Twelve years ago I met the man I was to marry ten years later. I was a devout Catholic, having been raised Catholic just like my dad had and my five siblings were. My mom was not brought up religious but converted to Catholicism when she married my father. My husband had not been brought up religious at all but went to a high school that taught about all religions and none of them were shoved down his throat. They were taught about these religions and what it meant to people in general (in a cultural context) and what the differences were between the religions but were never taught about the existence of God per se and the necessity for them (the pupils) to believe in God. My husband always found it extremely interesting to hear about other cultures etc. but knew that religion was not for him.
I was always amazed, and quite frankly rather shocked and uneasy, by the way that he spoke about religion and the complete lack of belief he had. I was worried that he would say something to annoy the hell out of my father making Christmas dinners or Sunday lunch impossible to sit through. While my husband is never worried about speaking his mind he is always courteous but insistent on addressing the Elephant in the Room. He is a firm believer in being able to speak about absolutely anything and everything and loves a good discussion, and getting others to join in is when you see his eyes light up and he gets ready to hold up anything you say and scrutinise it, while he fully expects others to do exactly the same.
I knew this behaviour would not get him far with my father who ruled the roost with an iron fist and did not take kindly at all to people questioning anything he said. ‘Are you challenging my authority?’, he would say, leaving your stomach to clench as he said it. Reprisals to challenging his authority were swift and were more often than not in the form of physical abuse. Looking back on this now, I can see that he did that whenever he didn’t have an answer to any question we posed, particularly on the teachings of the Church. So we didn’t learn much about religion, just basically what we were told and we were expected to believe it heart and soul.
Actually saying that we were brought up Catholic is too nice. We did have it shoved down our throats to the extent that when I was reading a Nancy Drew book he would take it away and give me a book on Saints lives to read. Needless to say, at age ten, I was severely irritated and would just grab one of my many other books. While driving to mass on a Sunday we would smuggle books to read on the trip to the Church which would annoy my father so much that he would try and take our books away saying that we had to mentally prepare for the Mass. He would take great delight in tormenting my older brother (whose birthday was the day before Christmas) and teasing him that he wasn’t allowed cake on his birthday because it fell during Advent and as such he should be fasting.
As our lives progressed my father became worse and worse telling me I wasn’t allowed wearing jeans because it ‘influenced my behaviour’ (I had started smoking pot at 15, listening to heavy metal and basically living as much of my own life as I could). This was unacceptable to my father as he was a control freak and every time I did something to ‘challenge his authority’ I was grounded or some such nonsense. My brother moved out at 19 and basically carried on his own thing and I moved out at 21 in the vain hope that my father would learn from his mistakes. He’d now lost two of his five children and I was hoping that the other three would learn from me and my brother. Unfortunately they didn’t and are just as insane as my father.
I moved in with my boyfriend and argued with him on a regular basis about religion, absolutely convinced that I was too inarticulate to convince him that he was wrong about religion, that he didn’t understand it at all. These were heated debates that would have me crying in frustration and leaving him extremely puzzled as to why I was so emotional. He reminded me of what one of my aunts had said: ‘you don’t have to be religious if you don’t want to’. I panicked – of course I had to believe in God; my father would have a heart attack otherwise. He wouldn’t stand for it, I had to believe or my father would have nothing more to do with me and I would never see my siblings again.
Fast forward a few years. My husband and I were still debating the merits of religion and my husband batting all my arguments out of the field, offering a calm explanation of why I was wrong. I went to university and studied English literature and learnt about how homosexuals and atheists were persecuted for who they were. It struck a chord with me: I felt I was being persecuted for my way of thinking. I didn’t agree with my father or siblings on the treatment of homosexuals, I didn’t agree with the way they persecuted everyone else that wasn’t Catholic (believing in God wasn’t enough, you had to be Catholic, the rest didn’t count and everyone else was going to hell). They treated their religion like a luxury country club and only they had membership. They were rude to my husband, and only tolerated me as I still defended the Church and attended mass with them when they went. My sister told me how sad she was that she would have to kill my brother during the Apocolypse or whatever as that was what God expected good Catholics to do. The absolute zeal on her face scared me more than my father’s fists ever had done; it was like seeing her for the first time.
I met people at university who I got on so well with, I could discuss anything with my lecturers without fear of being punched or hit or having stuff thrown around the room. They didn’t threaten to send me to hell if I differed in opinion and they welcomed discussion in class. This was such a new experience to me, you can’t imagine.
Three years ago I had a huge fight with my father (I had been to see a play on Shakespeare, a modern version of The Merchant of Venice and he got extremely angry that I had enjoyed such a travesty of a modern production. That’s right, he forbade me from ever talking about the topic again) and resolved that I never wanted to see him again or have anything to do with him. When I managed to get hold of my mother three months later she told me she wanted nothing more to do with me as long as I was not having anything to do with my dad. Needless to say my siblings followed suit and even me explaining my side of the story had absolutely zero effect and, after a while, I decided it was fine the way things were. I spoke at length to my husband about what I was feeling, how to deal with this situation and how to proceed. I was lost. I had to realise that the loving family I thought I had was not only no longer in my life but that it had never existed. What I also came to realise that I not only didn’t believe in God any more but that I couldn’t remember ever having believed in God or any of the teachings of the Church. I came to realise that I had been going through the motions just to keep my family happy.
I am now an atheist and when I realised that it was like the weight of the world had fallen off my shoulders and that I could breathe for the first time. I am a much freer person and, with the help of my husband, realise that I can be friends with whom ever I want without fear of going to hell. I am proud to say that I count several homosexuals amongst my circle of friends, that I enjoy their company and am in the position to offer them any help they should need without the fear of going to hell. I can wear jeans, smoke pot, think for myself, read what I like (including the God Delusion and Godless – my hubby bought them for me and sent them to me in the city I am studying) and not be scared witless of going to hell. Because I am no longer scared, but rather furious with myself at the amount of time I wasted worrying about going to hell. I am angry for being scared for so long and not having the guts to make the decision earlier and am now so happy that I have a second chance at life.
The moral of this story is that the only thing I would change is making the decision earlier. Don’t be scared! Make the choice of being free and enjoying life. We only get one so make it a good one – you deserve it, and what’s the worst that’s going to happen? You sure aren’t going to hell 😛 Take the opportunity to live the life you want, be free, be kind and compassionate. Be an atheist! Take it from someone who knows – I’ve never met truly compassionate religious zealots, the only compassion they seem to share is with other like minded individuals. I know that this may differ for other people but this is just my personal experience. I’ve known more true compassionate atheists than compassionate religious people (although there are some atheists who are just down right rude and I want to sometimes kick them where it hurts as they are doing more damage than good). All I ask is that atheists that have had the luxury of growing up with the freedom to think for themselves, who have been allowed to make their own choices about religion; have patience with people who are religious or have recently become atheist. Religious people are often depicted as being bigoted and stupid, but they need your understanding more than anything because they aren’t free, they haven’t had the freedom you have. Be patient with people who have just had the chance to make that choice for themselves – the choice of being free – and don’t say things like: ‘it’s obvious it was all just fairy tales’, because that is not helpful at all. Remember that you have had a freedom that is denied to many.