This is a bit of a tricky one, since there’s no one particular moment. Instead it’s been a gradual unfolding, a gradual freeing from the need for a god-construct and spirituality itself. I was raised Catholic, and in my own kiddy way, was pretty observant. But I recall questioning certain edicts early on, especially those against non-procreative sexuality or sensual pleasure itself (stick a horny kid in a room filled with naked paintings and tell them that sex is wrong…yeah, sure). However, the real first crack in the base was linked with money and class-consciousness.
We were the only “poor” family in our middle class town. We couldn’t make tuition every month at the parochial schools I went to, so we relied on extra work at functions, scholarships, and sometimes the kindness of donors. We were also on assistance for many years, and while we still went to church each Sunday, Mom made a point out of bringing me to every office and explaining every procedure, and showing me firsthand the bureaucratic circus and the pain of stigma. This financial “slump” we could never seem to get out of was the crucible for not only my adult politics but my religious views. Let me explain: growing up without a lot of cash and shaky support networks (even with certain advantages*) exposes a kid early to the damage done to social and political institutions by faith. Take, for instance, the weird link between wealth and religion – that if you’re rich, God must like you, and all the rest can get bent.
This sort of bullshit influenced the policies (and social stigmas) that ruled our lives for much of my childhood (late 80s**, early 90s). It’s still around, present in the miserable treatment many people receive today if they have the “temerity” to not only not be wealthy, but to not “have faith” God (or the whims of the market) will shower them with riches. Even as a kid, I found a direct link between the mind-shutdown faith requires and the kind of thinking that leads people to approve of wealth-worshipping “I got mine, fuck you” behaviors. This was strike one.
I fiddled around with the ideas of religion itself, not necessarily belief. In adolescence I started hanging around with my Mom’s Trekker buddies myself, which is probably the best thing a young teen can do. That scene was and remains fairly diverse, the people I encountered talked to me like I had a brain. There was, at least in this particular group, a widespread sense of “investigate, debate, relate”; investigate what you don’t know, debate stuff you think you do, but always try to relate with someone different. There were exceptions to this, but that’s my takeaway. This was far different from accepting canned responses and handing over a few bucks each week in tithes. Strike two.
At this time, I started drifting towards more neo-Paganism, preferring its more diverse, gender-equitable and sex-positive attitudes, as well as its ecological awareness and interest in history. We were always a pretty matriarchal family, and I was raised on myth and folklore, so this was a natural progression. I tried various flavors of Wicca for a while, but decided it wasn’t for me. I felt silly, even if I did like dressing like Stevie Nicks and keeping track of moon phases.*** I will say this, though – it felt more genuine to me at that stage in my life than Catholicism did, and I’m still fond of the original ideas that attracted me (much like my remaining fondness for the Corporal Works of Mercy). Strike three.
Even my Mom joined in on this venture. I remember one day we were sitting in our kitchen, mutually “coming out” to one another about being dissatisfied with the Church, with the short shrift women got, and with the hypocrisy of it all. For the rest of her life, Mom had a patchwork Catholic/Pagan thing going on, eschewing Mass attendance, hierarchy, and the gender/class stratification that always comes along with organized religions even as she kept her saints and rosaries. This seemed to help her get by, but I still didn’t feel quite happy with it, although it took me a while to come to terms with that.
The last pit stop on my story here, the big one, also revolves around my mother. She passed away in early 2005 after years of illness. In the last stage of her ordeal, she was in a coma, with all function above the brain stem gone. I came to resent the perkiness of the staff, even as I understood why they may have used it as a professional tool or their own coping mechanism. I also resented sunny platitudes of “oh, God is good!”, “the Lord moves in mysterious ways!”, all of that. No higher brain function – it was as devastating and simple as that. I couldn’t take another prayer.
This coma lasted a couple of months, and midway through she was moved to a nursing home. At that facility, there was one particular nurse that inspired my unspoken wrath, even though she was great at her job and probably is a wonderful human being. She seemed to take a shine to my mother, as much as Mom could have been said to be there. She’d join my family and sing and pray, pat my Mom’s head and call her pet names, call on God to wake her up. Now, I was hardly in my right mind, but I found this one of the most obscene things I’ve ever seen. I’m grateful for the care this nurse gave, but I wish I had the wherewithal to gently tell her to stop, that Mom had passed away, and we were keeping a vigil by her body. To wave belief around in my face, after what I’d been looking at for weeks,well, a punch to the gut would have been preferable. Belief itself was an insult at this point.
That crystallized things for me. Questioning the facile non-answers of traditional religion, and the oddities of non-traditional religions were actually a piece of cake. As I continued along, however, I started to feel more strongly that it was more immoral to chalk things up to a god or gods. I had increasingly difficulty in justifying the impulse to blindly “trust” in something one could never see, never speak with, and never guess its whims. And in the last few years, watching what’s been going on in the US and the Catholic Church – I am more firm in my refusal to sign back up to that. This is far from the cold and lonely stereotype some believers have of atheists and secularists – this was an absolute joy, a feeling of expansion. While I can still understand – but not approve of – why people would cling to a religion or a spiritual framework, it’s not for me. As Joyce said through Stephen Dedalus – non serviam!
*Those advantages are twofold. First, there is race: I am Caucasian and the recipient of many benefits based solely on my skin – unfair as that is, I acknowledge it and try to subvert it when possible or at least make a big noise about its nefarious nature. The second is the kind of education I received: for all the Catholic stuff, those schools did do a pretty good job otherwise, and I’m well on my way to being the first woman in my immediate family to receive a MA!
**I like to joke that I came into the world just in time to see Reagan rip off the White House’s solar panels. Yay, me.
*** Which is still fun, but for secular reasons :)