Blog Against Theocracy #2: Childhood

Blog for Separation of Church and State
Credit: I Speak of Dreams

I'm an atheist. I was raised Catholic, but it didn't take.

A Secular Education

I went to public schools. I was usually the "smartest" kid in the class. (I now know there are many kinds of intelligence, not all of which enjoy conventional rewards.) I was a teacher's pet, a favorite of my peers (not).

To keep me interested, I was given more challenging assignments, advanced reading. Dr. Seuss replaced Dick and Jane, then science fiction and non-fiction replaced Dr. Seuss. When I finished my assignments early, I got to read or study topics of my choosing. I taught myself origami from books. I studied oceanography and marine biology. I read a book about Alfred Wegener and his theory of continental drift, and the then-new (in the mid-1960s) discovery of the mid-oceanic ridges and plate tectonics. I studied botany - flower structures and pollinators - on my own. I developed multimedia presentations on these topics and presented them to my class, and to whole class assemblies in the cafeteria.

I was a nerd. I was inquisitive. I was hungry for knowledge. I was encouraged to question.

So when I began to go to Sunday school, catechism class, I approached it the same way. It was just something else to learn, another course of study, another body of knowledge to master. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to question.

I was 10 years old, an atheist in formation.

What I Learned in Sunday School

There were three specific questions I remember asking, for which the answers were inadequate and unsatisfactory. In fact, this was when I learned they were wrong, no matter the authority to which they laid claim. My atheism was forged in Sunday school.

Our catechism textbooks had the same style as the Dick and Jane readers, a watercolor romanticization and idealization of some notion of childhood (a very, very white childhood). One of the paintings in the book showed a boy playing with a toy boat in the water. He was using a stick to push the boat, leaning out to reach, clearly in danger of falling in. Standing behind him was a guardian angel. You could tell it was an angel because you could see through it and it had wings. The angel was half reaching out toward him, but not reaching him.

Question: Will the guardian angel save the boy?
Answer: No.
Q: Will the angel warn the boy?
A: No.
Q: Then what good is it?! (Not my exact words, but to that effect.)
A: The guardian angel is there to take the boy's soul to heaven.

Now this made no sense, on so many levels. Wasn't the boy going to go to heaven anyway? Wouldn't the boy's soul go to heaven without the guardian angel? Was it going to get lost after he died? Was there some kind of spectral devil-wolf that was going to come out of the dark woods of the afterlife and consume the soul unless the angel was there to guard it?

That was Strike #1.

Then there was the whole baptism thing. For the uninitiated, Catholic doctrine of the time (I've heard rumors of revisionism, but frankly, there's no point in me keeping up on current events in the Catholic Church) stated that, because of Original Sin, you had to be baptised to go to heaven. Which led to the following exchange:

Q: Do unbaptised babies go to heaven?
A: No.
Q: Why not? It's not their fault.
A: Original Sin.
Q: Why are they being punished for something they didn't do?
A: They're not being punished.
Q: But they don't get to be with God. (Okay, not really a question.)
Q: So where do they go?
A: They go to limbo.
Q: But that's not heaven.
A: It's not hell, either.

As a child I understood that denying reward was punishment. Neglect is abuse, no matter who your daddy is. The innocent were being punished for something they did not do. This destroyed any moral authority the church had in my mind. This was Strike #2.

Finally, the coup de grace, Strike #3:

Q: When I die and go to heaven, will my dog Smokey be there?
A: No.
Q: Why not?
A: Animals don't have souls.

Whoa. I knew my dog Smokey loved me. He was the clearest, purest source of unconditional love in my life. He expected nothing of me. He didn't care what grades I got in school. He wanted nothing more than to run in the yard with me, chase me, pull off my sneakers, and wrestle with me on the ground. He was my protector, powerful, strong, and devoted. If I had a soul, then so did he.

And I didn't want any part of their heaven. An eternity without animals was hell, not heaven. Just like the Twilight Zone episode.

So that was it. I knew they were wrong: logical and morally wrong. They were lying to me. I didn't understand why, but I knew they were. They were not to believed. Everything they had claimed to be true was open to question.

So I did.


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