I come from a Colombian Catholic middle class family. I was enrolled in a Franciscan school for girls when I was 4. All the women in my family had attended, were attending or would attend Colegio Alvernia. It was a family tradition.
At school, we weren’t allowed to go to mass until we were 7– the age of reason. In the meantime, they would teach us about the Bible and Saint Francis of Assisi’s life. I didn’t like the holy book very much because God asked people to sacrifice animals and children. The tales of the Bible were worse than the stories from Der Struwwelpeter that my parents used to read to me to dissuade me from being bad. However, St. Francis was cool and his awesomeness made up for all the crap in the Bible. He treated animals with respect and kindness and had super powers that I wanted— like talking to wolves and having birds do stuff for him.
When my parents decided that I was mature enough to start going to church with the rest of my family (two years before I was allowed to go to mass in school), I was both excited and honored. However, my eagerness to go to church wore off after two tries: the priest was an old, angry man that hated everything—even a 5 y/o could understand that— and the people that attended the mass didn’t seem very happy to be there. I didn’t really like it so I crafted a plan to get out of it: shortly after the service started, I would tell my mom that I needed to use the restroom. I would pretend I was using the toilet as long as I could. When I was “done”, mass would be almost over. It worked every time. They stopped trying to force me to go because I was too young. That somber church wasn’t a place for me anyway.
I had never identified myself as a girl or a boy—or anything, for that matter. I didn’t act or looked like either and that ambiguity really worried my parents. They decided to get my ears pierced and stop cutting my hair so people would never have doubts about my sex. Luckily for them, at school, femininity was something that they would shove down our throats as often as they could. They would tell us that we should strive to be like Mary and other female characters of the Bible: obedient, unhesitating, and willing to always please those who had authority over us (God, husband parents, teachers). We had to play with dolls and dress in pink or white. I didn’t see anything inherently good about playing with Barbies and looking like a little bride, but if that would keep me from going to hell I was willing to try it. They had told us everything we needed to know about hell on the first day of school and I certainly didn’t want to go there.
They started to teach us about the Old Testament and the stories really traumatized me. I wanted to get lamb’s blood to paint my door so the Angel of Death wouldn’t take me at night. I would cry myself to sleep because I was the firstborn and I was deadly afraid of being killed. The adults I talked to told me that fear of God was one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and I should be proud of it. After a couple of months, most of the anxiety went away, but I would sleep with a rosary around my neck and holding onto a plastic statue of the virgin so, should the angel come, he knew that I was a believer.
Years went by and it was time for my First Communion. I was very excited and concerned about being one with the body and blood of Christ. I prepared myself to receive my first cognizant sacrament. I thought I was about to experience something mystical: I was expecting a choir of angels and the ecstasy of the saints. All I got was a dry host that stuck to the roof of my mouth for the next couple of hours and hindered me from singing the songs and recite the verses that I had practiced for months. I thought I would never feel such disappointment in my life…
Soon after, my dad left us. My mom, sister and I had to move in with my maternal grandpa because we didn’t have anywhere to go and couldn’t even afford food. My mother had to sell everything we owned to pay for loans that my dad had taken out.
My grandpa had a big house and was a cool man: he used to be a cartographer for the military, had a degree in Economics, had gone to culinary school, travelled the world in his youth and knew 6 languages. He almost was a priest once, too. He believed in God but he also believed in reason. At that time, he didn’t go to mass: one of his legs had been amputated due to an aneurysm and he didn’t like leaving the house. He would spend his days in his library or workshop. ***Later in life I would learn that a priest molested him when he was a kid***
Grandpa didn’t like my dad or his family—he said they were Bible-thumping hypocrites. I had no contact with my dad’s side of the family for a couple of years, which meant that a lot of the after-school religious activities ceased for me. I would see my cousins at school but that was it, we wouldn’t talk much. No more family get-togethers or sleepovers, either. My dad’s family insisted that he left us because mom was a bad wife not because dad was a distant man and a hardcore drunk. Mother was not submissive.
Two of my mother’s very religious siblings moved in with us because the economy was bad. They were cold, heartless people that loved abusing each other physically and psychologically. I learned that my aunt had tried to kill my mother when she was pregnant with me by pushing her down the stairs. My uncle was a chauvinistic asshole that treated women like garbage but would go to church every day. They were mean to each other and they started being abusive towards my little sister and I. Grandpa couldn’t do much to stop them: he was old and physically weak. Mom didn’t think it was a big deal. We were alone and terrified.
I didn’t tell anyone at school about my household situation. I had learned that suffering was a good thing in the eyes of God so I tried to remain strong through prayer. I had read the book of Job and the gospel, both about suffering, and knew that great things awaited for me in the afterlife as a reward. I started praying with more and more regularity. If good things happened, God was listening; if bad things happened, I hadn’t prayed with enough conviction. The situation in my house didn’t change much but I did: I came to accept what was going on because I knew God was testing me and that’s how all the stories of saints started! I began to spend more and more time in my room either studying or praying.
And then, adolescence started. I remember being really upset when I got my period for the first time: the Bible said menstruating women were dirty and impure. I didn’t want to leave my house, I was afraid I was going to get raped. I started to hate my body and chastise myself. I would wear nun-like clothes to cover my shame. I didn’t want men to look at me so I began to overeat to make myself fat.
I started to discover my sexuality too: a girl in my class had kissed me and I had really, REALLY liked it. I was very aroused and confused, but also very afraid that other people might find out. I prayed to God for instruction and concluded that the best way to make sure this wouldn’t happen again was to ostracize the girl that had kissed me. I convinced everybody that she was a bad person and people started to hate her. She ended up changing schools. Part of me felt like crap but I knew I couldn’t risk my sanctity. God hated homosexuals and I didn’t want to be one—I had read about Sodom and Gomorrah.
A couple of years went by. I was doing great in school, playing sports competitively and had a bunch of friends. My family got cable (it’s was big deal before computers, remember that I’m talking about a third world country in the middle of nowhere). I got hooked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer instantly—I had never seen a woman so powerful on TV. I was used to the inept women in novelas and Buffy was very different: the girl killed vampires at night while wearing heels and showed up to school the next day like nothing happened. I was in love! My mom started to worry about the fact that I would spend so much time thinking/watching/drawing/you-name-it about Buffy. She freaked out even more when she discovered that my fascination and loyalty soon shifted from Buffy towards her best friend, Willow, a lesbian witch. My mother forbade me from watching the show and “suggested” that I spoke to the school psychologist. She said homosexuality was a disgusting sin against God and nature. Hell and eternal damnation started to torment me in my dreams (literally).
I made arrangements to see the mental health counselor in my school. While on the waiting room, I met a girl who was there for the same reason: she was obsessed with Xena Warrior Princess and her parents were afraid she was a becoming a dyke. The therapist agreed to see us simultaneously; she thought group therapy would be beneficial. This woman would ask us the most horrible and private questions (e.g., “do you masturbate thinking of Buffy?”—I didn’t even know girls could masturbate!) It didn’t matter what we told her, she would guilt us into believing we were going to hell for worshipping Satanist lesbians. The therapy wasn’t really working but it made our parents happy. The girl and I started to swap videos and became very good friends. We would talk on the phone for hours and also write and exchange fan-fiction at school. None of our classmates knew how close we were, though. We really liked each other but wouldn’t spend time together at school. It was sort of an unspoken agreement. Besides, we didn’t want people to start to talk behind our backs. Life was hard enough the way it was, anyway.
I knew I wanted to be more than friends with her but didn’t know what “being more than friends” meant. I was still scared of becoming a sinner and going against God’s will but, truth be told, not as much as in the past. Things were changing in my mind somehow. I thought I was experiencing God’s love through her, but according to the priest that would listen to my confessions I was committing a mortal sin. I was aware of what the Bible said about homosexuality but, at the same time, I had never been so happy in my life. That girl was closer to my heart than God ever was! I started to wonder: was Satan tempting me? Did God have a foul sense of humor? Why would he be so sinister? I was dying of thirst and God was showing me a fountain but I couldn’t drink any water from it. I started to think that God’s ways weren’t mysterious but very fucked up!
Academically, we had started to prepare for the ICFES—a standardized test for college admissions. We were learning about evolution (with a disclaimer, of course) and I started to see the contradictions with the book of Genesis. One of my classmates was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, she loaned me a couple of books by Nietzsche and I fell in love with him. His writings didn’t convince me of God’s non-existence but they sparked something in me that allowed me to think for myself for the first time. I started to investigate about the accuracy of the stories in the Bible on the Internet (surfing the web was a very novel thing in my country back then) and I found out that websites that stated that they were just myths. I confronted one of my religion teachers about this, he told me, privately, that he agreed with the information that I had found: he believed those stories were just that, stories. I became furious and very defiant. Everything I had learned not to question was a lie. I still believed in God but hated religion and the way they had distorted God’s image. I started to refuse to genuflect in front of the altar or participate in the different rites. I became vocal about religion being used as a form of oppression. I also started to read about feminism in my spare time and wouldn’t shut up about it. I was enraged! I almost got expelled on my senior year because I became militant and was recruiting classmates. I was allowed to graduate because I was a straight-A student and they knew I would make the school look good on the state test for college admissions.
I still had to go to mass every day and prepare for the sacrament of confirmation. I didn’t really want to do it but we were going through hard times—my grandpa had died— and I didn’t want to deny my mother the happiness that she deserved. So, I got confirmed and it was lame—just like my first communion.
I graduated from high school and stopped going to mass. My mother no longer cared if I went to church or not, she knew I was too busy dealing with all the schoolwork now that I was going to become a lawyer. School was paradise: they were secular and very liberal. Their motto: Post tenebras spero lucem (“After darkness, I hope for light”). They taught me everything that had been denied to me those in Catholic school.
I clearly remember learning about the structure of myths and legends in my Sociology class, how these stories were created to explain phenomena that primitive minds couldn’t grasp, and how they were used as a tool to coerce and subjugate people. We analyzed Mayan, Chibchan, you-name-it tales. I did the same judicious analysis with the stories in the Bible: the structure and content was analogous if not identical. I said good-bye to the idea of Abrahamic God and Jesus. I became a deist instead of a theist.
It was also the time when I met atheists and agnostics. They weren’t evil as the church described them, actually, these people were exactly the opposite: they were very interested in justice and morality. I discovered Kant’s Categorical Imperative and implemented it as my new code of ethics. In all honesty, God no longer occupied my head or regulated my thoughts and actions.
I really liked what I was learning but I didn’t want to be a lawyer— it just wasn’t my thing. I went to Law School because it was a family tradition but I secretly hated it. I tried to be honest with my family about school and my sexuality but they wouldn’t listen to me. I had earned a scholarship because I had a very had GPA and that’s all they cared about. They didn’t know that I was contemplating suicide. Those times were very trying, I tried to talk to my long-forgotten God but my prayers were hollow.
In 2007, when I was 20, I decided to leave the country and start a new life; my girlfriend, whom I had met online, helped me move from Bogotá to California. My family stopped talking to me and pretty much disowned me. Things were hard for a while but I never thought of returning to my country— going back to the dark ages wasn’t an option. I was sad because my own blood was rejecting me for being a “sinner”. My girlfriend tried to take me to her church to find comfort and peace. Unity was very cool and people were very loving and accepting. The reverend would read different religious texts (Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Qur’an, etc.) during the service and he would compare them. If that had been the church I was raised in, my story would have been so different… Their teachings weren’t about God but about morality and becoming a better person. It was a good place but I still didn’t like the monopolization of faith. They believed that all the religions were valid and, to me, that was a big contradiction. I learned to trust logic above anything else so I left them too.
Being in the U.S. changed my life! My bigot family has been replaced by beautiful humans that genuinely want to make the world a better place. I left all the religion-related guilt behind: I learned to love my body and embrace my queerness. I also started reading books (and blogs) about atheism and, after The God Delusion, I made the final leap.
Right now, I’m working on becoming more militant in my community: I want to start an atheist blog in Spanish. I know it’s a very ambitious project but I’m proud to say I have a lot of allies in my quest!