To most of my closest people, discussion of both my humanism and atheism are of no consequence. Since my late teens, those closest to me heard all of my questions and witnessed the iterations from religion to non-religion. And since moving to Columbus 20 years ago, I have found people who will not only listen to me, but agree with me, and I finally feel in good company. Occasionally attending the ASH (Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists) group or the Recovering From Religion group; subscribing to informative, grounding YouTube channels, and listening to various, numerous podcasts, in addition to seeking out others in our community or at work, all remind me I am not alone. There is unequivocal, growing interest in this camaraderie and I can’t help but want to create and support it myself. I have studied, especially over the recent years, that terminology within and about this group of people matters—through my emergence, using the word “atheist” never felt right to me… It is hard to identify by what you don’t believe rather than by what you do… “Humanist” feels to be the best fit, because it promotes equity and hope. And the national and international groups affiliated with humanism like the American Humanist Association (founded in 1941), and the Humanist Society (1939) promote the same. Using the term “atheist”, while true, tends to lend negative connotation. People of previous generations see it as divisive—even incendiary.
At its earliest inklings, my questioning religion, my Catholic faith in particular, began publicly when challenging our priest about evolution during an 8th grade confirmation class at my Catholic school. I was merely asking questions during scheduled class time. I remember that at 13 it was a bit titillating to be so bold, but my desire to know was authentic; what’s more, my dad actually approved of it when I came home and told him. With him being the church’s youth group adviser, I was used to faith being ushered in as a steady topic in our home. And being a union supporter, he usually stood by my pushing “the man” when it happened. Although now he is uncomfortable with the anti-theist path for my family, he gave me the room to question that then, further stating, “With god’s power, who’s to say he can’t make a 6,000 year old rock? Or the universe as big or as small as he likes it? No one will ever know anything for sure.” At 13, I mistook the latter part of his answer with a sense of wonder, consent, and challenge rather than as futility and resolve.
In high school and college classes I studied Catholicism, world religions, and especially myths, and I started thinking about how many myths devolved. Then I thought, “If these myths were once true beliefs, couldn't this happen to my own?” I also remember feeling the tensions between the natural world and the supernatural. Aside from having a penchant for Vincent Price movies, I had a reverence for the existential layer of ghosts, spirits, beings. At times, I believed in them so much it invoked genuine fear, or a pervasive sense of looking over my shoulder, or even a feeling that my actions were not necessarily my own like I was some marionette. I remember the actual nightmares; believing that if there is a god, there is also satan and I conjured him to be one nasty dude. Looking back now, none of this seems healthy. Even writing it imparts a fiction —a disconnect. Yet I felt it all. I couldn’t sit through the movie The Exorcist—even at 19. It was the catalyst for my dad’s conversion when he was 33 and I was still very young. (Yes, the age was quite significant to him.) Things like possessions were frequently discussed in our house. Being of Catholic-Italian decent, and residing nearby a church where a local, legendary exorcist lived, this was just life.
I devoured books about the saints, particularly the incorruptables (those not decaying); I even read a book by that title—believing that their Earthly preservation was divine and sacred. The Shroud of Turin, or relics brought back to me by my grandmother from St. Anne’s Basilica in Quebec—all of these trappings were substantive and convincing—books contained truth and relics were proof: when National Geographic runs a cover story about Christ’s burial cloth and grandma brings home a scrap of the Virgin Mary’s garb encased in glass, one is legitimately in awe.
All through the rest of more faith-based high school, despite the evidence I had, quite literally in my hands, disbelief reverberated through my thoughts, but I was too busy being a teenager to allow those questions to bubble up. I enjoyed my time with the youth group. My boyfriend (Eddie, who would become my husband) was there. So was my dad. Everything that mattered was in a 2-foot radius around me and there was no value in seeking any truth beyond what I already knew. Going through the motions brought happiness. I didn’t need growth because I was comfortable.
It wasn’t until after I was 30, specifically the weekend after Tuesday, 9-11-01, that I felt compelled to give a name to the feeling of having drifted away from the faith in which I was raised. There just hadn’t been necessity until my own 8th grade students flat out asked me what to what faith I belonged, and I said I didn’t belong to any, but that I was, “more of… a… humanist…?” Those words awkwardly spilled out. I went on to say that I felt my faith in fellow people was rich and rewarding. I had no idea that such a thing existed. And I immediately felt odd for admitting it and never referred to it again to my students for fear of proselytizing… non… religion? Seriously—“humanist”? What a made-up word! I stood in front of them uncomfortably shifting at not knowing whether there’d be ramifications to answering an innocent question to a room full of Jewish, Hindi, Christian, and who knows what other faiths, not to mention likely comfortably-raised atheists or agnostics also in the room. I was so ignorant of others’ religious affiliations that I hadn’t even considered that my students, whose beliefs were never of any relevance to me, might not judge me at all.
At any rate, my future-husband and I were engaged; we were getting married in the church, for my father threatened he wouldn’t come if we didn’t; it was contentious, but tolerable. The weekend of September 7-9, 2001, Eddie and I headed to our Pre-Cana retreat (what Catholic couples must attend prior to marriage) where we spent much of our time talking about what we “were”—Catholic? Deist? Christian? Nothing? We spent hours on long walks on some sprawling acreage in Newark, Ohio feeling torn by the love of ritual, the absence of belief, the fracturing of community, the lack of identity—it was truly the schism of our hearts. We knew nothing else but Catholicism. We were from a dying northeastern, Ohio town, living now near Columbus, alone, wanting a family, and seeing no other path for life. How do you do things—weddings, funerals, Sunday dinners, illnesses, successes, babies…without god? We had been ignoring exploring our options. Maybe in denial of the hard work it would take to cultivate other people to help us. Fear that other people like us might not exist. And more importantly, we had been unaware of the fact that we were already doing ok. Just not likely in our hometown’s eyes. We loved each other, our jobs, our lives, our neighbors… maybe this WAS “it”. That no other layer, ethereal or otherwise, was necessary.
So, one more shot.
At school on Tuesday morning September, 11, coming off the high of our engaged couples’ retreat, all us teachers were told to turn on our televisions. We sat stunned. Teachers opened their doors and whispered in the hallways with watchful eyes on the children. The sixth grade faculty decided to turn things off. To read. To console. To write, instead. Kids sat quietly. Emails were sent. Phones were ringing. Kids were being picked up from the building. A boy in my class whose father was a pilot flying out of NYC that morning was pale and fearful. And crying. Wanting to go home.
That weekend, Ed and I decided to go to church. A religious act might bring us back to our own religion, even if our upcoming marriage couldn’t. Yes. This was the sign we were waiting for. All the thoughts and prayers of the past weekend—this national tragedy was speaking to us. We could be a part of the healing by being at mass on Sunday.
We, and hundreds of others went, too. Scores of parishioners eagerly stood in clusters around the packed pews, out into the vestibules; lined the parking lots through propped-open doors. Nationalistic hymns were played, “America the Beautiful”, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “The National Anthem”…the service began. We held hands. We felt a part. We sat for the homily…the priest made no mention of that week’s events. After the service, we walked out. I know I was crying. Not only for the fate of our nation, but for unequivocally losing my religion.
Months later, we met with the priest at my dad’s church where our ceremony would be held and confided in him that we weren’t religious, but that an ultimatum was issued about our service and surprisingly he agreed to a relatively secular homily where he highlighted our spirituality and downplayed our “religiousity”—which later caused my father to scoff. Our guests formed a circle around us at our outdoor setting, raised their hands over us in celebration, and we realized maybe there was some grey area in which we could subside.
A year later, we found ourselves with our first baby in tow, at the doorstep of the church we had attended after 9-11. Now with a child, our parenting skills and family presence lacking, we decidedly needed community and knew no other to become our “village”. Joining the church was an inevitability after all. Kids need god. Parents need god. So we waited a patient 20 minutes to see the priest, who never showed, and the secretary told us to reschedule for another time, but that our weekly donation envelopes would be arriving soon and to have a good day. Ed told me to take our son to the car. To this day I do not know what he told her, but I can assure anyone it was honest and heartfelt. I turned to the car—numb. This was it. We were officially done. Aside from our own existential questioning and fundamental disbelief in the idea of a faith-based life, the institution had now also failed us and we would never again be returning.
Since then I have espoused the ideas that god is unnecessary and religion is divisive.
As testament to these tenets, I first looked inward. As a believer, I cherished the “Footprints” poem...but now as a free-thinking adult, recognized that I never once felt “carried”... In fact, in my toughest times, when I felt insufficient or helpless… those were the moments I had kicked into high gear to get shit done… I recall praying, devoutly, in my 20s and thinking, well, is this just meditating on my next move. It's me. No one's up there… it's just me. This new time in my life wasn’t going to be much different, then, was it? So then I was off! Doing things! Without strings…without prayer…without belief at all and feeling more responsible to my fellow humans than I ever had—because when I screwed up, it was all on me. ME. I had to be responsible for my own actions. I had to lay claim to my own decisions. No popping into a confessional for absolution. No trust that I was “blessed” and “loved” so much that my transgressions would be somehow erased; I had to own up to everything I did. My journey was not part of some master, MYSTERIOUS plan…when I got out of bed every day, I had to make things happen. The fire was mine. I wasn’t waiting for some heaven…”heaven” was HERE. And I was a custodian. When I die…I’ll be dead. And my chance to make things good, will be gone. TODAY is the only day that matters. I am in judgement of myself. The good I do must be GREAT.
Then I looked outward. Other things didn't make sense…kids still died. Grandmas still got sick. Typhoons still ravaged. Earthquakes still destroyed. Men still killed other men. Women still got raped. Diseases still indiscriminately killed. How? If I was a god, a father…I would love my children and protect them. If I was god, a creator, I wouldn’t let the things I made, break or harm. What the heck? A mere mortal shouldn’t have better sense than the god she follows.
I realized I was a lot like Oz’s Dorothy: She’s on the right path, wearing the right shoes. There is no magician behind the curtain; “he” is unnecessary for she already has everything she needs.
As for religion, images of those planes flying into those buildings still burn through my memory. The Abrahamic religions are full of radicals and sects, based on myriad interpretations disagreeing with each other at every count. Other minor religions disagree with them...and each other, too. Again, if I were a god, I’d devise a clear path for my people to see me. To access me. I wouldn’t intentionally cause confusion nor fear. Nor necessitate people’s condemning each other for those disagreements. No one can prove whose beliefs are truer without definitive proof. The divisiveness is painful and unproductive. There’s too much happiness to spread and love to give to be choosing up sides and creating artificial tribes.
A proud Humanist, for certain.