Science and a Religious Experience

After a service I was sitting down, brow furrowed, when David, the Pastor, walked up. “You know, I really don’t think I’m actually atheist.”

I watched a smirk start on his face.

“Well, it’s just, I have certain… religious experiences… I can’t deny.”

And he waited for me to expand, smiling.

“See, when I was 10, my family wasn’t really in a church, but I was raised to believe. Every summer when we were with my dad, we would go to his church. That summer for one service, they were doing this anointing with oil thing in the kids class and taking the time to pray with each kid. I thought it was kind of dumb, but was trying to be respectful. So, it got to my turn and they were praying with me and I’m going along with it… When suddenly, I’m kind of in my own headspace and I can hear them laughing and talking about me. I try to focus and realized that I was speaking in frigging tongues and had no idea.

All along, I’ve been able to find science to explain religion and its benefits. Prayer, meditation, community, working on yourself… It’s all good. But I can’t explain that experience when I was 10.”

He didn’t push it, just made a comment poking fun at me saying I was in trouble and God was coming for me (haha).

So I went home and I was determined to explain that experience. I was reading studies about speaking in tongues trying to find something, *anything* to explain it.

I found some really interesting things. The scientific term is glossolalia. When they did brain imaging of people who were speaking in tongues, what they expected was for the language part of the brain to be lighting up. It wasn’t. The parts lighting up weren’t even matching what happens when people meditate. It was actually looking more like disassociation – which is so interesting! There were studies done on the effects of people who regularly spoke in tongues and it showed that they were generally far more resilient to daily stresses than those who didn’t.

All fascinating things.

The one thing I could use was that when people were exposed to it – even an audio clip – 70% of people were able to replicate it themselves. So, that would explain my teens, when I was trying to speak in tongues. But, when I was 10 it wasn’t even on my radar.

I went back to David and told him everything I’d found and said “I really don’t think I can say I’m an atheist. But I don’t want to believe. It’s not the rational thing. I don’t want to look like I’m dumb. I don’t want to be a Christian.”

He was unbelievably patient with me. Every argument I brought with him, he explained his side of it. He talked with me about how science and faith can co-exist.

Did you know 2/3 scientists have a personal god? I didn’t! When I read that I was like “These people, who know far more science than I do, believe. And I’m denying real experiences and feelings in the name of science? That makes no sense!”

As the logical side of me was starting to feel placated and I was getting comfortable with the idea of being a logical believer – God decided to touch on my emotional side… something I had worked extremely hard to cut off.

When God Closes a Door, He Opens Your Heart

I left my husband. It was messy. I was suddenly a single mom and I was alone for the first time in my life. I couldn’t adjust to not having someone sitting with me to watch tv or to chat with about my day. Every night I would break down. I would panic feeling like I would never see another person again.

I kept meeting with the pastor, David. He would encourage me and tell me he was proud of me. It helped but I was struggling and honestly didn’t feel like I was going to be able to carry the weight of all this.

I was doing my best to reconnect with any friends I thought might have me and I spent my nights with any guy that would have me. An old friend, Amie, reached out to me and asked me if I knew of any churches in the area she could try. She was leaving my childhood church because of the toxic environment. I told her about David and the church and she asked if I’d like to go with her one week. I agreed.

So, we went to church. It was very tongue in cheek. I posted this picture on facebook captioned “Got to look cute for Jesus!”

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All my atheist friends thought it was hilarious.

But I went and the music started and in my chest was this comforting, nostalgic feeling. I remembered the music. I remembered what it was like to worship. I missed it.

I went there ready to poke holes in David’s service… but it was good. He was talking about how Christians who are hammering on the rules of the Bible have missed the point. After growing up in the church I had, I was shocked.

So I went back next week and posted this picture captioned “When Jesus keeps you coming back #atheistsinchurch”

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My atheist friends found that much less funny.

So, week after week, I went to church and every single week, the feelings in my chest would grow. Every time I would go to church, I would feel this raw emotion and I loved the comfort but was really concerned because I worked so hard to turn off my emotions for years… I didn’t want them to come back.

After a few weeks, I started asking some questions. I couldn’t deny what was going on and I needed answers.

Finding Friends in Unexpected Places

Towards the end of my marriage, I realized I had no support system. My husband had done really well at isolating me and I would have nothing to fall back on if I left him. So, when a dad from my daughter’s school was handing out flyers for a meeting to start up a local farmer’s market, I jumped at the idea. Finally, something for me to do! There would even be people there!

I honestly thought that I hated people, but felt like it was something I needed. So, I went to the meetings and was miserable with everyone. The first meeting I was able to sit apart from everyone and avoid talking to them but the second meeting, the layout was in groups of tables. And I was stuck sitting beside the pastor of the church.

The first things I did were to tell him I hate his church logo and make a bunch of sarcastic (but true to me) comments about how I didn’t want to sit next to the pastor. I was a really lovely person. But, he took it in stride and laughed it off.

Meanwhile, my marriage was getting more and more aggressive. My husband was downright vicious in what he would say. There was a particularly bad blow up at me one day right before my meeting, but I had to get out of the house, so I went.  I was obviously not okay. I was struggling to hold it together and had to step out at one point for a breather.

The pastor pulled me aside at the end to make sure I was okay and I gave him a cliffs notes version of what was going on. He was super supportive and we started meeting every week from that point on. What amazed me, and kept me going, was that he knew I was atheist. He never once mentioned God. He didn’t ask me to pray at the end. He just listened and supported me as my marriage fell apart and, eventually, as I struggled with being a single mom.

The Love I Knew – My Story

This story is not one that I freely tell. As of right now, only three people have heard it. When I shared it with my pastor, he pointed out that none of this was love. At 25, I had never experienced real, true love.

So here we go.

When I was around 5 years old, my mom invited her dad to stay with us. I didn’t know until I was a teenager that he actually has seriously abused her in ways I can’t even fathom. She had three young daughters and still invited him to stay. One night, he went out drinking and I was all excited about the air mattress he was sleeping on. So, I asked if I could sleep there that night. She agreed. I won’t get into detail, but certain physical things happened that I suppressed for quite a few years. When I managed to get up I just said “I think I should go to my room now…” and ran away.

I know growing up I was known as “the neurotic child”, I wasn’t comfortable with most people and I had a hard time making friends. I didn’t understand why the other kids acted the way that they did.

When I was 12, my family started going to a really toxic church. What was more toxic was the way my mom made it our entire world. The pastors were everything and the church was where we were almost every day of the week.

At 13, my suppressed memory hit me. It had come up a few times before, but I couldn’t push it down this time. It kept hitting and hitting. Around this time, the pressures from the church and not fitting in took it toll and now this memory was on my mind all the time. So I started to self harm (cut myself). I would do it nearly daily and would continue to do it for about a decade – into my 20s.

I went to my pastor and finally told someone what had happened to me as a kid and showed him that I had been hurting myself. He asked me who I had seen self harming and told me I was just copying someone else. He also told my mom what had happened to me and at home she said “Oh, that’s all he did to you? Ok.”

But my self harm was everyone’s focus. Occasionally, I’d have bouts where I’d stop eating. It was too much. But, in the end, people were giving me some attention and it was more than I’d ever gotten before. So my past abuse and my self harm became my identity. When people weren’t talking about it, nobody cared about me.

I got my first job when I was 16 and I clearly remember being shocked that the people I met were so nice. They weren’t Christians but they also weren’t the depraved, lost, hurting people the church had warned me about. I also met a guy. I went home to ask my mom for rules to group date this guy and told her I kissed him and she lost it. She yelled at me until she told me to get out. So, I called the only non-church friend I had and moved there a few days later.

I tried to still go to the church-school and to the church. But the pastor/principal pulled me aside on my first day back and said that I wasn’t welcome there anymore and warned me that I was very likely to be raped if I left.

Things got really dark for me at this point. I felt like I was trash. My first time having sex was with that guy, he made it clear that it was expected and had me do things totally inappropriate for a first time. When he was done, he literally told me to go home. That was it.

So, I started seeing guys.

I went to a party when I was 16 and told a guy who was interested in me that I had a boyfriend and I wasn’t interested. I got very drunk and woke up in his bed with bruises all over me and no memory of the night before except falling a lot when I was trying to walk.  My friends all abandoned me because I said that I didn’t consent. I lost my boyfriend.

Soon afterwards, I started talking with the man who would become my husband. He was very sweet and visited me to take me to prom. I was over the moon. But the first night, he showed up at my window, climbed in and expected sex. So, I gave in. His entire visit was him having me do things with him in semi-public places for the thrill. But, it was finally someone who wanted to be with me. Finally, someone to love me.

I moved in with him a couple months later and we got engaged. I had left my family and was relying on him, so when I found out he had cheated, I really felt like I had no choice. We got married.

Marriage was rough, there were good times, but I did most of the work. We had two gorgeous kids, but he really mistreated our son.

In the end of our relationship, he was pushing me into sex acts I didn’t enjoy. That eventually turned into swinging, which I also didn’t enjoy. Soon afterwards, he was trying to sell videos of me, promising I would do extremely demeaning things for no money. He even agreed to have me set up an “arrangement” with a man, basically, sex for money.

Once I finally escaped my marriage, I was so desperate for love, any kind of connection at all, I was having sex with anyone who would have me. I distinctly remember a week with 5 different guys.

And that’s the story. This is where it gets good.