When I First Believed and Didn’t

“What could be more foolish than to base one’s entire view of life on ideas that, however plausible at the time, now appear to be quite erroneous? And what would be more important than to find our true place in the universe by removing one by one these unfortunate vestiges of earlier beliefs?”—-Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, 1988

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”—Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892, Act III (Mr. Dumby to Cecil Graham)

I was baptized before I was two weeks old. I don’t recall much of that day. I don’t think I believed in God or any of the other religious things I later would. The religious reason for the Catholic Sacrament at that age was that if I had died, I would not go to heaven unless baptized. I would go to Limbo with all the other unbaptized, until the Church decided that Limbo did not really exist.

I went to a Catholic school taught by nuns. We didn’t go to Mass in Kindergarten, but starting with First Grade, 9:00 a.m. Mass (in Latin) was mandatory. We sat up front with our class, boys on one side, girls on the other until graduation at the end of 8th grade. I went to public high school for 9th through 12th grade.

In grade school, I was taught about God, Jesus, the Blessed Trinity, and all the religious stuff I could fit into my brain. I believed it. I had some arguments about it with my father because I stood by what the nuns and priests told us. He was old school and much stricter. He always had the option of asking the ordained and religious, but he never did.

To the extent that a boy between the ages of six and fourteen can believe what he has been told about god and all the other religious stuff, I believed. I can’t say that I had a specific Jesus is my lord and savior moment because we didn’t do that.

In my personal world, I believed two other things: everyone I knew was Catholic and everyone believed in god. Neither was correct. I can’t say exactly when I came to believe of my own volition, or even if I did.

In the summer of 1960, I turned 14. That September I began an excursion into the realities of the somewhat secular educational world. I did not escape having god and religion forced upon me. We still prayed in school and had bible readings (mandatory state law) until June of 1963. My senior year began the following September.

After that, neither prayer nor bible reading could be constitutionally mandated or school sponsored. I would not have labeled myself as a nonbeliever at that point. A serious doubter might work. During that final year of high school, I was probably a practical atheist in that while I considered myself to be Catholic, I did not practice the religion.

Thirty years later, during the 1990s my religious opinions and behaviors might be viewed as a metal ball bouncing around the playing field of a pinball machine. The flippers and bumpers would knock me into other ideas or possibilities. I’d bounce off one bumper and into another, then another.

In the mid-90s, my spiritual reading and experimenting increased. I was a nonbeliever trying to believe. I was a seeker or searcher in the spiritual sense. I became seriously interested in eastern religious thought, spirituality, and meditation, some of it New Age nonsense. During that time I read Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, and decided to give Catholicism one more try.

Merton described seeing a deeply religious woman in a church. He envied her faith. I had the same experience. I was going to do everything I could to get this god and religion thing right. I convinced myself that there was a god. I felt that I had overcome my doubts forever. For almost 12 years, I did.

It was a cannonball dive into the deep end of the Christian religion and the Catholic Church. I did everything I could: taught bible study and religious education to adults and children, belonged to as many ministries as I could make time for. Eventually, I was elected President of the Parish Council for two years in our large Parish of more than five thousand families. I even began the process of being ordained as a Deacon, something not taken lightly in the Church or by me, and second only to becoming a Priest. I withdrew late in the process.

I recall teaching an adult class on The Problem of Evil. It had gone well. At the end of the class one lady raised her hand and asked me how I reconciled everything that I had just said with what I believed as a practicing Catholic. I don’t recall my answer.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
—Leonard Cohen, lyrics from his song, Anthem

That was when my transition from Christian to Atheist began. Within two years I walked away from the Catholic Church for good. I disavowed my Catholic faith in writing. Soon thereafter I realized that I did not believe in the existence of any gods, demons, spirits, heaven or hell, or any of it.

I retired three years after leaving the Church and we moved again to yet another state. After about a year there, I was openly atheist. There are several key events and conclusions along my road to disbelief. Each conclusion was preceded by a long time of study, thought, and deciding. That continues.

Just as there was not a date and time when I believed, there was not a specific moment when I decided that I’m a convinced atheist. The metamorphosis was gradual. I simply and incrementally walked away from it all.

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