know what? Apart from teasing out literary references and understanding the religious worldview of other people, I was right.
I’m glad I didn’t grow up with a narrow, oppressive, sexist concept of sin in my life.
I’m glad I didn’t grow up with the idea of an omniscient, judgmental God in my life.
I’m glad I didn’t grow up with the cattle prod of an afterlife to supposedly make me a better person.
Now, I can appreciate the folkloric qualities of the Bible, which I wrote about in our own OS contributor Jonathan MS Pearce’s collection of essays, Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century. I also wrote my own brief reflection piece on contributing to the volume here, too.
Are some parts of the Bible interesting and even beautiful from a literary, cultural, folkloric, etc. perspective? Sure.
And I can appreciate learning about the importance of the Bible when studying religious worldview, which I’ve discussed in terms of removing the religious lens some people have on life in order to better understand it. If followers of a religion are dominating a country’s politics (*cough* evangelical Christians in the U.S. *cough*) then yeah, it makes sense to learn about them and their beliefs and their tactics so we can be better activists in advocating for the, hm I dunno, literal necessity of separation of church and state built into this country’s structure.
But I look back on my past of having never read the Bible as an impressionable child, and I’m happy things turned out that way. I don’t think imposing a punitively sexist and judgmental book on kids is necessarily a good idea. Sure, there are parts that preach love, but I think it’s hard to separate those parts out from the judge-ier and scarier parts.
At the end of the day, the lack of a holy book in my early life taught me this: it is possible to be a good person without religion. I saw it all around me, in my Jewish-but-secular-leaning family, in the books I read, in the world I explored.
If religion is really as awesome as religious people claim it is, let people choose it as adults. Don’t force it on kids when they’re literally dependent on their caretakers. Let the Bible be just one more book among many, a part of world religious heritage we can choose to appreciate if desired, not a whip to force children to fall in line with a particularly judgmental worldview.