Dreaming of a Childhood without Demons

The church I grew up in, where I spent fifteen of the most impressionable years of my life, handed out lists of shows we couldn’t watch and music we couldn’t listen to and books we couldn’t read because they were supposedly Satanic.

This went beyond not reading Harry Potter: we couldn’t listen to the pop group B*Witched because it had the word “witch” in the name. The leaders were freaking paranoid of anything that would allow demons to enter their lives, and they were doling out this paranoia to little kids. Five-year-olds. Impressionable children who would grow up to be terrified of anything remotely related to witchcraft or Halloween or other religions because ZOMG there go the demons, entering your life, going to haunt you and turn you away from Jesus.

I was one of those little kids, and it’s taken me years to realise how abusive this was. How utterly screwed up it was, how much damage it’s inflicted on my life. Is my anxiety something I was born with, something I inherited, or something that’s a natural result of growing up listening to preachers tell stories about exorcisms?

I don’t know if my parents realised I was listening. They used to load me up with colouring books and stickers and plant me at the back of the room when some visiting preacher came to town, but surely they knew little kids take in everything they hear? I was terrified until I was in my late teens that I might accidentally make an object levitate and this would be a sign that I was possessed by demons. I sometimes experience sleep paralysis and didn’t realise until maybe last year that this is an actual thing and not just me being haunted by demons in my sleep.

This isn’t a normal “I grew up in a church” experience, right? Please tell me some of you grew up Pentecostal or Evangelical and aren’t constantly terrified of demons. I need to know this isn’t standard. I need to know that some of you aren’t angrily unpacking the emotional baggage of this twisted childhood and trying to figure out if you can still hang on to something of Christianity, that there’s something worth salvaging amongst all the crap.

When I was eight or nine, we watched a documentary about the Columbine High School shooting. Not a “This was a terrible thing, guns should be regulated” one, but one about how Christians were targeted and martyred for their beliefs. Recently I had a “Holy crap, they let us watch WHAT?” moment (and there were probably younger kids than myself in that room) and realised just how screwed up this was. I entered high school thinking this would happen, that people would challenge me on my beliefs, that people wanted me dead. I wrote my own stories about teenage girls who were hunted down for their beliefs (except they got out alive, because even then my stories had to have happy endings). This is where the Christian persecution complex comes from. The whole thing is seriously messed up.

One time, probably when I was seven, my dad played a demon in a church play. He dyed his beard red and painted his nails black, and I can’t remember anything else, but conversations with other ex-Evangelicals have revealed a couple of plays which it could have been and, bloody hell, they let seven-year-olds watch that? I’m glad I’ve blocked it out. And now I know where a lot of my guilt and shame-based theology came from.

There were so many other messed up things that we were taught. There was a gay agenda. All Muslims wanted to kill us. We had to evangelise our friends and bring them to church or they were going to hell. Wearing a top that showed my stomach when I stretched was tempting to the older men in the church (never mind that I was fifteen and shouldn’t be ogled in a freaking church). Men and women were equal, but also men were the head of the household and spiritual leaders. This man was accused of sexual harassment by a co-worker but obviously it’s a false accusation. The fact that his homeschooled daughters have to wear floor-length skirts doesn’t suggest he has messed up views about sexuality… All other religions actually worship Satan. Demons. There are demons everywhere and any time something’s wrong, we need to cast one out (good luck getting a decent mental health diagnosis before you leave home).

The list continues. You have to talk in tongues or you’re not a real Christian. You can’t go to that girl’s party because she might be a lesbian. Witches caused that plane to crash. Your dad has the gift of spiritual discernment and that’s why your mum can’t go out to see her friends tonight. You’re twelve, so now’s a good time to write a list of all the qualities you’re looking for in a husband, but also you can’t date anyone at youth group. That’s a Jezebel spirit, right there.

I’m glad I got out. I’m just amazed that I didn’t realise just how screwed up it all was until I was in my mid-twenties. I remember going to a BBQ at university and chatting to a Baptist friend about how so many Christian kids weren’t allowed to read Harry Potter, and I added in “Yeah, like how all of the Pokemon characters were demons and that was banned too?” and he looked at me weirdly then burst out laughing. He didn’t mean to, it just sounded so ludicrous.

You’d think that would be the stage where I started wondering what else was weird about the church (or was it a cult?) that I grew up in, but it would be years later before my entire world would implode (thank you, Trump) and I would look at the Christians I’d grown up with, the ones I’d worked with, the ones I still attended my slightly less ridiculous church with and ask “Who are you?” The moment I realised just how far my beliefs had evolved, and wondered if I could even call myself a Christian any longer.

I’m no longer terrified of demons. I still automatically sing “Our God is an Awesome God” in my head every time I experience sleep paralysis, before realising that, no, it’s not a demon, it’s just a weird sleep thing that other people who didn’t grow up Pentecostal experience too. I watch Supernatural and Buffy and have started reading books that feature witches and demons and it feels incredibly liberating. Maybe I’ll even read Harry Potter one day. I no longer skip over bands that describe themselves as pagan or new age. Other religions are fascinating now that I don’t think they’re trying to actively convert me to Satanism. I wear crop tops and mini skirts (when the weather permits, which isn’t often). The man I married, long before I began this spiritual deconstruction, doesn’t fulfil the godly list of husbandly attributes that I wrote when I was twelve, and I kind of think that dating him was my initial act of rebellion against all of the purity culture crap that I grew up with.

I’m trying to focus on the liberating aspects of getting out of this weirdness that I was immersed in for so long. If I get excited over reading horror stories and listening to black metal, I don’t have to figure out what I do still believe. I’m pretty sure God exists, because he’s been part of my life for too long to just throw away, but is hell an actual thing? Like, stories about demons are pretty fascinating, but are they real? Do I really believe that we’ll be eternally punished if we don’t believe in the right version of God? Is Christianity the only way?

As a parent, what am I supposed to teach my kid? Obviously, I’m going to avoid showing him videos of school shootings and telling him that popular music groups actually worship Satan, but what do I do? I get The Guilt, so much guilt, about not teaching him enough—mostly because I also have The Fear. Fear that I’ll screw him up, make him believe that he’s never being a good enough Christian, cause him to think that things he messes up are because demonic spirits are attacking him. I don’t want him to be bigoted. I don’t want him to be a jerk to kids with other religious beliefs, kids who aren’t straight, kids who are just different in some way. I was a snobby bigoted kid, and I wish I could go back and change that, go back and unhurt everyone I grew up with.

I left my kid in Sunday School on his own for the first time today, and it was terrifying. Our church is the gayest, hippiest, most inclusive and universalist church you could possibly imagine, but I’m still scared. Scared they’ll teach him some dodgy theology that he’ll spout at school. Scared that he’ll start freaking out about sins and salvation (subjects I haven’t even dared to broach, neglectful parent that I am). I know that he’s in a safe place, that our church is careful about what they teach young children, but I’m still scared. I don’t want him to turn out like me.

Whenever I think I’ve unpacked all of my utterly weird childhood religious experiences, I find something else. Some internalised misogyny or unfounded perception of another religion. Some part of history that I’ve just got entirely wrong for all these years. An utter lack of scientific knowledge about, well, anything. And guilt. So much guilt. I should feel so free, but I still feel so guilty. I’m still going to church, just a very different kind of church, but what if I’ve got it wrong? What if this isn’t a real church? Maybe we’re actually secretly worshipping Satan. Oh, there goes The Fear again. Damn it.

Will it ever be over? Will I ever unpack all of it and deconstruct it all and rebuild a faith that’s safe and comforting and not at all emotionally abusive? Apparently some people get to that final stage, where they’ve found a faith that’s stable enough to stand on. It still grows and evolves, but it’s more than just “I still think God exists, probably”.

Some days I don’t even call myself a Christian. I struggle to separate what I believe in from what I was taught as a child. Because some of that stuff was incredibly toxic. There, I’ve said it. It was toxic.

Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to have grown up in a different church, or in no church at all. It’s such a heretical thought that I will probably never be able to say those words out loud. Still, would it have been better? Are there enough good childhood memories to outweigh the utterly overwhelming baggage I’m trying to sort through now? The mental health problems that are probably rooted in the fearful and guilt-riddled religion I was spoonfed? Like, yeah, VeggieTales was pretty fun and one time our youth group went ice skating, but what is it like to experience childhood without being scared of demons?

Because that’s what I want for my child.

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