Back when I was in high school in Virginia, an atheist was an anomaly. Christians were always asking me how I could possibly be an atheist. I had two flippant answers.
- “I was born on Black Saturday – you know, the day between Christ’s death and his resurrection. I’m doomed to be shut away from God’s light. It’s easier not to fight it.”
- “Well, my family used to be Catholic, but my great-grandfather was excommunicated.”
My snarky answers were easier than diving into a dissertation about how the more I learned about science and history, the more impossible it became to reconcile knowledge with religion — especially Christianity.
But both answers were technically true, although some people refer to Black Saturday as Holy Saturday, (which doesn’t make any sense, really, because nothing holy happened until Sunday).
And yes, my great-grandfather was indeed excommunicated. It was a huge scandal, because Great-grandfather’s family wasn’t just a little Catholic. They were so very, very Catholic that I had a great-great-aunt who was the Mother Superior of a convent. She even gave one of my sisters a little nun action figure. Except the nun’s hands were welded together in prayer, which was pretty limiting when it came to action. And don’t be quoting crap like, “Prayer is the greatest action there is!” at me. Because I’ve seen pious Republicans sending out endless prayers to the victims of gun violence, and that’s done fuck all to end school shootings in the United States. Until those sanctimonious bastards pull their hands apart and write some actual legislation to keep guns out of the hands of white male conservatives and domestic abusers, nothing will change.
But I digress. Back to the happy story of my ancestor being cast out of church.
In his youth, Great-grandfather got into an argument with a priest, which escalated into a battle with a bishop. My grandmother once theorized that it had something to do with the priest being a pedophile, but her father might also have been ticked off by the Jesuit embrace of American nationalism. Whatever the reason, the bishop formally excommunicated Great-grandfather. Great-grandfather left Catholicism without a backwards glance. Even on his deathbed, with his siblings – including Mother Superior — begging him to repent and a priest standing by, Great-Grandfather yelled, “You didn’t want me when I was fifteen, I’ll be damned if I’m coming back now!”
Obviously, Grandmother grew up without religion. She happily married a man who was barely a token Methodist. In fact, none of my grandparents ever spouted scripture at me. Neither did my parents. Mom’s family was technically Episcopalian, but we only went to church for Christmas, Easter, or weddings. I spent a year going to a Baptist church and Bible study next to my mother’s house in Virginia, but that was only so I could be baptized and therefore drink the grape juice on Sundays. (And, hey, “judge not lest you be judged.” When you’re perpetually hungry and only nine, free grape juice is a big motivator.)
Church avoidance reigned until Dad married First Stepmother. Suddenly, there was church every Sunday. Attendance was mandatory.
My full siblings and I hated it, especially once in middle school and high school. Screw our damned souls, we wanted to sleep in on weekends. One church even assigned homework, for Christ’s sake (haha, you didn’t think I was gonna miss that pun, did you?). We had to complete worksheets or essays on a God none of us believed in – including my father.
We argued with Dad. We insisted we were atheists and we deserved freedom from religion. “You’re going,” he told us. “If you don’t believe, you’re gonna at least know what you don’t believe in.”
But that was a bullshit rationalization. Dad didn’t believe. The real reason he went was to make his First Stepmother happy. Always an early riser, getting up at 8 AM and driving to church at 9 AM was no hardship for HIM.
Despite being an atheist, Dad firmly believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child.” With the threat of that rod hanging over our heads, we went to church. We read scripture at Christmas Eve services, we lit advent candles, and we even spent summers rebuilding houses – and outhouses – in Appalachia with our youth group.
I escaped church by way of out-of-state college. Dad then ditched Ex-Stepmother for Next Stepmother. The Era of Church was gone. The irony remained.
Despite all those years of church, religion didn’t take. We’re mostly atheists. Some are like Big Brother. He rarely mentions religion, letting the denizens of his rich, white, southern suburb assume he’s as Christian as they are. Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister is more obvious. She drives around the Bible Belt with a Darwin fish on her car, which is like waving a red flag at an arena of bulls. Christians can’t resist. They leave all kinds of messages on her vehicle, insisting that she repent, because Darwin won’t save her soul.
“Which,” she once told me, “shows how they’re really missing the point. I believe in science, not souls.”
“So different from LA,” I told her. “No one there would ever presume to lecture you on religion. Or even presume you had it!”
“Yeah, it’s not easy here. Especially not for my daughter. Can you believe, there are kindergarteners proselytizing to her already?”
“What? In class?!”
“Yeah. But she’ll be six soon, so we’re almost there.”
“What happens when she’s six? Private school?”
“Oh, hell, no, I’m not paying for that. No, kids can’t be brainwashed into unquestioning belief in God after they’re six.”
“Yep.” Then Doctor Sis launched into a highly technical description on the human brain’s development, none of which I remember, mainly because I was thinking about the only two siblings I have who aren’t atheists.
Both are Ex-Stepmother’s children. Boyfriend-Stealing Baby Sister is a Methodist, and Pretty Space Cadet Sister is a Wiccan (though she’s not as devout as she was, and we older siblings still hold out hope that she will return to damnation fold central).
My little sisters went to Sunday School way before they were six. They continued going to church with their mother long after their heathen half-siblings had left home and their atheist father had left the state.
I share half my DNA with my religious sisters. We shared the same environment. The only difference was the age at which we received weekly religious indoctrination.
The Baptists talk a lot about “soul freedom” — the right and duty of each individual to follow the dictates of their conscience without compulsion from authority. The Catholics are huge proponents of man’s free will. Yet by bringing children to church well before the before age six, religions circumvent soul freedom and free will. A child’s brain is a sponge at that age, not a scale capable of weighing the pros and cons of particular theologies. Maybe, if I’d lived next door to the grape juice Baptists when I was five, that second baptism would have taken.
Or maybe my flippant high school answer was correct. Maybe I am an atheist because my Great-grandfather saw something ugly in the incense and refused to look away. His stand cost him his religion, but it gained so much more for most of his descendants — the ability to avoid childhood indoctrination and make a mature choice on religion. Or lack thereof.
Good job, Great-grandfather.
And Happy Black Saturday to all.