This essay/post/thing originally appeared on Phraryngula, in PZ Myers' ongoing series "Why I am an Atheist". There's loads of compelling, funny, or gutting stories in the series, and they're well worth checking out!
It' s a bit long, so I've chopped it in half for your reading pleasure!
This is a bit of a tricky one, since there’s no one particular moment. Instead it’s been a gradual unfolding, a gradual freeing from the need for a god-construct and spirituality itself. I was raised Catholic, and in my own kiddy way, was pretty observant. But I recall questioning certain edicts early on, especially those against non-procreative sexuality or sensual pleasure itself (stick a horny kid in a room filled with naked paintings and tell them that sex is wrong…yeah, sure). However, the real first crack in the base was linked with money and class-consciousness.
We were the only “poor” family in our middle class town. We couldn’t make tuition every month at the parochial schools I went to, so we relied on extra work at functions, scholarships, and sometimes the kindness of donors. We were also on assistance for many years, and while we still went to church each Sunday, Mom made a point out of bringing me to every office and explaining every procedure, and showing me firsthand the bureaucratic circus and the pain of stigma. This financial “slump” we could never seem to get out of was the crucible for not only my adult politics but my religious views. Let me explain: growing up without a lot of cash and shaky support networks (even with certain advantages*) exposes a kid early to the damage done to social and political institutions by faith. Take, for instance, the weird link between wealth and religion – that if you’re rich, God must like you, and all the rest can get bent.
This sort of bullshit influenced the policies (and social stigmas) that ruled our lives for much of my childhood (late 80s**, early 90s). It’s still around, present in the miserable treatment many people receive today if they have the “temerity” to not only not be wealthy, but to not “have faith” God (or the whims of the market) will shower them with riches. Even as a kid, I found a direct link between the mind-shutdown faith requires and the kind of thinking that leads people to approve of wealth-worshipping “I got mine, fuck you” behaviors. This was strike one.
I fiddled around with the ideas of religion itself, not necessarily belief. In adolescence I started hanging around with my Mom’s sci-fi buddies myself, which is probably the best thing a young teen can do. That scene was and remains fairly diverse, the people I encountered talked to me like I had a brain. There was, at least in this particular group, a widespread sense of “investigate, debate, relate”; investigate what you don’t know, debate stuff you think you do, but always try to relate with someone different. There were exceptions to this, but that’s my takeaway. This was far different from accepting canned responses and handing over a few bucks each week in tithes. Strike two.
At this time, I started drifting towards more neo-Paganism, preferring its more diverse, gender-equitable and sex-positive attitudes, as well as its ecological awareness and interest in history. We were always a pretty matriarchal family, and I was raised on myth and folklore, so this was a natural progression. I tried various flavors of Wicca for a while, but decided it wasn’t for me. I felt silly, even if I did like dressing like Stevie Nicks and keeping track of moon phases.*** I will say this, though – it felt more genuine to me at that stage in my life than Catholicism did, and I’m still fond of the original ideas that attracted me (much like my remaining fondness for the Corporal Works of Mercy). Strike three.
Even my Mom joined in on this venture. I remember one day we were sitting in our kitchen, mutually “coming out” to one another about being dissatisfied with the Church, with the short shrift women got, and with the hypocrisy of it all. For the rest of her life, Mom had a patchwork Catholic/Pagan thing going on, eschewing Mass attendance, hierarchy, and the gender/class stratification that always comes along with organized religions even as she kept her saints and rosaries. This seemed to help her get by, but I still didn’t feel quite happy with it, although it took me a while to come to terms with that.