Well, How Did I Get Here?

Well, How Did I Get Here?

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.

dawid-zawila-226624 mirrored ball.jpg

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.