(Originally published on Medium on September 11, 2019)
I am not a religious person, although I would not go so far as to characterize myself as an atheist. Even that is too big of a commitment for my ideas on spirituality and anything beyond the life I’m living now. The truth is I can’t conceive of not existing and I can’t conceive of existing perpetually in some non-corporeal amorphous form so I basically leave the whole thing alone. That doesn’t stop me from being obsessed with ghost stories (and absolutely anything you want to tell me about that-time-something-went-bump-in-the-night) but we’ll get into that another day.
Recently, I had an interesting conversation with an evangelical-turned-atheist friend of mine. We discussed how we both had made the journey from religious upbringing to a non-believer in very different ways. Actually, she started off by saying she could never remember when Easter was and why did it keep moving? It is literally the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox because that isn’t a pagan fertility ritual AT ALL. Or just count six and a half weeks from Mardi Gras. Like most former believers, we still do the fun stuff like egg hunts and Christmas trees. I’m always down for a party and they’re essentially old Celtic and Norse traditions anyway.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Our conversation evolved into how we had stumbled into non-belief and my friend had had some very negative experiences that had turned her off from religion completely. I went to a Catholic school for years. I loved my middle school but high school was a nightmare. I attended an all-girls Catholic high school for upper-middle-class girls whose parents couldn’t be bothered to raise them properly, an austere, cheerless place I like to call Our Lady of the Cure for Religion. I was the one with my head down, dying in silent misery and wishing I were anywhere else. Strangely enough, the sheer awfulness of that school was not the reason I lost my faith. Pro tip: if you want kids to keep believing your religious mythos, don’t schedule religion class one period after ancient mythology class. The moment I realized I couldn’t think of a reason why one was religious truth and one was mythology, a light bulb clicked on in my head. When I asked my religion teacher that very question and was sent to the principal’s office, I knew I had hit a nerve. It wasn’t long before I started reading more ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology on my own and seeing the sheer volume of parallels. I saw them in the Celtic and Norse and Hindu religions too. The same archetypes, repeated in every major religion of the world, over and over again.
Unlike many of my friends who are no longer religious, I didn’t have bad experiences at church. I loved going to church. I went for years after I stopped believing. Long after I was sure they were not talking about anything real. I loved the Catholic Mass, especially when I would occasionally attend one in Latin. The candles, the chanting of the prayers, the incense. It’s magical. If I were ever going to belong to a church again I would go right back to Catholic Mass, regardless of all of the other issues, there have been over the years. Yes there was the child abuse scandal and yes their views on homosexuality and birth control and women’s rights do not mirror mine (major reasons I would probably never go back in any case) but I also know many Catholics who work tirelessly for the poor, serve the sick and stand up for the disenfranchised and the unwanted. Many Catholics really do live the mantra “to whom much is given, much is required”. I think that’s where my social justice outrage comes from. That is not to say it is a uniquely Catholic thing, it isn’t. I simply think Catholics have gotten a bit of a bad rap over some of the things their leaders have done over the years.
THE LONG GOODBYE
So why did I stop going to church, if I was having such a great time? Like most life-altering events, I blame my kids. That day I finally stopped going to church was the day my three-year-old son started asking questions about it that I realized I couldn’t answer without either lying to him about what I believed or being honest and admitting I was asking him to live a lie with me. (Do you understand what I’m saying? I went to church without believing any of it. For fun. For decades. What does that tell you about my social life?) That was it. No major epiphany; I’d had that years ago. No dramatic exits or emotional scenes. I slept in the next Sunday and took my son to the park instead of to church. We never went back and I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would. Maybe a little. Full disclosure: I tried to go back a couple of times but it was different, foreign, empty in a way it had never been before. That’s the thing about lies, no matter how harmless they seem. Once you stop telling them to yourself, you can’t retreat back into blissful ignorance. You can’t go back the way you came.
I would not be surprised if there are a lot of non-believers in the church who go out of habit or routine or tradition. It can be pretty social. I think that’s why it’s so difficult for some people to stop going regardless of belief because the church is not merely spiritual it is also cultural. My parents went. Their parents went. Growing up everyone I knew went. It was something we all had in common. The Catholic ritual is mesmerizing. It always felt comforting to me. Familiar. Home. I still miss it sometimes (but I do like my Sundays off). Even though I don’t believe the mythos, I believe in the philosophy of caring for others that was taught to me as a child. To see so many mean-spirited so-called Christians taking over the religious narrative in the US, a place that is supposed to be a beacon of welcome to the huddled masses, and being so far from Christlike is infuriating to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to believe. How cool would it be if there really were a loving, hipster god like Jesus walking around in first-century Birkenstocks telling off bankers and politicians and sticking up for women, the sick and the poor? If I could believe it I absolutely would.