It wasn’t the temptation of an apple that did it for me. No, it was some little fucking punk in religion class who accelerated my fall from grace. To be truthful, it started long before that fateful day in seventh grade.
It likely began when I started writing reports on witch trials, mythology and paganism in elementary school . I loved history and found the parallels between our world and the past fascinating. I felt a connection to the ideas in Greek and Roman mythology in a way I never did with the stories in the Bible. In fact, the more I learned about history, the more I felt like Christianity and Catholics seemed like the bad guys. I know, what a weird 10 year old, sitting around thinking critically. That’s just how I was raised.
My elementary school was an Episcopal School that was attached to the church my grandparents went to. My folks weren’t particularly religious, they just wanted us to have a good education, the public schools in my neighborhood sucked and the opportunity presented itself. So the little girl who would yell “Fuck” in the grocery store when she was two and three years old went to parochial school and learned about god…
I truly loved that school. It was an amazing place to grow up and incredibly open minded for a parochial school. A deacon (a female deacon! Go Catholic lite) taught our religion class. Half of the teachings were from the Christian tradition and the other half were world religions. I was encouraged to think outside the box and I thrived while I was there.
That school was where I learned how to think critically and learn more in order to know my stance in an argument. But what actually kicked off my fall from grace was 7th grade. I got sent to Catholic school and as it turns out, free thinking pre-teens with a tendency for sarcasm aren’t necessarily held in high regard by the nuns. I was miserable from day one. I felt the oppression and was also a middle school kid just trying to get by and not be mocked constantly for my braces, glasses, and non-Catholic status.
One day at the end of religion class, Sister Mary (names may have been changed, or not, you’ll never know because there is always a Sister Mary) told me to collect the Bibles after reigion class. I was walking between the rows picking them up, I had collected eight and then I passed Sean, my chief tormentor. He tripped me, the Bibles leapt from my arms and skidded across the title floor. At this point, Sister Mary waddled over to me, squawking about how I had dropped the word of the Lord and needed to repent. She said I could go to Hell for acting like I had. It was at this moment that I looked up at her and said “I’m Agnostic.” I gathered the rest of the Bibles and continued to be a miserable middle school student.
To say my relationship with religion is complicated is an understatement. Obviously this experience turned me off but things were stirring in my mind earlier, I lacked a real connection with Christianity. I may have had some negative associations with rules and the patriarchy. I was definitely a weird kid, but I knew early where I stood in the world and how I felt about the built in bullshit of our establishment.
This ostracism by a member of the Church wasn’t an isolated incident. A priest told me I was having less of a human experience because I didn’t go to church and believe in his God. This was in college when I was beginning to learn about what would make me thrive. I was beginning to recognize that my friends and family are who I got my love and support from. They were my community. They were who make me feel connected. To me, my human connection comes when I am open minded and open to trying new things. When I narrow my focus, I lose my connection to people and the world around me. When I reflect on my interaction with this priest I feel badly for him because I know that his myopic worldview has made him miss out on a bigger, fuller life experience.
So, now that I have bashed the Catholic Church and its clergy, give me an opportunity to bring this back around to a less hostile place. At a friend’s wedding reception a few years back, I passed a lovely hour chatting with a priest about life, the world, and nothing at all about fire, brimstone and why I didn’t go to his church and believe the word of his Lord. We had a great exchange, we laughed, we chuckled, and dammit, we connected as people. I loved it. His religion didn’t speak to me, but there was room for us to speak and genuinely connect to each other.I don’t hate Catholicism. I don’t have an issue with people who are believers of any faith. I take issue with people who can look at me in a moment, without knowing anything about me and say with certainty that I am going to hell. If this discomfort with judgement and sanctimoniousness means that I have fallen from their God’s grace then that’s just fine by me. I know with certainty that I won’t ever walk up to another person and tell them that they are less than me because we are different.
I, like so many, was raised with religion. My mom would scrub all 3 of us children clean, load us up, and head off to Sunday school and church. My dad rarely attended unless it was a special occasion – a fact I didn’t question until my teen years. During the summer, there was Vacation Bible School for 2 weeks, and later when I was old enough, Church Camp and youth group – which, ironically, was the beginning of my fall.
I was what one might have called a Bible-thumper. I could quote scripture and I wanted to make sure everyone in my life was “saved.” I was also fascinated with the book of Revelations, but I tried not to tell too many people that fact after I got disapproving looks from my pastor when I apparently asked too many questions about it. That should have been my first warning. Questions were a problem.
Because of my connections in my youth group, I got the chance to go on a Mission trip to Africa – Kenya to be exact. I was so excited to travel. You see, I was always looking to escape out into the big world, away from the pre-determination that growing up in a small town imposes on you. You know, where everybody knows your name and everything you have done since birth, and they already have you categorized in their brains – nice and tidy.
Not only was I flying to the mysterious continent of Africa, but I got to stop in London for a few days on the way home – epic! Ohh, yeah, and there was the ministering thing, too. (2nd warning – more excited to see exotic local than talk up the word of god).
It happened so suddenly – I really wasn’t expecting it. We had had a long day of working on building structures and were spending the evening open air preaching in the market area. I was pretty uncomfortable with this – the idea that we were telling others what to think and believe didn’t sit well with me. So, I hung back on the edges and watched and offered to hand out fliers.
The man was drunk, that was obvious, but it was what he said that stuck. He had walked up behind me and pushed my shoulder. “Why should I listen to you? What makes you right and my beliefs wrong? What if you’re wrong?!” Then he sort of stumbled away. Even if he had stuck around, I wouldn’t have known how to respond.
“How did I know?” Ok. Belief – yeah. But it was the “why should I . . .” question that stuck and started revolving in my head. If someone asked me to convert, I would refuse. This was what I believed. Why? Because I had been raised to . . . hmmm. I had never chosen for myself – I had been brought up this way. So, what if the person I was trying to convert had been raised like this too? Taught their belief since birth. If I wouldn’t change, why should they? They thought/believed they were just as right as I did.
This was the beginning of my end. I posed this question to my pastor upon return – and was met with a contemptuous laugh and the self-assured comment that they must convert because ours was the true faith. When I tried to point out that individuals in those other belief systems thought and felt the same about their faith so how could we expect them to abandon a lifetime of belief when we wouldn’t do so ourselves – the contempt was leveraged at me instead. I was told to stop asking questions.
As I said, the questions were a problem. My slow but inevitable fall from faith culminated with college. This most amazing time of exploration and growth and meeting people and discovering who you were becoming.
I went back to my church camp over the summer, but this time as a camp counselor. This pivotal week altered my destiny in so many ways. I really wasn’t sure of my college major, even after a year in college. I liked history, but what would I do? I was interested in government at the time – hmm, how does one become an ambassador? I had no talent for learning other languages, so I was pretty sure I was in trouble with my dream of following Indiana Jones into archaeology. That week, as a camp counselor cleared it all up.
I loved working with the kids. It was like a light turned on and I felt my path open up – teaching – I was going to become a teacher. And what do you know? You can teach history!? I was checking off boxes left and right. Things were looking up . . . until movie night. As the kids settled in, I wandered to the back to chat with our pastor’s wife. She asked about college and how it was all going. Where was I staying? Ohh, I had an apartment – how great – with a roommate? Who was that?
I actually paused for a second. I could lie – it would be easy and then all would be well. I wasn’t ashamed though, living with my boyfriend at the time didn’t bother me – it was economical and helping us learn if we were going to make it a long term deal. Stony stare. That is living in sin.
Ohh. Yeah? Well, you know . .
You can’t live with him and be a part of our church. We will have to excommunicate you.
Umm. Excuse me?! What? First, we are not Catholic. Excommunication is a Catholic thing. We Protestants believe we have our own direct line to god, and if that is the case, you can’t cut off my contact to said god – which is basically what excommunication is by excluding me from services and sacrament – which we had none of by the way, sacraments that is. Well, clearly my church believed otherwise. I received a letter letting me know that I was no longer a member, could not vote on issues, but was still welcome to attend services. Ohh, sure – so you can tell me how horrible a person and sinner I am? Pass.
In some ways, I think this was needed. It gave me a clean break to continue exploring who I was in the college years with an open mind and the freedom to question everything. I remember smiling a little in a history class as I noted a certain king in the past had been excommunicated twice – well, I was ahead of him at least. In the end, I came to realize that instead of the problem, questions were my answer.