What It's Like to Go from a Hard-Core Catholic Upbringing to Atheism

As a pretty avid atheist, it’s hard for me to accept at times that I wouldn’t exist without the Catholic Church.

My dad was born and raised Catholic, but by the time he was an adult, he had stopped practicing. He met my mom, an atheist, and they had three kids. They had the perfect suburban family, were satisfied with their three lovely spawn, and my dad had his tubes tied (does that work for men? Whatever). Four years later, my mom went to a hardware store and met a Catholic priest who converted her in a matter of a few days, which in turn reignited my dad’s faith. As all good Irish Catholics do, my parents felt that they needed to have more kids. My dad got a reverse vasectomy (yeah, those exist, but have much lower success rates) and before his follow-up appointment to see if his swimmers were racing, my mom was already pregnant…with me.

Growing up, we went to mass every Sunday. I was baptized, received Holy Communion, went to confession, and was confirmed. I was raised to believe homosexuality, sex before marriage, and abortion are sins. I remember as a kid taking issue with all of those teachings and more, but I bit my tongue and strived to be the most devout little Catholic lady ever. When I turned 15, my dad went missing without explanation and my mom continued to go to mass. She’d sob her way through it every single time, and it wasn’t long before I refused to go with her anymore. I realized that the Catholic Church was, for me, a negative environment. I rarely go to mass now, except to accompany family.

So, a year ago, when my mom told me the story of the “miracle” of my conception, I had to sit down and think. If the Catholic Church had had such a big hand in my existence, what else had this organization that stands for so much I disagree with given me?

First, it had given my family a community to be part of. The Church had hosted so many events I went to as a kid and babysat me on Sundays while my parents went grocery shopping. It had been the one consistent thing in our lifestyle when I was growing up moving every 2 years around the world. Going to mass had been the one ritual that had remained constant whether we lived in Cote d’Ivoire, Botswana, Curacao, Virginia, wherever. As an international organization, I’ve seen the negative reaches of the Catholic Church, but it’d given me some sense of identity, too. Furthermore, I’d met some truly incredible Catholics — people who I respect the shit out of for the love and devotion I’ve seen them display.

Second, although the Bible is full of a lot of bullshit, it’s still a book that every person should read. It gives one incredible insight into history and is just plain interesting, honestly. Also, in between all the “stone your wife” and “kill your son” stuff, there are some pretty powerful and invaluable teachings in the Bible. Who doesn’t need to practice humility, love, respect, and patience more in their life? There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t benefit from some self-evaluation and reflection, and the Bible is provocative in that sense (and the Church in general promotes this).

When I was 15 and lost my virginity (fairly early), I thought I was going to Hell and cried for days. Little did I know that everyone in my family is very sexual and my parents did not wait until marriage to have sex. When I learned to masturbate, I felt incredible guilt and self-disgust, thinking it was a sin. When I made gay friends, I was embarrassed to bring them home to my parents. When I helped a friend with an abortion, I cried for days agonizing over not being able to talk to anyone about something that my friend had every right and good intentions in doing (and was a good choice, ultimately).

However, regardless of all this negativity the Church brought into my life (and there is much, much more), I have respect for my roots. I understand the things the Church has done for me, despite me not being a member in it. I refuse to demonize religion now as so many other atheists do, because I cannot deny that the Catholic Church has made me the person I am proud to be today.

My boyfriend is an avid atheist also, but a much more aggressive one. He believes religion is totally negative, that organized religion is inherently bad. So, we were talking the other day about our hypothetical kids and got into a huge fight. I want to raise my kids one day to have respect for religion and be interested in it, but understand that their parents are atheists who disagree with many religious teaching and will always be able to discuss these things with their kids. My boyfriend dislikes the idea of these hypothetical babies having any respect for religion. How can I deny my kids an understanding of something that shaped me in so many ways, negative and positive, something that is engrained in the culture of my super Irish Catholic family?

I’m an atheist, one that believes in mysteries beyond my understanding and forces much more powerful than myself. But I’m never going to stop doing the sign of the cross for good luck, whispering “gracias a Dios” when something goes my way, receiving Communion when I do make it to mass for some reason (I apologize if you’re a Catholic and understand how wrong it is for me to take communion; it really is just a habit and I don’t mean to be disrespectful at all). I’m not going to stop having a Catholic past ever, but, as my boyfriend asked me, does that stop me from being a real atheist (whatever that means)? And in the long run, how important is religion to me?

I don’t really have answers for either of these questions, but I can say, I’m not an aggressive atheist. I’m 100% not a Catholic, but I can’t help that the Church was a powerfully influential force in my childhood. I have no idea how to marry the two conflicting parts of me, or if there’s really a need to.

After all, wouldn’t organized atheism be a bit of a contradiction?


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