Raising kids Catholic in a small Alabama town is no easy feat. But my parents tried, even though I gleaned most of what knew about Catholicism from Father Dowling Mysteries.
There was a constant battle of wills between The Book and my reality–how I felt about religion, what I knew about myself. And from that dissonance sprung an enveloping isolation, where I came to prefer rational proof over tenuous faith. But like a good god-fearing marionette, I performed the requisite rites of passage, leaving choice out of it and knowing little of what–if anything–lay outside the sphere of religiosity.
And while I came to see religion as an immovable piece on my youth’s chess board, my liberal parents did encourage independence and self-exploration. Without that slight sense of empowerment, I probably would’ve begrudgingly resigned myself to a religious life. But even though I’d been saddled with Catholicism, it acted as one of the catalysts for me embracing difference, rather than shunning or frighting from it.
Coupled with my family’s left-leaning sociopolitical bent, Catholicism framed my family as spiritual pariahs among the town’s predominantly Baptist and Methodist population. And from that I derived satisfaction; we were different, and difference unnerves people. After I plastered a Darwin fish on my car senior year, I became acutely aware of how little it took to shake someone’s faith, and how much misinformation my peers had been fed about human evolution.
But after defending my legged fish–explaining my position and, in turn, asking basic questions and entreaties for proof supporting their assertions–most would falter and defensively default to a cliched, faith-based rationale. And because of the anger that my questions often elicited, I learned it was best not to make additional waves in a stream where the Jesus fish were always spawning, especially not in the psychologically-charged high school years.
So I went along with everything–knelt, made the sign of the cross, took communion–and behaved the way I was told God wanted me to.
With the shackles of high school loosed, I left for college to study anthropology. And I came to realize how culturally diverse the world really is, and how sheltered I’d been.
Still, I’d been so conditioned to attend Mass every Sunday that I found myself going through the motions in a foreign church with complete strangers. But one day, things just clicked; I got up mid-Mass, turned around, and walked out. A pew wasn’t where I belonged on Sunday. I needed to figure things out on my own terms.
So I opened myself to experience, tried to understand the various modes of thought in the realm of spirituality. But after friendly conversations with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, and wiccans I was still left wanting. It all seemed different, but so oddly similar. And I quickly learned how easily religion can be manipulated–like clay on a potter’s wheel, spun into whatever form, to satiate the aims of whomever spins the wheel. And so often with my spiritual friends, they weren’t the potter; they were the clay.
Perhaps it was the control freak in me, but I wanted to be the potter. Because, really, what was stopping me? My faith? I always thought faith was supposed to empower, not limit. For some, I’m sure it is a source of strength, a kaleidoscope of possibilities–and I think that’s wonderful. But my faith had been grafted on, and it never really took; it just sloughed off. And I realized that building one’s faith based upon what someone else–a family member or a stranger–teaches you isn’t building a faith in something greater; it’s building a faith based upon that person’s perspective.
It seemed so bizarrely reckless to me to base one’s spiritual life off of stories written by biased men. Because were they not also made of the same fallible flesh? How could they judge, and how could they author something that’d limit so many? Did they even mean for their words to limit others? And if so, why should they get the last word?
I kept asking so many questions. But all I received was push back, while my liberalized car received eggs, mud, and vomit.
Anthropology piqued my curiosity and engaged my interest in understanding how people filter life experiences–how they construct mental sieves to sift out the real from the imaginary, the tangible from the intangible. And how, mixed up in it all, a nebulous “faith” can drive a person to believe more in someone else, rather than in their own reflection.
That’s why I find atheism comforting. It’s about your self-reliance, your will to change things. So it’s always refreshing to see someone act as a proud foil to the constant talking heads droning on about deities working in mysteriously ways.
Like Rebecca Vitsmun, interviewed by Wolf Blitzer in the aftermath of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado. With her child tucked in her arms, Vitsmun tactfully responds to Blitzer’s “You gotta thank the Lord, right?” with “Actually, I’m an atheist.” When I first saw that, I was floored, mostly because it was amazing to see someone proud of who they are responding in such a way. Rather than being enraged, she remained calm and direct. Her simple comment was a gentle reminder to believers that atheists aren’t godless heathens devoid of moral compasses. And, much like the stickered car I saw yesterday, her comment reminded me that, as an atheist, I’m not alone.
In lieu of attributing power to supernatural miracles or prayer, I find it in those who have confidence in rational explanations and scientific facts.
What most frustrates me as an atheist is that people don’t give themselves credit where it’s due. Instead, they chalk their efforts up to an omnipotent being ruling somewhere in the hereafter. But people make things happen. So many people wait their lives away hoping that their messiah will waltz up to their door, ring the bell, and show them the way to be happy and lead a fulfilling life. But sadly, people take life for granted–worrying more about the afterlife rather than what’s here and now, and what they can do to make things better.
Unfettering myself from religion is one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done. Because I’m not looking for divine intervention–a hand to come down–to give me meaning, or some divine prophecy to make me whole.
What makes me whole is human connection–people helping and loving one another without expecting a divine reward.
People wanting to make someone whole–not being content on the sidelines with half, with spending a life foreshadowing the next.
People coming together to dig a well, rather than divining for water.
And finding common ground in the process.