My family is Catholic. They aren’t very religious, but that’s what they put on government forms. We didn’t attend church regularly. We went to holiday mass (such as Christmas and Easter) when I was a child and up to the age of 14 I was forced (I use this word intentionally) to go to Catechism. My mother prays to St. Anthony when she loses something, but otherwise I’m not aware of her praying. In later years (as recently as 2 years ago) my father claimed to be an atheist, but throughout my life he did not intervene when I was trying to get my mother to understand that I was an atheist. As recently as this past summer, my mother told me that she thinks an atheist worships the devil.
This is how I grew up.
I don’t want to seem like I’m bashing my parents here, they have high school educations (Dad didn’t finish before joining the army) between them and we weren’t exactly the most affluent of families. In rural, poor Atlantic Canada you are a Catholic or a Protestant and you do those churchy community things because, well, that’s what you do. You’re baptized and you’re a member of a church.
I remember attending church as a child those few times we did. It was neat because we’d get to dress up on the weekends and, after my first communion, I got to eat that funny bread. Sometimes we got to bring palm leaves home. Sometimes we got to stay up late (midnight mass). In early Catechism we made crafts – usually religious-based, but as a child any excuse to make crafts is a good one. I don’t know how many pictures of Jesus I drew, how many crosses I cut out, how many Virgin Mary’s I constructed…but I’m sure it added up over the years. I’m also sure I would have had just as much regard for the activity if I had been making hockey sticks and drawing beavers. I still remember the smell of construction paper, crayons, glue, and church basement.
I don’t remember how long I was in Catechism before First Communion but I think it was only a year. I was 6 or 7 years old (6 I think, but I’m not sure). I don’t remember much, but I do remember not thinking much of anything. I was a child, I didn’t know what First Communion meant. All I knew was wear this, go here, stand there, do this, hold out your hands, sit down, say prayer, go home and eat lunch. I was told “now you can go take communion with everyone else at mass”. Well we didn’t go to church so…who cares? Can I go play now? I was pretty shruggy about the entire affair.
I wasn’t confirmed until I was 14. That means I had a good 7-8 years of weekly Catechism. We had summers off though, if I recall correctly. I had the tendency to ask annoying questions like “why do we have Palm Sunday?” “why do we put ashes on ourselves on Ash Wednesday?” “why does [this part] of the Bible contradict [this other part]?” These questions elicited responses that ranged from “patiently answered” to “enormous sigh and complaint to the head Catechism person”. I was not well-liked there, particularly in my last year. I got the impression that I was supposed to be continuing these studies at home so I shouldn’t have these questions. I mean, didn’t we do go church? No? Why not? Beats me, lady. I’m a kid, I just do what I’m told.
Adding further to my confusion was our lack of interest in the Bible. At Catechism, we were given a copy of the New Testament for First Communion and we were given a wonderful NRSV Bible (New and Old Testaments) in later years that my mom threw out (!! I forget the circumstances – like if we were moving or something — but still…wow). But in Catechism we didn’t really discuss the Bible much. We talked about the basic stories, but most discussion surrounded various rules of behaviour. Basically Catechism replaced the Bible. Don’t do at the Bible says, do as we say. Why? Because we say so. For a curious and thoughtful, well-read child such as myself this was not good enough. So I didn’t give Catechism much consideration. It was just something I would have to endure until it was over.
So after 8 years of mixed messages about religion, it was time to be confirmed. Living in a non-religious household that enforced Catechism and Confirmation into a church I didn’t attend that gave out Bibles they didn’t read did not promote happy relations between me and my mother. Within those 8 years I had discovered that I was an atheist. At the age of 12 I had heard the word for the first time and finally put a name to what I was. I don’t remember exactly the age I realized that I didn’t believe in God mostly because I don’t remember an age in which I really truly did believe in God – he was like Santa to me. Something my parents told me about, but not something I worshiped or that even occurred to me past major holidays. When classmates talked about their belief in God, I couldn’t relate. Where they had defaulted to “believe in God”, I did the opposite. I didn’t get happiness out of church or Catechism or God. I didn’t need those things. I was fine on my own. Also, I knew for sure that I didn’t want to be a member of the Catholic church.
I knew enough at that age about the church to realize that their interests and mine were not the same. They were not welcoming to women, they opposed contraception, they thought divorce even in cases of abuse was a sin, and they promoted abstinence-only sexual education (to 14-year-olds – the first time the church talked to us about sex was at age 14 and only to tell us to not do it – and I happen to know in at least a few cases that this was too little too late). I tried my hardest to get out of this. There was an entire weekend of workshops and preparation just beforehand, at which I called home several times begging to be taken home.
To this day I can’t fully tell you what Confirmation even really means, I just knew that I was about to be fully indoctrinated and I did not want to be. I thought “what if this is the wrong religion?” because I knew about Protestants. I was grossly ignorant of most other religions’ existence, but the existence of even one other was enough to give me pause. I thought “what does this mean for me as an atheist? Is it right for me to become a member of this church when I don’t believe in it?”
I did everything I could, but a 14-year-old doesn’t wield much power. I told my mom I was an atheist, she cried and told me that “what if I wanted to get married one day?!” to which I replied “I could get confirmed later and there are other ways to get married.” to which she replied “[unintelligible yelling and crying]”. Ugh, fine. I’ll go to final confession. Hehehe, [rubs hands together maniacally] surely if I tell the priest I’m an atheist at confession he won’t let me go through with it! It was the perfect plan.
He didn’t seem to care. He asked my why I was getting confirmed and I said because my mother is making me, he suggested I talk to her about that, I said I did and she’s making me so I guess I’ll see you tomorrow [or whenever it was from that date] unless you do something about this to help me. He didn’t. So there I was a day (or at least less than a week) later getting confirmed.
Here’s a funny tangent. I had a problem as a teen with hypertension because of my constant anxiety (imagine) and had a tendency to pass out when standing upright for too long. I had already passed out at cadets and knew the symptoms well. I felt it coming on during the ceremony in church because for some reason the Catholics just love the “stand up” parts of the “stand up/sit down” routine. So I just sat. Right in the middle of a prayer/speech/something. I was worried about being disrespectful and almost passed out and only sat to avoid losing consciousness. Me, a young teenager, forced to participate against her will in a religion that she didn’t believe or agree with, was worried about being disrespectful. Me who had been disrespected by my friends, my mother, my priest – worried about being disrespectful. Looking back, I did the right thing. I was not a participant, I was a hostage. And no way was I going to risk my personal safety (I was between wooden pews – passing out would have been bad) for this arbitrary ceremony.
So finally my name was called. I went up and got an oil cross unsanitarily thumbed onto on my head, took my communion, and sat down. It was over. No more Catechism. No more church. I received a certificate and a small dark blue suede plaque-type thing that had some kind of metal cross or something on it. That resides somewhere in my parents house, I think. I haven’t seen it since.
Years passed. I tried in vain a few times to explain to my mother why I didn’t believe in a god, but to this day I am sure that she still doesn’t get it. You believe in god because you do. There is no other existence. She once lost her wedding ring and looked all over the house while praying to St. Anthony. She found it. In the trash. She literally looked in every square inch of the house, even the drains, until finally looking in the last place she could think of – the trash. Who got the credit? I said “Mom, St. Anthony didn’t drop that goddamn ring onto your lap, you looked for it until you found it and then you stopped looking. YOU FOUND IT. YOU!” But I might as well be talking to a brick wall. I still don’t get it. What makes a non-church goer so adamant about this Saint of Finding Things?
I think we quietly decided religion was no longer a topic of discussion between us. Where was my dad in all this? Well let’s just say he took a less active role in child-rearing and a more authoritarian role. He was around when yelling had to occur and when it was play time. These discussions were not his concern…apparently.
Cut to years later when I’m about to get married to my also atheist husband. A year or two before, Dad come out with the gem that he too was an atheist! I asked him for how long and he said always. I said “thanks for your support”. We didn’t get along much that year and things were further strained during the following exchange between my mother and I:
Mom: What church are you getting married in?
Me: We’re not getting married in a church, we’re atheists…remember?
Mom: Now, see, to me that word means you worship the devil. I don’t like that word.
Me: First, that is not what that means. Second, how can you seriously think that your daughter worships the devil?!
Mom: I don’t, but I just think that atheists worship the devil.
Me: Well I’m an atheist, so it follows that you think I am a devil worshiper or you don’t know what that word means. I don’t believe in God, that’s it. And if I don’t believe in a magic sky fairy what makes you think I believe in a magic ground goblin? [Note: I was pretty stressed from school/wedding planning in the first place, so I was not exactly as tactful as I could have been.]
Mom: Well we don’t have to get into this now. One day you might change yo–
Me: No we’re going to talk about this now. I’m trying to plan a wedding here and I’ll not have my mother believing I worship the devil. I am an atheist. That means I don’t believe in god. It’s not a phase, you know it’s not – remember confirmation? I won’t be changing my mind any time soon.
Dad: Let’s just calm down here.
Me: I will not calm down after years of this crap. I’m done avoiding this conversation. I’m saying this now. We will not under any circumstance have a religious ceremony because we are atheists. We don’t believe in god, we don’t belong to any religion. Period. We do not worship the devil. You don’t know what you’re saying. [At this point I left the room.]
My mother later came in and apologized, crying. We eventually had a humanist ceremony followed by a JOP legal ceremony.
Honestly, I don’t think my parents know what they are saying. What hurt me most is that I was, for years, an atheist. And for years, apparently, on some level my own mother thought that I worshiped the devil or, if not, then I wasn’t really an atheist. She did not bother to ask me. She did not bother to learn on her own what that really means, even though it was a part of her child’s identity. Nor do I think she truly understands now or ever intends to because the topic just gets me an eye roll. Even though I don’t blame them, as a matter of circumstance, it still hurts that my core beliefs get a dismissive eye roll.
So, this is the story of me and religion. I don’t hate god, I don’t hate religion, I don’t hate my parents. I’m just a person who doesn’t get anything out of organized religion, was not swayed by contradictory beliefs and rituals, and who doesn’t need god and his arbitrary rules to live my life. What does upset me is the failure of my parents to try to understand me and my point of view, Dad’s lack of support when I was struggling, and Mom’s lack of respect for my choices.
I can only hope that I as a parent (someday), even if I don’t agree with my child, will have the presence of mind to discuss their views with them. I will encourage critical thought and discussion throughout their lives, but that doesn’t mean in the end they are going to agree with me on everything. But I don’t want them to have to hesitate when they talk to me. Honestly, I don’t want their spiritual (or lack thereof) development to progress the same as mine. I don’t want religion (or lack thereof) to be a burden in their life. There is so much more to life than what you believe or don’t believe in. It shouldn’t be this hard, especially in families where religion isn’t apparently that important.