When I was a child I was very involved with Jesus. Pentecostal children are expected to obey their parents and avoid sins that would embarrass the family in front of church members. Other than that, intensive participation in the church is not really expected until you grow up, get married and start having kids of your own. There are plenty of counterexamples of course, and those few children who are especially tuned in to Jesus are often encouraged to begin “preaching” at an early age. I was tuned into Jesus but, thankfully, my parents didn’t push me to preach. Instead I was allowed to follow my own interest in the piano and by the time I was in my teen years I was the church pianist.
While other children were barely able to sit still in church I was listening to sermons, singing hymns, praying with fervent intensity and actively seeking a meaningful relationship with god. I was a bit different from the other kids around me. Even outside of church I was overly engaged with spiritual pursuits. At school I hid in the library during breaks and study hall. As the librarian's aide I took advantage of my private office to play gospel music on my little cassette player and gather spiritual strength to get me through the school day. I occupied my time on the bus with reading the Bible. If I’m being honest, this was as much an attempt to avoid interacting with the other kids as an exercise in piety but you can digest a fair amount of religious content during twice daily one-hour trips. After school I spent afternoons and summers exploring the woods, running with the family dog, reading books and doing homework, all the while in some form of prayer or meditation. Prayer was a constant for me and I probably didn’t go more than a few hours without talking with god during my entire childhood.
I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t a preacher or church musician in the making. I was just gay. Gay people usually have a mystical side to their personality and many cultures make great use of that quality. Sadly, ours does not (yet). Instead, people all along the queer spectrum are excluded from religious life in multiple ways. In my case I was told, and believed, that being gay was a demonic possession that would separate me from god, family and a meaningful life. This falsehood was so central to our Pentecostalism that it blinded me to my true nature for many years. This violent belief still permeates Pentecostalism and American society in general. The result is wounds so deep and lasting that thousands and thousands of young people lose their lives while struggling to be authentic to themselves.
Over the years I have miraculously avoided much of the sexuality shrapnel while watching friends and acquaintances fall all around. I don’t enjoy evoking war imagery but it seems authentic to my experience. Today the noise around queerness has quieted considerably, at least for me. I know what I believe and I’m comfortable with my existence in the world. It doesn’t hurt that the world itself is becoming a bit more sane with respect to sexuality and gender issues.
My childhood was a blessed time. I loved Jesus and he helped me through the troubles of adolescence and the teen years. And then, unexpectedly, my spiritual life was shattered in the process of coming out. I lost the ability to really talk with god because I lost trust in god. My most fundamental relationships fell apart - my parents deserted me, friends rejected me and the authority figures at my college indicted me. More importantly, the relationship I had with god could not absorb the challenges posed by my emerging identity. In the process of figuring out how to be an authentic adult I found that I had to leave god behind.
Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I had encountered good role models. I did know a couple of Pentecostal people who were gay but I didn’t want to be like them. They were laughed at and scorned and were tolerated only because they pretended to be straight. Everyone joined in the pretense when they were present and later laughed at them behind their backs. I knew I could never live like that, denying reality, pretending to be other than what I am, pretending that no one else knows who I am. Most of all I didn’t want to be part of a community of believers who acted like that. The role models I saw around me were untenable and my solution was to create my own brand of atheism.
My atheism has always been a Pentecostal atheism. By that I mean that I've continued to seek truth and authenticity. I do that through an introspective and recursive interior conversation that is a lot like the prayer process I used as a child. In fact, I still pray once in a while but I don’t really believe that there is anyone listening. I pray when I need to. I pray when I need that kind of comfort. I pray because I still believe in the value of some of the religious experiences of my childhood. I can’t inhabit those experiences in the same way I did as a child, but I don’t run from them. Instead I take what I can defend and what I can use and discard the rest. Learning to pray in this new way has been a blessing and it has been on my terms.
Pentecostalism is much more than a religious experience. It is a culture that emerged from the working class struggles of the late Nineteenth Century. Once you peel off the anti-science foolishness and the political bullshit of the culture wars it is easy to see its roots extending back to Colonialism and the Enlightenment. At the core of Pentecostalim are the principles of self determination and personal agency. The struggle of my life has been to use those principles to bend that culture towards my experiences of biology and personality.
Anthropology tells us that every culture has its shortcomings and contradictions. Each culture has imbedded within it rules that produce designated winners and preordained victims. Our saving grace is that all cultures change and individuals can shift the rules. None of us gets to live in the Garden forever. We must make the future out of what we are given.