Written by: Jacki McMaster
When I was an infant, my parents had me baptized. They didn’t want to, but my Grandmother insisted. They agreed to her wishes, because neither of them was very for or against religion.
My mother was raised Christian, Methodist to be specific. The church never felt like home to her. She always told me, “It’s silly to think that you have to go to a specific place once a week to worship God. And it’s even sillier that they make you pay to do it. God is in everything around you. Appreciating the world is prayer enough.”
My father, on the other hand, was raised Jewish. His father was a non-practicing Christian, but his mother attended synagogue regularly and decided to raise her 3 children accordingly. When my father was 12 years old, he decided that he was not going to have his Bar Mitzvah. He didn’t believe in what he was learning, and didn’t want to put in the time and effort necessary to learn the required tasks. His mother was not happy, but allowed him to make his own decision.
When my parents married, they decided to abandon the religious practices of their pasts, in favor of none. No church on Sundays, no synagogue on Saturdays, nothing on holidays; simply nothing at all.
My uncle on my fathers side, despite the Jewish upbringing, married a Catholic woman and converted. They had their first child a year before my parents had me, and the second just 2 years later. Because of this, I spent a lot of time as a part of their household. My uncle was a teacher, and able to watch me while my parents worked on the weekends. I would often go there on a Friday night, and get picked up Saturday after dinner. The reason that I never slept over on Saturday night was that they had to attend mass on Sunday morning.
I was very young when this routine started, probably less than 2 years old. When I was 3 or 4 I started pre-school. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to go to school on the weekends! So when I heard my cousins talking about Sunday school, I leapt for joy. Immediately upon getting home I started asking. The conversation went something like this:
“Mom, why don’t I go to Sunday school?”
“Because that’s not like your other school. It’s a school at church.”
“I don’t care where it is, I want to go.”
“Well, you can’t go because we don’t go to church.”
“Why don’t we go to church?”
“Because we don’t believe in that.”
“You can’t go to Sunday school.”
This conversation happened numerous times, and eventually she caved. I went to Sunday school. I only went for 4 or 5 weeks, and my memories are vague. I remember being confused by a lot of things. I was only 4, and didn’t have 4 years of religious brainwashing behind me like the other kids in my class did.
I remember wondering why the lions didn’t eat the penguins and chickens on Noah’s Ark. There was a very detailed cartoon drawing of the ark packed full of animals in my illustrated children’s bible. Penguins and chickens flanked the majestic carnivorous lions. Even as a 4-year-old child I knew this was impossible.
I also remember singing. The song went like this, “Jesus loves me, this I know. Because the bible tells be so.” This seemed odd to me too. I knew that Jesus was dead, and I understood the concept of dead. How could a dead person have feelings? Dead people are dead! And if the bible is saying something so obviously impossible, then what good is it?
I’m sure there’s plenty more that has faded from my memory over the last 25 years, but the point is that I decided to stop going. My parents, who were probably thrilled to have their Sunday mornings back, happily accepted my decision.
What I was left with, however, was a sense that I was missing something. All of these people around me had something in their lives that made them happy, and I didn’t understand it. I felt empty.
When I started elementary school, the feelings didn’t go away. I didn’t have one single friend who didn’t go to either church or synagogue. When asked, “Are you Christian or Jewish?” I would reply, “Neither.” I never got accustomed to the facial expression that would follow that response, and eventually changed my answer to, “Both.”
This wasn’t entirely false. We celebrated Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah with my father’s Great-great Aunt and Uncle, who were very religious. They kept Kosher, and made the most delicious food I had ever tasted. I loved those holidays. We also celebrated Christmas, with a big fancy dinner and lots of presents. I loved Christmas even more! I got colored eggs and candy for Easter, and matzoh for Passover. It was the best of both worlds, and it made my peers happy to hear. But none of was in any way religious.
By the time I hit my teens, I was desperate for faith. I yearned for it. I had watched numerous friends and family member have Communions and Confirmations, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and I was jealous. All they had was faith, and look at the rewards!
I searched for faith everywhere. I bought books about Buddhism, I bought books about Wicca, I bought books about transcendental meditation, I bought books about Kabbalah. I dated a Presbyterian guy, and tried going to a Christmas Eve candlelight service with him. I dug out and read that illustrated children’s bible with the impossible ark. I asked my Jewish friends to take me to synagogue, but none of their parents would let me join them. I even thoroughly read the pamphlets that the Hare Krishna guy handed me as I walked down the street.
I felt like I had tried everything and failed. I was sad. When I left home and went to college, I took a class about religions across the world. I thought I would learn about something that would feel right, but nothing did. I even tried praying to the God that I was sure must not exist. I prayed for him to give me faith so that I could believe in him. When I told some of my Christian friends that, they laughed. They said that God doesn’t answer the prayers of non-believers.
So I just stopped trying. I decided that I shouldn’t need faith to feel happy or whole. I decided that I should just trust my instincts, and embrace being an atheist. I didn’t truly embrace it, though. I was afraid to tell people who were religious. I was embarrassed that they would think I was too weak to have faith, too jaded to believe. I instead spent several years claiming to be agnostic.
It wasn’t until I was 24 years old, and I started dating the man who would end up being my husband, that I began to feel comfortable with my atheism. I think we were both a little apprehensive to say, “I don’t believe in God.” He grew up in a Catholic household, and had gone to Catholic schools. He didn’t buy into the teachings, and by the end of his schooling he had made his way into a public school.
We had discussions about religion, about how we were raised, our feelings, and our lack of faith. Eventually we came to admit our non-belief. It was a profound thing for me, to find someone else who shared my misgivings about religions, someone who agreed that the world would be a better place if everyone lost their faith. We decided that we would raise our future children as logical, rational people, who believe in science and reality. And with every discussion we had, my comfort with my lack of faith grew.
In 2007 we started the First Church of Atheism. It was a large undertaking, mentally. I had to accustom myself to having the people in my life know I am an atheist. Until we started the church, I was largely “in the closet.” Since the church began we have ordained close to 500 ministers, we have been mentioned in several publications and dozens of blogs, we have received loads of praise and thanks, and we have had people wish cancer on us and our family. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In my almost 30 years on this planet, I have come full circle. In the beginning I had no faith. I didn’t even know what faith was. It took me a few years, but after searching high and low for the elusive god, I have come to find that there isn’t one. And that I don’t need one. My life is complete and fulfilled, my mind is clear, and I am happy.