For me, the roots of my feminism are intimately bound up with the roots of my atheism.
I was one of those kids who believed in ghosts, but only at night. During the day, they were an absurd idea. Invisible people? Yeah right. At night, though, I would cower under my duvet imagining I could see them. At the age of four, at Christian daycare, I was sitting on a swing next to a classmate who said, “Do you believe in god?”
He asked it in the same tone older children used when they said, “Do you believe in Santa?”
Suddenly, the correct answer occurred to me.
“No,” I said. “Do you?”
“Sometimes,” he said.
I knew exactly what he meant. During the day, god was an absurd concept, but at night, he cowered under his sheets not daring to move lest god should see him.
When I was eight, my teachers decided that I had committed too many crimes against handwriting and asked my parents to intervene. They bought rubber grips for my pencils that would force my fingers into the correct position. Then they brought out a Bible and some lined paper. Every night, I sat at the kitchen table and copied the words. The house we lived in at the time had dry-stone walls. They weren’t even plastered on the inside. There was a single window with a wooden frame and shutters on the wall over the table. A cast iron stove stood out from the far wall, a fire whistling from its belly.
I couldn’t help but read the stories as I copied them. They were terrifying. An invisible angel stopped a man in the dark, midway across a river. And the things that happened to women were even worse. A man raped his daughters and got them pregnant. God ordered a father to kill his daughter in the name of sacrifice. Another man offered to throw his daughter to an angry mob so that they would appease themselves by raping her. After a night of handwriting practice, I lay awake and listened for the sound of snoring from my parents’ room. When it came, I climbed out of bed and switched on the light. Then I read books about unicorns and fairies, anything to take my mind off the thought of invisible hands reaching for me in the dark.
For my birthday, I was given a sheet of glow-in-the-dark star stickers. I used a star chart to carefully recreate the constellations on my ceiling. For a while, I forgot about the invisible hands and the voice from the sky asking my dad to sacrifice me. I fell off to sleep thinking about what the stars would look like from the surface of the moon or from Mars. For a science project, I drew my own maps, each night walking up the hill with a flask of hot chocolate to draw constellations and note the phase of the moon. My dad found some books on mythology and explained the stories behind the constellations. For some reason, the myths were less terrifying, perhaps because nobody believed them anymore and they could be read for what they really were: stories.
One day I climbed the hill with my construction paper. The frosted branches of trees looked suspicious. There were new shadows thrown up by the moon that made it easy to imagine invisible people standing in the wood, watching me. I turned around and went home. In bed, my cowardice turned to regret. I looked up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling and knew that invisible people couldn’t be real. Looking back on this moment from adulthood, I realise that I had to make a choice: Either the world was governed by invisible, unknowable forces or it was possible to systematically study the world. But even though I couldn’t have articulated that at the time, that was exactly the contradiction I had to resolve in my head.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I wasn’t afraid of god at all, but of the fact that other people believed in the idea. Outside, through the woods, the neighbours would all be in bed. Mankind landed on the moon twenty years ago. Yet these people went to church. They each kept a copy of the black book with its stories of human sacrifice. What would happen when one of these neighbours became convinced that a voice in the sky wanted him to kill his daughter? No child was safe. How did these people sleep at night if they believed invisible angles could wake them at any moment for a wrestling match?
Then the revelation came. I remembered the conversation on the swings as a four year- old. The fact that the boy felt the need to ask if I believed in god said it all. If gods and ghosts and Santa were real, nobody would ask me if I believed. Nobody had ever asked me if I believed in trees or rocks or even stars. Even the man in black in the church didn’t believe. I stood in front of him and he asked me if I accepted god and Jesus. My parents waited until I was older to have me Christened because they had the idea that I should remember the event. I was too afraid of the man in black to tell the truth, because even at four, I sensed that I was required to lie.
I imagined the neighbours all snug in their beds, sleeping soundly.
“They don’t really believe,” I thought. “None of them believe.”
The weight of fear was lifted from me and I dropped off to sleep. I didn’t have the vocabulary to know that I was a feminist or an atheist until much later. Ironically, I eventually learned about the term “atheist” from church. The reverend was raging against atheists and I thought, “Hey. He’s describing me. I must be an atheist.” Even though I didn’t have the terminology and hadn’t read any feminist or atheist academics yet, I look back on that night in my childhood as the point in which I became a feminist atheist.