I wasn’t going to write one of these. Pontificating is a joy and all, but honestly, the answer’s pretty simple. I gave the matter some thought on and off over the years until I shed religion like a snake sloughing off an old skin. No revolution required. Then I got dragged to the Veteran’s Day program at my baby sister’s school, which was my school, too, once upon a time.
I hated that place, and getting near it makes me twitchy. You want to make the basic trials of school worse for a bookish, gender-nonconforming, awkward kid, send them to a tiny, sports-obsessed Catholic school. Between spiteful classmates who’d always been taught to fear the slightest deviation from the arbitrary norm to teachers too incompetent to teach in a public school who resented a kid who actually wanted to learn, the atmosphere was absolutely toxic. It’s only later that I realized the damage that place did me beyond the social realm. I’d have been the weird kid anywhere I went in that white bread little town, though at a public school I’d have been able to learn more and vary my social circle a little. But at least I wouldn’t have been subjected to the revolting little Catholic worldview in the process.
My mother’s a hell of a church lady, but she’s always been good at compartmentalizing stuff. Religion as I learned it at home was full of as much freedom of conscience as she could wring out of Catholic doctrine. I was never supposed to submit because I was female, I was always encouraged to pursue science, and I was always assured that there wasn’t any literal hell. I think the reason it took me until midway through high school to actually break from religion is I was always allowed to ignore the bits I didn’t like until the active belief system had no effect on me.
No, it was the subtler stuff that did that. All the cheerful openness about sex education at home couldn’t block out the bizarre and disturbing culture of shame the church and school piled on the subject. (In Mom’s defense, she did pull me from after school “health seminars” after the volunteer moms spent the whole time telling girls it was okay to be embarrassed about, um, having a reproductive system, I guess?) My Dad’s slightly cowardly efforts to quietly subvert the ill effects–the ones that he recognized, anyway–led to my martial arts classes, which helped immensely with both the aftermath of bullying from peers and school/religious authorities and the enforced homogeneity of my social circles. I think I was saved from embracing vague cultural homophobia by a fondness for fanfiction and anime more than anything else. I went to a religious high school where their reputation rested more on academics than “values” despite the squealing of the priestly class. I went on to a liberal east coast college and had all my assumptions and experiences challenged. I grew out of it.
So sure, it’s possible to extricate yourself from all that crap. But why should I have had to? And why should my brother and sister after me, and why is the baby of the family (sixteen years my junior) faced with the same trial? Fuck. That. Noise. I accompanied my dad to watch her part in the VD celebration, and most of it was vaguely inane. The kids sang patriotic songs, some local veterans got applauded. Nothing too wrong with that. Then Principal Glenn Beck Jr. took the stage and began to read off this blistering massacre of the establishment clause. They’re a private school and no one can stop them, of course, but they still extolled this nonsense as though it were… You know, true. Lying to children for the glory of shoring up a crumbling disaster of a primitive tribalism.Only thing worse than wallowing in rancid jingoism is following it up by smearing the imaginary bronze-age tyrant in the sky and all his associated values all over a secular government.
I’m not vaguely nonreligious, as I was between about 15 and 22. I’m an atheist. Because I’ve realized that no matter how benign and meaningless and liberal you make your interpretations of God, the edifice of belief still wreaks havoc on healthy development and cripples the worldview, especially in children right when they most need to accept and explore.