Kneeling, kneeling on the living room carpet. Six years of age and staring at the top of the wood mantle on which a small, shiny bust of the virgin-mother sat between a lit candle and my elder brother’s clock radio. The radio was playing a late-50’s weekly broadcast of “The Rosary Hour,” where a kindly-sounding male voice would guide our family along with the rest of god’s radio audience, in a trip ‘round the rosary beads in solemn prayer for world peace. Didn’t know it then, but “praying for world peace” really translated to- “God, if you’re listening, please keep us safe from those bastard communists!” I learned later that communism was a term that was often equated with atheism. While watching the news, dear ma-ma would often spit, “Those damn, dirty, atheist, commies!” It sounded so potent, yes? Though it would be years before I would begin to wonder why no one ever asked me if I wanted to be confirmed, I was already forming doubts. I think that even at a young age, children of the religious tend to wander through a minefield of almost subliminal hints- where the religious beliefs that their parents’ have them swallow, don’t square with reality at all.
One such hint for me was that praying together keeps you together…in misery. We went to church every Sunday, received the sacraments, prayed the rosary and yet, doing all that didn’t seem to keep the bottle out of my parents’ hands, allowing one of them to terrorize their children and the other to refrain from putting a stop to it.
Another hint (and maybe not as subliminal) was what I’d like to call a “guilt trigger” which was the rather insidious, shame-inducing practice of having to acknowledge my sinfulness and then make a “good confession”. The guiding sentiment was, “if it feels good, it must be sinful and therefore confessed.” I can’t tell you the number of times I had to make things up just to satisfy the rules. And it wasn’t just the act (of say, masturbation) that you’d have to confess. Nope. Merely experiencing the thought of where your hands might roam under the covers (or even under someone else’s for that matter), would have you bound for the confessional again and again. Turning myself in…to the carnal thought police? Does the real world actually work this way?
One time I confessed to the priest that I had “played impurely” from four to five times the previous week. “How many times?”, he asked in a disbelieving tone. I said, “four to five.” “Oh”, he responded. “Oh, I thought you said forty-five times. I was going say that you do have a problem.” But even if I did, was it really any business of his or god’s?
I recall being in my mid-thirties and sitting during Sunday Mass when I simply and silently started to weep to myself. I suddenly experienced a sense of betrayal and then profound disappointment; the idea, that in the end, no one (god or fellow-catholic) was really looking out for me. I thought, “This just isn’t for me anymore; I didn’t come here to get depressed,” and got up and left. I was divorced several years before this sad-but-true acknowledgement and should have realized long before then, that being a “practicing catholic” and having a “union blessed by god” wasn’t enough to hold a relationship together. Our pastor didn’t turn out to be of much help either. He surmised that I was probably going through an early male menopause and handed us some cassette tapes on “marriage and the state of grace” (or something). I even asked if he could refer us to a professional and he said, “let’s wait and see.” This was the same guy who, during a sermon on tithing, blurted, “…and you don’t have to be Jewish about it!”. I can still hear the collective gasp rise.
So, I had fallen away, and while uncertain at that point about god’s existence (and actually more concerned with hell’s), was quite sure I had no use for religion, much less the RCC. It wasn’t until just about six years ago that I began to think seriously about recognizing myself an atheist. I’m not even sure what exactly prompted me to do so but felt it wasn’t enough to be merely disenchanted with religion. I think that on a subconscious level, I needed a more substantial reason not to believe and it started with reading a piece by Bertrand Russell- “Why I am Not a Christian.” Unlike the Catholic dogma on which I was raised, it actually made sense. More please. It tended to snowball from there with reading works by Stenger, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and the rest.
Over time, it was a series of hints and finally the delightful discovery of logic, reason and skepticism (thank you Dawkins & co.) that helped peel away the onion skins of dogma, manipulation, denial and deception (thank you RCC) to reveal a core of atheism. I don’t think that in the end, I actually chose to be an atheist. I just came to the realization that I’ve always been one. So, you will please excuse me now while I go off and play impurely. Thank you.