My best friend’s recent writings on her religious upbringing have gotten me pondering the same topic - one which, for the better part of my life, has had little or no relevance. I’m neither a “believer” nor an “atheist” nor an “agnostic”. Just as inapplicable are “blasphemer, freethinker, idolater, disbeliever, infidel, pagan, nihilist, positivist, rationalist . . .” simply because all of these would require me to make a bit of an effort to at least think about the subject. The only group I find that seems to share my obliviousness is ”heathens”.
My parents were Presbyterian - which I am at a loss to define, but I am pretty sure it is the religion with the highest turnover rate to atheism. By the time I came along (fifth kid) my parents saw deeper meaning in sleeping late on Sundays than dragging the whole pack kicking and screaming off to church, only to be publicly berated in the booming voice of Reverend Edgar Bletcher for finally deigning to make an appearance. (Isn’t that just the perfect name for a Presbyterian minister? You couldn’t invent a better one.) So I was spared the indoctrination. Somehow I ended up with Christian values, but without any of the beliefs. I’d still like to know how that happened.
Add to that my experiences growing up (which I have mentioned before) – the ones that left the biggest stamp on me. I spent far far far too much time as a kid and teenager thinking, obsessing, writing about death (and therefore life) — more than any kid should, which is something I know, now that I have two of my own. All the while I was just a bit too smart to buy the religious “be good and you will go to heaven” stuff. I eventually came up with my own answers to who-am-I-and-why-am-I-here and what I want to do with my permanent temporariness here on this planet. It freed me to just concentrate on the unhistoric acts of my hidden life and my faith in their incalculable diffusiveness.
(Apparently it also freed me to plagiarize from Middlemarch.)
So how do the citizens of my very Catholic adopted country deal with the likes of me? Mostly with silence and raised eyebrows. I avoided saying anything out loud on the subject for years until I was taken by surprise during my very first parent/teacher evening on the occasion of my older daughter starting Grade School. Her teacher was describing their schedule and mentioned the subject Religion.
”They are going to have Religion class??” I blurted out incredulously. Complete silence as every head in the room turned in my direction. I could see their surprise at my surprise. Their disbelief at my disbelief.
But as a firm believer in the separation of church and state, I had a real problem with that. I wanted to sign my daughter out, but my husband argued that would make her not only the sole brown-skinned African kid in her class, but also the only one not taking part in those lessons. I caved. The really absurd thing was that she then had two hours of religion a week – Catholic with her class and Protestant after school. So I went and talked to both her Religion teachers and asked what exactly they taught in this subject. They assured me that they never would tell the children what they should believe! Heaven Forbid! Each week I peeked at my daughter’s religion materials and they were filled with God said this and Jesus did that, all of it stated as factually as 1+1=3. It wasn’t more than a month before my daughter and I had our first discussion.
She comes home and announces:
“Mama, Adam and Eve were the first two people on Earth.”
“Well, honey, I know that some people believe that.”
“What? Don’t you?”
“No, I think it is just a story, sort of like Little Red Riding Hood or Snow White.”
“Well what do you believe?”
(Here follows the 15 second version of Darwin in the language of a 7 year old.) Then my daughter says:
“So . . . so . . . that means my grandparents were monkeys?!”
It turned into a longer discussion.
A week later, my daughter came home from school and announced that she’d had a Religion lesson and that they had talked about Adam and Eve again.
“And I told her that my mom says we all come from Africa.”
There have been quite a few of these talks in the past seven years. My sister says I am doing her a favor by letting her know that not everything her teachers say has to be believed. I hope that is true. It’s still incredibly annoying. A few years ago her Protestant teacher caught up to me outside the school and told me that my daughter is confused about the difference between her religion and Catholicism. She thought it would be a good idea if I brought her to church more often so that she “learns where she belongs.” (Personally, I think her real reason had more to do with many empty pews in that church each Sunday morning.) I assured her that my daughter knows where she belongs, even managing to stay polite and noncommittal, which is a good thing because - believe it or not – they get grades in Religion. My daughter always gets “A’s”.
Pre-kids, my only other run-in with the church happened years ago when some woman called me up to clarify my church tax situation. (“Church tax” – now there is a concept to raise the hairs on the back of an American’s neck!) According to them I should have been paying 100s of Euros a year (technically, at that time it was thousands of Schillings.) She kept trying to get me to declare my affiliation, I kept asking her where she got all this information about me (phone number, employer, income . . .) She then tried to tell me that I had to go fill out some form saying I was leaving the church. I answered that I couldn’t leave an organization I had never joined. She finally gave up. But I am certain that as a result of that conversation, I am now officially registered somewhere as a heathen.