I grew up in a Catholic household and attended parochial schools from kindergarten until high school graduation. I took communion weekly but never truly swallowed what the sacrement was intended to be: the conversion of a strange round wafer into the body of Jesus. I told myself I believed it, and I said, “Amen,” when it was my turn in the communion line. I knew what the right answer was–and by golly, I wanted that “A.”
At around age eight, the tapestry started to unravel. After learning of the existence of different belief systems around the world, it occurred to me that one line in the profession of faith we recited was obnoxious, arrogant, and unfair to non-Catholics: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” I stopped saying it as a form of silent protest.
I quit going to mass once I went to college. I dabbled with various denominations after I married an Episcopalian, especially after we moved to a small southern town and had kids. Not only did it provide a comfortable community, it seemed like what we should be doing, particularly for our sons. My attendance was sporadic at best, and ceased altogether when we moved to a small college town in southwest Virginia, though my family continues to attend a church.
When my oldest was 12 or so, I was holding forth to him on my thoughts about religion. It started with my disdain for organized religions, the hypocrisy and judgmentalism of many religious people, yet a concession that many others–people we know–are good and derive profound benefits from religious faith. I explained that in high school, I learned that “religion” is defined as “answers to the questions of the mysteries of life,” then held forth on the mythologies that peoples of various cultures have developed over the millennia to explain how and why we are here. Given the numbers, the variety and the lack of accord, I just doubted that any one was correct. And given the advances in scientific understanding of matters that address many of these questions, I didn’t really have much use for religion after all.
He asked, “So are you an atheist?” I said I didn’t think so, but would get back to him. Despite my indoctrinated aversion to that label, I felt I owed him and his younger brother an honest evaluation and answer.
I began reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, and on a weekend home alone, watched Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God, which moved me to tears of relief. It was as though I could finally let go of the last gossamer thread of the falsehood. Finally, I’d found ideas, thoughts, concepts and a worldview that accorded with my own, that rang effortlessly true with an unmistakable clarity.
At long last, I recognize that we must write our own test of truth; it is our responsibility to find honest answers for ourselves. As for me, I believe that there are no gods. I am an atheist. I’ve earned this “A.”