About a month ago I got back from a road trip to Las Vegas, more than 60 hours in the car over the course of eight days and one of the greatest experiences of my life. While there, I had the pleasure of seeing Penn & Teller perform at the Rio Hotel and Casino, something I wholeheartedly recommend everyone try at least once. As is their custom, after the show they hung out in the lobby of the theater and took pictures with everyone willing to brave the crowds. As my friends and I waited for our turn, trying to come up with something coherent to say that would do justice to the ninety minutes of talent and hard work we had just witnessed, my husband suggested to me, “Why not tell them Bullshit! saved your life?”
This would not be an exaggeration, not really, not when you put it together with the writings of Richard Dawkins, Steven Hassan, and Christopher Hitchens, the BBC Two specials by Louis Theroux, and the various television shows by mentalist Darren Brown. Not to mention the efforts of my husband, tireless crusader for truth and justice, who never gave up on me even when I spouted crazy cult psychobabble like some kind of animatronic Jesus doll.
Bullshit!, of course, is Penn & Teller’s myth-debunking show on Showtime, which helps people think critically about everything from psychics to recycling. And it was just one blow in a series of well-calculated strokes that slowly chipped away my horribly blockaded mind.
My first reaction to my husband’s suggestion, and admittedly my first reaction to anything, was, “I can’t do that.” That’s what growing up in a high-control religious group does to you. It makes you feel like you have no control. It makes you glad you have no control, thankful someone else has figured it out for you. And that’s how I spent the first 27 years of my life, instantly skeptical of anything that presented me a choice more complicated than which knee-length skirt to pair with which high-cut sweater. Almost a year later, I’m still struggling with that.
I left this blog for a while because I was frozen in fear of the choice I was presented: examine the greatest paradigm shift of my life by writing about it in something more public than a locked folder on my hard drive, or cower in fear of what might happen if the wrong people chanced upon anything negative I said about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the religious group my parents raised me in. In typical fashion, I pushed it all away, abandoning the blog and my best outlet for self-reflection. Now, I think I’m ready to go ahead with it, and part of this is because of what I ended up saying to Penn Jillette after he took pictures up my nose.
I chickened out with Teller. We had the privilege of getting a picture with him first, and all of us were so tingly with proximity all we could manage were giggles. When we had our picture and scampered away, I said breathlessly, “I touched him. I touched the fringe of his garment and his power flowed out of him and into me.” The perfect balance of blasphemy and truth to send us over to the crowd gathered around Penn, because now I was going to do it. I was going to tell him that Bullshit! saved my life.
Penn is a huge man, six and a half feet tall. His thumb is no less huge, and it planted itself square on the shutter button and took at least a dozen pictures of us, quite a few of them an inch away from my face. Giggling, jittery and euphoric, I looked Penn as close in the eye as I could and said, “I just want you to know, Bullshit! saved my life.”
There. I did it. Declared myself to one of my heroes. My work here was done.
“Oh, really?” he said. “How is that?”
Shit. Now what? In hindsight, my plan didn’t take into account that he might actually say something back. But this was Penn Jillette. Of course he was going to say something!
“It helped me get out of a cult,” I said, bold as heck now. “All of us. We were all in it.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” he said, with the saddest, most sincere voice I’d ever heard from him. This giant, this expert in deception and truth, was sorry for us!
“No, it’s fine!” I said. “I just wanted to say thank you!”
And we tore out of there as fast as we could, scrolling through the pictures he took, our laughter echoing back up the hallway. Did that really just happen?
I guess it did. The more people I tell, the less ashamed I am. Not that I’m ashamed of learning how to think, how to examine my beliefs and hold them up to the same rigorous standards I expected of the people I used to try to convert as a proselytizing Christian minister, or even of being identified as an atheist. I guess I’ve been ashamed of what the people I used to be close to would say about me if they really knew the extent of my unbelief. Because, if they did, they would call me the worst kind of person, the kind who abandons god and all his “promises” in exchange for a life of arrogant hedonism. They’ll say I’ve become “mentally diseased,” and even though I know it’s a lie, I guess I thought that by keeping my mouth shut, I could preserve whatever memory of me they may have.
But now I realize that’s out of my control. What’s worse, it’s playing by their rules. I’ve played by those rules my entire life, and to tell you the truth, I’m sick of them. I have no loyalty to a religious organization, but by keeping silent about the truths I’ve learned and the harm it’s done to innocent people, I’m still in the game. I don’t want to live in fear anymore. I want to be proud of who I am and the progress I’ve made, and I want to help people who are in the same position I was only a year ago. I can’t do that by pretending I don’t have an opinion. So, if I have to use scary words like cult to convey the gravity of the situation, I will. In my experience, that word gets the point across just fine.
So I suppose it’s time I made a confession. I was raised in a cult, but I’m doing better now. I’m tempted to say that I’m an atheist, goddammit, but I think I’ll just say I’m an atheist, life is beautiful, and leave it at that.