Sep. 24th, 2013

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Recently my uncle, Bill Sanford, passed away at eighty-two years old. Bill was a minister in the Methodist Church. He was also one of the most purely positive role models in my life. I am grateful to Bill in countless ways for his loving presence, but I want to focus on the impact he had as a Christian on me as a lifelong agnostic. What a beautiful example he is of living the loving teachings of Jesus.

To explain Bill’s influence on me, it’s necessary to talk a little bit about me. I have always been an agnostic. I learned agnosticism at my parents’ knees as others learn Catholicism or Judaism. If I asked my parents if God existed, they would reply with “I don’t know.” This belief system was ingrained in me by the time I was five years old. In the years since, my sense of what agnosticism means has grown more complex, but I have never had the desire to be anything other than agnostic.

Being an Agnostic Kid in the United States

Compared to many countries, the United States, blessedly, has a high degree of religious freedom. But it is a nation culturally dominated by Christianity, and it is not always easy to be an agnostic child among a Christian majority. Here are a few of my childhood experiences:

In kindergarten, I had a Jehovah’s Witness friend. While she and her family were always nice to me, I was not allowed to play with her outside of school: my mother explained to me that they thought I was a bad influence because I wasn’t a Christian.

When I was five or six and playing with a friend at my house, I mentioned that I didn’t believe in God. My friend burst into tears and started walking for home (three miles away). As I followed her down the road, she explained, sobbing, that she couldn't play with me because I worshipped Satan. Finally I told her I did believe in God, which cheered her up. I think this is the only time I have ever flat-out lied about it.

At eleven, my lifelong best friend, a Catholic, noted offhandedly that I was damned. There was no malice in the statement: it was just a fact. I wasn’t a Christian, and only Christians are saved. (I should note that today's Catholic Church has a more nuanced view than this child's understanding.)

With such experiences, reinforced by cultural narratives like televangelists’, it is perhaps not surprising that as a child I was afraid of churches and resistant to Christian teachings. My mother dragged me to church once or twice for my cultural literacy. I remember sitting in Sunday School, being forced to sing “Jesus Loves Me” with a feeling of dark detestation at the fact that I was supposed to believe Jesus loved me because “the Bible tells me so,” as if we should believe everything we read!

But these negative impressions of Christianity were not my only childhood experience.
My Uncle the Minister )

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