I was raised Catholic, and like most people my age who were raised Catholic, I no longer attend church on Sundays. We’re “recovering Catholics.” That’s what so many of us call ourselves. We’re still disgusted with the Church for the way it covered up the sex abuse perpetrated against my generation and roll our eyes at the Church’s stance on things like abortion, gay marriage and women’s rights. And yet, like so many of my generation, my Catholic upbringing formed so much of who I am and was such a huge part of my young life, I find it difficult to entirely eschew that part of my identity.
When asked if we’re religious, we say, automatically, “I was raised Catholic.” Everybody knows what that means: I no longer believe the way that I once did, but being raised Catholic is like having been in ‘Nam. It’s something that never leaves you, no matter how hard you try. Those memories of old men blowing incense in your face while wearing gold dresses and touching little boys on the side are hard to shake. The stained glass windows, the sound of the organ, sitting in the wooden pews, standing, kneeling. It never really goes away. It’s inside you somewhere. The sacred heart of Jesus, the Christmas play, Mary. The Eucharist. It’s all there, inside you. But not the crucifix. Because Jesus that thing is gross.
And yet, in spite of the way I feel about Vatican doctrine and the ridiculousness of single, out-of-touch old men trying to tell young women what to do with their bodies and how to make marriage work, I don’t begrudge having been raised Catholic. I learned a lot about being a Good Person from the things I heard in church, even though the priest espousing the Gospel to us was later defrocked (disrobed? stripped of his position?) for improper touch. I wanted to be a Good Person, not just because only Good People go to Heaven. I just liked the idea. The meek shall inherit the Earth. It sounded right. Somehow all this shit I’m swallowing now, it’s gonna pay off later.
I’m pretty much agnostic now (sometimes believing more strongly, other times thinking the concept of God is kind of a joke), but I value the way the idea of God has gotten me through the rough patches. And that has been the payoff. Somehow this notion that there is a giant man in the sky with long hair and a big robe who will hug you from heaven if you need it and carry you on the beach when you’ve had one too many wine coolers to walk without falling down and getting sand all up in your bikini has been very comforting to me. The image of Jesus but as God but totally as a bro (a homeboy, if you will), there’s something righteous about it, if you know what I mean.
But the way I imagine God has changed over the years — He’s gone from being a person, a man, to being more of a Thing, a notion. Goodness. The Oneness of the Universe. With something female in there. The energy that keeps the whole thing afloat. God as I know it now when I know it is kind of a cocktail made from a shot of Buddhism, a shot of feminist activism and a splash of ginger ale (because that, my friends, is something you can always count on).
My daughter, on the other hand, at the ripe old age of 7, is convinced that there is no God. Not even a god. Yup, my kid’s an atheist. And she pretty much has been since she was 5.
It’s not for lack of exposure to God or god or even gods and spirituality, because she has attended Church and church and a UU “church” and it has made no impact. We’ve prayed together. I talk about God sometimes, in a good way. When I asked her recently why she doesn’t believe in God she told me, succinctly, “Because I know too much about science!”
And there you have it — an evangelical’s worst nightmare. Science trumps God. My daughter is like a mini-Darwin who had a spiritual awakening before she was old enough to stop having potty accidents. And she was able to do so not because she was indoctrinated by the Church of the Holy Dissected Frog, but because she wasn’t fully indoctrinated by the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Because the idea that a man lives in the sky who can see everything you do hasn’t been pounded into her head since birth, she thinks the whole concept is just silly.
The other night over dinner my daughter looked up at me and said, “Who created the Earth?” And I said, “Well, some people believe that God created the Earth, and some people believe that nature is a creation unto itself.” My daughter replied, “I think nature is a creation unto itself.” I said, “You know, you’re pretty staunch about the fact that there is no God.” And she told me, “Well, I don’t think he exists. If he does, he’s a ghost, and that’s weird. I just don’t believe it. You know, there are Universes beyond our Universe. Once you get outside the Milky Way galaxy, there’s a lot more stuff out there.”
Wow. When I was 7 I didn’t know there was a world outside my town.
I so admire my daughter’s scientific mind. I’m an artist, and an emotional one at that, which is not to say that my daughter isn’t an emotional person, because she is. But I love the way, at such a tender age, she’s able to make a decision like that for herself. To own her thoughts so fully that they are her feelings. “I don’t believe God exists.” Unquestionably. Because she hasn’t been taught to need God to get through her daily life. In spite of the fact that she struggles with things, she has this great understanding that the person she must learn to rely on is herself.
I love that.
I only wish I had been taught self-reliance as a child. Instead I was taught that there was no one in my family that I could rely on, in fact no human in the world I could expect reasonable treatment from. I had to look to God in order to be treated well, to be forgiven, to be embraced and to be loved. God, some phantom father in the sky was the man who loved me, and so of course I spent my life chasing phantom people with half-open or fully-closed hearts, seeking from them what only ghosts can give: nothing. A fantasy. A fallacy. A lie.
Oh sure, my mother thinks raising a child without religion is dangerous. “I understand you don’t think she needs God now, Carolyn. But you gotta give her religion so it’s there for her when she needs it later.” When the shit hits the fan, when everything falls apart. When you realize there is no one but God you can trust.
When my mother said that to me some time last year, it struck me. I immediately understood so much about my own life in that one moment. What if, by raising my daughter well, by giving her the attention and fortification she needs, by teaching her to trust her instincts, by letting her know help is always there and that she should feel free to ask a real live flesh-and-blood human being for it, what if that means she won’t need God? Because the shit won’t catastrophically hit the fan? Because she has coping skills and can get through life without it being a horrible tragedy that is only made significant by eating the body and blood of a dead dude and then going to heaven at the end? Yeah. How ’bout that?
How about instead of her creation being a mystical myth, the product of a missing and never discussed father and an omnipresently terrifying but emotionally absent mother, she knows the truth of her origin story. You grew in my body. Doctors cut me open and took you out. This man is your father. I loved him as hard as I could until it hurt me too much to stay so I left. I’m raising you. I’m right here. Your father is here, too. Know him. Know me. Know yourself. We’re all right here, on the Earth. Your brain doesn’t have to be in the sky. You don’t have to float away, floating out of your body to deal with life. I will help you. I’m not going anywhere. Be with me here, now, on the Earth that nature created unto itself.
I think God is okay with that. And even if he’s not, I am. But most importantly my daughter is, and I so admire her for that.
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