Wednesday, January 31, 2007

My Short Spiritual Journey, Part 2

PART 2 – Early Life and Religion

My parents were not particularly religious. Or at least they were not openly so. Both are still alive and I don’t know that I really know what they believe. My mother has expressed a belief in a god to me but that was more in the context of surprise when I told her I was an atheist. And that was just a few years ago. I’ve been an “out-of-the-closet” atheist since at least college. My father’s family is overtly religious and I had some interesting experiences with my grandmother. I think my father believes in something but I don’t know what. The point here is that in my childhood religion just wasn’t a topic. I don’t think it was intentionally avoided. It was just a nonentity. We didn’t say grace before meals. I have a vague memory of eating at a friend's house when I was quite young and being reprimanded when I started eating right away instead of waiting for grace. I had no idea you were “supposed” to do that. My family didn’t go to church. It was never mentioned.

I can at least say why we never went to church. My father told me the story a long time ago. It was after my parents were married but before I was born. The pastor (padre, deacon, father, minister, whatever) at his church approached him one day. The pastor told my father that he knew that my father worked at the paper mill, was at such-and-such grade level, which meant my father was making so much money. The pastor told my father that he was expected to donate so much money every week and that it was my father’s turn to take the collection plate around at the next service. According to my father, he has never returned to church. I don’t recall exactly when he told me this story. I know that at that point I didn’t believe but I don’t know if I was completely “out-of-the-closet.” I can say that this is one of the key incidents in my life where I decided that organized religion was a bad thing.

My paternal grandmother was the fire and brimstone member of the family. I remember my parents leaving me and my brother to stay with her and my step-grandfather on their farm for a few nights when I was in grade school. My brother and I were sharing a bed. She came in every night to make sure we said our prayers. Of course, she was shocked to learn we didn’t say nightly prayers. Although they never said anything about it, I’m sure my parents heard about that one. Not only did she teach us the “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep” prayer she also preached her fire and brimstone. I can remember her leaving and my brother and I were both terrified. I think we might have even cried.

At that point in my life I guess I believed in God. I believed in him/her/it because I was told by my elders that he/she/it existed. I also believed in Santa Clause, The Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Heck, those three were more real because they brought me presents, quarters*, and candy. God never brought me anything. He was just out there… somewhere… waiting to punish me for transgressions that I didn’t even know I was committing. He was a big, bad man. Or was he? Besides my grandmother’s fire and brimstone sermons she also told us that God loved us. I couldn’t put a good cognitive argument to it then but I remember that the dichotomy between those two ideas confused me.

Still, my belief in a God persisted on some level. I didn’t start praying or saying grace. I didn’t think about it hardly at all as far as I can remember. When my maternal grandfather died I remember saying some prayers. Hoping that he was actually still alive. Promising God I would be good if he granted some wish or another. I even said some “prayers” to the spirit of my grandfather and thought he might be watching over me. I was still fairly young, no older than 12, and it was the first time I had experienced death. I wasn’t fully prepared to handle it and fell back on what I had learned about religion and spirituality through osmosis.

In high school, through a close friend, I briefly became involved with a Christian youth group. If not an “out of the closet” atheist at that point, I was most certainly a doubting Thomas. I became involved more for the fun. They met once or twice a week and had any number of sporting events: capture the flag games, softball, basketball games, and the like. One time, we even had a disc gun war in the halls of Wheaton College building. When my parents divorced at the beginning of my senior year I was obviously hit very hard. I talked with some of the leaders of the group. They gave me some religious memes but it didn’t make me feel better. With in a year I stopped associating with the group. To this day I think they were more cult than anything else.

* What with inflation and all I bet the Tooth Fairy is giving kids whole dollars today. Are their teeth worth any more than mine??? I guess it is easier on her back though. Can you imagine lugging around enough quarters for all the baby teeth that fall out in a single day?!?!? The Tooth Fairy’s chiropractor is out some business though.


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