I was raised in a very religious family. My father grew up in a Catholic neighborhood, attending Catholic school with his ten brothers and sisters. His Irish immigrant parents thanked their god at every meal for letting them escape their family farms in the Homeland to make a better life in America. My mom grew up solidly middle-class, whose parents met at their Lutheran League youth club and saw church more as a battleground for neighborhood politics than a place of worship. Of course, to be married, my parents had to sign an agreement that their future family would be raised Catholic. We were.
By nine years old I knew that there was no way the frightening stories I heard on Sundays were real. My beloved "Science for Kids" books left no question unanswered, while my inquisitive spirit merited stern looks and glossed-over explanations in Sunday school. When I asked my religious ed. teacher in the fourth grade, "On which day did the Big Bang happen?" I was sent to the priest's office and got a stern talking-to. I've been a freethinker ever since.
I knew my parents would be horrified if they found out their primary school-aged daughter was a "godless heathen," so I kept to myself, and found solace in literature. Darwin, Watson and Crick, Einstein, Volitaire, Hemingway -- these men were my priests, my ministers, my rabbis and imams and Fathers and Sons and Holy Spirits. Amen.
Last year, I thought that it would be okay to mention to my parents that no, thank you, I would not be joining them for services. After all, we live in a secular nation with millions of freethinking individuals, with intellectual atheists like me writing books and speaking on the radio and making it in life. In America, surely I would not be rejected for my opinions. In America, my community would accept me for who I am, and encourage questioning and independent thought. In America, I could practice any religion I wanted -- or none at all.
But all I got was shocked silence and slack jaws, then laughter. Cold, biting laughter that I swear I can still hear echoing around me in the quiet night. And, much later, my father begging my mother to tell him what he had done wrong, why he failed as a father, how he could make it up to his god to save his daughter's soul.
I got parents who didn't want their children associating with "that atheist girl," and relatives who looked down their noses at me whenever I passed by during family parties. I got a stereotype that I didn't want or deserve, lumped together with misunderstood Wiccans, Satanists, and spiritualists. I got the same unmentionable status as the girl down the block, pregnant at fourteen, or the boy who was suspended from school for dealing meth out of his locker. I got a church who now includes me in their benediction to those who need to be saved.
But I'm not the one that needs saving. I'm not a trouble maker, an attention-seeker, a rebel or radical or freak.
I am an atheist, and I am proud.