I know when I stopped believing in God.
I was in ninth grade at a Catholic high school. I went there to get away from public school, thinking I would get a better education. My parents thought it would be good for me.
I lasted exactly one semester. To use a biblical phrase, it was hell.
It wasn’t the classes that were so unbearable. It was the teachers and students. There was a certain sanctimonious hypocrisy at play, where people thought they had the God-given right to be jerks as long as they were praying once a day. It made me start questioning my belief in my inherited Catholic faith and the existence of God.
Once I left that Catholic high school, I became ambivalent about religion. I stopped going to church. I stopped praying. I was done.
In college, I began questioning my beliefs and the beliefs of my family. The notion of organized religion became less and less appealing to me. It felt like many people were interested in proving their religion was “the best,” and the others were somehow less worthy of study and consideration. I was bothered by hypocrisy, and all the rules. Religion seemed to be a way to stop living life and conform.
If one of the commonalities of religion is the notion of loving and caring for others, why do so many religions reject people on the basis of gender, sexuality, identity, or actions? It is still hard for me to come to terms with that today.
Ironically, I took a class on world religions and that’s where I learned about atheism. The professor was an atheist and sociologist who studied world religions. She introduced me to a whole world of beliefs I never knew existed. It was fascinating to lear about the matriarchal belief systems of West Africa, or to delve deeply into ancient Greek and Roman mythology. We studied the major religions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhims, the Jewish faith, and Christianity. The discussions in that class were the best, as we analyzed and debated aspects of all these religious practices.
My final grade in that class was an A. An A for atheism. By the end, I knew that was my truth. I thought the question of religion was settled for me for the rest of my life.
Instead, it has been a struggle.
The Struggle is Religion
I am always reluctant to share that I’m an atheist. Many people automatically assume I hate religion or them because they’re religious. I don’t. It’s not that simple. What I do believe is that everyone needs something to get them through this life, and if faith is the thing that works, then seek it out. I don’t hold anyone’s religion against them. I may not understand the appeal, I may disagree with the teachings, but I am not here to judge. And I would like the same courtesy in return.
There are too many times when people of faith think I’m faking it. They laugh and say, “Oh, you really are a believer, you’re just claiming to be an atheist because you think it makes you sound cool.” They ask me to go to church with them. Even when I politely tell them I’m not trying to be cool and I don’t want to go to church, they just shake their head at me as if I’m nuts. It is such an odd form of disrespect, and I am always respectful of their views. I even enjoy talking about it with them. I just don’t need any convincing or saving to appreciate their faith.
Honestly, I wish I did believe sometimes. Who doesn’t love the sound of heaven or nirvana? It would be nice to know that every time I have a crappy day, that eventually I will get to a wonderful place that isn’t a bar with all you can eat carbs. I see people drawing strength from their beliefs all the time. When tragedy strikes, they seek comfort in their guru, lord, savior, prophet. When bad things happen to me, I always feel like I should be praying, then I remind myself there’s no point. Even if the universe is listening, it seems pretty rotten of me to ask for a favor only when I’m in trouble. That would be disingenuous.
What is a place of worship anyway? I feel like the forest is my cathedral, the place where I feel closest to any version of a Creator that may or may not exist. In the battle for authenticity, nature always wins. That is why I’m drawn to the sensibilities of many Native American who talk about an energy that exists around us. That energy is something that makes sense to me.
My Own Non-Religious Experiences
My spirituality has everything to do with mindfulness and nature. I go for walks in the woods and leave stacks of rocks for others to discover. I meditate. I journal. I give as much as I can to others, whether it is my time or treasure. I don’t believe you need religion to just be a good person. If my morality is based on the idea of winning the lottery of eternal life, then I’ll pass. We should do good deeds because it is simply right.
As an atheist, I’m not afraid to say I love religions. I love the traditions, the rituals, the mythology, and the stories. It is a form of folklore to me.
I wear a mala or “yoga rosary” to remind me of the earth’s 108 revolutions around the sun. I identify with Kali, the Hindi goddess who is known as the Mother of the Universe and Protector of All. She reminds me of Medusa from Greek mythology. Celebrating with friends during various holidays, from Holi to Rosh Hashanah to Ramadan to the Lunar New Year, I enjoy them all. My family still gathers every Christmas, Easter, and my parents always give up something for Lent. I feel like I don’t belong to any one religion, but in some ways I belong to them all because I am genuinely interested, and happy to see believers honoring their beliefs.
To borrow a phrase form Ziggy Marley, love is my religion.