I’m an atheist now, and this is my first post to this blog. I just want to give part 1 of an autobiographical account of my own, personal, religious backstory.
I am now a 23-year-old young woman who was raised in a mainly secular environment, a casual cultural Christian environment more than anything. I grew up on a pretty small town in northern Maryland, an “exurb” according to Wikipedia. We were a heavily Republican county in a Democratic state. God and prayer weren’t brought up in everyday conversation. Not all of my friends went to church every Sunday – some did, but I didn’t even know what denomination they all were. I knew some people who went to the same Catholic church as me, and pretty much everyone else in my town was probably not Catholic, because ours seemed to be the only Catholic church around. No one was really discriminatory against Catholics as far as I could tell, growing up. Or against any religion, really. Most people were Christian – there were some fringe Christians like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, but there were more of them than Muslims, Jewish people, or people practicing any other potential religion.
Religion wasn’t really brought up in school, other than in World History class once I got to 10th grade. Something about Noah’s Ark and there being a global flood story in almost every culture was brought up in my 7th Grade Ancient History Social Studies class as well, I believe. The Holocaust was studied and anti-Jewish sentiment as early as 5th grade. There was a Fellowship of Christian Athletes club at my school too, but I mainly ignored their existence. These are the types of places where religion came up in the public school that I attended, as far as I remember from being a kid. I do remember, near the very end of my final year of high school, that our school was encouraging us to attend a a Baccalaureate Service at a church, and I didn’t think much of the location nor did I really know what “Baccaluareate” meant. I’d never heard of such a thing. I did attend, and was surprised by how religious the ceremony was, given the essentially school setting.
My dad had been raised Jewish but was non-practicing by the time I was born, and he was apathetic about religion and what my brother and I were taught about it, so he let my mom raise us in the same Catholic church she’d grown up in. My parents got divorced when I was only 3 years old, so I don’t remember or know how things were/would have been with my dad and church had my parents stayed together. My yeah, my brother & I were baptized as babies and given godparents and everything. My mom and grandmother didn’t serve meat for dinner on Fridays during Lent. (I was over at my grandmother’s house a lot, as she lived only 5 minutes from my own house and I had more friends in that neighborhood and my mom preferred to have her mother take care of us.)
At my First Communion ceremony when I was 8, I was afraid to drink the wine that was supposed to represent (in my mind, it was only supposed to represent) Jesus’ blood. (I never realized, back then, that the church was actually so crazy as to consider it literally transformed into human DNA.) So the Eucharist was always just the flavorless cracker wafer thing, and never the wine, for me.
I’d carry a book with me to church that was really small, pocket-size book thing, with gold on the outside of the pages – it overviewed exactly what happened in a Catholic Mass and even included the prayers. I have no clue where I got it from. I must have been given it as a gift by some Catholic in my life. My mom and her whole family would count, so it could’ve been any of them. I noticed sometimes that our church said words slightly differently, like when there were “your”s or “thy”s, and that the book was close but not 100% exactly accurate of what our particular church did. Still, I really enjoyed having the book and following along during mass. I wanted to do Church right. I wanted to know and understand what was going on. And it made the service less boring.
I was careful not to eat or drink immediately before church, since it was against the rules to consume food or drink anything other than water or medicine within the hour before getting the Eucharist.
I attended some different Catholic churches when one of my mom’s siblings had a baby who was being baptized, and another when my great grandmother died, and yet another when another cousin on my mom’s side of the family had her first communion ceremony. I found the slight differences in the Catholic Mass services, and the major differences in the appearances of the churches, fascinating.
My mom stopped taking my brother and me church every week when I was pretty young. I actually wanted to go, and felt it was wrong – a sin – to skip church – although I did think about it, and realized it made no sense for that to be a sin. It wasn’t hurting anyone. Why was going to church so important? I tried to get my mom to go, for a brief period.
Even without church, I went to CCD (aka “Religious Education”) classes every week during the school year. We’d go to church on Christmas and Easter, as well as my grandmother’s house for family gatherings on those holidays. I remember going to church one Easter and my mom, who was late for everything, would show up (with me and my brother) late, so we’d be stuck standing at the back because the church had no room for all of the extra people who actually managed to attend mass on that religious holiday.
I also know we’d always go to church on Christmas Day, as well, and it wasn’t quite as crowded, because some people had gone to the midnight mass the night before, and others the super early in the morning mass. We went to the 11:00 am, later in the morning mass, usually after opening a few presents under the tree. They’d always end that service with “Joy to the World” as the parting hymn, and I always really loved that. I also always noticed in the hymn book and on the board at the front of our church how the midnight service
The cross necklace I’d received as a gift at my baptism was pretty and 14 K gold or something, but I only really felt comfortable wearing it on those specifically Christian holidays. Announcing to the world my Christianity with a cross seemed… just not quite like who I was on most days of the year.
For Lent, in CCD, we were encouraged to sacrifice things. I never took that too seriously. I kind of ignored it, although I’d claim to give up something while in the CCD classes. I felt slightly guilty, but not really all that guilty, for the lie.
In CCD we’d also be asked to experience the sacrament of Reconciliation by going to Confession. We’d have to think of something to confess, all of us on the same day, usually with no forewarning. It was a thing we did once a year, and it was pretty annoying, because you had to wait for ALL of the other CCD kids in a long line and then you had FOREVER to say your pennance prayers too. You spent the time waiting trying to memorize the Act of Contrition prayer (“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was…”) and planning what sin(s) you’d be confessing to once you got in to see the priest.
I remember one time, I confessed honestly to the sins of fighting with my younger brother when I really should have known better, especially since I knew I had been intentionally trying to cause him physical pain to punish him for whatever he’d done to wrong me, and for not holding the door open for someone when I’d been idk, lazy or something. These were the worst things I’d ever done lol. I couldn’t think of anything more worth confessing.
Another time, I lied in Confession, and claimed I’d taken the Lord’s name in vain, when I actually was NEVER one to curse at all, not even with “Oh my God”, as a kid. (I’d say “Oh my gosh” instead- yeah, I was that type of kid.) I felt… weird about how comfortable I was just making stuff up to the priest in Confession. I found it so… memorable a thing for me to do, one of the most striking memories for me, as I look back now. Maybe I felt a little guilty. Maybe I just found it silly that they were acting like as young children we’d all necessarily done bad enough things that we needed to confess things. Maybe I just found it silly that the point of Confession was about the bad nature of sins and here I was sinning just to get through it. I think I also didn’t really say my 5 Hail Marys sometimes ’cause I couldn’t remember all of the words to the prayer. I knew the Our Father and had a lot of time so I think I did say those prayers of penance, though. The priest would assign a mix of those. It always felt like the weirdest idea – that saying some random old specific prayer with set words would be what God wanted?
Another thing that is memorable for me about these Confession days for CCD is that during all that waiting, I had a lot of time I really think about it. I remember explicitly thinking that all priests must be atheists, because they are supposed to have the direct line to God, and that’s how Confession worked. You tell the sins to the priest, and the priest talks to God, and then God forgives you and tells the priest what to tell the sinner for his or her penance. Once they got to that priest position, they’d finally know for sure that God wasn’t real, because no one would talk to them. I must have already basically been an atheist there, or at least a huge part of me was so very close to that intellectual position. But I still thought God might be real, a deistic type of God (although I didn’t know the term ‘deism’ at the time), somehow, despite these types of thoughts crossing my mind.
Biology class came and I felt sure what I believed in was this thing termed “Intelligent Design”. I believed in (or really, I should say I ‘accepted’) Evolution but that God had a guiding hand in it or God created the process in the first place or something like that and I thought that was what “Intelligent Design” was. I was ignorant of a lot of basic facts.
My 10th grade biology teacher had a banner up in his classroom that said something generic about God. Maybe relating God to teaching or Science? It didn’t feel too annoyingly Christian – at that point I felt it was secular enough, maybe. I guess I remember it even now, though, because there was a part of me that felt uncomfortable about that. I think that teacher of mine also mentioned to us at one point that he was Catholic. He strongly wanted us all to accept evolution – this was a teacher who didn’t seem passionate about anything at all and basically let us teach ourselves biology using the textbook – but when we got to the evolution unit, one girl in my class was a creationist and insisted she didn’t believe evolution was true. He showed our class videos on the complexity of the human eye and Darwin and stuff and stressed how true it was.
I remember in the middle school cafeteria, people approached that same creationist girl about the fact that she’d ruined our field trip to see the Harry Potter movie because Harry Potter was against her religion. (We ended up going on a field trip to see Holes instead.) People asked her how she could be okay with Lord of the Rings but not Harry Potter, and she said LoTR had a Christian Author, but JK Rowling wasn’t Christian.
I was fascinated by all of this stuff growing up, and struggling, for years, with my faith. I knew I didn’t really believe. But I had been sufficiently indoctrinated into believing faith was a virtue and I felt… inadequate for not having enough.
When I was 7(? or maybe I was 9. I don’t remember) and attended my great grandmother’s funeral, I asked my mom and Aunt (I think they were together, if I remember correctly) if all dead people became angels, they weren’t sure what to tell me.
I started watching 7th Heaven and I loved it for being a sweet family drama that addressed a lot of social & psychological issues through the minister’s role and the guest star with the problem of the week. But I also was curious about the way religion was addressed in that TV show. They were vague and non-denominational, and made religion seem kind of appealing, I think. It helped reinforce some of my views about faith being a virtue. I found it fascinating and memorable that in the third or fourth episode of the show, early in season 1, right after his grandmother dies a young Simon is talking about how Heaven can’t be found anywhere on a map and the adults don’t know how to answer his questions about where Heaven is, but at the end of the episode in a heartwarming moment, his pre-school age younger sister, Ruthie, tells him it’s located in his heart. I also remembered in season 3 when Ruthie wasn’t believing in Santa after catching their oldest brother, Matt, playing the Santa at the mall, and Simon thought it was important for Ruthie to believe in god so that she’d be able to believe in God later in her life when she was older – it was a point of view on Santa belief that I’d never heard before. Even in the pilot I found it fascinating the way they have Simon’s prayers for a dog be answered with what could be explained in secular ways, but he did pray for one and then did get a pet dog. The same thing kind of happens in season 2 with Matt tearfully praying, alone in a church at night, for his parents to understand what happened and forgive him, and then they happen to have shown up at the church and be standing right behind him and have literally heard his prayer – the show always portrays prayers being answered in this kind of way that is… well, realistic to how someone might interpret things in life as prayers being answered. It is a fictional show, but they don’t make miracles happen that really wouldn’t/couldn’t in real life.
My brother became really close friends with a boy who was the grandson of a devout Jehovah’s Witness. His grandmother lived on the same street at our grandmother, and for a brief period this boy, Caleb, and his mother were living with the grandmother after his mother’s divorce. Caleb’s uncle was a perpetual bachelor and Caleb told us he was pretty sure he was gay, but closeted (or perhaps in denial) because of the religion. Caleb also said he wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter for religious reasons, but his mom didn’t really buy into that and would take him to see the movies, and just told him not to tell his grandmother he’d seen them. He couldn’t have a Harry Potter book with him or else she’d see it, so he couldn’t read them. His grandmother legitimately believed the end of the world would be in our lifetimes. Every Friday afternoon around 4:00 pm, Caleb had to stop playing with my brother (and sometimes me) because his grandmother had Bible Study sessions she conducted for just him. She invited me and my brother to join her for one, and we accepted. I found the tales she was telling about the Jehovah’s Witness faith fascinating, and like a religion that I could see why people might want to believe, but at the end it started to sound more crazy as she went into what would happen after we all died.
I gave quite a bit of thought to the more mainstream views of heaven and hell. I wondered how, if murderers ended up in hell, the murderer’s mother could possibly be as completely happy as she was supposed to be in heaven. I mainly didn’t believe in hell at all, and didn’t give it much thought, but heaven was a concept I thought about more often. I couldn’t quite imagine being happy in a boring place consisting of only gardens and clouds. It seemed silly and unrealistic to expect heaven to be everything I loved here on Earth, like watching the best TV shows ever and that kind of thing. I never really fully believed in heaven, I don’t think.
When I was 12, I went to a synagogue service for a Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) service for the first time, because my dad’s family was all still Jewish, and his cousins’ children were starting to have their Bat & Bar Mitzvahs. I also attended the Bat Mitzvah service Saturday morning. I saw them read from the Torah in Hebrew at this Reform Temple, and the Rabbi preach, and I saw firsthand the wonderful Jewish community that I knew other Christian churches had but that mine was lacking. I felt almost tempted to convert to Judaism. I wished I was Jewish. Having a Bat Mitzvah party at age 13 would be so amazing too, and I was jealous of the girl of honor. I was asked by one of the other people around our age in attendance at the event when I would be having my Bat Mitzvah, and I sadly had to inform her I was Catholic, so I wouldn’t be having one at all. I was jealous of the Jewish culture and the way they had these amazing community centers. In many ways, I saw so many similarities to what I knew about Christianity as a whole. But I realized I didn’t believe any of the Jewish stuff was true, and truth mattered to me. So the idea of converting to Judaism was very brief and fleeting.
In 8th grade, in CCD, they finally taught us what the word “virgin” meant, and all the years of hearing about the Virgin Mary finally made sense to me, lol. I felt like SUCH an idiot for not understanding it sooner. I thought it was just her name or something. They taught us that the pope teaches that birth control is a sin, but the volunteer CCD instructor told us not to worry about it, and everyone uses it anyway, regardless. I remember that very clearly. It was shocking to hear her say such a casual “Don’t worry about what the rules technically are” thing, but I knew she was right. None of us in that CCD class were one of even 6 children, like my mom was, or more, like the 9 kids my best friend’s Catholic dad was one of. They also taught us that the pope accepted the science that being gay was biological, and not a choice, but that to act on the gay impulses and have gay sex was still a sin. I remember finding that kind of an odd stance to take but I was very naive and ignorant about homosexuality back then, so I didn’t think too much on it.
As 9th grade and high school was starting for me, CCD was basically over and Catholic Confirmation preparation classes had begun. You get Confirmed in the Catholic faith at age 14, and I remember realizing it’d be me declaring that I was sure I definitely believed all of that stuff. I wasn’t sure what I thought about priests only being male, or the birth control rule that I was sure I’d be ignoring once I started having sex, or so many things.
I never fully understood the Trinity. How could Jesus be God, yet also be God’s son? I thought of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and how as the daughter of a witch, she was a witch, but.. “god” wasn’t a species. I didn’t like being confused. I felt like I couldn’t believe something I didn’t even understand.
I wasn’t even sure if the Catholic church believed “the devil” was a real thing. I’d only heard him talked about on TV shows.
I felt like I’d be lying to go through with the Confirmation, so I worked up the courage to ask my mom permission to not get confirmed. I finally told her and my brother on the way home, in the car, from a Confirmation preparation class. She said it was good to have a church for when I got married. But I didn’t have to. As long as I believed in God, it was fine. I lied and told her of course I did. I was afraid of her – she was pretty abusive, but that’s a story for another day – and telling the truth would obviously upset her.
When we got home, when my brother and I had a chance to be alone, I asked him what he thought about God. I was 14, my brother was 12. We both discussed it and came to the mutual conclusion that we both weren’t sure if we believed he was real. We were both at that “agnostic” stage between Christianity/Deism & Atheism.
It took me a while longer – through age 19, my grandfather dying, and the first semester of my sophomore year of college where I took a Religion 101 type comparative religions course – to fully get to the point where I was comfortable calling myself an atheist, and sure I didn’t believe.
I will tell more of my story eventually, in other posts. But for now, here I am, as a start.
Also, here is a different telling of that story of mine, which I’d recommend you read. I left out some details that I included there: