Atheists get something of a bad rap. When a religious person hears the word, it often fills them with a sense of dread or anger. Personally, I believe this is because the possibility that the god they have dedicated their lives to being fake fills them with an empty sadness.
I don't believe in God. Along with that, I don't believe in ghosts, ghouls or monsters. This isn't a story about some supernatural terror that stalks the night. If things like that do exist, I haven’t seen them. You have to understand that I am a skeptic first. I only believe in what evidence compels me to believe. That is why I am an atheist.
What I have seen is far more terrifying than any monster.
I was not always an atheist. My father and I were both very pious. We were involved in a religious movement called the Followers of the Way. This was by no means a large group. In my time with the sect, it never reached more than twenty-five members; adults and children included.
I now realize that this church as we called it, was really a cult.
The story I am about to tell took place when I was about to turn 16. Dad and I had joined the movement about a year prior. After moving to the area my father, a deeply spiritual man, was unable to find a church he liked. We felt like a couple of guys without a home. Understand that when you are deeply entrenched in religion, it becomes the center of your life. Life without a church can feel like life without meaning. Eventually however, he spoke to people in the right circles and before I knew it, we were attending three weekly meetings of the Followers of the Way.
I never had much choice in this. My father was quite strict, you see. I grew up without video games or Internet. Every night after dinner and before bed, my dad and I would read scripture together and discuss how we could enrich our connection with God. As strange as this may sound, I never really complained. My dad was a consultant with an engineering firm, so we moved a lot. I never had a lot of close friends, so he really was my closest companion. My mother had died when I was 10, so all we had was each other. It was the only life I knew.
My only other friend in the world before joining the Followers was Bear. Bear was our giant, Leonberger. If you have never seen one, these are tall, stocky dogs with great personalities. I loved Bear. We had gotten him shortly after Mom died. He had helped me get through the hardest time in my life.
When Dad started taking me to Followers meetings, I was struck by how different it was from any other church I had attended growing up. We didn't actually meet in a church, for one. Every meeting was in a member's house. The leader, Ross, would lead us in deep scripture lessons and prayer. Similar to many churches, halfway through, those below the age of 16 would leave the meeting to do activities befitting a younger age. For us, it usually meant doing a written report on the scriptures or solitary prayer.
The biggest differences though were in our beliefs. In our eyes, our group was the chosen circle of God's true word. The people who packed into commercial churches for an hour every Sunday were just puppets going through the religious motions. Maybe they meant well, but they were not God's true followers. We believed that we and we alone were predestined to enter God's glory. I can't stress enough that I now realize how cult-like these beliefs were, but please understand; it was all I knew.
Amongst the teens, we always wondered what happened after we joined the adult study. At the time, there were only four of us. Myself, 13 year-old Chris, and the 14 year-old twins, Katie and Becky. Kids younger than 12 were deemed too young to take God seriously, and typically stayed home.
At that age, I never really thought about romance. Pastor Ross, as we called him, forbade it. He called it a distraction from God. Love was for adults. But looking back, I think I had a little crush on the twins.
“Do you think they take communion with Christ, like in John 6?” Katie asked inquisitively after one Wednesday meeting.
“My Mom always talks about speaking with God. She really hears Him,” Chris insisted. “I bet that you get to talk to God once you're an adult.”
This was a touchy subject for me. Scripture and friends alike always talked about hearing the word of God. While I was sure that I had felt Him many times, I had never actually heard His voice. Was I not a good enough Follower? Was I doing something wrong? I always felt that desire to commune with God. I yearned for it, but I never heard His voice.
Nonetheless, as the oldest, I always tried to sound wise. “You guys know we'll all see soon enough. When our 16th birthdays come, we'll be in the adult group, too.”
“Easy for you to say. You turn 16 in what, like two weeks?” replied Becky.
She was right. Even though I had been with the group shorter than my three friends, I was going to get to join the adult group soon. Some nights after prayer, I would lay in bed with Bear snoring lightly at my feet while thinking about what was ahead. I tried not to give in to the sin of pride, but I was thrilled at what lay before me.
“Oh, you have to tell us what it's like,” Chris pleaded. “Just a little bit. I still have three years to wait.”
Before I could say anything, Becky interjected with a smile, “Nah, he'll be a big cool adult like Brad. He won't tell us anything.”
“Yep,” Katie said. “He'll probably strut around like an adult and send us away when it's time for adult study.” She emphasized the word adult.
I knew they were kidding, but it still made me a little sad because I knew they were right. A month ago when Brad, the twins older brother, had turned 16, he had stopped hanging out with us literally overnight. Part of my excitement at coming of age was getting Brad back as a friend.
When Brad had his 16th birthday, it was bittersweet for me. Of course I was happy that my friend would get to deepen his relationship with God, but I was afraid of losing him, even for a little while. I liked Chris, Katie, and Becky well enough, but Brad was both a boy and my age. I was closest with him, and I knew he liked me a lot, too.
As soon as Brad and I had met, we just hit it off. Our friendship felt natural. Whenever we were together, Brad went out of his way to sit by me or make sure we worked together in group activities at meetings. I think he had been hoping a boy his age would join the Followers for a long time. He wanted a best friend.
Two weeks before his birthday, he had come to stay over at my house. He did this every once and awhile. I never got to stay at his house since he had sisters and Pastor Ross would have said it was inappropriate for me to stay there.
After dinner and scripture, we went up to my room to talk for a while before bed. When he stayed over, I usually let him have the bed while I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor with Bear.
As weird as it may sound, we talked a lot about scripture for fun. I mentioned before that things like Internet, video games, and comics were forbidden by my dad, but we had the Bible. We had our own heroes. That night we sat on my bed and talked about how cool it would have been to be there to see David fight Goliath. We went on at length about how epic the battle must have been.
But in the middle of the conversation, Brad just went in another direction, like he had been holding something in. “Do you think we'll still be... friends like this after we turn 16?”
“Of course, Brad,” I said. “You're my best friend, after Bear here.” I scratched his massive head and he sighed with approval.
“I just,” Brad paused, staring at his feet. “Sometimes I just want things to stay just like this. You're really important to me and I just don't want things to change.”
I felt like Brad wanted to say something important, but he was struggling with the words. “Hey,” I said, putting my hand on his knee to get his attention. He tensed up slightly.
“Our birthdays are only a month apart, even if we don't get to see each other much for that month, things will go back to normal when I turn 16. It'll be alright.”
Brad sat there for awhile as if thinking. After a minute, he unexpectedly pulled me into a strong hug.
“I... really love you,” he whispered into my shoulder.
“Hey, I love you too, brother.”
It would be a long time before I realized the significance of that night.
After Brad's birthday, I didn't see him for a week. When I inquired, Pastor Ross told me that Brad was away, deepening his connection with God. I missed my friend immensely, but I knew that eventually I would turn 16 and be in the loop.
When Brad finally did come back, he seemed different. The first time I saw him, I ran over to give him a hug, but Brad pulled away. In the weeks before my birthday, he just seemed off. It wasn't that he would not talk to me. Rather, he just seemed to treat me like a random acquaintance. Gone was our close friendship which we had built over the year we had known each other. I can't lie; it hurt. But I hoped that pain would be short lived with my birthday fast approaching.
On the day of my sixteenth birthday, Dad picked me up from school; something he almost never did. He had left work early to spend the afternoon with me. “Hey, champ. Are you ready for your big day?”
“Yeah, Dad. I can't wait. Praise God.”
“Praise God, son.”
Dad was so proud of me that night. He made me feel special. Since Mom had died, we had gone through everything together. This night was the culmination of my journey into adulthood and I knew my dad was with me every step of the way.
He took me to my favorite restaurant, a local pizza joint, for an early dinner. After dinner, we went for a few rounds of bowling to kill time until our Followers meeting. So far, it was turning out to be a great birthday.
Within a few hours, it would be the worst day of my life.
When we arrived at Ross' house for the meeting, it was such a surreal experience. From the moment I got there, I was the center of attention. Everyone, Brad included, wished me a happy birthday. After a round of the birthday song, Pastor Ross led us in scripture. I was no doubt beaming with joy.
As was customary, after an hour, the kids were dismissed. As they left, Katie jokingly said to me, “See you in a few years, Mister Adult.” The other grownups laughed as Katie, Becky, and Chris were ushered out of the room.
Suddenly, it felt very quiet. I looked around and realized that everyone was looking intently at me.
Dad came up behind me. “Ready kiddo?” he asked.
At that, Pastor Ross walked right up to me. His tall build loomed nearly a foot over me. “Let's step outside for a minute while everyone else gets ready for the ceremony. I want to talk to you alone first.”
I looked at Dad, confused. Ceremony? I didn't realize how formal this really was. I was suddenly overly-conscious of my scuffed shoes, t-shirt, and old blue jeans. But Dad just gave me a thumbs up and I headed outside with Pastor Ross.
We went on a short walk around Ross' ranch house. Pastor Ross lived out in the country. The area was rather secluded and surrounded by woods. Some people might be scared at the prospect of walking in the woods with an older man, but I trusted Pastor Ross completely. As we walked the circle of the property, I never lost sight of the house.
“Do you know what it means to be a servant of God, son?” he asked me.
I thought about it for a moment, wondering if this was some sort of test. “Well, it's living our lives wholly for His glory.”
“That's right,” Pastor Ross said. Ross was a very charismatic man; he was very good at making you feel loved by God. On top of that, he made all of us feel like we belonged to the Followers as a family. He put his arms up and continued. “Our lives are meant to glorify the creator. We were created in His divine image to exemplify His name among the heathens who abandon Him.”
“You mean all the sinners and evil people?” I asked.
His arms went down. “Yes, but also those who believe they follow. They drag His holy name through the dirt by claiming to follow our lord God above.”
I became a little uncomfortable at this. “Pastor Ross, I'm curious. I know that we are God's children, but why can't people outside the Followers of the Way be godly people as well?”
Ross stopped and turned to face me. “Do not forget son what is said in Matthew 7. 'But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.' Never forget that we are those few. All others who carry God's name do so without sanction.”
“Yeah, I know you're right,” I said. “I just feel sad for everyone going to Hell.”
“You have a big heart,” Ross replied. “Use it to grow a family in the church and glorify God's name.”
We had nearly circled the property. “The main reason I brought you out here was to ask you a question. I'm sure your father and the others are nearly done setting up. You have been a good child of God this past year. But are you ready to make the sacrifices needed to be a man of God?” He put his heavy hand on my shoulder.
Sacrifices? At the time, I thought he meant charity, or some sort of community service.
“Yes Pastor Ross, I am.”
He smiled and led me back inside. The door to the room where our meeting was being held was shut, but Brad was waiting for me. Pastor Ross nodded to Brad, then slipped into the meeting room.
“Wait up a minute,” Brad said to me. “I wanted you to know that I'm sorry things have been weird. I'm really happy that now we can be brothers in Christ together.”
I smiled at him. I was happy, too.
He looked at me and said, “Happy Birthday,” and swung the door open. And then, my childhood ended.
Pastor Ross, my dad, Brad and the twin's parents, and a few other adults were in the room. The shades had all been drawn and the only illumination came from several dozen candles which were all around the room. Brad entered behind me and closed the door.
“Welcome, brother,” said Pastor Ross. “Tonight, you are a man of God.”
I was scared. I wasn't sure why at first, but something about this unnerved me to my core. The room was almost unrecognizable. Gone was the comfortable living room we typically met in. If I had ever seen a horror movie, I might have likened it to some sort of demonic alter. The dim lighting drew the shadows of the room long. They seemed to darken everyone’s faces. Perhaps because of the darkness, I only now realized that my dad was holding a leash. At the end of that leash was Bear.
“Dad, what's going on? Why is Bear here?”
Pastor Ross spoke up before my dad could respond. “To be a true Follower of the Way means we are all one family. And families trust each other; love each other. But mostly, we hold each other accountable. To truly commune with God, we must purge ourselves of sin. That is why we are all here.”
I looked around the room. Dad was smiling while Bear rested at his feet. Brad stood beside me. Pastor Ross' gaze never left my face. I noticed that one hand had remained behind his back since I had entered the room.
“It is sin to put anything else before God, son,” Pastor Ross. “That is why the animal is here. Both your father and brother Brad have told us that you put this beast before God. God must always come first in our lives. To be a true Follower, we have all had to purge ourselves of our sin. Be that sin pride, adultery, or in your case, creating a false idol.”
I didn't know what was happening. My happy little world was crashing in on me. I was acutely aware that I was shaking. My breath quickened. What had I done wrong?
Pastor Ross walked up to me and pulled his hand out from behind his back, revealing a large chef's knife. “It is time for you to absolve yourself of your sins. As is said in Paul's letter to the Romans, the wages of sin is death.”
It took a moment before I realized what he was saying. I absentmindedly took the knife from his hand before it sunk in.
“Wait... what?... Bear? You want me to...” My chest started heaving. Hot tears welled in my eyes. “But no. That’s crazy. Bear is a good boy. But I never put him before God. But he's my friend. You can't ask me to...” I fell to my knees. Bear looked up at me and tried to walk over to me. My dad pulled him back.
“Son,” Dad said. “You must. You have put earthly things before God. We all must give things up in the name of God. I lost your mother so many years ago. That was my punishment for living a sinful life when I was your age. Pastor Ross has helped me see that. I know this is hard, but we must stand firm and resolute in the eyes of God.”
“But Dad...” I was bawling now. This was too much. I couldn't comprehend what I was hearing. They were asking me to sacrifice Bear in the name of God. But I loved Bear. Without Bear, I never would have made it through Mom's death. He had given me so much and only asked for my love in return. Could I really do this?
I realized that Brad had knelt down beside me. “I know how hard this is. Cleansing sin is so difficult because Satan has a hold on you, like he did me. I...” he paused, as if looking for the right words. “I was filled with a sinful lust. A lust that would have torn our friendship apart. That was my sin. It was evil and it nearly consumed me. But with Pastor Ross' help and that knife... I removed my lust. And then... I saw God. I really saw him.”
My head swam. My entire world was crumbling. What was this? I felt like I couldn't handle the information coming into my head. In this moment, I just sat there, my gaze alternating from Bear to the knife. I was in total shock. A faint numbness settled in, almost as though I wasn't really there.
It wouldn't last.
Pastor Ross stepped between my father and I and knelt in front of me. “To commune with God, you must be free of sin.”
“I...” I felt my grip on the knife tighten. For a moment, I actually considered it. I had told Pastor Ross that my life belonged to God. It was my duty to see that nothing stood before Him. I was a Follower of the Way.
But then I saw Bear. He was looking right at me. Panting slightly with that big dog smile that I still love to this day. This was my best friend. He loved me unconditionally. I could no more hurt him than myself.
The knife slipped from my fingers and clattered to the ground. “I can't.”
The atmosphere in the room grew tense. It was silent for some time. I just stared at the floor, waiting for what came next. Everyone seemed to have shifted. They were looking at Pastor Ross, waiting to see how he would respond. Ross eyed me, deciding how to handle the situation. He hunched over and picked up the knife.
“You seem sure,” Ross said quietly. He then violently grabbed my arm and said coldly, “Then if you choose to abandon God, you will forever wear the mark of the beast.”
With surprising strength, Ross pinned my left arm down. Before I fully understood what was happening, he slowly went about carving into my arm. The pain was blinding. The heat of the knife seared through my body. I tried to yank my arm away, but Ross' strength was significant. What hurt the most though was my father, standing there watching this happen. He did nothing to stop his only son from being mutilated. Even after I gave up resisting, Dad stood there, emotionless.
When Ross was done, I looked down at my arm. To my horror, he truly had marked me as evil. Three deep 6's had been carved into my flesh; down to the muscle. Blood ran down my arm and pooled on the floor below me.
I bore the mark of the beast.
“Why?” I sobbed as I fell to the floor.
I knew I was finished. I was done with the group. I had failed. I lay there in agony as Ross spoke.
“You are the evil of the world, boy and I cast you out of this fellowship and out of my home. But before that, I must finish God's work.” He bent down, inches from my face and whispered, so that only I could hear. “God's will be done.”
Ross' armed whipped back in a flash. I realized too late what he had meant. In his eyes, he had to vanquish the evil beast of Satan which stood in his own home. I peered over his shoulder and saw the silver steel blade of the knife already embedded deep within Bear's skull. He fell unceremoniously in a heap on the ground.
I would eventually tell myself that it had been fast. I'm sure Bear felt nothing. It had been a quick death and he didn't suffer. In the moment though, my arm was completely forgotten. The agony I felt in my heart was a torrent of complete pain. I shoved past Ross and grabbed Bear's head. In that moment, I lay there cradling him. My face burned as tears streamed down my face.
Part of me died that night.
I heard Ross say to my father, “Get that monster out of my house.” I had no doubt he was talking about me. Together, they forced me off of Bear. I tried to resist, to hold on to my Bear, but between my wound and their adult strength, I could not fight them. I was forced out of the house and into our car.
Dad drove me home in silence. But I didn't shed anymore tears. Not in front of him. In that moment, I had lost all capacity to feel.
When we got home, I went straight to my bedroom. Several minutes later, my father came in. He held a first aid kit in his hand. My father had always been there for me. He was my constant. Even now, our fun night of pizza and bowling thousands of miles away, I still wanted him to tell me it would be OK.
“You'll need this,” he said curtly, before tossing the first aid kit on my bed. He turned his back to leave, but paused at my door. “Have your things packed by morning. And may God have mercy on your wretched soul.”
After that, I heard him leave the house, climb into his car, and speed off.
I did my best to wrap my wound. It was a sloppy job, but it would keep me from bleeding to death in my sleep. I was no professional though. I had no stitches or anything else to fix myself. I knew I would bear these scars forever.
I did as instructed and packed up anything meaningful, which didn't amount to much. One suitcase filled with some clothes and a picture of me with Bear when he was a puppy. To this day, it is still my prized possession. I didn't pack my Bible.
Finally, I crawled into bed. Instinctively, I looked down at the foot of my bed where Bear usually slept. At that point, my sobs came freely. I mourned everything that I had lost that night. My church. My friends. My father. My Bear.
I had always been a good, godly person. I saw the best in everyone. I had never been in a fight. I had never had any bad feelings toward anyone in my life. That night, I experienced hate for the first time.
I hated Pastor Ross.
I hated my father.
I hated God.
Despite what happened to me all those years ago, I like to think that I am an optimist at heart, so I want to end this story on a positive note.
The next morning, I went downstairs to find not my father, but my aunt and uncle. It turns out, my father's sister (whom I had only seen a few times) had always disapproved of my overly religious upbringing. At some point in the night, my father called her and asked if I could move in with them. He had told her that I was a rebellious teenager who needed a change of scenery. Despite his lies, she knew me better than that. She later told me that she was worried I might be in trouble and flew out that night. Twenty-four hours after the worst moment in my life, I was three states away. I never saw my father again.
My aunt and uncle were kind people. She was a science teacher at a local high school and he was a journalist at the local paper. I never gave them the sick details of my falling out with Dad and they didn't ask. They took me in as their own. They were the embodiment of the normal Sunday churchgoers I grew up looking down on. I was so ashamed of myself when I realized how good these people really were. How could I have been so blind?
I loved learning about science from my aunt. Growing up, my dad always tried to suppress my enjoyment of the subject. Two years after my ordeal, I went to college with the plan to major in microbiology.
I had difficulty making friends in high school but, my first college roommate, Rick and I hit it off. It wasn't until I realized that he was gay that I put the pieces of Brad's puzzle together. Brad had loved me. That revelation hurt more than I thought I had the capacity for after that night. What hurt even more was the nightmares.
In the dream, I was back in that room. Only now, it was just me, Pastor Ross, and my dad. Bear was already lying dead on the floor. I was standing there naked. Ross and Dad were chanting, “Remove your sin, remove your sin, remove your sin...” over and over again. The knife was in my hand. I would slowly lower the blade to my crotch, but before I cut myself, before I mutilated myself as Brad had, I woke screaming.
What still burns inside me is that part of me still misses Brad. Despite the circumstances of that night, I never hated or even blamed him. He was a kid, like I was. We were indoctrinated; brainwashed by our church. I wish I could go back and save him, but I'm sure he is too far gone now.
A few months into college, I met Amy at an on-campus family abuse support group (I could never bring myself to share, but it felt good to listen to others). Amy had been beaten up pretty regularly by her alcoholic mother as a kid.
She was everything I never thought I deserved. She was beautiful, smart, but most of all, kind. Before I knew it, we were dating. Things moved quickly between us. After we made love for the first time, she noticed the 666 scars carved into my arm. I started telling her a bogus story about doing it myself, but then I broke down into tears and told her the truth. The entire truth. I had never told anybody that. Most girls would've ran after something like that. We hardly knew each other. But Amy just held me and let me cry. She made it easier somehow. Talking made it easier. After that night, the frequency of the nightmares declined drastically.
I guess that brings us back to the beginning. Eventually, I came to view myself as an atheist, because no loving god could ever allow the horrors that came to me that night. No god could let a group of so-called righteous people mutilate defenseless kids and get away with it. I could also go into my scientific reasons for my atheism, but that isn't the point of this story.
It's been five years since that night. Next year, when we finish college, Amy and I are getting married. My roommate Rick will be my best man and my aunt and uncle will be there for me. I have a new family now and that is all I have ever wanted.
I still have that picture of myself with Bear on my nightstand. I miss him everyday.
To this day, I am still haunted by the past. I recently saw a flier on my college campus for a meeting of the Followers of the Way. It surely couldn't be the same group, could it?
It got me thinking, though. Chris, Katie, Becky... and Brad are all college aged now. If they went off to college, surely they would want to spread their sick gospel. I know I would have. The reason I put this out there is as a warning. If you choose to attend a church or a religious club, be careful. I know most are harmless and mean well. But remember, there are no monsters. No evil ghouls. Men can be evil. Ideologies can be evil. And both can scar you for life.
Written by RaydiantWon