As the saying goes, I was raised on the pew. My mother is an extremely devout Pentecostal and my grandfather was a pastor for many years of a small, very conservative Pentecostal church in rural Louisiana. From my earliest memories, we were cut off from the real world in a number of ways. This went so far as to forbid watching TV, it was “of the devil” don’t you know. I remember getting in serious trouble many times because I would let my gaze linger on a TV in a public place or at a more liberal relatives house for a few minutes. Women weren’t allowed to cut their hair or wear pants, no beards or short sleeves for men. No secular music, couldn’t participate in organized sports, certainly no public swimming pools or skating rinks. College and military service was discouraged, because they didn’t want any outside influence. Even saving money was frowned upon because there’s no need to plan for a future is the rapture is about to happen. Growing up though, I didn’t realize just how insular our community was, because even if one chafes a bit at the rules, it seemed normal because everyone I knew was Pentecostal as well. It was my whole world.
This indoctrination was reinforced three times a week at church as a child, and four or five times a week as I got involved in youth group activities. If the doors were open, I was expected to be there, I wouldn’t even let myself contemplate the fallout if I didn’t show. The horrible stories that most Christians gloss over, like the Bears slaughtering 42 children for making fun of a prophet, were gleefully preached to quell any sort of questioning or descent from the party line. Hell was real and you were gonna burn for the slightest misstep. I heard weekly that “you better get right, because Jesus is coming back any day now.” I bought in, I lived it, I wasn’t even able to acknowledge there might be a choice.
With all of this very effective indoctrination, I look back in wonder that I was able to escape at all. I was finally able to partially shake free of the chains in my mid 30’s, and I was into my early 40’s before I could openly admit that I didn’t believe any of it. This journey out of what I now consider a cult was long and frightening, but it all begin with what I like to call “the mistake.”
I was always a curious kid, I wanted to know why, and how. I was the kid who took apart electronics, stuck hair pins in wall sockets, repaired my own vehicles, etc. This got me in untold amounts of trouble, as questioning certain things just wasn’t allowed. Here’s where the mistake comes in, I was allowed to read. For monetary reasons, I got to go to public school where there was a library that wasn’t censored by the church. (My youngest brother wasn’t so lucky, he went to their creationist church school and is just as devout as my mom.) I lived in that library, couldn’t have “worldly friends” or watch TV, so I read, a lot.
I knew of course, not to leave certain books lying around, because occasionally even that would be monitored. By now you’re asking what books could possibly plant the seeds that would lead me to ask the important questions, and to finally examine my beliefs honestly. It wasn’t the Louis Lamour books (and I read every one in middle school), though they taught me that it was good to stand up for the underdog, and doing the right thing was the only reasonable choice.) It wasn’t crime stories, or the military and spy stories I devoured, even though they showed me an outside world I wasn’t aware of. I even read every single one of those readers digest condensed books printed from the mid 60’s through the late 80’s (my grandmother had a subscription.) No, it was the Sci-Fi books I discovered in my high school library.
There were (and are) reoccurring themes in Sci-Fi of fake gods, detrimental religions, alien civilizations, humanism, a sense of wonder about the universe, alternate universes, and the ability to question anything. As I was reading books of this type, I was receiving an education that my religion tried to deny me, being exposed to ideas and knowledge that they deemed anathema to their faith. You can’t write good science fiction without a basis in actual science, and there are many in my old religion who are scared of, and deeply mistrust science. These ideas, while they didn’t change my belief system right away, did pique my curiosity, and planted the seeds of doubt and critical thinking in my mind. It may have taken me until my late 30’s to finally break free from the chains my early indoctrination placed on me, but the ideas I was exposed to through the writings of authors like Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein, David Weber, and Arthur C. Clarke to name just a few, allowed my mind to open to the possibility that perhaps I didn’t know what I thought I did. (These men are all atheist or anti religious, if that had been known I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to read them, and maybe wouldn’t have wanted to.) So, in conclusion, while the phrase “Sci-Fi saved my life” is a bit of hyperbole, I must say that a life not truly lived is wasted. My old religion would have had me waste all of my life on fables, kept me bound in slavery to Bronze Age ideas about my worth as a human, and not allowed me to live the life I longed for. Books that expanded my mind, and allowed me to think about our universe in new ways, are one of the things I’m most grateful for.