(Via No True Scotsman)
Author’s Note: As this is intended to be a therapeutic piece for myself, and an inspirational piece to other atheists, I concede that the piece is long winded. You have been forewarned.
I was born into a Catholic family in Champaign, Illinois, home to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My mother was a Lutheran, and my father was raised by a strict Irish Catholic family. Both grew up in lower class families, and money was tight. When my parents graduated high school, my dad went and lived on a farm and raised pigs, and my mom began work at the local newspaper, with neither ever receiving a college education. They married soon after graduation.
When my sister (who is ten years older than me) was five, my mom believed that my sister would be in the zone for the nearby public elementary school, which was only three blocks away. Instead, my sister was selected for an elementary that was infamous for its notoriously delinquent student population (the school is now a correctional facility for kids out of detention centers). So, my mom did her research and discovered the local Catholic grade school. Tuition was over $4000 a year, and to cover expenses, Mom and Dad took on other jobs. Dad started a lawn care business and Mom began managing taxes and things for other family members. My mom began the RCIA program, through which an adult becomes Confirmed in the Catholic Church. Soon enough, my older brother began school, and I followed two years later.
Grade school was an awkward experience. I was an awkward, antisocial kid who enjoyed being alone. I did not feel lonely, partially because I always thought God was there. I absolutely loved everything the teachers said about God: the metaphors, the biblical stories of ancient men parting seas and building massive boats. It all played wonderfully on my mental movie screen. I “talked” to God; I even have memories of regurgitating my religion lessons to my faithful Border Collie, Lucy (who, sadly, could not defend herself from my proselytizing). Religion classes came to be associatd with positive things: candy, parties, and fun! My mind made that connection subconsciously. However, as the years wore on, I “talked” to God less and less. It just didn’t occur to me as a necessary thing to do, because I obviously wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t experiencing the “voice of God” that the teachers told me would be there.
In fourth grade, I had a life changing experience. I was introduced, forcibly, to theatre. My teacher was concerned about my antisocial tendencies, and had a conference with my mother. My mother then signed me up for Oliver!, the musical. Long story short, I hated it at first, then came to love it, and became a lot more friendly and sociable. However, I can safely say that the most life-changing aspect of the whole experience was the fact that I was exposed to entirely new schools of thought, most notably, liberalism. My parents were always conservative (and still are), and all I ever heard growing up was that George Bush was good and the Dems were bad. Of course, I took my parents’ side, not yet being of reason. I had never heard people talk openly about gay people without sounding hateful, and I had never heard anyone speak such rational, genuinely good thoughts. Thus the seed of doubt was planted, as well as a newfound love for the arts.
The years progressed with little change, save for the meeting of my girlfriend of four years, with whom I recently separated. My family rarely went to Church. We were very much- in the words of a close friend- “two timers;” we attended basically twice a year. This only changed for our Confirmation processes, during which we attended every Sunday. The year Confirmation started- 7th grade- was awful. My hormones were raging, and I became depressed and angry, all natural things for a teenage boy. I had a piss-poor attitude about school, and my grades suffered accordingly. It was at this point in my life that I began to really look at what was happening in our world. I was especially concerned with gay rights, as I had many homosexual friends being in theatre. I began to become genuinely apathetic about my faith, which was not helped by the fact that I was going through the Confirmation process. I began to feel guilty, and guilt perpetauted anger, which perpetuated more guilt, and so on. Over that summer, I found a deep peace with the realization that I didn’t have to be Catholic. I could still be a Christian and still be a good person! Eighth grade year was smooth sailing, barring one incident that still sticks in my mind to this day. Before Confirmation, my eighth grade teacher stood in front of our class and looked all of us in the eye and asked, “If you’re not one hundred percent sure you don’t want to do this, then don’t. Don’t just do it because your friends are.” I should have opted out. I should have said no. But no one was going to, and there was no hurt in going through with it, right? But, when the day of Confirmation came, I felt absolutely nothing. I walked down the aisle, went through the motions of saying the prayers and bowing the heads, but I felt like I was betraying myself, because it just felt empty. However, these feelings soon passed, and I rationalized that I still thought the Catholic faith was correct, but the Church itself was wrong.
That summer, everything was going fine. I had to drop out of a show that I was in in order to be in a religious workcamp that would give me service hours for school; we were required by the high school to have completed at least 150 service hours. That always pissed me off; being a high school student is punishment enough without tacking on unnecessary requirements for graduation. So, the week before the camp, my girlfriend of two years called me and said she wanted to talk. She broke up with me, and I became really depressed because I loved her very much. So, here I am at this religious camp, completely emotionally vulnerable, and surrounded by proselytizing. I made it through the camp with the help of a good friend of mine who came with me (who is non-religious now). However, I started to become concerned about being Christian again. I became concerned about attending church regularly (which ended up not happening). By the end of the summer it was out of my system, but the effects were felt throughout the summer, eventually subsiding as school started. I eventually got back with my girlfriend, and it was like nothing had changed. However, during the interim, I was depressed, and thought about suicide more than once (unfortunately, I believe I have medical depression).
High school was a new frontier; I didn’t know what to expect. The local Catholic high school cost around $6000 a year, and my parents took on yet more work, even volunteering at the local sports arena to help pay for tuition. I met plenty of new people, many of whom became very close friends. Religion became increasingly complicated. Now, not only were we expected to be Catholic (or, at the very least, Christian), we were now soldiers of God. We were to become learned in apologetics and arguments for the Catholic faith. We had retreats, were encouraged to pray often, and took one Theology class a quarter. We also attended all-school Mass at least once a month. I sang in the choir, as the apathy put forward by students in the congregation was just unbearable. Our Theology classes Freshman yearwere Old and New Testament; it was mostly a blur. The teacher was young, but frail. She was actually a very bad teacher; I’m not just saying that because she taught Theology. She was legitimately bad. As I was not yet versed in common atheist arguments against the God of the Old Testament, I just sat back and got an easy A. I enjoy studying religion, so I occasionally was interested by some of the philosophical arguments put forward, and asked many questions when I found something interesting. However, the highlight of Freshman year was my Biology teacher, whom I’ll call Jim. Jim was a native of Florida, and an ordained minister at a nearby Protestant church. He had a hilariously inflated ego, and frequently included pictures of his “beautiful wife” and “super-smart kids” in his lesson plans; he also thought he looked like Steve Austin, and showed us pictures of his college baseball days. It was well known that he often obtained his notes from Wikipedia, and he didn’t check our homework for correct answers, just completion. My best mate and I frequently filled his photocopied worksheets with smart-ass answers, the most famous being a rhyme we called “Beaches, Sneeches, Leeches, and Peaches” and a worksheet I filled entirely with characters from Watchmen; I got 100′s on both. Long story short, I could not respect him. When the class inevitably came to the subject of evolution, his position was vague. He acknowledged evolution within species, but he was obviously uncomfortable with the subject. Of course, since he was Christian and we were Christian, we got the talk from the point of view of intelligent design. Though, I must give him credit, he at least attempted to teach evolution objectively. Looking back, especially now that I have heard Hitchens demolish the notion of intelligent design and evolution, I realize that ultimately, ID and evolution are academically irreconcilable. Eventually, our class got on the subject of abortion (abortion was a very hot topic at school; many students were members of our school’s pro-life group). Actually, it was a surprisingly civil talk; my best mate and I were the only ones who were vocally pro-choice / pro-woman. We stood our ground well, and eventually resolved to agree to disagree. However, the one thing that irked me about the experience was that a very “pro-life”, very vocally Catholic girl (who already annoyed the living piss out of me anyway) obnoxiously muttered, “No, no, you’re wrong, life starts at conception, etc.” WHILE WE WERE TALKING, intentionally just loud enough for us to hear. My friend and I were polite and respectful while the “pro-lifers” argued their points, and she was just ridiculously disrespectful.
Sophomore year was interesting. I began to experience some depression because my ideas toward religion were becoming increasingly less apathetic and more “let’s stop some of this religious bullshit.” I was still determined to be somewhat Christian, because even though I didn’t know it was called Pascal’s Wager, I employed Pascal’s Wager; Hell scared me. I tried to find ways to accommodate my Christianity into my very liberal views; I even went so far as to Google “Christians who smoke weed.” Yep, it was that bad. It was during Sophomore year that I decided that I would graduate a year early; it was actually fairly simple, as all I had to do was finish my service hours. To my friends reading this, it’s time to come clean: religion played a huge role in my decision to graduate. It’s along the same lines of attending a Muslim school and having to keep quiet about your religion I also wanted to do it because I wanted to get to college, because I have no issues with knowing what I want to do in life. So, I began my graduation journey. No real hijinks occurred during the year, though it was the first year that I heard that not attending Sunday Mass was a mortal sin, and that I would be damned if I didn’t attend regularly; unfortunately, this came from one of my favorite teachers, a man named George. I went through some depression again, but never reached any severe lows.
That summer, I had an issue that hurt me deeply. My girlfriend (same one, whom I will not name out of respect for her privacy) began seeking a religion more conducive to her beliefs. She began attending the youth group run by a family friend at a local Protestant church. She really got into it, often praying in front of me, and becoming noticably religious. I didn’t have an issue with this; I was actually jealous, and halfway considered attending the youth group myself. However, after a few weeks, she told me she wanted to talk. We sat down, and she told me she wanted to talk about sex. Long story short, she told me she wanted to pull things back a bit. I said, “Ok, you want to wait to have sex,” being completely fine with the idea; we were sexually active, but didn’t actually have sex. She told me that she meant literally regressing to practically no sexual contact, except for kissing. That really hurt, because not only did I enjoy the intimacy, but it provided a physical representation of the love that we had for each other. Eliminating it just felt like a rejection of myself; cue the depression. However, the icing on the cake came in the form of ten phone calls at 3:30 in the morning. After I answered, I was greeted with the sounds of anger and crying. Turns out she had been cheating on me with a guy from the youth group. I wasn’t surprised; she had been hanging out with him often. Not wanting to be the suspicious boyfriend, I just let it happen, trying to control my jealousy. But I responded in the best way I could: I forgave her. I told her that we would talk about it when she was ready. Ultimately, things eventually got back to normal, and she stopped attending the youth group.
Junior (or rather, Senior) year was the year that I became an atheist. A few things led to the official acknowledgement of my atheism. For one, Theology this year was Church History and Church Vocations. Church History was not only dreadfully boring, but the teacher (a woman whose name I will not use out of respect) was so self-righteous in her teaching. She practically skipped the Inquisition, and she cheered the stories of the saints who demolished the idols and artifacts of “false religions” (redundant, I know). Quite frankly, some things she said were just downright ignorant and just… not ok. This continued until 2nd semester, which was Church Vocations. It was the biggest exercise in bullshit I have ever experienced; it actually hurts to think about it. We were taught about how women can’t be priests because they aren’t men and Christ was a man; we were taught that homosexual thoughts are disordered but not sinful, and homosexual acts are sinful AND disordered (an argument which I thoroughly destroyed); how the Catholic faith is the only true faith; honestly, it was the most hateful spew I have ever heard, wrapped up in the nicest package of supposed love and charity. Well, my true moment of awakening occurred one night in February (or January?) when I happened to catch a comedian by the name of Bo Burnham on Comedy Central; he was performing a stand up act called “Words, Words, Words.” I immediately fell in love with his sarcasm and double entendre. Then the show came to a point where he rapped about Catholicism and religion… and something just clicked. I researched his stuff online, and in searching his name, I came across references to Matt LaClair, which brought me to a transcript of the boy’s speech on a blog called the Friendly Atheist. As I read the words of LaClair, I realized that I could never support any religion. After I read the speech, I delved into the annals of Friendly Atheist. I loved everything I found; it resonated on such a personal level that I stayed up until 2 a.m. just reading and absorbing. As I decided to go to bed, I sat back and realized that I was an atheist. I immediately felt happy and fulfilled and assured and joyful and and and… just complete. Everything made sense. I was not depressed by the idea of not having an afterlife; in fact, I was imbued with a new desire to live every day of my life to the fullest. I realized then that atheism gives me the hope that religion gives to people of faith. I found a taste of true happiness in that moment.
The next few months saw some interesting changes. I became happier; I felt more outgoing and confident in who I was. I began to research scientific explanations for supposedly miraculous happenings, and found that there was a rational explanation for almost anything. It’s odd; although I was never particularly religious, let alone Catholic, I had some viewpoints and biases ingrained into my thought processes that I didn’t even notice we were there. I didn’t even know about the horrible and evil passages of the Bible, and I had never taken the time to think about just how much of an asshat the God of the Old Testament is. I had officially been successfully indoctrinated by the single most despicable entity in my world. I had to relearn how evolution and intelligent design are inherently conflicting. I read and read and learned and absorbed and became so fantastically enthralled by my discoveries of this new existence that atheism became my religion. Looking back, I understand why some people accuse atheism of being a religion. We have our idols and our prophets, whom some atheists follow… wait for it… religiously. The vast majority see them for what they are, but some take it too far and begin this weird idol worship that just seems odd and out of place. I understand that we need our sense of community and leadership, because atheism is as political and social as it is religious, but our strength is our rationality. Keeping things in perspective is what we’re supposed to be good at; that’s the only thing that’s going to keep this movement strong at all. Also, looking back, I see that I was evangelical in my atheism. I occasionally made the mistake of saying, “Hey, if you wanna check out this website, it’s great for learning about atheism!” I was the Jehovah’s Witness of atheism; in retrospect, it was a douche-y thing to do. It’s what many religious do – they find something that resonates with their psyche, and they assume that EVERYONE will resonate with the same concept in the same way. The fact is, different shit makes different people happy. No one has the right to enforce their particular version of happiness on anyone (unless that version includes good things like “eat food regularly” and “don’t stab people;” Those are invaluable) My best friend and I became closer. He considers himself an agnostic / nebulous believer in something, but he’s right brilliant, and he understands the atheist perspective on things. We often have hours-long talks about religion. However, I had a very odd moment of growing up one day. I posted my status on Facebook as something to the effect of, “I get to meet with the SSA :)” You know, something harmless and benign; nothing caustic or inflammatory at all. However, my mom asked me about it one morning, and when I told her the SSA was the local campus atheist group, she exploded. She accused me of trying to hurt my parents and intentionally being proud and arrogant. She bitched at me for days, screaming at me to take the post down. She had a very unreasonable reaction: she was worried my principal would prevent me from graduating because I was an atheist, and almost called him to let him know what I’d done. WHAT THE FUCK; that is not a healthy reaction. Looking back, I think the status flew in the face of her vision of being a perfect parent and that a belief in God was something she wanted to be able to say she had taught her children. She had a very rough childhood, and her mother was only nominally a parent; she was very distant. Anyway, so this personal hell (see what I did there?) went on for about a week until I caved. I fucking caved. I’m still mad at myself for doing it. I love my mother, but caving just made me feel spineless. It was odd though; my dad wasn’t angry, but it made him very emotional. He actually cried. Dad never cried. He cried, and I cried. I think it was an odd moment for him. His son was stepping away and making this decision, and he realized we legitimately didn’t agree on the subject. It was occurring to him that I was becoming a different person, and I imagine that’s an odd moment for a father. Since then, we haven’t really talked about religion, though I occasionally poke fun at the fact that they don’t attend Mass at all and pose the occasional question about religion to him or my mom. My mom doesn’t mention it, but she has pulled the “I bet you wish you had God NOW!” card when I have crises or when times get tough. I get pissed and call her out, and let her know that I didn’t really pray all that much when I thought I was religious, either.
So, my story is winding to an end; or rather, it’s just beginning. I’m studying Computer Science at the University of Illinois, and I’m constantly becoming more and more comfortable in my new skin. I participate in discussions when I can, I read ravenously, and I live the life of a seventeen year old on the verge of the most exciting years of his life. I thank any reader for making it this far, and I wish you the best in your lives, whoever you may be.