I went to Catholic school for the first ten years of my life. There are certain things that are second nature to me even now. When I hear an ambulance, I sometimes have to restrain myself from beginning the sign of the cross, and I’ve been looking for suitable nonreligious profanity for years. But I was surrounded by complacent and/or lazy Catholics. They were all so entrenched in the religion that they assumed that everyone else was, too. They never bothered to put forth the effort to indoctrinate me.
I loved reading when I was little, but my family was poor and we didn’t have many books. I wasn’t able to get to the library by myself until I was seven or so, so before that, I read whatever was in the house. As a result, I knew a lot about electrical engineering, romance novels, and the Bible. The electrical engineering books were pretty plainly practical fact (if somewhat opaque) to my younger self, and the romance novels were boring. Compare the Bible to these two other genres. It was more exciting than either genre, but far less representative of any kind of useful information than the electrical engineering books. It was stories. Some were entertaining, some were bloody, some were just long lists of names. The complacent Catholics around me saw me reading the Bible (especially during Mass, which was beyond boring) and thought I was incredibly devout, so they left me alone. None of them bothered to explain to me that it was all supposed to be true until a couple years later.
I missed out on Catholic guilt somehow, too. I have vivid memories of going into the confessional and gleefully recounting all my sins from the past week. It filled me with pride when I managed to shock the priest, and I sometimes exaggerated my sins to that effect. His condemnation had absolutely zero influence on me, and I used my penance prayer time to think about my day. My parents were awful disciplinarians, one too harsh, the other too lax. As a result, I had no respect for what adults thought about what I did, and I did what I pleased. My first ever penance had nothing to do with recounting my sins, actually. I spent the whole conversation with the priest demanding that he tell me what the ‘word’ was. “Say the Word, and I shall be healed.” I didn’t understand the turn of phrase, and I thought it was incredibly selfish that the priest would keep such a useful word from the rest of us.
I never had imaginary friends, but I knew other kids at school that did. It baffled me. The concept of God was explained to me like that: he’s your invisible (read: imaginary) friend. He’s the person you’re supposed to talk to when you’re upset, and he’ll comfort you. I’ve always been very practical. I didn’t want comfort. I wanted results. I wanted my mother to get a divorce from my abusive, alcoholic father so that my siblings and I wouldn’t get screamed at and hit every night after school. It never even occurred to me to ask God for help. I talked to my mother and my relatives and my teachers instead. And when they didn’t get results, I took things into my own hands. It didn’t always work and I sometimes got hurt, but it kept me from feeling helpless. I think that had a larger positive benefit than any prayer ever could have. I may have gotten more bruises, but I’m the only sibling who didn’t have to have extensive therapy.
When I was nearly seven, I found all the presents from Santa hidden under a sheet in my parent’s bedroom two weeks before Christmas. It had never occurred to me before that Santa might or might not exist. He was always a story. Questioning Phileas Fogg’s existence made as much sense. I accepted that he wasn’t real (Phileas too) in stride, let my parents know that I knew (so they’d stop with all the wink-wink, nudge-nudge), and got the warning not to tell anyone because it was a secret and the only other sibling that knew was my older brother. Two days later, at an Advent Mass, I remembered about God and put him in the same category without even thinking about it. And that was that. When I finally realized that everyone around me thought God was real, I went along with it. You’re not supposed to spoil the surprise for everyone who hasn’t figured it out yet.
I didn’t realize until I was a teenager (and we had already moved somewhere new and my parents were too lazy to enroll us in Catholic school again, or even go to church more than once a month) that it was a bit more complicated than that, and that’s when I started calling myself an atheist. My little sister and brother follow my lead in almost everything, and became agnostics not soon after. Just like with Harry Potter, I didn’t let them jump on the bandwagon until they damn well knew what they were talking about, because I am an obnoxious, bossy older sister. The only opposition I got came when my older sister decided to become a Pentecostal. Even then, she couldn’t complain much, since I was the only family member that didn’t mock her thoroughly for it. She needed the unwavering social support she was getting from them at the time more than I needed to bother her about how horrible her religion was. I even went to Bible study with her once or twice, out of sheer curiosity. (They really do speak in tongues sometimes!! And they mocked Catholics for worshiping ‘dolls’, which was a huge WTF from where I was sitting.)
My mother, the superstitious one, worried that I was jinxing myself by saying outright that there’s no such thing as a god. Then, the other day, she called me up on the phone to tell me about a billboard she’d seen and was offended by that said, ‘Seven days without prayer makes one weak.’
“I never pray,” she said, “And I’m a strong person now! I worked hard to get that way, and God had nothing to do with it! He probably isn’t even re— Hey! …son of a bitch. This is your fault.”
So it worked out well, for me anyway.