As a child, I was brought up in a vaguely Christian way – my mother was raised Lutheran and my father Methodist, but neither held too closely to tradition. They read me Bible stories, the non-threatening ones meant for children, and prayed with me at night; I learned to think of God as a benign watcher who would save me from bad dreams. The only times we entered a church were weddings and funerals.I grew older, and made friends with girls who went to VBS and AWANA at the Baptist church, so I of course wanted to go too. This was allowed, and I excelled at AWANA because of my great skill at memorizing Biblical verses (I am good at memorizing in general, it’s my one talent). The father of one of my close friends became more deeply involved in the church, and by the time he went to seminary school she was all covered up even in the summer and her mother listened to Christian radio all day. She had to grow her hair and it wasn’t long before I wasn’t allowed to be her friend anymore. Nobody put it that starkly, but there was a serious sense of disapproval from her parents and I got to see her less and less. It was confusing, since I was only 11 and didn’t think I had done anything wrong. It was years before I understood that I actually hadn’t.
When I was 13, I stumbled upon a book in a box my parents had picked up at a yard sale that purported to teach magic. All I managed to do was start a small fire and get grounded for a week. I was still drawn to the pagan rituals it discussed, being a child who even at that age spent most of my time wandering the woods. Many flowers were sacrificed in the creek as wishes. As a child who lived in the woods as much as I could, calling to spirits of the forest made some kind of sense.
I met my first husband at 18. He was Roman Catholic, so I decided I should learn all about their teachings to be his equal partner. I never bothered converting, though, since it wasn’t important to him except when he was bullying me. I did try very hard to believe, but it didn’t take. Some time after he started to hit me, I began seeking books on Pagan magic, in the desperate hope that a Goddess would protect me where a God couldn’t. I performed so many rituals that did nothing but make me feel better until the next time he got mad. In the end, it was friends who saved me, at which point I no longer believed in any Gods or Goddesses. I had grown up enough to understand that you can only depend on those you are sure exist.
Freed from his confines and finally having a computer, I was able to explore the world. I fell deeply, irrevocably in love with science. It was actually a rekindling of a love I had as a child, before I learned that girls weren’t supposed to like that.Whereas I had begun by rejecting dieties because they didn’t make my life better, I finally learned the arguments against their very existence. I also discovered that there were tons of people like me who didn’t accept any gods at all.
I have three daughters of my own now. The oldest, most influenced by her grandparents who prayed with her when she was small, believes in a God who protects her. That’s OK. My middle child who questions everything concluded recently that she is an atheist, which she was unafraid to tell me because I have never lied about my position on the subject. That’s also OK. The youngest is too young to care. I hope that in the end it won’t matter.
Although I knew I was an atheist by the time I was 25, most of my family didn’t find out until 10 years later. I was terrified to tell them, having spent my entire life as the good girl who always does what she’s expected to do. Much to my surprise, they still loved me, as does my (second and last) husband, who is a Christian nominally but doesn’t make a fuss about it.
I fear death, more than anything in this world, but I don’t want to comfort myself falsely with fairy tales. If all I have is 70 years or so, then by damn I am going to make them count. I am in college at the ridiculous age of 37 because you can never learn too much, I read every book I get my hands on because there will never be enough words. Being an atheist makes “carpe diem” make sense. If this life is all we have, better to grab hold of all the joy we can get out of it.