I was born an atheist into a family of Catholics.
We are all born as atheists. We have no knowledge or inkling of abstract concepts such as gods. By the time I was old enough to think these thoughts, I had been taught to believe and I didn’t know any different. I was also taught to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. Of course those beliefs were different because they weren’t real the way gods are real. Of course.
I was a pious kid. Well, except for that one time. I was at church with my mom and I was too young for Communion but not old enough to be left alone in the pew. So she took me up with her. While we got near the front of the line I supposedly decided I had the munchies and piped up, “I want chips!”
Mortified, my mom tried to shush me and told me, “It’s not chips, it’s Jesus.”
I rolled my eyes and said, “well Cheezies then!”
So I was a pious kid, apart from that.
I went to Catholic schools up until grade 12. Where I live the Catholic school board is funded by the government and is as big as the Public school board. These were still the kinds of places where I wrote in my grade 1 journal, “I am special because Jesus loves me.” It is difficult to judge the school — or my parents — based on religious extremism because none of it seemed extreme at the time, it was just normal.
I remember one incident at school when I was probably in Junior Kindergarten. For some reason the teacher was doing some sort of exercise going around the room to find out who everyone’s best friends were.
Manny would say Dennis was his best friend.
Dennis would say Manny was his best friend.
Leslie would say Manny was his best friend.
Manny would interject and say that Leslie was also his best friend.
And so on. I recognized the tit-for-tat social game the others were playing and didn’t particularly care for it. I was determined to stay true to myself and be honest when my turn came. And so I patiently waited until I was finally called upon.
“My best friend is Jesus!”
The teacher tried to object and explain to me that I may have missed the point of the exercise. I was adamant I had understood the exercise perfectly and was quite happy with my answer. I all but dared her to tell me I was wrong, that I didn’t love Jesus. Yeah.
Another time, I remember someone asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember saying I wanted to be an altar boy, a lector, a priest and then an usher. Somehow in my innocent little mind, that was the progression of religious service from pre-pubescent altar boys to the septuagenarians in suits taking up the collection plate.
By the end of Grade 3, I had at last become an altar boy and I was proud. Being an altar boy was fun and interesting and was ultimately a form of service. I always enjoyed the experience and continued to serve until the end of Grade 12. The priests I served for were all fantastic people and I still have the utmost respect for all of them. They had their personalities, of course, and different ways to relate to us. One of them organized floor hockey games while another lent me Vonnegut books. It is a shame it warrants mentioning but, like the vast majority of altar boys, nothing untoward ever happened.
The last few years of elementary school were interesting for a number of reasons.
I don’t recall the exact year, but some time around then I had a vision of Jesus in my bedroom. I was lying in bed, probably reading a Hardy Boys book, when a blueish-white orb floated across the room about three feet off the ground. It was about the size of a softball and pulsated until coming to a rest at the foot of my bed. In a flash the orb ‘exploded’ into a fully formed, full-size image of Jesus made of blueish-white light. It was quite incredible. Jesus raised his arm and reached for me with an open palm as though he were calling to me. I felt special, very special.
(It was a few years later that I realize that it could not have been Jesus I saw. The man I saw was clearly Caucasian. Jesus was not. It was a hallucination. My mind was playing tricks on me. I wanted to see Jesus and I did, but I saw the kind of Jesus I wanted to believe in, one that was white like me as in many Western depictions of him.)
A major turning point happened at Bark Lake Leadership Camp in the summer after Grade 7. We were doing this silent meditation exercise where we all had to find our own spot somewhere in the forest to sit in silence for 15 minutes or so. I was determined to find somewhere really cool and I saw this big boulder at the edge of the lake. It was difficult to get at but was well worth it. It was truly serene beyond anything I’d experienced.
At one point a mosquito landed on my arm. Mere inches from my face, I watched her tiny little proboscis pierce my skin and her body started pumping my blood. I was at such peace at that moment I didn’t even flinch. Instead I encouraged her to take her fill. It didn’t sting and, in fact, it didn’t even itch afterword.
That was the exact moment I figured out what it meant to be alive. What a humbling experience being munched on by a tiny little mosquito. It all hit me almost instantaneously… the circle of life and why we call it an ecosystem. We humans who were given dominion over the earth and everything on it by God himself were no different from any other living thing on the planet, we were food. Ultimately, I realized that we were animals and one small part of the community of life. We weren’t even at the top of a pyramid or a chain or whatever else you wanted to call it, we were not nearly that special.
Needless to say, this was the single greatest “religious” experience of my life.
I’m not sure how much this next anecdote contributed to my atheism but it certainly had an affect on my personality and intellectual growth. In elementary school my strongest subject had always been math. Math also happened to by my Grade 8 teacher’s favourite subject. He basically let us all work through the math text book at our own pace. I finished it within a month. By December, I had also finished the Grade 9, 10 and 11 math programs. To his credit, my teacher found more math for me to do including old Gauss and Pascal tests from the University of Waterloo. It was great being challenged and encouraged like that and I thank him for it.
Then high school happened.
I didn’t have math until the second semester of Grade 9. Grade 9 math was mandatory so I never had the option of signing up for a more appropriate course. On the first day of math class, I went up to the teacher and explained that I had already completed that very same text book in Grade 8. She didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t understand and asked me if I wanted to be assigned more work. I explained that I didn’t want more work, I wanted different work. New work. She said, “we’ll see.” We didn’t.
I didn’t have the wherewithal to fight her or go over her head. She was the teacher and the teacher was boss. Math became boring and the prospect of three years of review was not at all encouraging. One lazy teacher completely ruined me for math. One phone call to my grade 8 teacher was all it would have taken. Actually not even that because I ran into my grade 8 teacher years later and he asked about my math and I told him what happened. He was visibly upset and clearly disappointed. He said he sent off a bunch of letters to the high school that were presumably ignored. Harsh lesson on the authority of “authority figures.”
Thankfully, I wasn’t content in that Grade 9 math class to just sit and be bored. I was coming into my own intellectually and had an insatiable curiosity. Since the subject matter was boring, what piqued by curiosity was trying to figure out why math was so easy for me but so difficult for some of my friends in the class. Rather than do my own work, I spent most of my time helping other people in the class. As much as I helped them, I studied them and experimented with my own techniques. It probably wouldn’t surprise you that this professional educator labelled 14-year-old me a troublemaker and spent no effort whatsoever to find out what was really going on or, you know, educate me.
Despite the teacher’s complete lack of effort, I managed to learn a great deal in that class though none of it involved mathematics. Some of my theories and techniques from that class I later found analogues for in philosophy, psychology and neurolinguistic programming. I became hooked on the subjects that asked the “why” questions. I also lost a lot of respect for authority figures. From then on, authority had to be earned.
Though I went to a Catholic high school, religion class was a complete joke. This bothered me a fair bit, actually, since I thought it should have been more important and more seriously considered than it was. It was little more than babysitting. In Grade 11 religion, one day the assignment for the class was to come up with examples of how we worship God. It was painful. Some of the answers were, “go to church,” “pray before meals” and all the other vapid cliches. This might have been suitable for eight-year olds but not 16-year olds. I put up my hand.
“God would surely be most encouraged if we were to use our God-given abilities to their fullest potential to explore the nature of the mysteries of the universe. What better way to praise and give thanks to God than to use His gifts.”