I do not believe in God, but I haven’t always. I was raised in an Irish Catholic family and for many years went to mass every Sunday, Wednesday, first Fridays and other mornings whenever Grandma took me to school because she went most days of the week, and although she isn’t able to go as much anymore, she now watches the service on public access. I have received a majority of the sacraments, have a confirmation name–Richard, after my uncle/Godfather who passed when I was seven, and will forever remember the “Our Father” even though I haven’t recited it in over a decade. I still say “Oh my God!” and hear the Sisters’ voices reminding me not to take the Lord’s name in vain, and I’ll never forget that particular smell of church, the lingering echo of smoke, wood and old paper, and the way the sun came through the tall stained glass windows creating a cascading rainbow of light across the pews.
It was around sixth grade when I began questioning the existence of God, unable to understand why my father left, my family was torn apart and most of the boys in my class and neighborhood abused me so ruthlessly for my weight. If God existed, why would so much suffering occur in my little middle school life and far more in the entire world? I hadn’t quite grasped the concept of free will then and wouldn’t learn of Anselm’s ontological argument or Augustine’s Via Negativa for years, but, at an early age, I did know that if God existed I would need actual physical proof and until I had it I would continue to question, as I would with the existence of ghosts and Bigfoot. When I confessed my doubt to a priest before my seventh grade Confirmation, he simply suggested I pray, which I did throughout my teen years, asking God for answers, for a sign that my diminishing faith was part of my path, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, yet God never answered. I thought there was something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just believe like everyone else?
By high school, when I went to an all-boys’ Catholic school, I was veering into agnosticism, interested in exploring other faiths and belief systems, slowly accepting my doubt as more than a whim. When I graduated, after discovering Camus, Nietzsche, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” my atheism was budding, fueled by anger, confusion and teenage disillusionment. Within my first few weeks of college, I switched my major from Film to Philosophy, partially because most of the students in my school’s prestigious film program were boring and vapid, and my detachment from the Catholic church and the faith I was raised in truly began. I read Kant, Descartes, Kierkegaard, the existentialists, the utilitarians, ethical relativists and in the end, all the theories and arguments for and against the existence of God only confirmed that I do not believe. A decade later, I finally feel comfortable admitting it publicly. After all, atheists are as trusted as rapists.
I hadn’t thought much about my lack of faith until last year when Jaime became pregnant. I knew we wouldn’t raise our child to believe in God, permitting him to choose his own belief system once he was old enough to understand the implications and make an informed decision with conviction. Jaime wasn’t brought up in the church, although she considers herself an agnostic, so when I said that I didn’t want to baptize Sonny (Please don’t tell Grandma!), I think her reply was “Hell no.” I assumed raising our child without God also meant no Easter, Christmas, and the assorted other Christian holidays that came with a day off from school, but Jaime felt differently, telling me “I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but I do believe in the Easter Bunny and egg hunts.”
For my wife, God isn’t a prerequisite to celebrate holidays because, in her eyes, Easter isn’t the holiest day of the year–it’s the chocolatiest. She didn’t sit through the marathon of masses–Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the long Easter Sunday service; avoid eating meat on Fridays; and sacrifice something for the forty days of Lent leading up to the Sunday where Christians across the world celebrate the resurrection of the Savior. For Jaime, Easter is painting eggs and hiding them in the backyard and waking up to a basket of Peeps and chocolate bunnies, experiences she wants to share with Sonny because she loved them so much, the surprise and wonder from the Easter Bunny’s treats only found in childhood. Jaime feels the same about Christmas, which I didn’t put up much of a fight over because I love the joy in her eyes when we put up the tree, bake the cookies and open presents, and understand why she would want our son to have it, too.
But, despite the lack of religiosity in the celebration of holidays in our home, I am not exactly comfortable with it. When I finally accepted my atheism, it seemed wrong to participate in these holidays because they don’t mean anything to me, and I know they mean so much to so many others. Jaime didn’t struggle with her own faith, as I did, so turning Easter into a day of candy and ham instead of the holiest day of the year isn’t an ethical question for her. It’s simply about fun, family and coming together over a good meal.
Besides the holidays, I also struggle with how we’re going to raise Sonny as a non-believer in a world full of believers. How will we explain what makes us different from the families of most of his friends and classmates without making him self-conscious of our decisions and way of life? How will he reconcile our paganistic celebrations of these holidays with the world’s more religious versions? How will I? And will we be able to maintain his childhood innocence in the face of it all?
I wish I had answers to these questions, but I only have more doubt and uncertainty, though I do know, for me, praying isn’t the answer.