The following guest post was written by Neo. This is Part One of two.
I was born to a Christian Scientist mother and father. My father’s parents still went to church for some of my childhood but became cynical about church politics and stopped attending while I was still young. My mother’s father was never a Christian Scientist but supported her mother in her religion and she was a Christian Scientist until she passed away. No other members of either of my parents’ families are Christian Scientists.
I apparently cried a lot as a child, which some friends my parents’ age love to remind me about. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that a family member told me that my parents had a book called My First 300 Babies, which was written by a Christian Science nurse and is famous for its strict scheduling regimen. Write-ups of the book call it ‘love-based’ and successful, but my family member told me that my mother read that she should take an hour for herself every day, whether her children liked it or not, and that I hated this and cried from my room the whole time. Wouldn’t it have been easier to spend non-crying time together? Not trusting your own judgement and pathologically ignoring emotion are two major hallmarks of Christian Science.
We went to church every Sunday, and my parents went to the Wednesday services every week. I never really disliked Sunday School, and I had a couple teachers who were good friends and a couple who were a little weird. One was an older lady who just didn’t have a way with kids and one was a middle-aged guy who is somewhat famous in his own right as a practitioner. The problem with smart people in Christian Science is that fellow Christian Scientists see them as super intelligent but really they are just people who can tie themselves in tighter, more intricate mental knots. One deep effect of my own Christian Science upbringing is that it’s always been difficult for me to accept as legitimate my doubts of situations that are doubtful, or of dishonest people. That one Sunday school teacher was an excellent example. The things he was saying just didn’t make sense, but I could never quite bring myself to formulate and then pose the questions that were brewing in my mind.
As stated elsewhere in this blog, the mental gymnastics of Christian Science requires a great deal of ignoring the actual realities of life, and this was especially true in my own home. I knew that I couldn’t talk to my parents about certain things. I had a few sad experiences where I tried to talk to my mother about things like bullying I experienced at school, but did not get even lip service. I remember one specific instance where she was working at the sink, and I was sitting in a chair behind her crying, telling her what had happened at school and all I remember is the sight of her back. This may be an extreme example, but it is one that has stuck with me over the years. When I mentioned something like this to my sibling, they said something like, “Oh geez of course! There was never any communication at our house at all.” It surprised me a little bit because I thought they had a much easier time than I had as a child. It turns out that for whatever reason, they seemed to have had it worse and are dealing with more after-effects than I think I am now.
I was not a healthy child. I suffered from allergies and constant colds, and for my first two years of elementary school, I had a cough that wouldn’t go away. So of course, I spent many hours on the phone with Christian Science practitioners. I was told things such as that my cough was anger (people use many kinds of wording for this; some will say it’s a ‘manifestation’, some will say ‘reflection’. and some just equate them).
Looking back now, it seems extremely ironic: my father is deeply involved and respected within the Christian Science community. He’s fairly calm on the outside, but can be a really repressed and angry guy. So, with his example, and of course the lack of any communication or honest discourse about emotion in our household, I picked up the anger too. How unfair that when I was only seven or eight years old, I was being told that my anger was causing my problems and then given a prescription for deepening my understanding of the true meaning of God and told that would solve the problems.
In Christian Science, different ailments have different levels of passive-aggressive blame-finding attached to them. On one end of the spectrum are purely physical problems like broken bones, which can be opportunities for healing, but probably not fodder for guilt-tripping. Cavities are treated similarly, even though they are preventable–perhaps out of ignorance on the part of Christian Scientists (? lol). Common colds, on the other hand, show that you haven’t brought your understanding of some point or another up to a sufficient level, and you will likely hear about it. Worse yet, are persistent but not life-threatening diseases, which certainly prove that you need to work extra hard on your understanding. I mentioned that I dealt with lots of colds, a long-term cough, and allergies. I also had slight asthma and eczema. Yeah, my ‘understanding’ was sub-par, and you bet I knew it.
Loss and losing my religion…
I lost my mother to cancer at a fairly young age, but in very typical Christian Science fashion, there’s not a lot to tell. The facts were hidden from my sibling and me while it was happening. I know that something was found decades before any further symptoms manifested themselves. I don’t know what conversations were had about treatment options, or who thought what. Even once the surgeries started, due to a painful tumor that was removed, I was not aware of what the treatment plan was, who decided it, or how. I recall that my sibling and I felt a kind of embarrassment to be around our mother–not because she was sick and that meant that her Christian Science practice was imperfect (perhaps I had already come to realize that the blaming nature of Christian Science was bullshit?), but because her life was now wrapped up with the medical realities that come with cancer treatment, and those realities were not only alien and frightening to us, but also a forbidden topic of conversation, despite existing before our very eyes. I don’t remember having any big talks with my mom during those years, and this still haunts me. If I were dying, there would be so much I’d want to tell my kids; I really don’t know why we didn’t have those conversations. I am an adult now, with a family of my own, but I have never properly grieved my mother. I saw a therapist once, years ago, who promised to give me a book that would help me think through it, but she never did–Christian Scientists aren’t the only bullshit artists around!
I attended both Principia high school and college. I kept going through the motions at the high school, trying to do my best and continue in my studies. As expected, I appreciated the teachers who could communicate and teach Christian Science with common sense, and didn’t gain much from those who enjoyed twisting themselves into mental pretzels. I used my lesson reading time to read the book of Revelation straight through and read much of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, but my basic level of discernment didn’t improve much, and I was never able to really put together arguments against Christian Science and confront teachers with those. I was definitely caught in the mental gymnastics, shielded from seeing the ‘logic’ from outside perspectives.
Despite the fact that my mother had died recently, the first chink in the Christian Science armor was attending a non-affiliated college. Early on, during a discussion about homosexuality and morality, a guy in the group suddenly burst out, “Well, my best friend just died of AIDS, you asshole!” and ran out of the room. Well geez, I was just trying to explain myself. I found it hard to hang on to my unfounded judgements without being the asshole! When I later arrived at Principia College, I remember another student saying, “No, I do think that gays have a place in the world; just not here,” and I realizing that my views had indeed changed.
I participated in sports at the high school and college. Of course, sports there are soaked with Christian Science philosophy. One reason is certainly because it’s easy to claim a healing with no benchmark or proof necessary, and as expected, treatments and ‘healings’ abound. I tried to apply my own prayer as I participated, but despite some mental assurance in ‘knowing the truth’ about a situation, my physical performance never improved based on Christian Science, of course! If I ever thought it did, in retrospect I can easily see that I only started performing better after growing physically through puberty, and then truly applying myself to my sport instead of just messing around, as I did for a few years.
- Neo’s Story (Part Two): the second and concluding part of this post here on Emerging Gently.
Neo is a Principia Upper School and College alum. He lives abroad and is a dedicated atheist who prefers not to think about Christian Science. He hopes to raise his children to be clear-thinking, confident, and skeptical.