Every time I see my parents, it seems like my dad manages to find a way to work in a comment about god’s plan (no, I do not capitalize the “g”). I don’t know if he’s expecting me to respond, or if he wants to just check to see if I believe it. I ignore it and move on.
My relationship with my parents is complicated. I was raised Catholic and went to an all girls Catholic high school. My family wasn’t casual about our religion; church was every Sunday, no matter where we were. Even when we were in Paris, we went to mass. In French. Because we couldn’t miss mass, even on vacation. (Yeah, I don’t capitalize the “m” either anymore).
The deal was: go to church every Sunday growing up. Go through all the sacraments. You’ll be told that you get a choice about confirmation. After all, it’s the first time you get to make an adult decision. But we won’t tell you what the actual consequences will be if you don’t go through with confirmation, and if you’d like to explore other faiths, you’re welcome to spend your free time going to additional services. Not instead of the Catholic one, but in addition to. Because none of the others count. And choosing “none” was never even considered as an option.
The deal continued into college: go to church every Sunday. It was our responsibility, nobody would be checking up on us, but it was the deal. Any marriage outside the Catholic church would not be supported by my parents.
I went along with it for years. I went through high school always getting frustrated at the girls who would question every little thing. I judged the girl who mentioned her mom’s advice to “test drive a car before you marry it.” I wanted to just tell them to shut up and go with it so we could move on. They’re giving us the answers! This is so easy! I hated slowing down the class when people would ask questions. I believed what I was told, and I thought they should too. It was only a few years ago that I realized that they were probably way ahead of me...
There’s a funny high school story about chastity and a china plate, but that’s a story for another time.
Despite my penchant for conformance, I questioned my beliefs a bit as a kid. I remember sitting in the pews and wondering “what if we’re wrong and someone else is right?” but I quieted my doubts with “this religion is huge, and it’s been huge for hundreds of years. There’s no way this many people got duped.”
The first time I really questioned was the summer before I left for college. I wouldn’t know anybody at my school, nearly 300 miles away from home. There was a Facebook group for people who were assigned to my dorm, so people would chat and start to get to know each other. That’s how I first met “Larry”. He was a personable guy, and wanted to make connections before school started, so we were chatting often. It eventually got to deeper topics, and he asked about my religious beliefs. I got nervous. This was the first time someone out of my bubble was asking, and I knew that he might think my beliefs were ridiculous. As I responded, I had to actually think, and I found my beliefs moderating. Do I believe in heaven and hell? Well I don’t know, I can’t imagine that they’re actual places, and what, our souls just go there to hang out? I don’t believe in ghosts, so why souls? I said something along the lines of how maybe heaven and hell are just representations of the memories we leave behind -- the good and the bad. Larry said it sounded pretty new-agey, and I remember thinking that was ridiculous. I’m not one of those people who’s just spiritual.
I left for college determined not to be the stereotypical Catholic girl that goes wild as soon as she steps foot on campus, or the kid that loses their faith to fit in with the secular folks at the fancy school. I’d stay firm. I wasn’t going to a Catholic or Jesuit university like my parents had wanted (“because it’s just easier to find a spouse with the same values if you do”), but I could still find a nice Catholic boy that would be willing to check the boxes: wait until marriage, Catholic wedding, baptisms for the kids.
I would say that I went wild as soon as I stepped foot on campus, but the truth is that I started that process with my summer job right after high school graduation. But that is a story for another time.
I did end up dating a Catholic boy. He did end up being emotionally abusive. We didn’t end up getting married.
Then I decided to take a philosophy class -- why not? I like logic, reasoning, arguments. But I will not, not, be that stereotypical religious kid that takes a single philosophy class and comes out an atheist. It took a while before it all sank in. I didn’t appreciate the class fully while I was in it. I tried to hold onto Pascal’s wager as a brilliant idea. But eventually I wondered why I happened to be so sure that the faith I was born into was the right one. What are the chances?! And how does it work that everyone thinks they were born into the right one?
That summer, I ended up telling my parents I wasn’t Catholic in a really shitty way. I wasn’t prepared or reasonable, I just flat out refused to go to church at the last minute. I handled the whole thing really poorly. But I knew the deal: I wouldn’t be able to live there anymore. I got in touch with friends that had a place at school, found a couch I could crash on. Apparently my mom was really distraught that night and convinced my dad that they should let me stay, so I did.
This is when my dad asked me why I didn’t just lie and tell them I was going to church. “If there’s no god, then why does it matter? Why not just lie?” I was dumbfounded -- this is the guy that raised me not to be a liar. But ethics and morals just go out the window when you don’t have a deity keeping score. Since then, I’ve realized that this is why god is called the “father”: his followers are children that need parents to tell them what’s right and wrong. They don’t recognize that being an adult means taking responsibility for figuring it out. The answers aren’t always simple, you have to think about it.
We avoided the topic for years after that. I went to church when I was home, sometimes. They let it slide. I rushed through my classes so that I could graduate early and be fully independent ASAP. Got a job, found an apartment, met a great guy, adopted a cat.
Found out later that my mom blames my ex (not the abusive one, the heathen one that came next) for turning me into an atheist, because apparently I couldn’t have figured it out on my own, but that’s a story for another time.
Eventually the new boyfriend (heathen boyfriend #2) moved in. I had to tell my parents. I called, told them, they cried. My mom fasted and prayed, hoping we would get married ASAP. We got engaged within a year, married a year after that.
His family was my safe space. I could be myself, genuinely. I always had to be on edge with my own family. We didn’t get married in the church, there was some drama, but due to family history (....a story for another time), my parents got on board and played nice for the day.
Fast forward 2 years and now my “safe space” family includes two evangelicals who “won’t judge, but God will judge in the end” and who believe that you can’t know love without knowing god. I really appreciated knowing what they must really think about me and my marriage with that special reading at their wedding.
I spent the whole night thinking of how proud my parents would be of them -- not even their own kids. But here are two young adults that have saved themselves and are getting married in the church. Too young to be independent or to understand how to make basic life plans, but it’s all perfect because they didn’t Put It In too soon, and that’s what really matters. It was depressing. I ended up in tears in the bathroom during part of the reception. It’s a good thing I had started therapy a few months before or it could have been even worse.
I lost all interest in seeing my family for Christmas. I wouldn’t celebrate the way they wanted me to, so maybe I should just stay home. They’re celebrating the birth of a baby that, to me, was a decent philosopher but as flawed a human as anyone else, so it didn’t feel genuine to be there. I was avoiding the holiday and my sister noticed. She mentioned it to Mom. This turned into a heart-to-heart with my parents that made me realize that they don’t actually believe what they raised me to believe.
But they do. But they don’t.
There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance there. That helped me to deal with the fact that I was taught that marriage outside the church isn’t real marriage, that being “a good person” doesn’t get you into heaven, that if you don’t have faith, you’re doomed to hell. Which would make me a hell-bound adulteress, but I guess they only believe that’s the case for people who aren’t me? Maybe the magic baby watering is what saved me...
I struggle with the fact that my parents have no trouble worshipping a god that is ok with infinite punishment for finite sins, a concept that I find entirely unjust. I struggle with the fact that my safe space has vanished. I struggle with the fact that there will be ongoing challenges with my family relationships through major life events.
I feel like I have to constantly try to prove myself, like I have to be a shining example of how a heathen can actually be not-an-asshole. (Here’s the problem with that: sometimes I’m an asshole.) I feel like I have to watch what I say because I don’t want to get into a debate. I feel like I can’t get into a debate because facts are useless against faith. I feel like humanity is doomed because as long as “faith” is an admirable quality, and an acceptable way to make an argument, we will never be able to have real discussions and make progress on tough decisions. I feel like we’re screwed. And sometimes, I feel really alone. Like nobody else is worried or struggling with these things.
But now I’ve found a community: ideas, stories, philosophy. And we can share those stories and ideas to understand each other and question our beliefs and refine them as we need to. And that’s why… We might not be screwed after all.
Guest Writer Contributions are direct-published opinion pieces. They are not always edited and reflect the views only of the author.