My Sober Life, Chapter 19

In which my inquisitive mind leads me to let go of institutions

I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic church, by fairly strict Roman Catholic parents. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through twelfth grade. I have received five of the seven sacraments. As I imagine is the case for other religions, when you’re born into it, things are already laid out for you. Everything is a certainty, right and wrong are clearly defined, and there are no grey areas. Because of this, it isn’t a critical environment. We aren’t taught to ask questions.

But I’m an inquisitive person. At a young age, I had a lot of questions. When I was 9 or 10, I learned what homosexuality was. At church. After mass one Sunday, at the standard coffee and donuts, I overheard some folks talking, no…gossiping about the choir director. A talented man who volunteered his time and was always kind and helpful. They spoke in hushed voices about how he was “gay” and shouldn’t be around the congregation.

I later asked my parents what “gay” meant, and my dad did his best to explain it to me. He made a point to tell me that being gay isn’t a sin, but acting on it is the sin. I didn’t fully understand what sex was at the time, but I knew enough to provide what I thought was an excellent solution: Gay people should just all be priests and nuns. Vow of chastity – problem solved!

Not long after, that choir director was quietly shunned and eventually left. I was shocked. He wasn’t hurting anyone. If anything, he was doing more than most by dedicating his free time to bring music into our lives. It made me sad, and it is the first time I remember thinking, This isn’t right.

In elementary and middle school, I attended mass twice a week, for in addition to mass on Sundays, we had to go to weekly mass from third grade on. I looked forward to mass on Sunday because it was all about people watching and seeing who was there, looking for my friends. I had some knock down, drag out fights with my dad over my church attire. I did NOT want to wear dresses after grade four (hated my hairy legs, if you recall). Mass was a chore and a disruption in my life.

In high school, we only occasionally had all school masses, and I still went to mass on Sundays with my parents until I could drive. I went because I had to, because it was expected of me. But with the exception of getting to sing, I never got anything out of it. I never felt that pull, that joy I’ve heard people talk about. The stories never changed, the lessons. I was being exposed to new friends who practiced other religions or none at all, and it was eye-opening to hear about their traditions and beliefs.

Freshman year of college, there were a few times some friends and I walked to mass talking more about our obligation to go so we didn’t end up in hell. It seemed like going to mass was more about being seen there by others than actually going for myself.

This is when I really started dissecting my beliefs. If I didn’t go to mass, that was a sin. But I could go to confession and then – VOILA – all clean. Someone could murder 30 people, but as long as they’re sorry and confessed to a priest about it, they could go to heaven. What kind of bullshit is that? You shouldn’t get to go to heaven for harming other people. “…but purgatory.” No. In my early 20s, I could not understand that rationalization.

I am fortunate to have a lot of friends who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and the way they were (are) treated by the religious community was (is) something I could (can) never reconcile. These people, humans just like me, should not be punished or vilified because of who they love. 

I also could not understand the concept of there only being one right religion. There are too many variables. Most religions have the same core values. That is not a coincidence. How can there be more than seven billion people on the planet, but only the Catholic contingent gets a chance at eternal life? That’s only 14%. The math didn’t add up. “That’s why we have to proselytize and convert people.” But if others do that with their religion, they’re wrong. Got it.

I think I knew it was no longer for me when I started lying about going to church to appease my parents. I wasn’t giving them nor the church respect by pretending. It wasn’t a big to-do and announcement. I just stopped going. And when I told my parents I wasn’t going to get married in the church? They didn’t like it, but they survived. We all survived (even though my dad wouldn’t talk to me for a week).

Over time, with more reflection and exploration into the world at large and my own personal universe, I questioned more and more the existence of a deity at all. I couldn’t understand how a benevolent, omnipotent being could allow for so much suffering. “…but free will.” But, kid cancer.

I don’t believe in heaven. I don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe in a devil. I don’t believe in a god.

I am an atheist. 

This makes people incredibly uncomfortable. They are in fear for my soul; they think I am an anti-theist, an amoral person without any ethics. The misconceptions about atheists are infinite.

I don’t believe that religion and morality are mutually exclusive. I believe I can be “good for goodness’ sake”. Not for fear of eternal damnation, but because it is the right thing to do. I am unmotivated by what will happen to me after I die. I am motivated by what is going on around me right now

Here’s what I do believe in:
  • I believe in you
  • I believe in us, in humanity
  • I believe in my intuition
  • I believe in our shared connection and energy
  • I believe in love, kindness, and gratitude

I believe I can ask for what I want and work toward it, and it will come about. Maybe not in the way I expect or imagine it, but it will happen. From whom/what am I asking? Not sure. Maybe the universe. Maybe myself – maybe I need to give my permission to desire and want certain outcomes for me and my family. But I’ve put it in action numerous times with success. Not because I left it to someone else to give it to me, but because I put my energy and intention behind every action to bring it to fruition.

I also believe if we stopped being so afraid of what and who we don’t understand, there would be less hate, anger, war, and pain. Once you decide to close your heart and mind to someone who is different from you, you cultivate disdain and resentment. You stoke your own feelings of entitlement. You solidify an “Us vs. Them”, black and white, either/or mentality.

Our existence is so much more nuanced than that. Not only are there multitudinous shades of grey, there is a whole spectrum of colors, many of which we can’t see with our eyes. There is life happening all around us all the time, in the very trees that provide us oxygen we breathe to the smallest insect just trying to survive. We are all connected and should treat each other as such.

Let me be clear: I do not think I am right and you are wrong if you are a theist. Most religious people I know are good people and their faith in a god brings them great comfort and peace. I think that is what a belief system should provide. I respect your choice and belief, and my hope is you offer me the same consideration.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is a god watching over me as I write this and shaking its head at me. But I am a good person. I make mistakes and missteps, but I am a good person. I practice being present in my life and work to make conscious, moral, kind choices every day. I find joy in the mountains and ocean; in quieting my mind and breathing; in the zen-like meditation of swimming laps; in high fives shared with my volleyball team; in a friend’s hug; in the chaotic hum of family gatherings; in my children’s laughter; in my husband’s eyes; in my own heart. If there is a god and that isn’t good enough for them because I don’t sit in a building for an hour a week? I can live with that.

Two parting thoughts…we are all born atheists. If you were not brought up in a part of the world where theology is present, it would not be part of your every day. Similarly, where you grow up has a huge impact on what you are exposed to. If I had been born in the Middle East or Asia, I may have been raised a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a Hindu. Your circumstances and environment greatly influence in what you believe.

Think of the Greek gods. Their history and mythology are beautiful and storied. I love reading about them and understand why they were created, to help explain the world around us. But over time, discoveries were made and beliefs evolved. Many of those gods faded and were traded for one, singular, all-knowing, all-powerful being. 

We are all atheists. I just believe in one less god than most.


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