Many of my high-school days were spent reading books like Darwin’s Black Box and The Case for a Creator. My church and family were six-day Young-Earth Creationists, and defending this interpretation of Genesis 1-2 from Neo-Darwinian or Gap theory was central to my faith system at the time.
Without a literal understanding of those chapters, I believed, the Gospel fell apart.
For many years I made it my mission to stay current with all the creationist arguments—I’m fairly certain I’ve read any layman-accessible book on the subject that was published before 2005, and I read the Answers in Genesis blog and Ex Nihilo (now called Journal of Creation) fairly consistently up until 2009. Creationism was important enough to me that I defended it even when I struggled with the rest of Christian theology and the concept of a loving God in particular.
In college, I decided that it was pointless for me to keep reading only books written by creation scientists, so I started picking up other works like The God Delusion and A Brief History of Time. Dawkins’ book rattled me because he agrees with fundamentalists about the nature of God but is far starker and blatant in his descriptions, but nothing any of these books said about creation really shook me. I already had arguments that “disproved” their position.
During this time, I got involved in a fairly heavy internet debate on creationism that went on for weeks. Interestingly enough, even though the debate started out extremely antagonistic, it grew milder and eventually I became friends with a few people from the “opposition.”
Toward the end of that conversation, one of my fellow debaters brought up a point I’d never encountered before: endogeneous retroviruses. He sent me a few journal articles about it, and after reading them I was deeply disturbed. ERV insertion points in human and chimp genomes matched too closely for comfort, and I was sick and tired of the “common creator” defense. A common creator could explain a lot of things from an early 20th century phylogeny perspective but not with modern understandings of genome mapping—and most especially not ERV insertion points.
So, I did what any good creationism-defender would do: I wrote a letter to Answers in Genesis. I outlined the debate I was in, included links to the journal articles, explained all the research I’d already done (which included everything AiG had on genetics at the time), and asked if there was a creation scientist who’d studied ERVs and had a compelling argument against them as evidence for common ancestry.
The letter I got back was … infuriating would be putting it mildly.
They sent me a link to an AiG article on genetics that didn’t even mention ERVs (they’ve since updated a page to include it after I called them on it last year, but they only fall back on their position regarding “junk DNA” and don’t engage with the evidence satisfactorily), and then they went on to call into question my salvation, my faith, my relationship with Jesus, my intelligence, and my dedication to creationism.
They didn’t even bother answering my question.
They sent back an irrelevant blog post and then told me that my actual problem was not having enough unflinching, blind, unquestioning faith in the creationism model.
If I really believed in creationism, then my confidence should be unassailable and no amount of evidence for common ancestry should bother me, they said.
That was when the house of cards come crashing down. I’d spent the last few years struggling with other aspects of my faith, struggling to believe in God, struggling to believe that Christianity was true. I’d clung to creationism like a lifeline because if I could prove creationism, then Christianity was a fact no matter my doubts about the matter, and I didn’t have to go through the excruciating process of asking questions I didn’t want to think about.
I’d turned to AiG in a literal moment of desperation because they were my intellectual stronghold. AiG supposedly encouraged learning, thinking, engaging, criticizing, evaluating. They represented the last reserve I had in keeping my fundamentalist faith intact, of believing in Christianity as a literal, falsifiable, provable fact.
What I received from them was the opposite of everything I’d trusted them to be. I thought my question would be received warmly, my willingness to engage with evolutionary arguments praised.
Instead they shamed me for daring to do what I’d always believed was a central part of creation science: asking questions.
At that moment, I could no longer in good conscience defend creationism or any other part of my fundamentalist faith—the only faith system I believed had an ounce of integrity or truthfulness on its side. I was rudderless.
It’s been five years since then and I’ve managed to reclaim my identity as a Christian, although Ken Ham would probably condemn me and my progressive beliefs in the harshest language possible. In a way, I should probably thank him. Without such a colossal failure on his part, I might never have had the opportunity to really start questioning everything I believed.
A fundamentalist Christian family is a hard place for a woman to grow up.
I was taught by my parents (and, more urgently, by all the books available to me) that a woman’s place is in the home. A woman’s highest calling is marriage and child-rearing. All of my talents and abilities and dreams could be met and fulfilled in building a happy home for my family. If (god forbid) I were to end up single, I could be a nurse, like Florence Nightingale, or a missionary, or maybe a teacher. I didn’t know anyone with a career, as far as I knew. There actually were some women at church who had jobs, but they were either single or else I didn’t know that they had jobs. It was just assumed by everyone that the normal pattern was for a woman to marry and give up her job as soon as she had kids, to dedicate herself full-time to taking care of them and, most likely, homeschooling them. After all, Paul wanted women “to be keepers at home.” And what someone wanted for women two thousand years ago is obviously the best thing possible for all women throughout time.
But two women slipped through the cracks and crept into my early image of successful womanhood. Of course later, as my view of the world widened, there would be others, but these two I knew from early on in my childhood, and each holds a place in my heart.
When you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I (not feeling that motherhood right away would be my path) would respond either teacher or nurse, and singer. Singer? What a random career option. This is because we had some old records by Amy Grant, which my mom had recorded onto tapes, which I listened to constantly. She inspired me to enjoy singing, and I wanted so badly to be like her, singing such beautiful songs for a living. I imagined being on a stage, people clapping for me. The dream was squashed by two things. First, when Amy Grant got a divorce, I felt terribly betrayed. I was too young to understand the reasons why it was actually a good thing for her to get out of that marriage, and I had been taught that divorce is a horrible sin. I wouldn’t listen to her music for months afterward. The second dream-squasher was being taught that everything needs to be done for god, not for oneself. This led me to believe that performance was in some way wrong, perhaps not for other people but for a selfish, prideful person like me, it certainly would be.
My other early female inspiration was Captain Kathryn Janeway, from Star Trek: Voyager. The series ran from the time I was five years old until I was eleven, and oh, how I wanted to be Captain Janeway. I recall in particular one birthday party, I couldn’t have been older than six, where we went to a park and played on one of those big playground structures. I ignored all the other kids at the party and ran around the playground structure pretending to be Captain Janeway commanding the starship Voyager. I sucked in my stomach because I thought that made it look like I was a grown-up woman with boobs, lending me more credibility in the character of female spaceship captain.
I have literally no clue how I continued to want to be Captain Janeway alongside being taught harmful patriarchal bullshit about having to be a totally submissive wife and mother with no career or dreams or goals of her own except serving her family. I don’t know how Janeway survived my upbringing, how she remained enshrined in my heart as a totally badass role model, but she did.
Maybe it’s like the way I believed in both evolution and creation at the same time. My Grandpa gave us books about dinosaurs and fossils and I devoured them (as I devoured all books), and somehow held separate in my mind two alternate timelines for the universe. The first timeline was illustrated by the pictures in my bible story books, god creating everything from nothing, the luscious garden scenes, the temptation and fall of mankind, the flood, and then it appeared that everybody lived in the desert for a long time, with camels and stuff. The second timeline was illustrated by the dinosaur books and a couple other books that managed to slip through the cracks. There were volcanoes and organisms crawling out of the water, sea monsters and dinosaurs and cave men. There were magical words like “Jurassic” and “Cretaceous” and “trilobite.” The evolutionary timeline seemed more like a fantasy than the biblical timeline, just because it wasn’t continuously reinforced during every waking moment. But the evolutionary timeline was so taboo I got an almost sexual thrill from thinking about it, reading about it, looking at those strange landscapes and animals, and I thought that it, too, along with the bible taken in a strictly literal sense, was true. There’s no way to reconcile how I was taught the bible with the evolutionary theory, but yet those beliefs coexisted in my mind. In the same way, there’s no way to reconcile the patriarchy I was brought up in with an admiration of Captain Janeway, but I held on to both anyway.
Maybe it’s because, deep down, I liked a world where dinosaurs roamed exotic forests and then millions of years later a woman could captain a starship better than a world that had been around for brief few thousand years of history in which women were always morally obligated to be subjected to men and never aspire further than the home. And maybe it’s because, deep down, I knew as soon as I encountered it what I actually believed, no matter how strenuously I tried to make myself believe what I was being taught.
Fundamentalist Homeschooling Is A Poison: Isaiah’s Story
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Isaiah” is a pseudonym.
I have mixed feelings about homeschooling, to say the least. While I find many, if not most, of the common criticisms of homeschooling to have some kind of validity, I still feel myself cringe when homeschoolers are caricatured as deranged fundamentalists since I know from experience that there is more to the story. My experience with homeschooling consists of extremely varied highs and lows — the highs of a dedicated and capable parent as a teacher, an education that fit with my self-motivated personality, and freedom from rigid schedules; and the lows of religious indoctrination and the personal struggles caused by living in an insular environment. If the good side of my homeschooling experience was very good — and it was — the bad side was very bad, and I still feel its effects to this day.
I was homeschooled for my entire lower-level education — kindergarten through high school — and in that time I knew homeschoolers from all sides of the social spectrum. I knew unschoolers, conservative Christians, liberal Christians, vaguely religious people, non-religious people, and even a Wiccan at one point (though I didn’t know what “Wiccan” meant until some time later). I knew people — or more accurately, the children of people — with a fairly wide range of beliefs and philosophies which had led them to homeschool, rather than just the evangelical families so well-represented in cultural tropes about homeschoolers.
But in spite of the diversity I was exposed to, my experiences have led me to be very suspicious of homeschooling in general, for a simple reason: in the homeschooling movement, the most extreme voices are the majority. There is a reason why the archetype of homeschoolers as fanatical morons is so popular. For every parent who chooses to homeschool for health reasons, extenuating circumstances, or educational philosophy (ie, that of unschooling), it seems like there are ten who homeschool because they are part of the fundamentalist or Quiverfull movements. Knowing what I know now about the history of homeschooling, this makes sense. After all, the Quiverfull movement openly says its goal is to produce large broods of future homeschoolers who will repeat the process over and over until they outnumber everyone else, and while the majority of Christian homeschoolers tend to be less brazen, they often only believe in milder versions of the same philosophies touted by Michael Farris and the other leaders of the Fundamentalist/Quiverfull movement.
Fundamentalist homeschooling is a poison. I say this from experience. It spreads like a virus, and not just among the conservative Christians who form its natural hosts. There are people of milder faith who get progressively sucked into more and more conservative elements of the homeschooling movement. Sometimes, through ignorance of fundamentalism’s real motives and philisophical underpinnings, a person can be lulled to sleep by the superficially attractive images of evangelical rhetoric and never notice the bigotry and delusion lurking right below the surface. I’ve seen it happen to people, and my mother was one of them.
As is probably typical for non-fundamentalists, many things contributed to my mother’s decision to homeschool me. Essentially, she believed — not without reason — that the public schools I would go to were dirty, violent, overcrowded, had poor curricula and bad funding. We couldn’t afford a private school, so she as a stay-at-home parent began to consider homeschooling.
By the time I had reached four my mother decided not to enroll me in preschool or kindergarten, and for the next three years did a wonderful job both educating me and socializing me with other children and adults. Even though I was an only child, I had a healthy and very normal social life, and was able to be educated above my age group, starting grade one at five years old. These were some of the best years of my childhood, and I still believe to this day that with sufficiently intelligent, caring and involved parents, early life education does not require formal schooling of any kind (although I see nothing wrong a with a good formal early education either).
After this successful start, when I had turned about seven, we decided to continue homeschooling through grade school. This marked the beginning of our brush with the conservative homeschooling movement. The HSLDA, which previously had been only an abstract form of social insurance to us, began to be a resource for our studies, and its sister organizations were used to help choose my formal curriculum. We spent a while before the start of my third grade school year deliberating on what system offered the best education, and ultimately decided on a hybrid approach. Other than the notoriously dry Saxon math textbooks, we chose a fundamentalist Christian curriculum called LIFEPAC and its digital equivalent, Switched-On Schoolhouse. This might seem incongruous, since we weren’t fundamentalists, but my mother was a religious conservative in the sense that she had a very hard time criticizing anyone who claimed to represent Christianity, and always gave religious individuals and organizations a great deal of respect even when her values were utterly opposed to their beliefs. She never looked beyond the very thin religiously moderate veneers that the HSLDA and other conservative Christian organizations put up, and so she assumed the curriculum was merely a good Christian education, and nothing more.
If the thought had ever crossed her mind that the curriculum I used for ten years would progressively harm me intellectually, psychologically and spritually, she would have thrown it back on the shelf in an instant. But as it turned out, this curriculum would prove to be the central destructive influence of homeschooling on my life. It was from these textbooks and lessons that I was poisoned by fundamentalism, and they are largely responsible for the part of my homeschooling experience which stunted my development and left me struggling with extreme self-doubt, self-hatred and depression as years went by.
The lesson plan started off innocuously — even with a bible study textbook as one of the main subjects (right next to science, history, and English), the first few grades were of decent quality and generally avoided controversial material. Thanks to excellent teaching I excelled consistently in my studies and everything seemed to be going well. But as the years went by, little oddities started to present themselves when I studied my textbooks or took lessons on the family computer. Starting around the sixth grade — once biology and astronomy became serious subjects — science seemed to take a strange path, and as grades progressed upwards the tone of the text became more and more defensive, with the writers eventually resorting to actually mocking biology and astronomy (evolution and the big bang were the biggest targets) rather than merely promoting creationism. The extreme immaturity of using mockery in a textbook apparently never occured to the writers of the lesson plan.
History not only consisted of the standard American whitewashing, which strains a person’s grip on historical facts badly enough, but also a Biblically literalist whitewashing, an almost colonial view of non-Europeans, and to top it off, no acknowledgement that anything over six thousand years old could exist at all. It is not an exagerration to say that everything I actually know about history I learned outside of that curriculum, and that beyond certain parts about Rome, colonial Britain and early America, I have had to erase and relearn much of what I was taught to get an accurate picture of the world. As with the science curriculum, history lessons progressed in their deviance from standard textbooks over time, in this case by including slightly more biblical content in each grade level, marked as “history” right next to the founding of Rome or the pyramids of Egypt. Bible study, needless to say, was extremely focused on inculcating the “right” beliefs into students as quickly as possible and didn’t pull its ideological punches as much as the other subjects did. Although it did review the whole Bible (starting at about the 6th grade) it only did so in a literalist context, progressing in nastiness and pushiness by grade. All this time I had continued to use Saxon’s math textbooks — which I loathed, but did seem to work — and occasionally found myself welcoming their dry dullness near the end of the school day.
Saxon didn’t preach — it merely made you fall asleep.
The curriculum as a whole struck very softly with indoctrination, couching it in well-written and produced textbooks as well as computer applications that included media and games. The packaging was, as a whole, fairly slick, and if you weren’t looking it was easy to miss the poison that peppered the whole thing.
In addition to the other beliefs I described, all the subjects I studied promoted complementarian sexism, sexual abstinence, chastity, Edwardian/Victorian style gender roles, human exceptionalism, and of course Biblical Literalism, though they all did so in different ways. What strikes me now is how subtle some of this propaganda could be — it was even present in English class, not only in the books on the required reading list but occasionally written bluntly between otherwise unrelated text in the middle of a lesson. Now and then harsh Bible quotes would appear beside inspiring ones, as if in warning, and heaven, hell, angels and satan were all real characters in the context of the textbooks.
Before I make this look too bad, though, I have to say that I didn’t even notice much of this until the last years of my education, although I always noticed, ignored and then tried to forget all kinds of little doubts I had about what I was learning. I read voraciously, including many science and history books that contradicted what I was taught, but until I became an older teenager I never really paid much attention to the contradictions, and through some kind of doublethink held that both ideas could be true. My mother remained an excellent teacher, I continued to hold a healthy social life, and I was otherwise quite whole as a person. Because fundamentalism only came from one part of my life and it was not promoted — though it was also never criticized — by my family, I had a lot more intellectual freedom than do most of the children who use this kind of curriculum. While some problems were simmering within me, my middle school life was overall a good experience even with my inane curriculum.
Personal issues during my high school years finally drove me to look back on, question and eventually discard the philosophy I was taught. A move to a faraway state had left my social life in tatters and it never recovered for the rest of my teenage years, I was forced to realize my own sexuality (both the existence of a sexual instinct itself, and that I was bisexual), I learned enough about real science and history to know that my education had not given me the whole truth, and I began to realize the terrible cruelty and undesirability of the world that fundamentalism sets out before people. All the little doubts and moral outrages I had repressed over the years came flooding back piece by piece, and after a long and hard struggle that included four years of constant depression I left both the fundamentalist part of my education and religion in general, becoming a happier and better person for it.
Only a couple of years after that last break from fundamentalism, my feelings on homeschooling remain mixed because my experience was mixed, and while the high points were great, the low points could be awful and intolerable. My mother’s dedication and inherently tolerant and empathetic nature gave me not only a good basic education, but a diverse and varied social life, ethical feelings I could seperate easily from religion, and intellectual freedoms that most homeschooled children never enjoy. But my curriculum, much of the media I watched or listened to, and the culture I grew up in contained no voices arguing actively against fundamentalism. Because of this, I became a host to the virus of religious paranoia and self-hatred, which I only recently managed to shake off enough to do things like write this essay. I was taught a much more warped perspective of history than even the average American middle-schooler, and my knowledge of useful science was very small until I studied real science for enough time to fix what my curriculum had broken. My relative intellectual freedom as a young child had left me well-prepared for this and I have managed to “catch up” without much fuss, but not everyone gets that opportunity.
Ultimately, I can’t say what my views are on what should or shouldn’t be legal in homeschooling. No matter what, I believe that there must be a strict basic code of regulations on homeschooling to prevent indoctrination and abuse, but I also understand the position of Germany and Scandanavia when they choose to simply ban it outright except in exceptional circumstances. I have met a few secular homeschoolers, unschoolers and other non-fundamentalist homeschoolers who have done well with their children’s education and have nothing to do with religion, let alone religious indoctrination. But the poison of religious fundamentalism is very potent, and the potential for even non-religious abuse within homeschooling is still high, regulated or not. I was a very loved and nurtured child in a relatively liberal household, and yet I suffered at least some of what children in deeply authoritarian Christian homes do.
I can’t imagine what I would be right now if I had grown up in a family of true fundamentalists, Quiverfull members, or right-wing evangelicals.
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Eve” is a pseudonym
My homeschooling experience in and of itself was not particularly awful. It started out harmlessly enough. My older brother was very ahead of his public school class in first grade and was bored so he asked my mom to homeschool him. (Or so the story goes, I’ve never actually bothered to ask if that was actually the case). I do know that there was a very strong homeschooling movement in our church and we immediately joined that group. For the most part I enjoyed school growing up. My older brother and I were very inquisitive and my mom did her best of fulfill our desire for knowledge. Unfortunately for me, much of my interest centered on biology. I was provided with plenty of Creationist curriculum, but very little that explained any actual science.
Church was a different matter for me. I was rarely happy at church. I did not understand many things and I had a lot of questions throughout high school. My questions were always met with the same types of answers, “We know best. Just trust us we’ll get to your answers eventually but for now just focus on the stuff we’re teaching you. You’re still young and the Bible says that when we are babies we need milk.” It was an empty reply and it always left me even more unhappy. When I tried to start a study group with some of the other girls my age so that we could find some answers for ourselves, we were immediately shut down. Even though we were meeting off church property we were told that in order to have a bible study we had to have one of the women from the church oversee us. Again I was left in the dark. All I ever wanted was for someone to sit with me and be honest. I needed someone to either tell me that they didn’t have the answers I wanted or to help me find them. No one would because asking questions was against the rules in my church.
I tried very very hard to have faith. Everyone around me believed so fervently in God and Creation. I went to Bible Camps, Summit, raised money and went on mission trips, joined Bible studies and read so many study books I’ve lost count, but I never had faith. I don’t know that I’ve ever truly experienced faith. This was a terrifying realization to come to. The thought that everything I was taught growing up, everything that my parents so fervently believed was not what I believed shook me to my core. I am terrified of disappointing my parents. I always have been and I think I might always be. All of my life up until college revolved around making my parents happy. I was the good kid.
Then, of course, my family became heavily involved with the NCFCA. I hated it. I have never liked speaking in front of people. I willingly participated for one tournament and that was it. After that I supported my older brother. I had much more fun when all I had to do was help him research and then during tournaments I could run around doing whatever and helping my mom do Judge’s Hospitality. I never really made friends in the NCFCA. Most everyone loved my older brother so most everyone knew me (if only as his little sister), but I never found my own group of people. To be honest I was fine with that. I didn’t really like most of the NCFCA so I was fine just doing my own thing and living in my brother’s shadow.
Debate did, however, open me up to the world of the internet. I was suddenly immersed in research for debate, but also in everything else. All of the ideas on the internet fascinated me. I made friends with a very outspoken atheist who constantly questioned my beliefs. He never did it in a rude or antagonistic way. He could tell I wasn’t entirely convinced about my faith, but it was so deeply ingrained in me that I would never have admitted that to him. So instead he just persistently asked me why I believed what I believed. I never did have an answer for him.
In college I moved rapidly away from my parents’ beliefs. I majored in biology and was fascinated with everything I learned. When I took a class on evolution I had so many questions that I spent a large amount of time in my professor’s office. He was very understanding and very, very helpful. I stopped going to church when I moved to college and focused instead on answering all of those questions I’d had growing up. Unlike the elders in my church, my professors wanted to do nothing more than give me answers. I thrived in college. I made friends for the first time and was social. All the while, my relationship with my parents started showing signs of wear. Practically every time I went home we had a conversation that ended with my crying and feeling like I was nothing but a disappointment. All I wanted to do was figure out for myself what I believed, but because it was looking like I wasn’t going to believe what they did, they were very unhappy.
After graduating I got the hell out of my state and moved to the East Coast. I had some friends in the area but it was still a terrifying transition. I went from living near/with my family to living 18 hours away in the middle of a big city. Thankfully with the support of my friends I adjusted quickly. My parents were sure I’d be back to my home state after 3 months. I’ve now lived up here for almost 3 years and I’ve never been happier. Soon after I moved I met a guy and we started dating. He was the first guy I ever actually dated. Even when our relationship became serious, my parents never really made any effort to get to know him. He is not a conservative Christian so they don’t care to. I brought him home with me once for Thanksgiving and within 30 minutes of him being in my house my dad was trying to convert him. They have still never actually invited him to come to their house for the holidays with me.
These days my relationship with my parents is superficial at best. I no longer feel comfortable sharing things about my life with them and they never ask anyway. Occasionally we talk on the phone to catch up a little but it’s always small talk. I do hope that one day they will begin to come around and accept that I just don’t believe what they do. I hope that they’ll realize that I still very much want to have a good relationship with them but that I can’t keep living my life just to make them happy. I will always be afraid of disappointing them and it will always profoundly hurt when they tell me that I have done so, but I have to live my life with the goal of achieving my dreams and desires, not theirs.
Currently, I no longer consider myself religious at all. I do not have any sort of faith. I would not go so far as to call myself an atheist. Agnostic would probably be the best if you have to term it.