Born in Hell

I realize Ive had a pretty ‘lucky’ upbringing, for an atheist. My family is rather non-theistic– Our idea of ‘Christmas’ was/is Santa, presents, and ordering pizza. ‘Passover’ is watching ‘The Ten Commandments’ on TV. At the dinner table we would make fun of stupid things theists did (‘AHAHA! Did you hear about Alabamas attorney general?!?’). My atheism has always been a non-issue for my friends and classmates.

So Ive always wondered… what would have happened to me if I was born in say, a nutty 15-wife Mormon compound? What if I was born into a fundamentalist Catholic tribe (not the hippy nice Catholics I grew up with)? What if I grew up around people who spoke in tongues and thought bombing abortion clinics ‘was just peachy’?

How the hell would I get out of that insanity? What would my parents and family say? Would any of my friends stick with me?

I really am touched by the strength of individuals who were born into those households, but have ‘left the fold’. I really dont know if I would have had the ability to do what they did.

I cannot imagine the constant torture Nate Phelps endured every damn day of his childhood… Nate Phelps, son of Fred Phelps, was born in Hell, and made it out alive and reasonably sane.


  1. #1 Bob O'H
    November 2, 2008

    Wow. And look who turns up in the comments.

    Fortunately most religious upbringings aren’t anything like what Nate Phelps had to experience. The Church of England (for example) never really discussed hell much, it’s too cuddly.

  2. #2 Mobius
    November 2, 2008

    My mother is extremely religious. My father was not, from what I’ve been told, but died when I was 4. So I grew up in a house where we went to the Southern Baptist church every time the doors opened.

    Starting when I was about 12 or 13, the logical disconnect on what the church was telling me started bothering me. By the time I was 17, I had pretty much made a clean break with theism. By the time I got to college, I was firmly an agnostic.

    Since that time, my level of disbelief has just increased. I am now at a point between extreme agnosticism and soft atheism. And I don’t miss it one little bit.

    So it is possible to escape. But it does take learning to think rationally and critically. Sadly, something our schools do not teach very well.

    (I credit my personal escape with becoming a science and math geek at a very early age.)

  3. #3 manigen
    November 2, 2008

    Wow. Shirley is so messed up.

  4. #4 Tony P
    November 2, 2008

    In my family it was my father who was the more devout Catholic, my mother more the atheist. Never got to confirm it though since mom died when I was 13 and she was 33. But my aunt has clued me in about my mother. Now I definitely know where I got my strong social justice beliefs, as well as my atheism.

    I spent 12 years in Catholic schools, and by about the third grade I realized something was definitely wrong. My first atheistic leanings came then.

    When at the age of 15 it was time for me to make my confirmation, I balked. But I’m easily corrupted and so a cash gift was enough to go through the motions.

    I did get something out of those 12 years though, I got a very thorough understand of the Roman Catholic church and it’s dogma and I’m well versed in the Bible.

    That’s the thing with Catholic schools, they teach you critical thinking skills and then expose you to dogma. I would love to do a study on the number of atheists produced by Catholic schools.

    My father regularly rips into me about being an atheist and I just shove it back in his face, and explain how it’s a much better way of life than to let a pastor spout racist dogma at me. Because that’s the group dear old dad has fallen in with.

    Our relationship is strained because of it. I know my father isn’t stupid, but it’s like he completely abdicated his own personal responsibility for what he’d done.

    What he’d done by the way is interesting. My dad was a mobster.

    But there is hope. My buddy IM’d me and told me his 2nd child had been bounced out of a Catholic school for calling religion bullshit at the tender age of 8.

  5. #5 IBY
    November 2, 2008

    For me, it wasn’t the threat of hell that made me get away, though it did certainly scare me sometimes. My family have never mentioned hell. I got that when I read the Bible and from other Christian people. All my parents did was mention that god didn’t like bad people, but other than that, we were quiet religious. My religious upbringing was pretty nice. By 16, though, the mental gymnastic required to maintain the belief was becoming too much, and knowing science certainly helped in making my doubts grow larger. After which, I made a 180 degrees turn in my views in a matter of a month, which felt quiet strange.

    My parents weren’t extreme in religion, so I guess that made it quiet easy to get away.

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    November 2, 2008

    I didn’t realize how much my atheism would be a problem to my parents until I actually started professing it, at around 12 or 13 years of age IIRC. We never attended church, never prayed at the table, etc., etc. But they did have a problem with my lack of theism when I finally came around to using the label “atheist”. Fortunately they came around to realizing they were being unreasonable later on and just accepted it.

  7. #7 Nentuaby
    November 2, 2008

    I’ve always felt like I REALLY dodged a bullet in that way. My immediate family is liberal and strongly agnostic (they squirm a bit if you actually talk about atheism per se, but practically speaking it works out the same.)

    The extended family on my father’s side, however, contains otherwise of some hair-raisingly fundamentalist people. Creationism, bible codes… They literally substitute “Christian” for every other adjective describing a virtue, like twisted mirror-universe smurfs. I’m really, really glad my father managed to fall in with the “wrong” crowd in his youth, or I’d have gotten a really chilling upbringing.

  8. #8 Paul Lundgren
    November 2, 2008

    Thanks for the eye-opener, Abbie. It’s further proof that the real enemy, IMHO, is NOT religion…it’s intolerance.

  9. #9 Paul Lundgren
    November 2, 2008

    Oh, and one other thing: as much as I hate to throw out this word loosely, would it be fair to call this crew “terrorists?” Sick, certainly, but there has to be some kind of legal action that can be taken against these freaks.

  10. #10 clinteas
    November 2, 2008

    Paul @ 8,

    It’s further proof that the real enemy, IMHO, is NOT religion…it’s intolerance.

    You have it the wrong way round mate.Religion is the fertile soil out of which intolerance grows,and always has been.
    Religion and their holy books tells you exactly who to love or hate,and why,and what happens when you dont.And it induces the kind of close-minded brainwashedness that is so prevalent in fundies of all denominations,where they are unable to process and evaluate ideas,concepts or other people without the taint of their religious belief.

  11. #11 Paul Lundgren
    November 2, 2008


    (Richard Dawkins, t)he former Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University wants to find out if fantasy stories affect their readers’ abilities to think rationally.

    He said: “I haven’t read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children’s author that one might mention and I love his books. I don’t know what to think about magic and fairytales.

    “I would like to know whether there is any evidence that bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards has a pernicious effect.

    “So many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes and I’m not sure whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality. Perhaps it’s something for research.

    “I plan to look at mythical accounts of various things and also the scientific account of the same thing. And the mythical account that I look at will be several different myths.

    “Of which the Judeo-Christian one will just be one of many. And the scientific one will be substantiated, but appeal to children to think for themselves; to look at the evidence. Always look at the evidence.”

    You know, I know where Dawkins is coming from, but this is starting to stretch things just a touch. I’m all in favor of more rational thinking, but damn it, we need escapes every once in a while. This is starting to sound an awful lot like fundies going after Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft, or Magic: The Gathering. IT’S ENTERTAINMENT!!!
    I watched The Return of the King in the theater knowing full well Shelob would never make it in the real world because of basic arachnid physiology, but I loved it all the same.

    So yeah, religion and intolerance get a bad reputation. But religion doesn’t have a corner on that particular market, nor, in my opinion, are most religious people militantly intolerant. The worst of us speak for the rest of us.

    Oh, and I own and enjoyed the hell out of three of Dawkins’ books. I’m on his side, but I also take his opinions with a grain, and in this case, I think he needs to re-think this one.

  12. #12 clinteas
    November 2, 2008


    nice to see that Dawkins agrees with me,but I was giving an answer to your comment @ 8,and did not have Dawkins in mind at all.

  13. #13 Mobius
    November 2, 2008

    Paul –

    One of my professors in grad school (in mathematics) really took a dim view of science fiction. I can only think how badly he thought of fantasy.

    For me, I never had any trouble differentiating reality from a sci-fi/fantasy story. They were entertainment. Not something to take seriously.

    Re: Family problems with atheism.

    My mother was always in denial about my feelings on theism. I think if she had ever admitted it to herself, her heart would have broken that all three of her children had turned out atheists. It was sad to me that her religious beliefs forced yet another fantasy on her, that her children were actually believers too.

  14. #14 drboogie
    November 2, 2008

    I grew up with a grandfather who was a bishop in the church of god of prophecy. Google them and you’ll see how hardcore that was. I cannot remember a day when I was not an atheist. I just didn’t know what it was called when I was a kid and thought for sure there must be something wrong with me. Everybody else was inspired to roll in the floor and speak in tongues, why couldn’t I? My coming out was not so difficult for me but it caused a lot of grief for many in my family. Most of them still either think I am some whack job or believe I am just “kidding” with them. It doesn’t really matter to me what they have to think to make themselves feel good about me. Now, in my late 30’s, I have embraced my atheism as a source of comfort to believe in the real and not rely on the unknowable or supernatural.

  15. #15 anonymic
    November 2, 2008

    It is comforting to think that no matter our origins, that we would hold the same beliefs regardless. The idea of being born into an oppressive home and overcoming to maintain our present ideology is quite common. This can be evidenced when asking any hysterically religious person what they would believe had they been born into another family, say, a christian born into a Hindu family in central India. Invariably they will aver that they would still believe in the christian god ‘because they would just know’. As silly as this sounds, it is the same wishful thinking. Unfortunately the push towards atheism is just that, a push. Exposure to rational thought, other cultures, the scientific method, and non-isolationist ideology are a great help down the path, but are not always available in all households. That said, these are just tools, and as we know, tools are only effective when used, therefore a person must choose to pick them up and use them. As much as I wish more people would use them, or simply have them available, I fear that many people are not ready, willing or capable of accepting life without a god.

  16. #16 Stacy S.
    November 3, 2008

    Wow! What a terrible story! However,it also makes me feel like a good Mommy. I’m proud to say that my son (13) has never seen the 10 commandments or even read them. As far as I know. I do try and educate him about all of the different religions, to the best of my knowledge, including the FSM! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I do let him go to church with his friends – if he wants to. (I think he has gone a total of 3 times – and he comes back and tells me how silly it is)

  17. #17 Trin Tragula
    November 3, 2008

    I’m proud to say that my son (13) has never seen the 10 commandments or even read them. As far as I know.

    That’s not something I would be proud of. I recommend educating children about religion, so that they know what it is you are rejecting, and why.
    For example, you might point out to them that the 10 commandments appears in Exodus chapter 20. Then, when Moses discovers the Israelites worshipping a golden calf, Moses destroys the tablets. In Exodus chapter 34, God himself writes what he calls an exact replacement for the tablets. (Exod 34:1 And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.) But the text is very clearly different. Another version appears in Deuteronomy chapter 5.

  18. #18 William Wallace
    November 3, 2008

    We’re all born into sin, and whether or not you believe God created is not a factor.

    But your hard heartedness is a type of prison you were born into.

    You think it liberating.

    I think some of the people you ridicule are probably thankful they weren’t born to your family, with their thinking/mockery/arrogance.

  19. #19 Stark
    November 3, 2008

    I was born into a Jehovah’s Witness family, but it wasn’t as severe growing up as for Mister Phelps; however it was mentally abusive. In fact, I never understood why they couldn’t embrace evolution as fact. It’s funny because there’s no real conflict. I guess it just shows humanity’s own chauvinism, and how it wants to believe it is the most important feature of the universe. Folly. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Two years ago I finally had enough of it, I now consider myself a secular humanist, but atheist works as well. Even to this day my parents still do not respect me for my chosen path in life; in other words, I failed them as much as they failed me. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I couldn’t take the irrationality any longer. Science continues to be a de-religious-ofier (That should be a word :)). Modern rational thought just tears up any and all ancient assumptions. Eventually it dawned on me that my parents would rather live in the dark ages of mankind; even believing in demonic influence as a cause for all our problems. Honestly, to me, Satan was the only one in that whole book worth listening to. Satan was a skeptic, and questioned all things, even death itself, as we should too. (After stating that out loud, I was threatened to leave the house and never come back, haha.)
    Ahh, life with irrationality. ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. #20 j2
    November 3, 2008

    I can relate to all of these stories. I grew up in a fundamentalist family and I can pinpoint the minute when I made my symbolic break from it. I was 13 and walked out of my deacon grandfather’s church when the preacher claimed that AIDS was created by God to punish homosexuals. I created a firestorm within the family by proclaiming that the preacher was wrong. However, I was not prepared for the outcome of that decision. I had to walk home from the church and faced a paddle upon the completion of my three mile walk. At the time, I thought that I was making a decision based on a better understanding of Christianity, but over the course of the next ten years, I slowly realized that religion was actually a tool for control within families and society as a whole.

    That simple protest continues to frame my family’s relationship with me and my children. My godless journey was only accelerated by the guilt, uncertainty, and criticism heaved upon my questions. It didn’t help that I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from college. I also had the temerity to finish grad school with a silver tongue that was my weapon of choice. I have never been accepted as a true member of my family since that day in a southern Primitive Baptist church.

    The scar of religion influences most decisions that I make with regard to my family. I am more horrified of a future filled with these types of uncomfortable family occasions than the prospect that one of my children will become religious. I struggle to strike a balance between showing my children that family is important and exposing them to speaking in tongues. They don’t understand why I refuse to let them go to church with my family or why daddy has to take a bottle of vodka to the annual Easter family gathering. I agonize between avoiding family events and teaching humility and tolerance towards those who disagree with my beliefs.

    I have begun to lose some of my deep anger towards religion because of my doubts regarding causation. Did religion cause the tension or was it merely the vehicle for unavoidable personality conflicts? Upon reflection, I have begun to think that southern fundamentalism served as a convenient framework for the struggle for power inside a family full of deeply insecure personalities. The destruction of that framework was the real threat that I represented.

  21. #21 Stark
    November 3, 2008

    In response to William Wallace, and an addendum to my own thoughts. We are all born areligious, unbelievers, atheist. Sin is an undefinable quality that you insist exists, but it holds no water. Blaming our problems on sin is like stating that wind blows because demons toot their bowels. Wind blowing, and our problems are related to the continuous cause and effect within the Universe. It is liberating to realize that. It is liberating to realize there isn’t a God who cares about you. It is liberating to realize there isn’t a God constantly watching your every move so that it can punish you, or add it to a punishment tab for the afterlife. It is very liberating to realize we only have ourselves, we only have humanity to rely on. It is liberating to note that humanity is real and all in front of us. We can test humanity with all our senses, and even with inductive reasoning. I can believe in humanity unlike a God. Humans can interact with me, Humans can hurt and help me. Unlike a God, a human’s interactions can be studied via cause and effect. I believe in what I see, and that is why I consider myself a Humanist.

    Furthermore, being born into an atheist family would have been quite liberating. But I enjoy the fact that I wasn’t, so that I can measure my past “life” relative to my new “life”.

  22. #22 Dale Husband
    November 3, 2008

    William Wallop, newborn babies do not commit sin, unless you completely deny the moral meaning of sin, which the absurd doctrine of Original Sin does. No wonder you are so confused!

    Plus, you CHOOSE to imprison yourself while calling us in prison. That dishonesty on your part won’t stand here.

  23. #23 Dale Husband
    November 3, 2008

    Like (insane) father, like daughter. Check out this entry in Wikipedia on Shirley Phelps-Roper:

    Phelps-Roper is the wife of Brent D. Roper and a mother of 11 children. Her oldest child, Sam, is not Roper’s son by birth, and her second child, Josh, is estranged from the church. Besides her father Fred, she has been the most public spokesperson of the Westboro Baptist Church and answers many of the e-mails sent to the church in a column called “Dear Shirley.” [3] Keith Allen revealed in his documentary on the WBC, Keith Allen Will Burn In Hell, that Phelps-Roper has an illegitimate son, Sam, after it was uncovered by a local media student.[4]

    What’s with these fanatics condemning homosexuals while also committing fornication themselves? Sin is sin, isn’t it?

    The first thought that came into my mind when I read that was “Maybe Sam was concieved by incest”.

  24. #24 Jimmy Page
    November 3, 2008

    In the spirit of the discussion here, I’m going to do the following:

    1) Offer some personal information about my religious background (probably involving my family) and then describe how I am living a non-secular life
    2) …
    3) Profit!

  25. #25 Farb
    November 3, 2008

    Party in the streets outside WBC the day they finally plant Phred. Come in full drag, whatever your orientation.

  26. #26 Eric Saveau
    November 3, 2008

    Hi, Wally. Fuck the fucking fuck off.

  27. #27 Mark Plus
    November 4, 2008

    If Nathan Phelps no longer believes that hell exists and that he can go there when he dies, how can his life have any meaning?

  28. #28 Stacy S.
    November 4, 2008

    @Trin – #17 … Way to “Cherry Pick”! Try reading the next sentence.

  29. #29 Trin Tragula
    November 4, 2008

    @ Stacy S. #28 … Way to “contradict” yourself. You say you try to educate your offspring about religions, but you are actually proud -your word – that your son is entirely unfamiliar with even one of the most prominent aspects of the dominant religions of the land.

  30. #30 Stacy S.
    November 5, 2008

    UM – Don’t you think one can understand what “Christianity” means w/o knowing the “15” – I mean – “10” Commandments verbatim?

  31. #31 Stagyar zil Doggo
    November 6, 2008

    Stacy S. :

    the “15” – I mean – “10” Commandments

    LOL. I hope you’ve at least exposed them to the Mel Brooks version.

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