“God, glory, and gold.” These were the objectives of the European explorers of the Western hemisphere. That was, basically, over five hundred years ago. Well, for me, a person born during the final years of he twentieth century, the motto had been similar. “God, glory, and happiness” were what I sought, and God was seen as a pathway to the other two goals. It’s not like I was a Greek about to embark on founding a colony and therefore needed to consult the oracle at Delphi, but religious sanction was generally needed before every venture on which I embarked. It’s the common story—I was born into an incredibly Christian (generally Catholic) family, attended religious school, and frequented the church weekly, if not bi-weekly. Catholicism wasn’t a chore for me. If you ever heard me complaining about church, it was about the never-ending length of the mass and the
ungodly unbelievable hour (7 AM) at which I had to wake up on Sunday morning.
What I loved about Catholicism growing up was that it provided me with a sense of hope. I believed that death was not the complete cessation of life, but rather, a vehicle from this ephemeral life to the permanent one, the “afterlife.” Therefore, atheism didn’t “exist” to me. I know that that sounds funny (in an “I pity you” way), but I always assumed that everyone subscribed to some religious thinking. To me, “I’m not Catholic” always meant “I belong to (Protestantism/Hinduism/Islam/Judaism/Zoroastrianism/ etc),” never “I don’t believe in God.” So, let’s just say that I was shocked when i went to high school. I attended Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the nation. It’s like the other schools in the Boston Public School system in that it receives government funding. However, I had believed that it was just like my Catholic school in that it emphasized education more than anything. What I found at Boston Latin that I did not find at Holy Name Parish, however, was atheism.
To put it bluntly, atheism scared me. In encountering atheists, I encountered the possibility that there might not be life on the other side, that one day, when I’m old and feeble, I’m just going to blank out and that is it. R.I.P., Jessica, 1993-2093 (yes, I plan to become a centenarian. Just you wait). I avoided atheism like a Casanova with commitment issues. I’d make intimate, detailed conversation, but the second “I’m atheist” or “I don’t believe in God” was uttered, I was GONE.
However, things changed came the first of January 2013. I vowed to venture outside of my comfort zone, and that did not just mean letting that hot Italian exchange student know that he looks good in those shorts. I want to come across things that had originally scared me. The first step in tackling my fear of the irreligious, was in clicking on a CNN article titled “Hey atheists, let’s make a deal.” British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins is quoted as having said that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” The article’s writer, Rachel Held Evens, who identifies as a Catholic, suggests that rather than taking Dawkins’ provocative words as the views of all atheists, she suggests that we judge a person based on his/her character, not on the words of zealots who share similar theological beliefs. So, I decided to take her advice and go the Martin Luther King, Jr. route. Rather than judging on atheists’ lack of faith, I came across two and asked them for a background on their atheism and got to know them more. After interviewing them, I’ve realized that a bear can kill me and hepatitis can kill me, but conversing with atheist is not deadly in the slightest. In fact, it’s healthy for your sense of cosmopolitanism.
Rob, 21, is an undergraduate at Indiana’s Ball State University.
J: So, how do you identify religiously? spiritual, but not religious? agnostic? atheist? some other label?
R: I’ve come to define myself as Agnostic over many years of changing that lol. And to define that- I think being Agnostic means one believes in the possibility of (but not assured) “higher being” or multiple “higher beings,” but doesn’t seclude his or herself to one point of view.
J: So, were you raised agnostic? that might sound like a silly question. I doubt that atheist parents are sitting down with their kids and explaining the dynamics of their “faith,” as, say, a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim parent.
R: Actually no. I was raised Catholic. My grandparents are profoundly religious, and my mother is too. However, despite some backlash from the family, I’ve decided to believe in different systems such as being an Agnostic.
J: What is some of this “backlash” that you’ve received?
R: (Laughs). It sounds a lot worse than what it really was. Basically, there was a lot of crying on the end of my parents and grandparents, and a lot of blame got thrown around as to whose “fault” it was. I ended up saving face by letting them all know it was my own conscious decision based off of what I had learned growing up as a Catholic. Sorry I’m so long- winded lol.
So, what is it with Catholicism specifically that you don’t agree with? And don’t worry. the longer and more detailed the answer, the better for me.
Ooh good question. Well, as a Catholic, one would attend church every Sunday and read scripture out of the Bible which contained both the new and the old Testament. Now, I never really learned *too* much about the Bible, but I really had a problem basing a whole belief system around a book of which we don’t know the author and was written too long ago to be relevant anymore. Oftentimes when I brought this up with, say, my priest or my mom, they would both say “Well, it was written by the Disciples of Christ; therefore, it is the reason why we believe Christ exists.” And if no one but me can see the circular logic in that statement, then I must be crazy. It literally drove me insane that I couldn’t get a straight answer that didn’t somehow have a derivative based on the latter statement.
J: What do you mean by “don’t know the author”? As in, we don’t know much about the author? Many books of the Bible carry the name of their authors. For example, the Gospels carry the names of their authors. Again, I’m not enforcing some anti-agnostic/ pro-Catholic propaganda on you, as I am Catholic. I just want to really grasp what you’re saying.
R: Yeah I get it lol. No let me explain what I mean, I guess I wasn’t clear. What I meant by not knowing the author is that there is no definitive way to know who exactly the author is. Think of, for example, the “author” of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer. Homer was actually a collective of people of whom we really don’t know that much about. Nothing is written about who created what parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In that same light, it could have been anyone who dreamt of this machination called Catholicism and had enough intellect to write it in a book. Novel writing was not unheard of around the time biblical settings take place, so I tend to think of it as that.
J: So, when you come across a fervent religious adherent, do you ever think Oh, here’s some sheep, some mindless creature. He/she doesn’t think for him/herself?
R: Sometimes, I do. I mean, when someone says, I have to marry someone of this faith because my faith mandates me so, I get a bit annoyed. Like, you’re a homo sapiens. You’re the product of thousands of years of evolution at work. You’re not going to use your brain in thinking sometimes? You’re going to let some old dudes from millennia ago make your mind up for you? Maybe the mandates that they enacted during their times was socially appropriate, but this is the twenty-first century. Those people couldn’t even imagine cars, airplanes, and trains. You’re going to let them dictate your life?
J: Ah, I never really thought of it like that. Religion can be situational. Severely punishing those who stole bread might have been appropriate during times of food scarcity when bread was the only food available. Are you completely cut off from religion? For example, would you not marry a religious person? Imagine that she’s not asking that you convert to her faith, but she, a Catholic, wants to marry you, an atheist. Would you go ahead or is religious affiliation a deal-breaker for you?
R: No, it’s not a deal-breaker in that I’d completely write someone off for being religious. It’s just that I would hope that I’d be free to express my beliefs. Well, my lack of belief.
J: So, you’re all about tolerance—for those who believe in God and those who don’t?
J: How would you sum up atheism? Or, how would you describe yourself as an atheist?
R: We’re all just people. Just because we don’t believe in a higher being or in life after death, does not mean that we’re evil. We just feel that, with all evidence considered, there is no God. That’s it. We still have the same basic human desires as Catholics and other religious folks.
Chris, 23, is a recent graduate of Washington’s Evergreen State College.
J: Thanks so much for letting me interview you. I really appreciate it. You have no idea how much of a favor you’re doing for me.
C: It’s really no problem at all.
J: So, you identify as an Atheist. How did that arise? Had you never really thought about
religion and the concept of an afterlife? Were your raised with a certain religion and then ultimately left? Were you “raised” an atheist? I know that the last one sounds silly. I’m pretty sure that atheist parents don’t sit around and lecture their kids about the lack of a religion the way that religious parents lecture their kids about their beliefs.
C: Haha, no not typically. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church while attending school at a private Lutheran church/school. Most of my friends growing up were Lutheran, and I generally got along with them better than the kids I knew at the church that I went to on Sundays that I “belonged” to….however at a certain point, possibly because I was moved up in Sunday school to the “youth” rooms, I started getting more and more concerned with the prospect of “going to hell” if I didn’t do what I was supposed to “according to god” (relayed to me through the church, of course).So, the years and the guilt added on. We started attending this other church when I was older (also southern Baptist), and I started reading the Left Behind series of books about the Rapture in the Christian apocalyptic book of Revelation. Which, if you don’t know about it, says that anyone who doesn’t believe in the Christian God in the right way will be “left behind” on earth to suffer fourteen-something years of terrible shit while the good ones, the Christians, are taken to heaven without having to die. This scared the living piss out of me, and I asked to be baptized soon after. And it’s not like I was just trying to avoid the rapture by doing this act…I tried really, really hard to understand what it was that I was supposed to believe, and to have faith in it.
J: So, what that the deal-breaker between you and Christianity?
Okay. So, let’s say that you refuse from heaven someone who knows of
Christianity but refuses to believe in it. What about people who are unconnected with the Judeo-Christian tradition, like, say in the middle of the Amazon? What of these people who had never read the Bible? They could be confined to hell for all eternity just because of circumstance…that was a crystallizing thing for me.
J: But not all Christians preach this, you know. Why not disregard these condemning passages and embrace the loving ones?
C: I feel like the “truly loving” passages of Christianity are not, actually, truly loving. They’re built on an us-them dichotomy, mentality. Like John 3:16. It says that God sacrificed his son, Jesus, so that those who believe in him will have everlasting life. Okay, so, the non-believers, are condemned to ever-lasting suffering? Maybe not ever-lasting suffering, but they’re definitely not given ever-lasting life. I didn’t want to be part of a religion that condemns. The sad part, really, is that a lot of the religions that I’ve come across believe the same thing: that they’re right and sound, while everyone else is wrong and screwed.
J: So, you don’t see religion as necessary?
C: No, I don’t. It’s comforting, though. Essentially, religion tells you that if you follow a certain set of rules, then you will live forever. I, for one, love living. I don’t know who doesn’t. Death absolutely terrifies me. Hearing that there is a way for me to live forever abates those fears. However, I have to be rational in knowing that there is no proof that there is an afterlife. I just want my time on Earth to be fun and positive. Living as a moral person does that. Religion in itself does not give you morals.
J: I agree. I don’t need “What would Jesus do?” to motivate me to help someone in need when I am fully capable of helping them. So, give me your parting words on atheism, or on you as an atheist?
C: Just because some of you all believe in a some higher power, some celestial being, does not make you guys better than those of us who don’t believe. We’re not brute beasts who runs off raping and pillaging. We follow a law—moral law. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Being a human, not subscribing to some religious belief, has instilled that in me.
So, what have I, a proud Catholic, learned from these two guys? Well, we’re all people. What we think, or believe in, should not define us. They say that actions speak louder than words, right? Well, a good deed by an atheist weighs more, values more, than an utterance of “I don’t believe in God.” An utterance of “I believe in God, the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” is less valuable than an act of kindness. We’re all people, engrained with the same human principles.