Unlike many of my atheist peers, I wasn’t raised in a conservative religious household, only to embrace atheism later in life. Nor was I raised by liberal, free-thinking atheist parents. Instead, I was raised in a household that was a mix of faith and not, and while my curiosity and questioning may not have been particularly encouraged, it wasn’t discouraged either.
Childhood and Introduction to Church Services
Growing up, I was primarily raised by my maternal grandparents. My mom lived with us as well, but she had little to do with me (that’s a story for another time). My grandfather was probably the most devout, having been raised a Catholic in Poland. For various reasons, he no longer attended Catholic mass by the time I came along. However, every Sunday he would attend services at the small non-denominational Christian church that was a half-block from where we lived in Chicago.
My mother was a self-professed Lutheran. Her parents had allowed her and my uncle to explore various congregations and faiths when they were teens. She claimed Lutheran clicked with her the most. Yet, she never attended services that I ever saw. Perhaps she had when she was younger, but she had fallen out of practice.
Finally, my grandmother was agnostic more than anything else. She had been raised Lutheran in Germany, but she also rarely attended services. Her primary connection to our local church was mostly to help during rummage sales and the annual Christmas Bazaar.
I clearly recall one afternoon, when I was around the age of six, my grandmother and I had gone to Lincoln Park for a walk. We came across our neighbors and members of the local church having a picnic. At this point in my life, I had never attended services, although I had been to the Church for various other events. The pastor asked me that day if I would like to come on Sunday with my grandfather. I had always assumed children were not welcome, so I enthusiastically said yes. It was a chance to spend some quality time with my grandfather, so I jumped at the chance.
That next Sunday came, and I was dressed in my nicest clothes, and held my grandfather’s hand the entire way to church. The congregation was small, only a handful or so in attendance. I sat in the pew next to my grandfather and listened to the hymns and the following sermon. About half-way through the sermon, I began to giggle. By the end, I couldn’t help laughing out loud.
The pastor asked me point-blank why I found his sermon so amusing. As I recall, I said something along the lines of, “I can’t believe adults believe that these fairy tales are actually real.” Well, that did it. I was promptly enrolled in Sunday school for the next week.
At this point I had attended Kindergarten for a few months, and I recalled really loving that experience. So, the idea of going back to school was an exciting prospect for me. However, once in Sunday school I was again flummoxed at what the teacher was telling us. These adults really did seem to believe these stories were real. So, naturally, I began to ask questions. A lot of questions.
Apparently, I asked far too many questions, because only a few weeks later, I was asked not to return to Sunday school again. My asking questions had caused the other children to ask questions as well, and the poor Sunday school teacher was becoming very distressed.
Instead, the pastor devised a clever idea and got me involved in church in another way. I was made the official candle-lighter and snuffer. Before services, they would play music and I would march up the aisle and light the candles on the alter. After services, I would repeat the process, snuffing the candles out. I was even given special robes to wear, which made me feel very fancy and important.
The caveat to all that? I was asked to sit in the very back of the church. Far enough back that if I were to giggle, I wouldn’t disturb the other worshippers. Thankfully, I didn’t mind much. If my mind would wander, I’d just grab a Bible and read a story or two for myself until my music cue came.
I continued to do this until I was about the age of twelve. My grandfather had passed when I was eleven, but I continued attending in his honor. However, when I turned twelve, the pastor insisted I get confirmed, and I refused. I didn’t see the need to decide at that age if I was going to become a believer or not (six years of attending services hadn’t really convinced me yet). So, I was asked not to return until I decided. I haven’t attended a church service since.
My Teens and Discovering Atheism
In my teens, my own natural curiosity led me to read more non-fiction books. I gravitated toward books primarily on science and ancient history. It was during this period that I came across the term atheism for the first time. Before then, I assumed there was something wrong with me. Everyone else I knew was some flavor of religious. I felt isolated and alone, although I never felt compelled to join a religion merely in order to belong.
Finding out that I wasn’t alone in my disbelief in a deity came as a tremendous relief, and when I finally had a label I could apply to myself, I very loudly and proudly proclaimed it to the world. My mother and grandmother seemed to take it in stride, and neither was particularly surprised by my proclamation. My aunt and uncle, who lived in the suburbs and were a little more devout, were slightly dismayed by this fact, but they respected my choice.
Adulthood and Continuing My Love of Science
The science classes I took as an undergraduate only whet my appetite for more. Once I finished my studies, I read as many books on science that I could get my hands on. Thankfully, in the 1990s there were many science books written with the lay person in mind.
I dove headfirst into the writings of Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, among many others. The more I read and learned, the stronger my atheism became. At this point in my life, with as much as I know and understand, the possibility of a sentient entity having anything to do with the formation of our universe is completely ludicrous to me.
I have encountered many devout believers, from various faiths, that have tried to convert me and save my soul. Every single one has failed because the thing that makes them believe in their faith so strongly, always turns out to be something I can very easily refute. Each one has a different argument as to why they believe, and they seem convinced if they share this insight with me, it will open my eyes and make me believe too. However, I have yet to hear a single, convincing argument that would compel me to rethink everything I understand about the universe and begin to believe in a god.
Bottom line, I have never once believed such an entity could exist, and with all I now know, there is no way I can conceive of ever believing in such a thing. I will respect other people’s right to their beliefs, if those beliefs don’t harm others. However, I ask for the same respect for my right to not believe. If you cannot do that, I hope you’re well versed in your Bible, because I can promise you that you’ll have a good debate to deal with instead.