5/08/2012 | Share this article:By u2wob ~
LATE FOR CHURCH
Late for church. And I lived just across the street. Following a few other tardy parishioners up the steps to St. Brendan’s, I quickened my pace, but only in hopes they would hold the door for me. Too late. They were already in. I pulled the door open and quickly moved through the vestibule glancing up at the pulpit where Father I-Don’t-Remember-His-Name glared back at me as I moved down the aisle searching for a seat.
“Here’s another one,” he barked, voice reverberating powerfully as it only can inside a cavernous building. “Another insolent person who shows his disrespect to God by wandering in here at whatever time he chooses.” Heads turned and now dozens of eyes were on me. No. No. Not me. Lord, make me disappear. I panicked. Seat. Seat. Gotta find a seat. I squeezed into the next available pew, while the scolding continued. “What will it take for you to show proper respect, young man?” I’m sorry I thought, but could not say. I’m so sorry. The eyes were mercifully off me now, but as I sank into the pew, I realized I was involuntarily crying - ashamed, humiliated and crying. I was 11.
Crushed and not wanting the priest to be angry with me, I somehow summoned the courage to visit him after Mass, to apologize and ask forgiveness. I entered the sacristy sheepishly and he acknowledged my concern with a stern gaze and then, smiling, urged me to be on time from now on. We were good. Now I only hoped and prayed that he wouldn’t rat me out to Dad. It was understood I couldn’t share this story with my parents, particularly my father, whose attitude towards priests was unquestioned fealty. He was fatherless as a child and the local priests of his youth were the authority figures of his life. They were to be revered, respected and unquestioned. It was understood that a serious criticism of priests was off-limits, the reason I sought this priest’s forgiveness. I didn’t really care about the good Father’s pardon; I just wanted my father to be proud of me – to show him we shared the same clerical respect.
But even at that age I knew this guy had overstepped the line. He may have felt justified in demanding punctuality for the Lord’s spiritual reverence but he missed his temporal target.
Yes it was a seemingly tiny event, not worthy of a moment’s consideration in a full lifetime, but it was really significant nevertheless. He’ll never know it, but Father I-Don’t-Remember-His-Name unwittingly planted the seed. My days of joyous wonder and warm spiritual nurturing within the church were over. I was 11.
“THE” CATHOLIC FAMILY
For years just entering a church triggered feelings of unworthiness and remorse. I fought it and eventually had enough pleasant, satisfying moments in churches that I became quite comfortable there, particularly when my family bonded and we celebrated the important Catholic rituals together. It was how I learned about community. But I never felt comfortable in the old St. Brendan’s church ever again, so in 1967 when it was replaced, I felt no nostalgia. Following Vatican II the Church was anxious to update and appear modern, including new concepts of architecture – and the archdiocese built a structure that was designed in the shape of a ship, to commemorate St. Brendan’s voyages. I had an irreverent classmate that dubbed it the Ship of Fools – but I wasn’t casting myself overboard just yet. I had an obligation and responsibility to get good with God. To pray, worship, ask God’s forgiveness and keep the faith.
Of course, to keep the faith you have to have it to begin with and I was never sure my faith was strong enough to pass the test. Aware that failing the test had some pretty dire consequences, I dutifully set out on a life-long quest: Get good with God.
It seemed to come so easily to all my family. My sister was always devoted and married a great guy whose faith was a model for all of us. My brother entered the seminary for a while, and although he decided the clergy was not for him, it never seemed to cause him to veer for a second. My cousin made it through the seminary, became a priest and built an impressive clerical career. His father, my uncle, as you can imagine, was exceedingly thrilled.
Because of my father’s respect, priests and nuns were always over for dinner and welcomed warmly at our house. For much of my life I didn’t think we were a Catholic family, I thought we were THE Catholic family. It was understood we were a family of faith – public and proud. Why was it so hard for me? How come I couldn’t measure up? They never seemed to struggle. Their faith had such a gentle ease about it. Was I not praying hard enough? It will come, I assured myself. Trust in Him.
In the sixth grade my parents transferred me from our local parochial school to a private Catholic school, where my brother attended high school. On the first day of classes, our teacher, an Irish Christian Brother, asked the class “How many of you attended Mass this Sunday?” I looked around and saw about 30% raise their hands. What?!! Now I was pretty sophisticated in the 6th grade. I knew the whole world wasn’t Catholic, but even all non-Catholics went to church every Sunday, right? I was stunned.
In high school I went through the obligatory period of rejection. Of course God was on the list, but I rejected everything - advice, parental authority, you name it, I was against it. The ages 15-17 should be illegal. During this time my parents were going through a difficult period which added to my disillusionment. It may have been highly typical angry teenage angst, but it was a dark uncertain time for me. Then there were the teachers at my Catholic schools (I transferred during my junior year) and the disturbing sexual episodes. No, I was never violated directly. But yes, I was hit on - even courted, in a way. There were private meetings, intense personal discussions, questions about my sex life, curiosity about my turn-ons, etc. Really creepy, uncomfortable sessions that, because they were my teachers, were unavoidable. And it was not just one guy. There were several, in both schools. I was boxed in. First, I could never complain about it because, the clergy were to be respected and trusted and my complaints would be viewed as just another disappointing observation from a 16 year old malcontent. Second, the embarrassing subject of sex; I was just getting to the age of experiencing sexual feelings and its inherent sinfulness was relentlessly drummed into us– even the mere thought of it was an occasion of sin to be shunned at all costs or you’re going to get another demerit on God’s score card. I felt like I was being forced to admit my depraved sinfulness in these humiliating sessions. I still recall one priest inviting me to his on-campus room and noticing his eyes and his hands actually shaking in sexual excitement as he quizzed me. I wasn’t gay. I was naïve and had no idea what the hell was going on. I just knew instinctively that the creep factor was dialed up to 9.
So the events were filed away, hidden in a fast growing, frightening closet, filled with imaginary sins and shortcomings, all direct affronts to God’s plan for me. I needed forgiveness.
But they were the creeps. Why did I feel guilty? I didn’t do anything but be subjected to some homo-leering.
Despite my well-earned reputation of Conservative fire-brand, actually some of my thoughts on social issues may surprise you. Among these are gay rights and full equality – more on that later. The Church is an understandable magnet for gay men and I am saddened by their closeted prison. But my point is, to a naïve 16 year old, getting hit on by a gay authority figure is more than disarming. It was just plain wrong. And yet for some strange reason I felt it was morally incorrect to get angry about this. As if I was complicit. I needed to pray for understanding and forgiveness.
CULTURAL CATHOLIC – ON AUTOMATIC AND SCANDAL
My bout with teenage rejection was abated somewhat as I passed through high school and college and religion played a decreasing role in my life. It still weighed heavily on my mind, but my public and secular life started to take on a more prominent role. At this point and I was settling into that great American Institution – becoming a Cultural Catholic. I realized, to my great disappointment that faith is a gift, a gift that cannot be given or earned. The only way to receive it, I believed, was through prayer and trust that God would listen and approve. Maybe that faith would be confirmed in some fashion, as it seemed to be for my family. Trust in the Lord. Eventually He will show you the way. Maybe you can no longer trust your teachers or other authority figures, but you can and must trust in the Lord.
This cultural Catholic thing seemed very European. Religion there is an ignored backdrop while you go about your life. For many years, I withheld the sacraments, believing I was simply a sinner not worthy of receiving them. When I didn’t receive communion at my father’s funeral, my cousin became alarmed. However, he was encouraged that I had enough respect for the sacrament that I didn’t receive communion and violate a basic tenet.
I didn’t really attend church at all as an adult. When I was first married I did, mostly to assure my wife that my religion was still intact, and I was trying, really trying. Here I was a married adult who still thought sleeping in on Sunday was a scandalous sin. This was Catholic Guilt, the insidious source of thousands of jokes at its best - continuing to infect its host with a subtle, debilitating disease.
1968 - great year to get married, but a really shitty year for Catholics to get married. Why? Birth control. That wonder of modern science had just been introduced and was condemned completely by the church. It forced Catholics the world over to face down Rome and make a choice. Of course, the Church lost and the Cultural Catholic ranks grew enormously. The Church, quietly put the issue on the back burner and although they never backed down, they just stayed quiet about it. But for Catholics, cultural or not, here was another sin for the ledger; another opportunity to live a life of Catholic Guilt.
Throughout our lives together – and we’d been dating since high school – my wife was always the voice of Christian Sanity. She was raised as a Presbyterian, attended church and Sunday school in her youth, but stopped going at the age most kids do – out of boredom and indifference. For Catholics it was mandatory, but our Protestant brothers and sisters had an option and I was always jealous of that. When she was in college, a classmate annoyingly kept trying to “convert” her to the Catholic faith. After a while, the proselytizing became too much, and the friendship withered, but it left a stain of slight anti-Catholic feelings in her. When we started to get serious as a couple, she was concerned about our faith differences. It didn’t mean anything to her, but she was afraid my family, being under the boot of Rome, would reject her. It was never true. They loved her and welcomed her into the fold with great affection, but marrying outside the faith was a much bigger social issue in those days. Throughout our lives, she attended church with my family on occasion, while never giving up her allegiance to her childhood church. I would even join her at Christmas celebrations – they held a beautiful service. She professed a belief in God and no doubt, was confused and amused at her husband’s family piety. Still she was quiet about her faith, respectful of mine, and altogether the voice of Christian Sanity. The world could learn from her model. While regular church attendance never kicked in, I did, over the years, resume Communion when I did go To Mass – weddings, funerals other family events. I reasoned that the sacraments may help with my elusive faith quest. Additionally, this public display of my faith would impress the Lord and nudge me over to His approved list. I defended the Church’s behavior often in arguments –with my late father smiling, , egging me on, no doubt. My default position was they are only human and doing the best they can. For centuries they have cared for and nurtured us. We owe it to them to give help and moral support in their hour of need. Some of that behavior became personal – I won’t go into it here – but family was involved. I reluctantly understood the Church’s position on the matter and was instantly willing to accept their misbehavior. I was a team player, willing to live my life out riddled with the Guilt, hopeful that God would show me the way and confirm my faith, while trying to strike a balance between the normal secular life and the necessary pursuit of spiritual fulfillment.
For most of my life it weighed on me. I was quiet about it, partially because I was always fearful – fearful of hell because I have believed for all of my life that we were born with original sin and must earn our way out of it by good deeds or strong affirmation of faith or maybe something else was needed. Who knows? All I know is I have spent an inordinate amount of time on the subject. I realized religion has consumed me for my entire life. Should I make the sign of the cross or cross my fingers?
THE CHURCHBOT GETS A WAKE-UP CALL
The Church’s sex abuse scandals have rocked it almost immeasurably. To be fair, abuses in the NYC school system may be just as plentiful and not nearly as well covered by the press, but no matter…. OK. That was me - default-defending them again – an old habit. And it’s really wrong to do it. Oddly, I never saw the hypocrisy. Here I was, defending this institution instinctively, the way you defend a family’s honor in the Sopranos or something, the black sheep fighting for the fold. Maybe that was my way of seeking acceptance. Maybe it was my way of saying I knew I wasn’t included in my family’s circle of faith, but I’ve got you’re your back from here on the outside. At least God would understand what I was trying to achieve and maybe give me a reward by letting me into the club.
The breadth of the scandal was overwhelming. What happened to me in high school wasn’t criminal, but it was a disturbing violation nevertheless. I should have said or done something but I didn’t. I had dinner with a classmate recently who told me that one of the priests I talked about earlier who was trying to engage me was later caught and tossed out. Among his papers were letters to fellow pedophiles bragging about what good fortune he had being in a school setting - a playground filled with candy. If I had said something then maybe all of that would have been avoided. Who knows?
The abuse is horrible. The settlements are infuriating, but I guess legally necessary. However when the Vatican shielded Cardinal Law from the American legal system, a morally corrupt system was exposed. I understood why the Vatican did it, but hated them for it. It was misplaced mercy, and disgusting. How could the church be so uncaring towards the scandal visited on its own parishioners?
And then, Ireland -the abuse that lasted for decades. I watched a 60 Minutes report, in which Dublin’s Archbishop Martin was seen at an unprecedented service of atonement prostrated on the altar washing the feet of victims, as an act of humility, medieval symbolism as a substitute for genuine contriteness. It struck me as a manipulative “play victim” move. The Vatican’s response was criticized as not sufficiently satisfactory – but I don’t know what kind of a response could be acceptable. It was mind-numbing, on the scale of the German atrocities in WWII. But then, I soberly realized it was entirely plausible. My experiences were direct antecedents; the harboring of pedophiles by the institution, the arrogance of Father” I Don’t-Remember-His-Name,” this misplaced mercy. All of it. This was beyond corrupt. This was systematic criminal behavior.
Archbishop Martin recently pleaded with lapsed Catholics to leave the church. Criticism itself was too much of a scandal and a distraction from the genuine reformation he was seeking from the Vatican. , Leave us alone, in effect, because we are not equipped to deal with the criticism from within.
While it was food for thought, I had never heard a priest urge a congregant to get out. Still I understood and had my defensive gear on. Why was I not able to objectively look at this as another corrupt institution that lost its way? How could I be so understanding? If I even told a risqué joke to a woman at work, I wouldn’t be moved to another department. I would be out on my ass. Why does the Church get dispensation? Again, the most important question; why do I judge the Church differently than any other institution? Why, in the name of all that is holy do they get a pass for criminal disgusting behavior?
Because of fear.
The Church was given absolute moral authority over my soul. It has exercised that authority as a power tool to control my life. I ceded that power because I trusted them to save me.
It’s quite strange to think of the Church as immoral. It is supposed to be the arbiter of these matters, right? But, like any other earthly institutions, it has its faults. Take annulments, for example. The Church’s stance on remarriage after divorce is pretty straightforward and clear. But if there are “impediments,” you mercifully get a mulligan. After a while, the mulligans become more lenient, and the next thing you know, Martin Luther is working on his carpentry skills. I’ll spare you the plenary indulgence history and the “Treasury of Merit” discussion. Let’s just say, it was the carbon credits of its day, steeped in wink and nod theology. Not a proud moment and morally suspect at least. It’s clear that during history the Church’s survival and health was at times considerably more important than the spiritual needs of its members.
Every day the news has a story of uncovered corruption and “crony capitalism.” The political parties have been reduced to abandoning principles and just mistrusting and yelling at each other. Bernie Madoff? Shrugged shoulders. Un-merited bail-outs? Ho hum. Ever watch Survivor? The object is to win the million bucks and not get voted off the island. The contestant who manipulates alliances, lies stealthily and back-stabs the most quietly gets the reward. Immorality as Life Goal. It’s all so bewildering to me and easy to see how the modern Church gets caught up in the Zeitgeist.
I couldn’t abide by this anymore. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my Church. It didn’t remotely resemble the idealistic presence of my youth. In fact, it now seemed wicked and evil. I silently gave up. I couldn’t defend them anymore, but was too frightened to admit it. Rather than getting angry at the source, I resented their critics and bundled my anger at them. The Catholic bashers were attacking my family and I wouldn’t let them get away with it. But really I was torn, disgusted and lost.
One night, while watching some critical Church report on TV at dinner, I involuntarily blurted out, “That’s it. I’m done.” Out loud. I’d thought it before, but never dared to verbalize it. I startled myself. Oh my God, I said that out loud. Was I serious? Was I actually considering leaving the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the church of my youth, the bedrock of my entire history because I felt they had embarrassed themselves and their faithful by immoral, indefensible actions? Yes.
It was past time for me to consider another way, another path - another church. These guys were nuts.
COLUMN “B” CHOICES AND SALVATION
OK. Don’t make any rash decisions in anger. It is your eternal life we’re talking about here after all. Do some research, give it some thought. Pray. The thought of being associated with this organization seemed so wrong. I never would have believed I could consider another home, but now I knew I couldn’t stay. This was not my church any longer. Had I changed so much? Or had they. It was out of whack.
The first consideration was, of course, the Episcopalian Church – Catholic-lite. The traditions and services were so similar that it’s easy for lapsed Catholics to slip right in; a smart, well-ordered group - a little snooty - but none of that ethnic riff-raff. That’s how they sounded to me. Even the Irish have worked their way up to its elderdom. Sure the saints get demoted and Mother Mary is moved to the also-starring list, but all in all, a much easier road to hoe.
But, for the first time in my life, I realized I had other options What about the others? Catholics have always held themselves to be the One and everyone else just a farm team. As a result, I never made any serious attempt to delineate the differences between Methodists, Lutherans, or Presbyterians. They were all triple A ball to me, column “B.”. Baptists, and other fundamentalist sects like Church of God, seemed bat-shit to me and of course, the fact that they hate and mistrust Catholics doesn’t help - see Dad? A good soldier. At least, Catholics had the good sense to understand metaphor and poetry. The literalists claimed every word was unerringly true. Even on the subject of Evolution and Creationism, Catholics reject pure Creationism and support for Darwin, with some modifications.
I realized if I was going to be serious about this – and it was as serious as a heart attack – I was going to have to dig in and research, an enterprise frowned upon throughout history. We were taught from an early age to stay away from occasions of sin and be tempted by apostasy, blasphemy, and heresy. Don’t look behind the curtain shouted the Wizard of Oz. Hell, they burned folks at the stake for this sort of thing.
I never read the Bible cover to cover. Sections-yes. Passages-yes. But never cover to cover, like Fundamentalists do. Quoting scripture always seemed suspect to me, anyhow. I knew how newspapers and pundits quoted things out of context to further their agenda and I felt that was what Baptists did. Reading the Bible is hard work. Biblical scholars have, over the centuries, fought over interpretations; examined minute details, even revised and edited the text. It is a Bronze and Iron Age set of books and writings transcribed by men trying to hand down stories and myths. We’ve all played telephone. A story is whispered to a person who repeats it to the next person in line and so on. The last person repeats the story aloud, and everyone has a great laugh at how it has been mangled in the process. Imagine a set of stories handed down for centuries, by folks with different skills and agendas. Just try to get through Genesis without doubling over like the folks playing telephone: contradictions, errors, talking snakes, knowledge trees. Metaphors maybe but, come on... It is a fascinating, important work of art – a worthy subject of study. But the unerring word of God? Even the New Testament, the Christian section is filled with contradictions and strange utterances.
I didn’t have the patience or the interest to take on the Bible in detail, but I still wanted to know how this book had glued the religious for all these years. This being the age of Google, I no longer had to seek out libraries and rummage through card files for answers. I didn’t even have to read. Welcome to YouTube. Dozens of lectures, polemics, reviews, criticisms of the Bible, Christianity, Islam and religion in general – literally a life-time of study right there for the taking. Never talk about sports or politics or religion. This age-old maxim is particularly true on YouTube. You look for insight but all you get is nasty argument. And quickly you learn that the most prevalent view of religiosity in America is indifference, but regionally and politically evangelicals are passionate to witness to anyone, particularly Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons. Invariably, atheists would return fire, sometimes mocking, sometimes flailing about in frustration, filled with certainty and scorn.
No Christian alternative seemed particularly useful to me, nothing that I could embrace and hold as my path to salvation. I wasn’t interested in joining the right church. I’ve never been a joiner. No clubs, fraternities, nothing. The only membership card I hold is from a fraternal organization that my father wanted me to join. He worked hard to get me in and to respect him, I still am a nominal member. Choosing a new church seemed like such a Protestant thing to do. We Catholics never had to go up and down the aisles choosing and selecting. We just went in, got what we wanted and left. This non-denominational choice seemed like one of those no-label store brands – a characterless white can that was stuck in the back of the pantry because you didn’t want anyone you know that you were so cheap - hardly an inspiring pathway to God.
It was doubtful my attendance record would improve anyway, particularly if I didn’t have family to share the experience with. However my goal was the same as always. I was only interested in getting good with God. That meant I had to look beyond Christianity. Beyond the institutions that didn’t really seem to be honoring Jesus, anyhow. Like Mary, in many churches he seemed to have an also-starring role. I was unsure of this but maybe they were right. To achieve my faith maybe I had to bypass the Son, and deal directly with the Old Man.
I had brushed past Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern disciplines as only a curiosity. Culturally so different, they were hard to identify with and while elements are of course worthy, others are just too foreign and forbidding. Islam seemed more repressive and backward than some (most?) of Christianity and way too bellicose. New Age spirituality just seemed false and self-indulgent. Honestly, most of the folks who claim to be “spiritual, not religious” were just soft core agnostics to me. The thought of worshipping Gaia just makes me giggle. Wicca? Witches? Sorry. Pass. Way too much work and my wife hates clutter anyhow. Maybe just simple Deism- barebones philosophy, but if God just created the world and then got out of the way, where the hell would I find him? I couldn’t find him as a Christian and he was supposedly there. The Deism desert was just too vast.
None of these paths worked for my goal. I had to get good with God and religion was getting in the way.
Why was this so hard? Why after a lifetime of asking, indeed pleading to be granted membership into the club was I still being ignored? How could the faithful be so certain? Where was I falling short? More good deeds? More pronouncements of faith? How could He be so cruel? Why would He allow my Church to be destroyed and take away my lifelong pathway? Why after all this effort could I find no peace? Was it really an all-loving God’s will to tease and torture His flock for their whole lives? He demands recognition in the First Commandment, yet ignores us when it is given. Was He really as brutal, selfish and demanding as He was portrayed in the Bible? Why did He offer us sacraments to help guide us to the path when, despite all the reverence and trust we held in them, we were ignored? How could He do this to us?
The answer is He couldn’t and didn’t, because of simplicity itself:
It was like thunderbolt - the most terrifying, fearful and exhilarating moment of my life. At long last, after a lifetime of struggle, pain and uncertainty, it made sense. It was a moment of clarity like no other. I had been duped so cruelly that for my entire life I believed in Santa Claus. Now I knew the truth; what was behind all those disappointments, failings and why worshipful spiritual satisfaction was unachievable. Why the elusive circle of faith was impossible to penetrate. It was all a scam - a heartless wicked immoral scam perpetrated by a series of foul dicks that for centuries have interpreted and re-interpreted a series of Bronze and Iron Age myths to perpetuate their power and influence – a continuum of crap. Centuries of evil. Millions of lives wasted in wars fought over made-up fairy tales. Advances in science and virtually all other disciplines have been able to expose much of this but the mythology continues – a blend of fables, blind wishes and ignorant trusting communities just waiting to be exploited. As I say these things, my heart hurts because it sounds so harsh and hateful. I don’t want to sound resentful about being duped and l believe the examination of religion and its impact on society is fascinating and extremely useful. It’s not all bad, but after all the poison it has spread, religion is hardly benign. It breaks my heart, but we’ve all been had. So here I sit - alone, with the realization that I am a non-believer – an atheist. And I HATE atheists because they are smug, arrogant (mostly) leftists hell-bent on turning the government over to PETA. And here I sit - a right-leaning atheist at that - one of the most reviled subsets of the most reviled group in America. And I don’t even have God to turn to for support.
I guess technically, I’m an agnostic in the sense that I don’t KNOW that God doesn’t exist. But that is true of all atheists. There’s no such thing as Gnostic atheist – the lack of knowledge makes the term impossible – so it is a distinction without a difference. Still, the term seems so harsh and bitter. It carries a lot of baggage, whereas, “non-believer”, “not religious”, even “agnostic” sounds less threatening and implies to the religious that there is still hope. There is no getting around it, though. It is a rejection of religion, which will be offensive and threatening to much of the world. I am decidedly not anti-theist and believe strongly that every person should seek his own path, as I did mine. It is not my place or will to interfere with this most important process for anyone. Religious or not, we all deserve the maximal amount of happiness allowed and the pathway to that goal should be unimpeded.
NOW WHAT AND WORLDVIEWS
My former church has arrogantly tossed away its moral authority, yet continues to try to perpetuate superstitions in spite of provable scientific advances. This is not like the infamous, just-forgiven Galileo incident so misunderstood; it is things like condoms and In vitro fertilization, even among married couples (!). So, yes, despite my father’s admonitions I must criticize the Church for their failings in the clearly immoral act of allowing disease to flourish and preventing couples to propagate. I’m confident the God I was taught to believe in would approve of my objections.
So what does this really mean? What does a non-Christian me think like now. How will this change me? Guidelines are suddenly gone and it is quite a revelation for the newly deconverted. EVERYTHING has to be reexamined. For a Catholic this means a total worldview revision – a dizzying array of suppositions that go by the board. Bedrock beliefs like the existence of the soul, heaven, hell, the afterlife, sin, prayer, purgatory, grace, the trinity, virgin births, talking snakes, the supernatural , magical transubstantiation, the saints, all divinities, past and present – it goes on and on and as each superstition is exposed, it is frightening, disorienting and oddly, comforting at the same time.
After a lifetime of uncertainty and anguish, I no longer have to be concerned about being saved. There’s nothing to be saved from. This life here, now, is perfect - all you’ll ever need and all you’re ever going to get. You can live your entire life with a sense of awe and wonder and love and treasure every moment without fear of supernatural retribution. A life unburdened by penalties, punishments and suppliant reward from a mysterious, vengeful myth. Maybe that’s my gift. But I paid quite a price.
Ironically, atheism frees you to live a moral life, one where good deeds are performed for their own sake, not as acts designed to selfishly spare you from God’s wrath. Morals preceded the Bible anyhow. Theists just appropriated it from the ancients and pretended they were the authors.
The altered worldview doesn’t just eliminate superstitions. It forces you to look at long held precepts differently, as well.
I touched on gay rights earlier. Some Christians are hate-filled and fearful of gays, particularly the Evangelicals who captured the Republican Party, one of many reasons why I have lost respect for the GOP. (Don’t worry. Democrats still lead the pack in wackiness.) I don’t believe the government or the church has any role in private marriages or any domestic arrangements for that matter, other than recognizing civil unions. Leave the gays alone and let them live and love. If they want to get married what difference does it really make to your life? My deconversion has made me suspect and mistrustful of all supposed authority, although I have always supported gay rights. Get out of our bedrooms and medicine cabinets and closets and stick to your knitting like protecting the border and cleaning up the highway.
The most dramatic social issue I’ve altered my view on, without question, is abortion where I’ve flipped 180°. When I decided to reconsider things with as honest and clean a slate as possible I reluctantly approached this one because it is so emotional and fundamental. I may write about it in detail some time, but the bottom line is I now support the pro-choice position enthusiastically. I still believe late- term abortions are morally reprehensible and recent articles about ethicists supporting the killing of newborns because they are “morally irrelevant” is dangerous and sick, but I was amazed to learn that almost a ¼ of U.S. pregnancies end in abortions. I do make a distinction between a woman’s right to choose and the viability restrictions resulting in the right to life of the infant, a point frequently missed in articles and arguments. Often Pro-choice advocates seek unrestricted rights and that is selfish and unrealistic. Neonatal medicine is developing an artificial placenta that would make ten week old embryos “viable” which shows how important it is to allow science to operate unhampered. There’s more, but this represents a major breakthrough for me, an instance of unhindered inquiry that I didn’t think I was capable of.
In school we learned of Greek and Roman mythology and they seemed to have a different god for all of life’s contingencies. To a 20th century schoolchild it seemed so silly - yet on Sunday we were worshipping their one remaining god and it seemed so rational. I don’t hate God nor am I angry at him despite, in many ways, a wasted life. He’s imaginary to me – an interesting worthy philosophical concept, but nothing more.
Family has always been important to me. We don’t always get along but we’re better than most. As you can tell, I’ve always considered myself an outcast – the black sheep if you will and oddly, I always felt a slight discomfort with my immediate family because of this. My parents were complex people with complex histories and in many ways unsuited to raise a family. But we were loved, cared for and given every opportunity imaginable. They made sacrifices, demanded little and generally did the best job they knew. Their complexities however spilled over into our lives in different ways and I believe caused unintended damage in all of us. I definitely know I was damaged, but I loved them.
We all want love and acceptance and I’ve been motivated my entire life to having that with my family, but as I explained I always felt excluded from the circle and now, with this revelation my long sought goal is probably gone forever. Some time ago, my sister inquired about my “spiritual health.” “I’m fine,” I answered, an honest appraisal at the time, because I was sincerely making the effort to connect. And I was becoming comfortable that God, being fair and forgiving would look out for me. Now I look back at that and realize it was silly. I can’t do it. I can’t join in the circle. True faith is a gift of sorts – but it is an unreasonable notion that can only be imagined. I sought it for so long without realizing it was an illusion. But its power has motivated all mankind and inspired the daring to seek evidence, so maybe that’s the gift after all. It’s tantalizing promise forces us to seek the truth. The “God of the gaps” is so much easier but relentlessly incomplete.
I love my family and always want the best for all of us. I could continue the pretense – life would definitely be easier and a little hypocrisy is the coin of the realm nowadays. But that ultimately would not be fair to anyone. After a lifetime of lies and delusions, I need to be honest with myself at the least. I have great fear that my family is going to abandon me. I hope not and will be heartbroken if it happens, but I literally have no choice.
Accepting my atheism, after all these years as a Catholic Christian is a challenging process and very disconcerting, but so many of life’s mysteries are finally being solved and so many of my fears and anxieties are dissipating. I can’t say I had a pure Damascus experience, my curiosity still forces me to wonder but non-supernatural answers while more difficult, are much more satisfying. Becoming atheist is easy. Becoming ex-Catholic is really hard. Admitting it to yourself and “coming out,” really, REALLY hard.
It may be that some of my family will not be surprised by this admission; I’m guessing others, no doubt, will be shocked and disappointed. It’s a very strange experience to hear myself saying and thinking things that I never would have dreamed seriously considering a just short time ago.
Trust me, a lot of jokes have been made about Catholic guilt over the years -- but to me they're not funny anymore. They are a grim reminder of a life wasted in pointless prayer and penance for sins that never existed -a life that was boldly abused by a delusional authority. If an atheist had mocked me as a Christian a short time ago; I would have punched out in defense. Now I realize my folly and his frustration. My viewpoint has been altered and I am adjusting to it, desperately trying to sidestep anger.
To my family: I dread the hurt and pain I may cause and want everyone to know my love for you is greater now that you have my undivided attention. I hope my failure as a Christian will not disappoint you. Please understand.
Filed Under: Testimonials