It was a blunder on my part to oversimplify my understanding of M’s history, since I recognized that she was never a believer as an adult, or even as a child, except for the Santas and monsters under the bed that all children deal with.
M’s experience appears more along the line of the European one, a pro-forma exposure in school and Sunday school.
Yes, that’s it exactly. Plus, while my parents weren’t necessarily atheists, they also didn’t talk about religion or do anything more than expose me to it. And, as noted, whenever I’d come home to report something particularly egregious, they’d deny it.
It’s an experience I could never have had, raised by two atheist parents, trying to figure out at what young age it became clear to me that one or both of my parents were sponsoring specific nonsense about specific religious doctrine.
Since my parents were so vague, they weren’t sponsoring much in the way of doctrine. Again, it was not really different from their treatment of Santa or fairies. There was story-telling at Christmastime, and church attendance, with no discussion afterwards and no further observance at home except saying Grace at meals—and that was more of a touch of formality and, well, grace (like using glass goblets for our water and real silver and cloth napkins at dinnertime) than anything else.
There were no bedtime prayers, no encouragement to ask the saints for their special favors. Somebody gave me a rosary for my First Communion, but neither of my parents ever used one. We had no crucifixes or religious paintings. They never read the Bible or religious literature.
In fact, the most dramatic religious event of my childhood was when my father told some Jehovah’s Witnesses to get the hell off his property (this was in the deep country and we had a nervous dog—it upset him to have strangers arrive without notice).
As frankr gleefully trumpets, my parents stopped attending Mass one week after I told them I wasn’t going either. I never asked either of them if they believed in God that I remember, although I must have discussed religion with my dad at some point because I remember him intoning “Man needs God.” He was no authoritarian, so it wasn’t for control of the lower orders, but because he thought most people needed to believe in something. It was fairly clear that “Man” didn’t include him.
My mother liked her sentimental woo; she was a Loren Eiseley fan. But that’s not as bad as it could have been.
The rest of my extended family - my parents’ siblings and cousins and their children were religious Jews. We tried to keep our distance from them. My recollection of them, since I haven’t seen any of them for decades, is one of relentless tribalism.
So you had a negative exposure, backed up by your parents’ atheism. I wonder how that compares in terms of outcome to my son’s upbringing, which was indifferent atheism all around. No one in either family, and none of our friends, even thought about God. I’ve thought much more about religion in the last decade (especially post 9/11) than the rest of my life.
As I’ve also said, I do think that my experience with religion was, as it seems to be for Europeans, a vaccination against it. I used to worry that my son’s adolescent rebellion might take the form of becoming a fundamentalist—have I ever told the story here of how shocked my mother was when I told her I’d rather Andrew turned out to be gay than a Christian? If he were gay, he’d still be himself. If he turned Christian, I wouldn’t know him any more.
He passed that age safely, but now, as I do remember saying recently, there’s always the possibility of A Girl. But since belief in anything supernatural is an immediate deal-breaker for him—like smoking, or being a Republican or a racist/sexist—I don’t think I have to worry too much.
If anything good can come out of my blunder, it is to contemplate the reasons that some kids figure out on their own that religion is bullshit. Any takers?
Me! Me! Religion was dull and boring. (That’s the good part about exposing children to lukewarm compulsory religious practice. Although I must admit that most of my schoolmates are still religious, or at least “spiritual” to some extent. I believe that simple intelligence makes a certain amount of difference here.)
Plus, it didn’t make sense. Different people believed different things. We had Mormon neighbors who were, my parents assured me despite what I was told in school, just as good as any Catholic and just as entitled to practice their faith, although my parents clearly thought it was somewhat silly. But if that was silly, what made equally silly aspects of Catholicism any different?
We also had neighbors where the mom was a Methodist and the dad was a Jew. They didn’t practice any religion, although they weren’t vocal nonbelievers as a third set of neighbors was. My mother had converted from some Protestant religion to marry my dad herself, and I don’t think it really took. Plus, her mother was anti-Christian, with good reason. (The “help” offered to her when her husband died, leaving her with three little children, was an atrocity.)
So the point of all that was that I could see there were lots of different beliefs around, held by people who were all entirely decent and sincere and nice (and again, my own parents assured me that despite what the Catechism said, they weren’t going to be punished in any way for not being Catholics).
Then there was the thing about limbo—unbaptized babies not going to heaven. That just seemed so unfair. The church doesn’t teach that any more, but I wonder how many people found it the last straw, when it was taught?
But what were heaven and hell anyway? Heaven was supposedly being in God’s presence for eternity. Hmmmm. Not appealing. Hell was being allowed to see God once, then spending eternity without him and regretting it.
But how did that work? How could you control a soul that way? It’s easy enough to imagine yourself somewhere else right now, even with a physical body reminding you all the time of your actual whereabouts. Why wouldn’t someone sent to hell just imagine herself back in heaven?
Those were some of my first inklings that things weren’t right. Then I remember learning in freshman Comparative Religion class, in high school, about the Gilgamesh Epic, from which the OT is heavily cribbed. That was amazing—to learn that there were other people around, at the same time the Bible people were, who actually had many of those ideas first.
Oddly, I had a passion for Ancient Egypt in the 6th grade and learned about Akhnaten, “the first monotheist”, but at the time I didn’t associate him with the Bible. Talk about immature brains: everything was in its own separate bubble at that time. “Evolution and ancient man.” “Ancient Egypt.” “The Bible.” “The Middle Ages.” “Ancient Greece.” I simply couldn’t comprehend that some of these things were contemporaneous. It wasn’t until high school that I realized everything was taking place in one world, on a timeline, and that some events overlapped. I was so excited to figure this out that I actually made my own timeline, from floor to ceiling in my bedroom, with colored pencils and illustrations relating everything to everything else.
Then, of course, history and logic and science came along and pounded the final nails in the coffin.
I think the critical aspects were
—Compulsory exposure to a lukewarm, boring kind of religion which was compartmentalized, not related to anything else in life;
—Being smart, so it was possible to observe the contradictions and criticisms and so forth;
—Being exposed to other people’s beliefs in a positive way;
—Having parents who, if they weren’t atheists, were the next best thing: indifferent;
—Having parents for whom the most important thing was intelligence and making use of it;
—Being a contrarian—where that comes from I don’t know—and a skeptic, which I can trace to things like being taken in by people like Velikovsky and going back to his primary sources (e.g. the Book of the Dead) and seeing how he’d misused them.
I believe that I can absolve “the theory of evolution” from having any effect. We had the Time-Life books about human existence, including prehistory, and I didn’t even connect any of that to religion. It was losing me on its own.