Fred Clark, in his recent post, gave me a label for an event in my childhood that helps explain why my bland skepticism about religion sometimes gives way to some bitterness. He calls it “salvation anxiety.”
It’s the summer of 1980, I believe, and I am in Colorado, visiting my father and my stepmother. For whatever reason, my sister and I are sent to some sort of Vacation Bible School; probably with our step-siblings. The teacher at this facility tells us earnestly that we need to say some particular words about loving Jesus and accepting him as our savior or we’ll go to hell. I was panicked. I couldn’t remember the words. During a break, I made my sister repeat the words over and over until I could say whatever it was correctly so I didn’t go to hell.
I think back to that day and the person who scared me like that as a child, and I hate her. Now, maybe I misunderstood the particulars of what she said. Maybe she didn’t say that one had to say particular magic words verbatim. But the tactic was as undeniable as it is common: use fear of hell to compel worship of a particular god. Using that fear at all is questionable. Using it on a child is reprehensible.
Those who have ever been a part of the American evangelical subculture know all about salvation anxiety. It’s why churches have altar calls even when everyone sitting in the pews has already come forward several times in that very church. It’s why evangelical youths re-re-re-dedicate their lives to Christ every time they’re invited to do so. It’s why many of us early on mastered the multi-leveled self-awareness required to pray with utter sincerity while simultaneously gauging that sincerity in the hopes that it will seem sincerely sincere.
This also reminds me of one of my earliest logical/philosophical breakthroughs. I was maybe six, and I was worried about whether I really believed in Jesus; again, because I had been taught that if you don’t believe in Jesus, you go to hell. Then, it occurred to me that, if I was afraid, it meant I believed. Otherwise, why would I be afraid?
Putting kids through that sort of mental trauma is obnoxious.