Why I am an atheist – Ashley Bell

This isn’t so much about why I am an atheist so much as when I recognized that I was one. In the 70s, the public schools in Richmond VA had become such inner-city honor-culture shit holes that my parents, aware of my general timid nature, decided to send me to a cheap Catholic school instead. My experience there, despite bullying by peers was actually kind of pleasant. The nuns were the full-on types regarding their habits and convent life, but were of that odd variety that probably emerged after Vatican II was put into place. Guitar masses, Kum-ba-ya, warm fuzzies=good, cold pricklies=bad and all that. On nice days we had classes outside. The math program was especially good, and there was no in-school time dedicated to Catholic doctrine or any other Xtian doctrine to speak of. I imagine there must have been a morning prayer but those kinds of banal memories are the first to get washed away as we get older. There was, however, mandatory mass on Tuesdays and Thursdays which I kind of liked since they were held in a beautiful church next to and affiliated with the church that Patrick Henry ostensibly gave his “give me liberty” speech. ( Oh, and George Washington slept here too…I’m just sayin’). And there was the ritual and the mediaeval sounding call and response largely sung in Latin. All very exotic and entirely new to me.

But tender souls beg for beatings just by existing, so of course there were bullies, two in particular that gave me such regular grief that I actually kept a little notebook that mapped out where and when I shouldn’t be at any given place and time in order to avoid “the boot” as it were. The thing is, they were terrified of the main priest who presided over the church and the school, and most of that anxiety centered on the mandatory monthly confessions that all the Catholic kids were required to make. Although required for the Catholic kids, it was “optional” (could it have even been allowed? I couldn’t take communion for instance) for non-Catholics. I remember the first non-threatening thing those boys said to me was along the lines of “you’re lucky you don’t have to go to confession.” I said it didn’t seem that bad, so, in a change of tactic, instead of threatening me, they dared me to go to confession, and there would be a five dollar bill at the end of it if I did.

The anonymous side of the confessional was like you would imagine. However, there was also an option to sit with the priest face to face, and I’m sure this is what I was being paid to do. So I did it. He was a nice enough guy. I remember him asking if I was Catholic (he must have smelled my Methodist blood), and me saying no and him asking why I had come. I told him I was just curious and then he asked if there was anything I wanted to confess. I told him I had hit my sister and talked back to my parents (neither of which I had done), then conveniently skipped the part about my recent discovery of the joys of masturbation (I was 12).So, long story short; The bullies actually paid up and then quit bothering me after that. I remember thinking ‘what were they so afraid of’, followed by a quick and completely uninteresting realization that it was all crap. I also realized at that moment that I had never believed any of it in the first place. I had just never really thought about it.

There was also a time when I was 6, when I prayed to god that my runaway basset hound would come home. I remember even then feeling like I was simply hedging my bets. Might as well? You know?…Shows what a crock Pascal’s wager is…Cross your fingers behind your back…Even a kid can do it!…right.

Ashley Bell


  1. gardengnome says

    Great story Ashley. It’s a funny thing; I was taught by Dominican Nuns in primary school and Christian Brothers in secondary and, while the religion obviously didn’t take, I still have the greatest respect for them as people. What I did learn very early on though was that if you were polite and (apparently) well-behaved you could get away with murder!

    The lay teachers on the other hand were a bunch of nutters

  2. says

    “But tender souls beg for beatings just by existing,” this breaks my heart – because it too often seems to be how bullies interpret reality. Ugh!

    Your story echoes mine- I am probably a little older than you are (primary school in the 60s) but had many of the same experiences with “folk masses” (kumbaya) guitar-playing nuns etc. Vatican ll gave a lot of decent people hope that the Catholic church was going in a better direction for real. When it gradually became clear that those hopeful years were probably the peak before the decline back into authoritarian misogynistic homophobic bigoted Catholicism, those excited and joyful young nuns, priests and brothers left the church in droves.

    Enjoyed your essay!

  3. says

    @ garden gnome @#1

    I used to play the piano…Scott Joplin pieces at the time. Two of the nuns would sneak me into the convent house attached to the school and have me play. The mother superior busted them for it. I guess brothel music doesn’t fit too well in that sitcuation

  4. magistramarla says

    I had the same sort of experience as a non-Catholic attending a Jesuit university in the ’70s. The Jebbies taught us to think for ourselves and to question authority. My hubby was a science major there, and he was taught real science.
    I wonder if the education there is still as good, nearly 40 years later?

  5. Michael says

    Every time I read one of these posts, whether the person who posted it grew up in a very religious neighbourhood or was just regularly exposed to religion, but it refused to stick, it always reminds me of a scene from Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead” and proves it wrong:

    “And if freaks persist in being born occasionally, they will not survive beyond their twelfth year. When their brain begins to function, it will feel the pressure and it will explode. The pressure gauged to a vacuum.”

    I’m glad to be one of the freaks, and that we are fighting back against those that turn their brains off.

  6. ibyea says

    Funnily enough, I always lied in my confessions about imaginary things I did because I could not think of anything bad that I did in real life that warranted confessing. Plus, I thought my life was none of the priest’s business.

  7. Zugswang says

    Confession for me largely consisted of not confessing to anything (because, except for a few occasions, I hadn’t), explaining that I was there not out of contrition, but because I was told to do so, then being given penance for lying and being a wise-ass.

  8. gardengnome says


    Singularly inappropriate music!

    I used to have to hang around the school for an hour or more waiting for my father to pick me up on his way home from work (we lived a very long way off) and I would spend much of the time in the adjoining convent yard, ostensibly gardening. The small but formidable Sister Mary Jordan, whom all regarded with absolute terror, would pop out with a helping of whatever they had for desert for me “to keep the wolf from the door”. Didn’t do much gardening but I ate well!

  9. robinjohnson says

    There was also a time when I was 6, when I prayed to god that my runaway basset hound would come home.

    Old joke: God doesn’t work like that. You have to steal one and then pray for forgiveness.