Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Story of My Journey into the Secular Community

I was raised Catholic.  My mother has been a devout (liberal) Catholic as long as I've known her.  Dad's been an atheist most of his life, but I guess my parents agreed to let Mom raise me and my brothers in the Church.

When I was little, I loved being Catholic.  I went to a Catholic school in the Midwest, where religion classes were mandatory beginning in preschool.  I guess "age of reason" was a pretty accurate description in my case, because by second grade I was very serious about understanding theology.  I considered preparing for first communion a grave responsibility.  It was, after all, the first sacrament I'd take of my own choice.  I was dedicated to understanding transubstantiation, why it matters, and what sacraments are really all about.  I remember struggling with the idea of symbols; I was never satisfied by the explanations of them my mother and teachers would give.

I was told that symbols are "outward signs of inward grace", and that they are there to help our small mortal minds comprehend God's infinite love and wisdom at least enough to let ourselves be transformed by them.  I was skeptical, even then.  I was worried that symbols might actually be distractions, or, worse yet, artificial barriers designed by the Church to control my relationship with God.  Why are priests the only ones who can ask God to turn bread into the Body of Christ? I wondered. If God is infinitely wise, what does He care for the infinitesimal wisdom accumulated through seminary?  I felt fairly certain that the only reason priests could serve as special conduits of God's grace was that their hearts were pure and fully devoted to Him when they made the request.  It seemed implausible that the sacrament of Ordination, really just a collection of very fancy symbols, could grant you magic powers in virtue of its role within the thoroughly human structure of the Church.

I called bullshit.  I decided to become a priest.  "The Church doesn't let girls become priests," my second grade teacher informed me.  I told her I didn't really intend to ask permission.

My teachers had no idea what to do with me.  They weren't trained in theology.  We didn't have that sort of funding.  Besides, no one expected that an eight-year-old might singlehandedly attempt the Protestant Reformation.  But I knew nothing of the other sects of Christianity, and I was comfortable with my personal interpretation of Catholicism, so I took my first communion happily in a white dress like all the other little girls, and that was that.

I encountered even greater challenges to my faith in third grade.  One day, while sitting with my classmates in a circle for story time, my teacher said something deeply puzzling.  I don't recall what story she was reading to us or what led her to say this, but she said, "Of course, I'm sure all your parents are good Catholics, or at least Christians."  I raised my hand.

"Actually," I corrected her, "my dad's an atheist."

She gasped.  Then, with shock on her face, she responded, "Oh, I'm so sorry!"  As I write this, it occurs to me for the first time that she probably meant to apologize for expressing offhandedly to a fragile group of children her rude presumption.  I've always thought, as I did when it happened, that she felt sorry for me because I was in the awful position of having an atheist for a father.

I didn't understand her concern.  I'd never talked to either of my parents about Dad's atheism, or about whether there are other people who aren't Catholics.  I didn't know it was supposed to be a bad thing.  I just considered it one of the many ways in which he differed from the other people I knew, like his being a biology teacher or keeping lizards as pets.

I talked to Dad about this incident.  I don't remember the content of that conversation, but I know it resulted in his recommendation that I read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.  He lent me a copy.  Over the next year I read that and several other Sagan books.  Needless to say, I became even more of a nuisance during religion class.

I think I was more upset that the adults in my life were satisfied with ignorance when they understood my questions and criticisms but couldn't answer than I was by the discovery that God isn't real.  It caused me to lose respect for them.  I even lost respect for my mother, to some extent.

From mid fourth grade on, school was a horribly painful experience for me.  I kept pretending to be Catholic.  What skepticism I couldn't contain during class and my feeling that no one else cared about what was true created enough of a rift between me and my peers, my mother, and my teachers that I was not about to give up plausible denyability, thereby formalizing my isolation and rendering it impenetrable.  I became deeply depressed.  I refused to turn in homework or study for tests.  I paid as little attention to class as possible, spending all of my time absorbed in science fiction, fantasy, and pop physics books.  I remember telling my mother that I wanted to drop out of school forever, that I'd make a living by playing my saxophone on street corners.  Fortunately, I discovered early in seventh grade that I could get straight A's with minimal effort, thereby keeping my teachers and my mom off my back, at least as long as I stayed quiet.

But I couldn't stay quiet in religion class, which, by this point, was being taught by a priest.  His name was Fr. McCarthy.  Fr. McCarthy was The Enemy.  Not only was he a particularly conservative Catholic who'd apparently slept through Vatican Two, but he was the most wretched, underhanded debater I've encountered to this day.  He knew I disagreed with everything he taught, and he'd purposefully pick fights with me so the other students could watch him trample the heathen.

He never trampled me fairly, though, even when I was in fact wrong.  True, in eighth grade I was already a more advanced philosopher and theologian than he was, but I was still a kid and had most of my cognitive developing yet to do.  I was quite a bit more wrong then.  He often could have won fairly.  But he didn't.  Instead, he would use insults, snide and disparaging remarks, and often outright lies to undermine my credibility in the eyes of my classmates.  He could win merely by exploiting his authority.  Occasionally, I'd even catch him misrepresenting or outright misquoting scripture, the Catechism, or Aquinas.  But I'd catch him, of course, well after the fact while researching his more dubious claims.  By then it was always too late.

The school was very small--seventeen people in my graduating class--so everyone in every year got a play-by-play of these skirmishes.  Obviously, this did not help my social situation.  I was unbearably lonely.  I tried to defend myself by being arrogant, by thinking that no one was worthy of my friendship anyway, and that everyone else was, after all, boring.  It was a terribly dark saga.

One day during Mass, there was only one line for Communion.  Usually, there were two.  But this day, taking Eucharist from Fr. McCarthy was unavoidable.  I stood before him, holding out my hands to receive the now empty sacrament.  "Body of Christ," he said to me, raising the stale wafer in offering.

"Amen," I responded quietly.  But his hand didn't lower immediately.  He held still, staring at me quizzically.  There was a sickeningly long moment of tension, and then, quietly so that only I could hear, he said,


I was mortified.  Frozen.  I don't remember how I responded, but I know that soon after I ran from the church and hid from my teachers behind a bush, crying.  At some point I told my mom, who told the (far more liberal) main priest of our parish, who was furious.

I hear that Fr. McCarthy was harshly reprimanded.  But I would like to thank him.  If I'd not felt that moment of intense discomfort at my years of deception, I don't know how long it might have taken me to learn to be true to myself.  I don't know that I'd ever have found the courage to stand up, to speak out, and to be counted.  I certainly would not have found myself announcing to every other non-Christian in my brand new public school junior year, "You are not alone."

I was tired of hiding.  I wasn't any good at it anyway.  Mine had always been an awfully noisy closet, and people were listening.  I cared about the truth, and I was angry at the world for systematically neglecting it.  So I resolved one morning to give it a voice.

The school secretary was in charge of making announcements over the intercom at the beginning of each day, after which she led the school in the Pledge of Allegiance.  That morning--a Friday, I think--I skipped class for the first time.  I went to the secretary's office, introduced myself, and requested the honor of leading the Pledge.  She seemed delighted that a student was taking interest, and obliged me.

As she read the announcements for Friday morning, my heart pounded.  My hands trembled.  I was worried I might not be able to speak.  Then she handed me the intercom, and I became calm, focused, and clear.  I spoke:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The static of a silent intercom hung in the air for several seconds.  I was trying to hand back the receiver, but no one in the office--not the assistants, not the principal, and not the secretary--was moving.  They all just stood petrified, staring at me, their mouths hanging open.  I turned off the intercom myself, and walked, confidently but as quickly as possible, to my first period class.

A few minutes later, I was called to the principal's office.  The secretary was sitting in a corner.  She'd clearly been crying.  The principal folded his arms and gave me a Very Stern Talking To.  "Do you understand the significance of what you've done?"

I felt awful.  I'd never wanted to hurt anyone.  I'd just wanted to defend the First Amendment and to try telling everyone the truth on for size.  I certainly didn't want to make the friendly school secretary cry.  I apologized, but I did insist that including God in the pledge every morning is unconstitutional, and that it marginalizes people who don't believe in God.  He told me that I'd offended many more people than that, because I was probably the only non-Christian in the school.  I thought he was probably right.  I left his office in tears.

The truth is, I didn't understand the full significance of what I'd done.  And neither did he.

But someone did.  I don't know his name, but he was a small mousey freshman whose voice I'd never heard before, and he came to me as I was rummaging in my locker.  "Hey," he said.  His voice was shaking, and he spoke so quietly it was nearly a whisper.  "That was really cool, what you did.  I've always been too scared to tell anybody I'm an atheist.  I thought I was the only one.  It means a lot to me, what you said.  Or didn't say, I guess.  Thank you."  He ran off before I could even say you're welcome.

He wasn't the only one.  More people thanked me that day.  And more the next week.  And the next month.  And they weren't just telling me.  I overheard people talking constitutional philosophy in the halls, saying it's not fair to Hindus or Buddhists either, and saying they'd just found out some of their friends don't believe in God.  A few weeks later I found out someone had pulled the same stunt in a neighboring town, and then, to my great astonishment, that it had even happened at my old Catholic school.

I thought coming out as an atheist was mostly just about me.  I was wrong.

By coming out publicly, I did not further ostracize myself.  There was a lot of retaliation from those who felt threatened by the challenge to Christian authority, but I was not standing up to them alone.  None of us was.  In a matter of seconds, I founded a community that had been waiting the whole time and needed only to be given a voice.  They all just needed to see one person stand up and say, "It's ok to be an atheist."


Unknown said...

Great story. A nit: Sagan uses the more conventional spelling "Demon" in the title of that tremendous book.

Jake said...

I always feel a bit guilty about my uncomplicated approach to atheism after I read a story like this. There are all these people who went through such psychic trouble, or real physical (dare I say temporal?) trouble to get to secularism, whereas I just sort of slouched towards. I also had one atheist parent and one Christian one, but I went to a liberal school, and was allowed to stop going to my mother's liberal church pretty early on. It never even occurred to me that I might be treated differently for not being religious. Life's good in the bubble I suppose.

Editor B said...

This brought a tear to my eye, and makes me glad my own daughter is no longer in Catholic school. Thank you so much for sharing.