with several variations on a theme in between-by Carm
As a young child raised in a Roman Catholic Italian family in the mid 1950s, my earliest recollection of anything religious was the ceramic Christmas nativity set. I don’t know how I came to understand that the baby in manager was a VIP, but somehow I did. So when he fell from my pudgy little hands and his head broke clean off, I felt like I had committed the most heinous of crimes. I sobbed hysterically until a new plastic baby Jesus was purchased to replace him. My dad bought triplet Jesus’s: one for the Nativity, one for me to hold, and a spare for just in case some terrible fate took one of the others.
The next vivid memory I have is when as a first grade student on Monday afternoons our public school’s bus transportation brought us to the church school. The church was called the Infant of Prague- cute little blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus in a fancy dress. Did you know Jesus could morph like Michael Jackson’s Black & White video? Further evidence that man created god in his own image because Jesus looked like all the beautiful Polish girls I envied for their light, delicate features! The first day we arrived at the church school this nasty old witch of a nun informed us that if we were truly loved by our parents we would be attending Catholic School, not Public School. Harsh to tell children their parents don’t love them enough to properly indoctrinate them five days a week!
Forward to a rambunctious group of six year old children trying to make the transition from their happy public school to this repressive Catholic school for religious instruction. Clearly Sister Nastiness hated our guts, but what happened next was my introduction to HELL. On the political scene at the time was our first Roman Catholic President JFK and his little Bay of Pigs thing with Cuba and Communism. This nun started to rant and rave that we were horrible children and didn’t we realize that our country was in grave danger of nuclear attack? We were perhaps moments away from being vaporized and we’d all burn for eternity because we were not being cooperative and respectful to her, the Bride of Christ!
That evening I couldn’t fall asleep. I sobbed in my bed waiting for the ensuing blast and my eternal damnation. My father came in to see what was wrong. Through hysterical sobbing, my WWII veteran dad listened to what I was told. He was more pissed off than the nun with a classroom full of despised Public School children. He assured me that she was “full of shit” and was at the rectory the next morning to see this insane woman and the priest in charge of her!
I must interject that my father went to a Catholic School and was an altar boy. He had it all figured out and when I was an adult he told me straight out that he didn’t believe in a god. It’s all a bunch of stories to control people’s behavior, that nature was all there is. His opinion of priests was half of them guys are drunks and the other half are queers. At age 81, my dad died and I was with him. There was no cry out to a god.
Throughout my weekly indoctrination lessons, I can always remember feeling DOUBT that this was real. Honestly, it felt more like fairytales than anything that was real. I hated how I felt, because it meant that I was not a good Catholic. The next landmark of Catholicism was at age 7 making a first confession. We were given an instruction manual which always reminded me of a Chinese menu. Pick a few sins from Column A, Column B and Column C. One I could always depend on was: I was not clean in thought, word or deed. Let’s face it, as kids we have dirty little thoughts. We say shit or crap, or the magical swears in Italian. I was too young to be doing the deed stuff, but it went together, so I said it together.
Little did I know that adhering to this old standby confession line would get me into my first encounter with a pedophile priest. At age 10, my friend and I were told to go to confession by her mom. The church was within walking distance and we went. My stomach would turn as the smelly musty confessional curtain closed. I tried not to listen to what the person on the other side was saying. My turn, the wave of nausea, the bless me father for I have sinned… I was not clean in thought, word or deed… a pregnant pause. Little did I know that this priest was going to use the confessional with a 10 year old as a way to release his celibate frustrations. His interrogation of what exactly I was doing began. “Do you touch yourself?” “Where do you touch yourself?” He started to breath heavily and I could hear him being NOT clean in deed, indeed. At that age, however, I didn’t realize this guy was masturbating in the confessional to the sins of a 10 year old. The hair on my neck stood up and I realized this was inappropriate and I got the hell out of there and ran as fast as my chubby little legs could carry me all the way home, without saying five Hail Marys and five Our Fathers for penance. My mistake was telling my mother about it and not my father. She then said, Oh no, he wouldn’t do that. Why did you say that? She shamed me about what happened. Blame the victim. I realize as an adult that I got off easy. I realize that at age 10 this bastard would have raped me physically, not only emotionally. He was one that was passed from parish to parish and finally his name was included on the list of priests removed for abusing children.
My feelings about eating the body and drinking the blood were just disbelief. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the whole transubstantiation myth. I just went along with it. My mom dragged me and my sister to church every Sunday. It was an accepted part of life. I tried to be good and pious. I tried to forget how I had been treated by the family of god as a child.
I got married in that church in 1977 to a Lutheran and things were ecumenical enough that his pastor co-officiated at the ceremony. His pastor was eventually brought up on charges years later for having sexual relations with a 15 year old. I married straight out of my parents’ house and had no clue that I was marrying a brutal alcoholic with narcissistic personality disorder. Within six weeks of moving out of state where he was attending school, I knew all too well. Without the dogma of the church I think I would have gotten in my car and driven home, tail between my legs and divorced him. Instead I spent 11 years and had his two sons, trying to do God’s will to be a good wife to an addict who thought the rules didn’t apply to him. This lead me to my first exposures to other religions.
I had my boys baptized in the Lutheran Church by the child predator. I thought Martin Luther had some good points about the Catholic church. I thought my husband would be more comfortable worshipping god in his home church. We didn’t go that much and this was probably my first look at a life without religion. Trying to keep an alcoholic marriage together, a friend in similar circumstances told me about the support she was receiving in her newly found Fundamentalist church. When my husband left me in New York with a three year old and 6 month old and went to live in California, I began to listen to this friend proselytize about why being born again was the only way to salvation. I was feeling very much in need of a personal savior at that point in my life. I liked that this church actually read the Bible seemed to know what this Christian faith was all about. There seemed to be a real spirit to these folks. It seemed to make so much more sense than the repetitious rituals and myths and they were so much more approachable than nuns and priests in my Catholic past. Many of the members of this megachurch had left the Catholic Church and they were quick to point out all the flaws in Roman Catholicism. It was run by a pair of born-again Jewish twins.
Then, glory hallejullah, the miracle happened. My husband had an accident in California which should have killed him and he walked away from it unscathed. He had a friend in California who was a born again Christian who lead him to accept Jesus and he admitted to his alcoholism. He wanted to come home and be a family. For two years we played Born-Again family. He got very close to the people in this church. It seemed they were all former alcoholics and adulterers and they seemed to love to brag about aka give testimony about how BAD they were before Jesus came and made them a NEW CREATION! We tithed money we didn’t even have to tithe. He was the shining star and I had to suck back years of abuse and betrayal. When he fell off the Jesus-Sobriety-Wagon- it was my fault according to them. I was self-righteous and unforgiving. God had delivered a miracle and I had messed it up with my SIN. This guy was a serial adulterer, had cleaned out my kids’ bank accounts to buy cocaine, and couldn’t rest until every drop of any kind of alcohol was finished. This church had destroyed us financially and now they were throwing me under the bus because he was a backsliding Christian. It was a patriarchal, men can do no wrong, misogynistic cult. This was the end of the marriage and the end of Fundamentalism for this gal.
Why I couldn’t see through the total nonsense of any religion at that point is a testimony to childhood indoctrination and my feeling that I needed God on my side. I went back to school to become an elementary school teacher. I went back to the Catholic church as an a la carte Catholic. I would believe what I wanted and ignore the rest. I needed my family’s approval and emotional support to raise my boys. I lived on child support, loans and grants for the years I went to school. My EX would frequently be late with payments. I hunted him down interstate for of the child support he owed us. At one point I didn’t have a penny to feed the kids and I went to the church I was attending to beg for some grocery money. I was turned away. After years of contributing to Catholic Charities and putting my envelope in the collection plate. I was told that they couldn’t do anything for me. If I still was penniless by the end of the week they’d give me a voucher for $40 for the grocery store across the street. I never went back.
I made it through college summa cum laude by doing everything imaginable to better myself and raise my boys. All credit and honor to the lord, of course. When I got a teaching job straight out of school. Thank you Jesus! I met a colleague who was widowed in the first year I worked there. He was the father of two sons. We shared our single parent concerns with each other. I prayed about whether I should invite him to my house and asked for a sign from God. His 4 digit house number was the year/month/day of my birthday! Sign from God accepted. We quickly fell in love and married. My new husband was an atheist. He had never had any indoctrination of any religion as a child. Yet this man was the salt of the earth. He had been an excellent teacher for 24 years. He had been an outstanding spouse to a wife who had multiple health issues and until death did they part. He was a volunteer fire fighter for his community. He loved nature and was a classically trained musician. All this with no god- imagine that. He also came to church with me on special occasions and never once criticized anything about it to me. He was a loving and kind step-father to my sons. He was and still is everything that is fine about humanity. He did not know god. No God.
The most religious people I’ve known were the most vile, contemptuous, lying, cheating people you’d ever want to know. Maybe they felt they could ask forgiveness and get the enabling grace to make it all better? So go screw up, confess your sins and it’s as if it never happened? Slowly, I started to question my husband about his life without a god. How did he feel about morality? How did he make his important decisions? We entered into long dialogues about the meaning of life and death. He started reading Hitchens and Dawkins. We discussed Darwin. I was still taking my elderly mother to church and was more and more offended by everything I saw and heard in the church. One day they were praying for some earthquake victims in a land where the Christian faith isn’t practiced. I had the thought that it was a complete waste of time since these people didn’t believe in their god and were damned eternally anyway. Why were we praying? I couldn’t go back. That was it. I declared myself an agnostic and started listening to science and reason. Since then I view religion as utter foolishness. It’s really hard to attend a service for a funeral of a loved one or the baptism of a grandchild and listen to nonsensical utterings.
I have since read The God Delusion and everything online I can find on the subject. My husband does not like the term atheist any more than the term acoustic guitar. Before man created god there was just man. Before they plugged a guitar into amplifiers and shot electricity through it, it was just a guitar. So man is a human and since there never was a god, he prefers the term humanist. Looking back at my life from this perspective I can’t believe the many times I’d beg god for something and then I’d do all the heavy lifting myself. If I had something go wrong, it was my fault. For my many successes I thanked god. Freedom from the dogma of religion is wonderful and exhilarating. It frees you up to discover the wonders of life and science. On many Sundays we can be found walking in the woods watching nature’s creatures or just relaxing at home with our cats. I chuckle as I think of one of the very popular websites which features cats in an anthropomorphic way saying what is one their minds. Ceiling Cat is portrayed as a white cat overseer, the god character, and Basement Cat is always a black cat who comes from below, the devil character. The ancient Egyptians had the Bast faith which worshipped cats, which I’m sure made sense to them. As ridiculous as that sounds, I hope that at some point in human history all of the religions that plague the earth will someday be as laughable to all of humanity.