It was Blasphemy that led me to Atheism by a somewhat circuitous yet in the end well marked path. This is the story of my first step on that path.

It was the lies they kept telling me.

You can do whatever you want, god will forgive you if you ask for it. That did not seem logical or fair.

If you watched a Jewish ceremony at the temple you would turn into a skeleton. The nuns actually told me that.

If you even go near a Jewish Temple you will be cursed. One of our favorite places to play (because we pretended the star in the window meant it was the Marshall’s office like in Gun Smoke) were the back steps of the Temple. But we didn’t know it was the Temple. Then I found out yet somehow did not feel cursed.

There were a LOT of other lies.

But this is the one that turned into an easily testable hypothesis: The nuns told us that if we swore we in school (Catholic school) we would sink directly through the floor into hell. The more we swore, the deeper and faster we would sink.

So later in the bathroom line at Saint James Elementary:

“Watch this, Brian, I’m going to see if I sink into the floor.”

“No, no, don’t do it!”

“Fuck.”

…. waiting, watching my feet ….

“Fuck. Shit. Fuck”

…. waiting, watching other kids now paying attention, listening in.

“Fuck,” I said.

“Fuck Fuck,” Brian said.

“Fuck shit fuck” some other kid said.

“Fuck fuck god damn shit fuck shit shit fuck..” All over the place, five or six kids, third graders, watching our feet, the line to the bathroom has disappeared, others have moved around us, we are standing alone in a cluster swearing at our feet, and the nun walks over.

“What. Are. You. Young. Boys. Doing?”

Nuns talked with a period after every single word when they were mad.

“Nothing, Sister Mary Cantelope,” I said, accidentally using her nick name.

“Fuck” I thought. Checked my feet again. Looked at the nun and realized almost everything she ever said when I had her as my teacher in first grade was suspect.

“Sister,” I said.

“Yes? What. Is. It?” she replied. Sternly.

“Expanded notation and set theory. Is it real?”

She looked at me like I had just emerged from the hell that we presume exists beneath the vinyl floor of Saint James Elementary. I did not wait for her answer. I walked around her and went to class, ignoring the steam pouring out of her ears and nostrils, since she was no longer my teacher.

My teacher, Mrs. Brennan, was in fact not a nun. She was what you call “secular” meaning that she was a regular person. She had pulled me out of class earlier in the year to “get tested.” Over the next few months I was tested numerous times. Eventually, after several tests with decreasing numbers of other kids in the room also getting tested, I was brought to a library-like room with Victorian furniture and dark walls and tall old fashioned windows in a brick building covered with ivy and put there alone with a man wearing a tweed suit and a bow tie. He tested me all by myself, no paper, just him asking questions and me giving the answers. He took notes. Although all these tests were not the kind where they gave yo the results later, I had the distinct feeling that I had yet to get a question wrong. It became obvious to me that they were trying to come up with a question that I could not answer, but the questions were all so ridiculously simple that I could answer every one usually without thinking. Really, all they had to do was ask me and I could have come up with questions I couldn’t answer. I had a list of them.

A few weeks after that last test in the red brick building with Dr. Bow Tie I got the news.

“You don’t necessarily have to go back to Saint James next year, Gregory,” I was told. “You have a very high IQ and your reading and math are advanced college level. You can go to AT class, where Kirk went.”

Kirk was my best friend, an outcast because he was smart and went to a different school than the other kids. So I was given the option, and it was to be my choice: Continue going to Saint James, like my older siblings did, then probably on to Christian Brothers Academy for high school and possibly the Jesuit College my father went to, and fit in with the other kids on the block, keep my old friends, and go to a school that was literally two blocks away, and be, essentially, normal. The word “normal” was in fact used in this conversation. Or, I could go to the school that was a mile walk away, and that Kirk used to go to. Kirk was tormented by all the other kids on the street, frequently run down and given pink belly or forcibly having his face mushed in mud or worse on his way to and from school, ostracized, despised, alone. I was given the choice of having a normal childhood with a Christian upbringing or being set aside socially as a freak and educated in a secular system that was overtly designed to challenge me.

I remember finding it funny that people thought it would be a difficult choice.

Comments

  1. #1 stripey_cat
    September 30, 2010

    I’ve never understood why adults use such easily falsifiable lies to try to get kids to behave. I’m sure every kid who ever heard the threat has tried holding a silly face long enough to make it “freeze like that” – why do they think it’ll be any different for religious lies? (By the way, that sort of really stupid pedagogy is a large part of why I was agnostic from about as soon as I started regular church-going aged 4; and also why I was always in trouble at school.)

  2. #2 Janice in Toronto
    September 30, 2010

    I remember doing the absolutely forbidden by ASKING QUESTIONS during catechism classes.

    As a result, I remember being thrown out of said class by Sister Mary Godzilla, and being quite happy to be left with free time to do as I pleased.

    They really though we were just a bunch of dumb kids…

  3. #3 Stephanie Thayer
    September 30, 2010

    First of all, I really enjoy reading your blog!

    I think that’s one of the WORST crimes committed by a religion, lying to children! I think some people get some sort of sadistic pleasure by torturing small children! I was told when I was a child that if I didn’t pray before I ate a meal, that God would make me sick. Even then, I realized that it was bullshit! ( Perhaps, it was my “inner-heathen”)

    However, this sort of warped thinking has made me be extremely careful when speaking to my own children. I do my best to honest with them, because I was lied to so much.

  4. #4 EnglishAtheist
    September 30, 2010

    It was questions that led to my atheism: Why if God wants us all to praise him, didn’t he do more elsewhere? Why aren’t religions evenly distributed? God of the gaps? Russel’s teapot argument (though mine wasn’t quite so sophisticated)

    Happy Blasphemy Day (I know I’ve said it elsewhere, but it’s even more appropriate here)

  5. #5 Albatross
    September 30, 2010

    I went to Catholic school through third grade, during which one nun threatened to “hang me from the ceiling by [my] thumbs!” Granted, I had stuffed the sinks of boy’s room across from her classroom with paper towels and opened the taps.

    I became an atheist during my required teenaged years of catechism (CCD?). I’d sit there bored out of my mind and thinking, and I decided that it wasn’t enough to know what I did NOT believe in (the crap to which I was being indoctrinated), I had to decide what I DID believe in.

    I came up with an hypothesis: that as a given religion came closer to what “god” actually wanted, its followers would show evidence of increasing success. So if two people of different faiths sat on a rooftop in a flood, and one said “Ba’al save me” and Ba’al wasn’t actually God, then that person would drown. But if the other person said “Yahweh save me” and Yahweh actually WAS God, it was more likely that person would NOT drown.

    I looked around and really all the religions had about the same success rate. No one faith was doing markedly better than another.

    Then I expanded my scope to include “science” (I was fourteen so let’s put aside the un-PC nature of including “science” in a list of gods and religions). As soon as I included science I saw a response similar to what I expected. As scientific method flourished, so did its followers. Lifespans increased. Diseases diminished. Populations of science-followers expanded, while every other population shrank. There were orders-of-magnitude better outcomes for followers of science than of any religion.

    So I was an atheist. Actually I think I allowed for agnosticism at first, until I learned about and applied Occam’s Razor (“What created the universe? God. Well, what created God?” “Dunno.” is markedly more complicated than “What created the universe?” “Dunno.”).

  6. #6 Tuco
    September 30, 2010

    So later in the bathroom line at Saint James Elementary…

    That’s not blasphemy, that’s science! Unless…science is blasphemy! Oh, no.

    That stuff about Jewish Temples is true, though.

  7. #7 Pierce R. Butler
    September 30, 2010

    And now you find out, years later, that using bad words causes delayed Fisher-Price recalls.

    Repent!

  8. #8 Salad Is Slaughter
    September 30, 2010

    I think my atheism starting in about 7th or 8th grade when I asked a nun when they were going to update Genesis because the whole Adam and Eve story didn’t match what we were taught in science class. I wanted consistency between classes. Her reaction kept me from asking, if the priest really could turn wine into Jesus’ blood, why did the Red Cross have blood drives? Why not just have the priest make as much Jesus-blood as needed for transfusions.

  9. #9 MultiTool
    September 30, 2010

    If you watched a Jewish ceremony at the temple you would turn into a skeleton.

    This one is actually true. Of course if you don’t go to a temple you will also turn into a skeleton.

    It takes about 20 to 80 years, depending on your current age.

  10. #10 traci
    September 30, 2010

    personally i think catholic schools are great abundant fields growing atheists – went 6 years

  11. #11 rditmars
    September 30, 2010

    Maybe it was time and place, but even after 16 years of Catholic education (BS Biology, Jesuit college) starting in the late 50s I never experienced the stereotypical Evil Nun.

    Not that it “worked out” for my parents’ plans. Today I consider myself an atheist regarding the Hairy Thunderer and agnostic towards the Cosmic Muffin.

    Quite happy about other aspects of my education, however.

  12. #12 JJ
    September 30, 2010

    My own personal atheism can almost be tied to Catholic school. That is, my father was so damaged by his experience going 1-12 in Catholic school (along with my Mothers moral issues with essentially all organized religion) made religion a non issue in my home. Never really came up. Theo nly times I’ve been in a church with my family have been a)Visiting Europe and b)Funeral.

    I never became an atheist, I always was. (Although I have this weird reservation as being called anything, but that’s a-whole-nother topic)

  13. #13 Austin
    September 30, 2010

    My parents are Catholic, and of course I was raised in the faith, but I can sit here and honestly say that I never remember believing it, nor really being encouraged to do so.

    I mean, I never believed in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy; I’d play along with my parents because they were fun ideas and my older sister actually did believe. My impression looking back is that church was the same way – it was an inside joke, in a sense, or perhaps more accurately a willing suspension of disbelief like watching a movie. I knew it wasn’t real, but there was some value or entertainment in going along with it.

    I finally stopped playing along when I could no longer see the value.

  14. #14 Rose Colored Glasses
    September 30, 2010

    From when I graduated from my crib to a bed, until I was ten, I was terrified of the monsters under my bed. I did not imagine them: my parents insisted they were there, and that they would eat me if I got out of bed before morning.

    How else would you get a kid into bed at 6:30 every evening without a peep?

    Cruelty can be amazingly convenient. And, yes, you can fall asleep while terrified.

  15. #15 Monado
    September 30, 2010

    Rose Colored Glasses, that’s so sad!

    I used to jump into my bed from several feet away so that the monsters wouldn’t get me. I never mentioned them to my parents.

  16. #16 Monado
    September 30, 2010

    I can’t leave comments on your “About” page. Which twin cities? Port Arthur and Fort William? The whole “Quad Cities,” “YTri Cities,” and “Twin Cities” nomenclature is confusing.

  17. #17 Tony P
    September 30, 2010

    My journey to atheism started around the third grade at Msgr. Bove elementary school. I would always ask the teachers really uncomfortable questions about faith and how one should be asked to accept something if only because someone said so.

    Yeah, authority issues. Then of course by the time I was 15 confirmation rolled around I flat out told the priest that I didn’t believe in any of it. That there wasn’t enough evidence to support any belief in a god. They confirmed my ass anyway.

    Priests don’t like me. I know their dogma as well or better than they do. So they can’t start throwing out biblical quotations without me throwing out a few of my more favorite quotations.

    I remember when my grandmother died. The priest shook the hand of everyone in the family EXCEPT me. Must have been the look on my face.

  18. #18 Harbo
    September 30, 2010

    Maybe this is what’s wrong with drug education?
    The information from “good” society is that, drugs and alcohol lead inevitably to the “hard stuff” and death in the gutter (needle in one hand, bottle in the other).
    So when an adolescent, in normal experiment/rebel mode, tries a psychoactive and doesn’t run screaming to the gutter……….
    They lied to me…..Again

  19. #19 Roland
    September 30, 2010

    I entered 2d grade, age 6, in 1957, the year of Sputnik. I did a report on it that mentioned the vacuum of space. The nun told me there is no such thing as a vacuum. In later years I learned that according to Catholic theology, she was right. But from that day on, it was just going thru the motions, until escape after High School.

  20. #20 Athena
    September 30, 2010

    Monado@16 Twin Cities refers to Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN. They’re right next to each other, separated by the Mississippi River.

  21. #21 Greg Laden
    September 30, 2010

    “The term Twin Cities in the United States refers specifically to the cities Minneapolis and Saint Paul, both of which are in the midwestern state of Minnesota.”

    from wikipedia

  22. #22 MadScientist
    October 1, 2010

    For a moment there I thought this was Playboy Letters and the testing was going to be done by a catholic priest … you know how they like to guide their flock with their rod and their staff.

  23. #23 Ender
    October 1, 2010

    “So I was an atheist. Actually I think I allowed for agnosticism at first, until I learned about and applied Occam’s Razor (“What created the universe? God. Well, what created God?” “Dunno.” is markedly more complicated than “What created the universe?” “Dunno.”).

    That’s really stupid. If you don’t know, how do you know how complicated it is? Don’t be an idiot.

  24. #24 bernarda
    October 1, 2010

    Although I was raised by very believing parents in the Lutheran church and had to go to Sunday school for most of my youth and get confirmed, I don’t remember ever believing any of the stuff. It was mostly enjoyable after the services or school that I enjoyed because I could play with my friends–we lived in the country where houses were far apart.

    So, I can’t say I ever had a defining moment. At sometime though, I knew I was an atheist.

  25. #25 csrster
    October 1, 2010

    I think I actually believed quite a bit of the stuff they taught us at Hebrew School. Then one day I was about 14 or 15, having a relaxed chat about religion’n’stuff with a scientifically minded friend, and suddenly whatever vestiges of childhood faith I still had just vanished. I’ve been happily god-free for 30 years now.

  26. #26 Ole
    October 1, 2010

    I didn’t know “Fuck” and “Shit” were blasphemous words. You belonged to a Christian sect that worshiped bodily fluids and functions? It sound more like paganism to me, to believe in the divine fuck and stuff :)

  27. #27 Stephanie Z
    October 1, 2010

    Ender, you might want to familiarize yourself with Occam’s Razor before you start calling other people stupid. The level of simplicity it suggests as optimum is specified by the evidence and changes as new evidence becomes available.

  28. #28 Jean-Denis
    October 1, 2010

    Greg, how old are you? Did this really happen within the last 100 years? I have a similar background to yours: I went to a catholic school for several years, ie primary school. Later, I attended religion class in public high school (Alsace Lorraine was- and still is – under Napoleon’s concordate rules, whereby state-funded high schools have religion classes).

    However I lived through none of those events, nor anything remotely similar. Priests and nuns were educated enough, and smart enough, not too lie in such a blatant way.

    Swearing was not accepted, but if we did, we only would face their mild punishment (probably writing down 100 times “I won’t ever swear again” or some such). Never, for anything, was I threatened with hell or the wrath of God. God in their words was only love. Not punishment or violence. Of course, they didn’t talk much of those parts of the bible where God was violent.

    In high school the teaching priest there even invited pupils of other religions to present their faith, and encouraged debate among us all.

    It’s only later, after a much thorougher study process that I became an atheist.

    If anything, the nuns who told you stupid things like that were shooting their own faith in the foot.

    By the way, I was born in 1963. All the events I mentioned here happened between 1969 and 1978.

  29. #29 Greg Laden
    October 1, 2010

    Jean-Denis, we are not too different in age. I am not making this up, or even exaggerating. Rather, I’m leaving a lot out. And, having met a lot of ex catholics, I can assure you that my experiences are not unique or unusual.

  30. #30 Curt Howland
    October 1, 2010

    No one believes in Zeus, or Jupiter, or Marduk.

    An Atheist simply believes in one less god than a theist, even though the theist doesn’t believe in 99+% of the gods either.

  31. #31 Doug Alder
    October 1, 2010

    Being raised a Southern Baptist was all hellfire and brimstone – nasty stuff. I started asking “awkward” questions in in the kids bible studies about the age of 8 when I realized that Santa and the Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy we’re about the same plausibility as this religion crap being true.

    So happy fucking god damned belated Blasphemy Day Greg

    …..hey where’s the floor ……..

  32. #32 Doris Gerhart
    October 1, 2010

    The only college in Great Falls, Montana when I was a senior was a Catholic one. The teachers were priests or nuns. One day I was the only student in a class because of a flu epidemic. The priest said we could talk about anything I wanted. I said that history has records of people like the Caesars and Pliny the Elder, who lived at the time of Jesus, but there is no historical evidence that there was a man names Jesus. He looked at me sharply and said, “Fact and faith are not compatible, You ACCEPT and do not Question”.
    I’ve been questioning ever since.

  33. #33 Mike Hanson-Haubrich
    October 1, 2010

    The bullshit of catholicism didn’t make me an atheist, it made me a religion hunter who believed in God but thought that there must be some religion that didn’t have to mask the fact that they really didn’t know anything by making shit up.

    I must be pretty thick in the head, because it took me about 30 years to realize that religion is bullshit because the concept of God is bullshit. GIGO, after all.

    But, a Catholic kid in a pre-school had told my then-kindergarten aged daughter that if you stick your middle finger up in the air at God then you would go to Hell. So, she and I tested it together.

    Now, the funny part of it all is that, as you said, the catholics teach that one can be forgiven of any sin through confession. Even swearing in the boys’ room.

  34. #34 jake
    October 1, 2010

    Typical moderate Christian upbringing for me. My doubts began when I was around 13; when I realized that all of the magic stories that I heard in church did not jive with how I understood reality at the time – in other words, I wasn’t seeing miracles or having prayers answered. I also figured that if there was someone up in the sky, that I would somehow feel something when I looked up… Then I realized there were other religions and that was that.

  35. #35 Tatiana
    November 7, 2010

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