Why I am an Atheist – 1 of 3

It started in Sunday school.

I was born into a Hispanic Catholic family in New Jersey.  Mom is Puerto Rican, and two generations before that her grandmother was a full-blooded Taino native.  Dad is Cuban, and his grandfather came to Cuba from Galicia in Spain, if I remember the story.  Dispersed among the other near ancestors are all of the essential bits of the Caribbean Hispanic’s famously heterogeneous facial structure: Celtic, Roman, Taino, Arab, African.  Dad was born in December as Fidel Castro’s Communists were gaining control of Cuba, and his story is of escaping a Communist country back when it was officially hostile to any religious expression.  My grandfather escaped some time later, after spending some time in prison for his role in the Bay of Pigs disaster.  Mom came to the mainland for a better life; Dad came to the United States for any life at all.

They brought with them the syncretized, idiosyncratic Roman Catholicism that the Spanish Caribbean grew around Arawak animism, Yoruba notions of destiny, and the imperious halls of Iberian cathedrals.  But they were not santeros, and they would glare at me for implying that their faith and the Nigerian chanting and animal sacrifices of the white-robed babalawos had anything in common.They look down on the Caribbean’s peculiar religion as something barbaric, crude, and cultish.  It is ironic, then, that the specific way that they live their faith owes much to karmic ideas equally at home in Yoruba drum circles and Buddhist temples.

In New Jersey they made sure Spanish was my first language.  It wasn’t hard—Spanish has a long history in the United States, and if it were not for the inbred racism of manifest destiny, the language of Christopher Columbus’s employers might have even greater currency there.  As it was, New Jersey was home to a large Puerto Rican diaspora filtering down from New York, so Spanish was not hard to overhear.  But even then, I could tell it wasn’t the language I would need.  When I was young I spoke English with a Puerto Rican Spanish accent, and my lack of proficiency embarrassed me.  I was a first-generation American, and I could tell that I was being excluded from something.  I considered it a personal triumph when I added the English version of the Lord’s Prayer to my repertoire, alongside the Spanish.

That sense that something wasn’t quite right, that things were different from what they seemed, would pervade my future dealings with the overlapping cultural spheres I would thereafter inhabit.

I gained enough English to thrive in an English-language school with friends whose last names were Salermo, Schultes, Crump, Sauvie (that one was ethnically Korean), and Tang.  It might have taken me longer if my parents weren’t honing their own English by talking to me and my siblings, and the result was that my Spanish proficiency took such a nosedive that it was no longer worth the trouble to check the “First language other than English” box on school forms.  I would be lying if I said whatever understanding of my culture I had before was badly damaged in the language shift, but the truth is, there wasn’t that much to damage.  This was still elementary school, and I was still awkward, confused me.

My parents took me to several Sunday schools, seemingly unable to find one that they liked.  I remember this period as a whirlwind of elderly faces and crowded halls, of never knowing where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be doing.  I gave my name once as “Alejandro Gonzalez” because a teacher called me that after I introduced myself by my then-name, and got a bunch of forms someone was filling out for me thoroughly borked; one day Mom couldn’t pick me up on time and told me to walk the few blocks home, and I walked for hours in the exact opposite direction before a car mechanic named Louie called out to me and got her (and the police) on the phone.  She didn’t let me walk home again.

My parents thought I was destined for politics before events like that cemented for them that their kid was…odd.

Maneuvering social situations was a minefield for me, and I lost myself in books about anything and everything when I wasn’t concocting elaborate imagination games with the handful of friends who seemed to “get” me.  The only part of Sunday school that I even somewhat liked was the many lists and exercises of rote memorization and categorization.  Writing and re-writing standard prayers, memorizing the various categories of sins, and listing the various sacraments provided a small sense of order amidst the maelstrom.  That was a pittance compared to the special happiness I found in the sciences—geology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and most of all, biology.  Out there, I was continually put in situations that made absolutely no sense to me, even after they were concluded or when I saw them again seven days later.  But in science, something that didn’t make sense was a challenge, and the answer might be in the very next book.  My parents, to their credit, encouraged me, perhaps reasoning that my academic drive would be my ticket to one of the two educated professions that are the only ones Hispanic parents respect: doctor and lawyer.

Nothing exemplified that sensation more than Sunday mass.  By then my Spanish proficiency had decayed to where any Spanish but my parents’ may as well actually have been a foreign language.  I understood not even the words I was hearing, let alone their import, and the repetition of sit, stand, kneel was not only opaque, but unnervingly bizarre.  Church was just another time when I was surrounded by people whose modus operandi I was not equipped to comprehend, performing another ritual whose purpose I could not divine, where the prospect of talking to anyone filled me with terror.  The sermons were simply loud background noise that reinforced my perception of Sunday as a day for not knowing what the hell was going on.

Religion was a mystery like the three kinds of rocks or the structure of salt crystals.  And I intended to solve it.

I paid rapt attention in Sunday school, now that my family had settled on one.  By then, the class was primarily preparation for our first sacraments.  I was made to memorize a list of sins that included disobeying one’s parents and getting into fights with one’s siblings, so that I could recognize which ones I’d committed and make my first Confession.  As someone who squabbled endlessly with their brother out of personality conflict and an overwrought sense of personal entitlement without any sense that doing so was wrong, and who increasingly found the idea of taking orders from anyone just because uncomfortable, that list rankled me.  Obedience, while of greater importance to my family than I yet knew, was not a moral issue for them.  That distinction would become vitally important.

Subsequent Sunday school lessons would offer me very little of what I wanted.  I remember one class that hinged on the teacher establishing two distinct classes of objects, those made by man and those made by God.  She spent a long segment of that class pointing at objects—books, trees, plastic bins—and asking us whether they’d been made by man, or made by God.  She seemed impressed with herself when most of the class wasn’t sure in which category to place her wooden chair.  The wheels were already turning in my mind, after reading and re-reading books on astronomy and biology that made emphatically clear that God did not personally place the oak tree outside the church window.  It grew there, in a process that was still going on.  Perhaps if I’d asked a question then, instead of mulling over this new contradiction and taking it home with me, I’d have been temporarily sated with some quintessentially Catholic sophistry about how acorns are just how God makes oak trees.  But I took that confusion to the only authority that had, up to that point, given me answers that even smelled consistent with one another: reading.

My Spanish too damaged to attempt the old Bible that sits in my bedroom in my parents’ house to this day, I devoured an English children’s Bible instead.  I had been given no notion that certain parts of the Bible were “metaphor” and others were not.  Such exercises in Catholic hand-waving were saved for higher-level classes, and while I’d long since moved to the “gifted and talented” program at my real school, my Sunday school schedule stuck with the quasi-literalist style that works when one is simply sharing stories with impressionable children.  So I read the stories of Adam and Eve and the Fall, and Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark, with the idea that they were a factual account of the world’s history, just as I was meant to take the notions of Original Sin and Jesus’s suffering on the cross as undeniable truth.

And then I re-read Seymour Simon’s books about the solar system.  And my books about dinosaurs.  And my books about weather and geology and chemistry.  And I noticed a problem that has vexed theologians for centuries.

I rattled my brain over the separate explanations that made no pretense of even acknowledging one another.  I invented out of nothing the Deist conception of God setting natural phenomena in motion.  I added multiple creation and destruction events so that God could create both the Precambrian world and the modern one, an idea that I later learned had been codified by the nineteenth-century French palaeontologist Georges Cuvier in opposition to Darwin’s theory.  I reviewed and re-reviewed these conclusions, inhaling more science texts as I did so.  I had not resolved the conflict between Catholicism and science—only rephrased it.

I spent a lot of time watching Discovery Channel specials, back when they were still valuable.  There are many still on VHS in various cabinets and closets in my parents’ house, and when I wasn’t reading, I was watching the Ultimate Guide to Sharks or their brilliant speculative piece Anatomy of an Alien.  One special that I had waited with bated breath to receive in the mail was Galapagos: Beyond Darwin, a documentary on a multi-pronged expedition to survey the palaeontology, zoology, and ichthyology of the Galapagos Islands.  It had originally played past my bedtime, so the cassette was essential.  I wanted to see it because of the Johnson Sea Link submersible and its amazing systems for capturing deep-sea marine life for examination on the surface, but I remember it for its treatment of evolutionary thinking itself.

Galapagos: Beyond Darwin introduced Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the consequence of a lifetime spent studying and cataloguing the diversity of the world’s plants and animals and finding that their attributes simply did not match what would make sense if they had been placed on Earth in their modern forms, with or without a separate, ancient origin.  On the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific, Charles Darwin witnessed a profusion of creatures whose ancestral species he had met on nearby landmasses, and got to thinking.

A lifetime devoted to seeing the world as it is led him to the question that filled Charles Darwin and his family with doubt and terror, a question Galapagos: Beyond Darwin then posed out loud to me:

What if the Bible was wrong?

The contradictions and conflicts and inconsistencies that had driven me to reading every bit of non-fiction I possibly could, they were all resolved in that singular moment.

The Bible was wrong.  Catholicism was wrong.  Christianity was wrong.  Religion was invented by people, and it was wrong.

That epiphany was such a relief, such a hurricane of fresh air into the dank and muddled crevices of my frustrated mind, that I’m not convinced I didn’t lose consciousness for a moment.

I, a humble fourth-grader, now had the solution to the conflict between science and faith that had dogged humankind since science was invented, and I wanted to share.

Soon thereafter I acquired my next lesson in non-belief: the world wasn’t ready for it.  The earth-shaking revelation I had experienced got me shouted at as a blasphemer by one of my better friends, got confused looks from my brother, and got me a long, still more confusing talk from my parents.  Even then, there was nothing I could tell them that they would understand, even if my own thoughts hadn’t been too new to be fully articulated.

It’s a testament to how much I take after my paternal grandfather that my response to that talk wasn’t “I need to believe,” but “I need to not tell them that I don’t believe.”  I was who I was, and keeping secrets to get by was in my nature.  Not one week into being an atheist before I knew the word, I had already picked up the first and most important lesson of being a nonbeliever in the United States: if you want to survive, keep secrets.  Especially that one.

I don’t remember if my First Communion was before or after that, but at some point the Sunday school stopped, and my parents didn’t bother trying to get me Confirmed, as they eventually did with my brother and sister.

In 1997 we watched the news coverage of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide and my parents warned us not to get mixed up in any weird cults.  Maybe they would have given that advice anyway, but I suspect the earlier conversations led them to imagine that I’d somehow be more vulnerable to that kind of thing, instead of less.  This was only the first incident where my parents showed their somewhat ironic discomfort at people taking specific action based on their interpretation of religion.  That knowledge, too, would soon be valuable.

Elementary school was not a good time to be a young atheist in a religious household in a diverse community, and I spent the rest of those years with a nagging pain in my mind.  I knew something they didn’t, and I wasn’t allowed to share.  My development and theirs were being stunted by social convention, and I’d be shouted at and alienated and probably sermonized about ecumenical interfaith bullshit by my teachers if I tried to do anything about it.  If I was awkward and introverted before, I became more so, just as adolescence was about to start.  I developed an abiding disdain for both religion and the entire concept of fiction writing, and spent a lot of time reading field guides.  The irrational, Dawkins-like distaste for fiction soon abated, to my credit.

I carried that suppurating loneliness with me when my family moved to Miami in 1999.  Much of my father’s family was in Miami, as one might expect of Cuban-Americans my grandparents’ age, and they needed our help.  My family had been settling its affairs in New Jersey for some time, and the year I finished at William F. O’Halloran School #22 seemed opportune.


Part 2 is here.  Part 3 is here.
Why I am an Atheist – 1 of 3

“Where Does your Hatred Come From?”

“Where does your hatred come from?”

Really, sir? Really?

I was not able to answer you when you issued this insulting challenge, or answer your wife when she insinuated that my life and the life of my beloved are devoid of meaning for not being subordinated to your preferred cosmic tyrant. You and yours have made a tidy mess of my, and more importantly her, mental state by squatting on the privileged status of “host” to our “guest,” lobbing your assorted insults and imprecations while shielded from all but the most perfunctory defense.

You know what we call someone who uses a position of power to make someone else miserable? You know what we call someone who thinks the way to make someone agree with them is to treat them badly until they recant? We call them “bullies” when we feel charitable and “assholes” when we don’t.

I know you’re not prepared to so much as understand what being an atheist means. You stopped comprehending the atheist position at “doesn’t go to church anymore and lives in sin.” You continue to imagine it as an infantile rebellion against the One True Faith, a self-deception that allows a debauched youthful generation to enjoy various ungodly pleasures without guilt until it falls apart. You’ve made excruciatingly clear that you are not interested in even asking either of us, in even asking your daughter, what this weighty decision meant to her or me, what it continues to mean to us, because you like your assorted prejudices better. You’re quite content to think of us as the joyless, amoral, antisocial monsters your religious leaders have convinced you we are, and think of any reevaluation of our nature based on actually examining us and how we live as a lack of faith.

It’s funny how often this kind of faith leads people to treat each other badly. No, wait, it’s not funny. It’s incredibly, unbelievably sad.

Here’s something that’ll blow your mind:

I’m an atheist because NONE of the truth claims made by any religion, and especially yours, hold together under scrutiny. Not “God exists,” not “Jesus died for our sins,” not “there’s something wrong with having sex with someone before a priest has performed some hocus-pocus over the two of you,” not “there is a component of a human that ‘survives’ after the death of their body,” not even “Jesus existed.”

I’m an atheist because other people’s attempts to convince me that their religion is true, especially the religion with which I was raised, are always a dense pudding of logical fallacies, appeals to emotion (usually fear), appeals to ignorance or irrelevant authority, and outright lies.

I’m an atheist because “I feel it in my heart,” “my priest told me,” and “this is what my culture has taught since shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire” are unbelievably bad reasons to believe anything.

I’m an atheist because “examining the world in a way that takes into account the results of previous such examinations and is systematically designed to weed out human biases” is the ONLY way to gain real, usable knowledge.

I’m an atheist because faith is about ending inquiry and science is about starting it.

I am NOT an atheist because of “hatred.” I am NOT an atheist because some awful thing in my life made me “angry at God.” I am not an atheist out of disappointment or rage or spite. I am an atheist because atheism is a true description of reality and religion is not. The moment you understand that, you’ll join us.

So if you sense a special antipathy in me, in us, for the church in which you were raised, for the Church with a capital C that had the chutzpah to name itself with an obscure synonym for “universal” back when it was a tiny minority of the civilized world, it’s there all right. But it’s not there because we’re atheists.

It’s there because the church you so favor has a record of crimes against humanity that makes make Pol Pot look like an amateur.

It’s there because the church you so favor aids and abets in the murder by AIDS of millions of Africans every year by spreading misinformation about condoms and preventing other people from getting the truth out. It’s there because the church you so favor thinks people dying of AIDS or syphilis or cervical cancer is wonderful as long as it follows non-Church-sanctioned sex.

It’s there because the church you so favor kidnapped thousands of Spanish, Australian, and Canadian babies from their mothers’ arms because their parents were unwed or gay or otherwise “unclean” and the Church saw fit to redistribute them to “deserving” families. It’s there because the church you so favor was not satisfied with stealing babies from their mothers’ arms and also imprisoned and enslaved “unclean” women in laundries in Ireland. It’s there because the church you so favor is so discriminatory, so hateful, that it thinks that enslaving women and pawning off their babies to the first two-parent house with enough displayed crucifixes is a reasonable response to learning that they had sex out of wedlock.

It’s there because the church you so favor has spent billions of dollars fighting reproductive freedom at every possible turn, from sabotaging sexual education programs to attempting to deny women access to contraception to encouraging the state-mandated rape-by-medical-device of women seeking to terminate unwanted pregnancies.It’s there because the church you so favor expects people to accept, apropos of nothing, that the most natural of all human activities is a moral outrage unless it has the approval of a clique of old celibates with extravagant hats.It’s there because the church you so favor is so intractably disgusted with the idea that sex is fun, and that there are a LOT of reasons people have sex besides wanting offspring, that it’s determined to attack any means of separating the two developed since the first century CE.

It’s there because the church you so favor has spent billions of dollars propagating the ridiculous lie that permitting same-sex couples to enjoy the word “marriage” and the associated government benefits will have any consequence for opposite-sex couples. It’s there because the church you so favor, the church that’s been so busy making life worse for Africans in other ways, isn’t even raising an eyebrow at its Protestant counterparts’ effort to make being gay a death-penalty offense in Uganda. It’s there because the church you so favor and its assorted descendants have gone out of their way to make sure that people with gender dysmorphia are treated like monstrous aberrations, if they are treated at all. It’s there because the church you so favor encourages gay teenagers to commit suicide by telling them their very undeniable, immutable nature is a moral affront.

It’s there because the church you so favor has managed to make one of its foremost monsters into a universal symbol of goodness because she spent her old age watching Kolkata’s destitute patients writhe and die instead of building them a hospital.

It’s there because the church you so favor has had child rapists in its midst for 1700 years, even making one of them Pope in 1550, and has spent that ENTIRE TIME stonewalling any secular authority who would dare attempt to prosecute those rapes as ordinary crimes. It’s there because the church you so favor has systematically silenced and punished anyone who brought allegations of child rape to secular authorities. It’s there because the church you so favor had a policy in place, signed by the man who is now Pope, for moving pedophile priests from parish to parish, and sequestering them in remote corners of the world, so that their ever-growing resumes of raped children wouldn’t get too heavy in one place or draw the public eye. It’s there because the church you so favor, now that it’s finally being called to task for systematically concealing the rapes of more children than the country of Luxembourg has people, for 1700 years, its response was not to apologize for traumatizing thousands of children currently alive and untold millions more throughout history, or to immediately remit into police custody everyone they knew was raping children, but to keep stonewalling until the last possible second and to blame absolutely everyone else for the actions of thousands of priests sheltered by official policy signed by the Pope, including the raped children themselves.

It’s there because the church you so favor claims its authority from an unbelievably badly written book riddled with genocidal, bigoted, patriarchal horror, whose only redeeming feature is a smattering of moral truths that were old thousands of years before Jesus’s supposed lifetime, and has spent nearly 2000 years paying people to weave elegantly contrived sophistries to either justify or handwave away those monstrosities, as the morals of a given period demanded. It’s there because the church you so favor claims the mantle of moral superiority every chance it gets but has to be dragged kicking and screaming through every social revolution, always at least a century behind. It’s there because the church you so favor has sided with villains as renowned as the Nazi Party of Germany when it proved convenient and discarded those connections whenever they no longer heightened the church’s public esteem. It’s there because the church you so favor has as its top priority, from beginning to end, its own aggrandizement, with the well-being of its laity not even on the list.

It’s there because the church you so favor, and the thousands of others just like it, have defined a god that would eternally torment people for being insufficiently pious as “loving.”

It’s there because people like you—intelligent, thoughtful people like you—see all of those crimes, and keep going. It’s there because people like you claim to be utterly appalled at your church’s crimes against humanity, but you keep putting money in the collection plate, even though you know exactly the evil that money funds. It’s there because people like you are convinced that allegiance to the Catholic Church is a good in itself, despite the FACT that this allegiance contributes to a list of crimes against humanity I have only begun to enumerate, despite the FACT that this allegiance makes the world a worse place for all of us in a thousand terrifying ways. It’s there because people like you see the Church’s charities (universally worse at their job than secular charities) and its role in defeating Communism and think that makes everything else okay. It’s there because people like you look at African AIDS victims and suicidal gay teenagers and enslaved single mothers and people trapped in poverty by an unplanned pregnancy and say with sanctimonious pride that they brought their fate on themselves and should look forward to their eternal torment. It’s there because the church you so favor BROUGHT THAT SUFFERING ON THEM, AND PROUDLY CONTINUES TO DO SO.

It’s there because people like you look at people like us, people like my beloved and me, who refuse under any circumstances to even appear to support that level of cartoonish, monstrous evil, like there’s something wrong with US.

No, sir. My atheism is not behind my problem with the Catholic Church. The Church has that pretty much in hand by being utterly, shamelessly evil and expecting us to thank them for not being even more evil than that. My atheism is merely why I see no need to invent a thousand intricate rationalizations for why the supposed font of all moral truth and mouthpiece of an all-loving supreme being devotes so much of its energy to torturing to death anyone it doesn’t like. My atheism is merely why I didn’t have to choose between being a devout, practicing believer and not supporting the world’s oldest and most successful criminal enterprise.

My atheism is merely why I see this evil so much more clearly than you do.

You remember that next time you look down on us because we don’t respect or share your delusions.
“Where Does your Hatred Come From?”