Sent in by Margaret J
It was a cloudy, dreary fall day in November of 1971. I was an American spending my junior year of college in Avignon, France. The French guy I was dating, so to speak, decided to take me to a nearby tourist site – Mont Ventoux. He was from an unusual sort of family anyway and it was determined that his younger sister would accompany us – her function being a sort of chaperon.
Well, my date Michel drove while his sister sat next to him in the front seat of his faded gray “Deux Chevaux.” I was relegated to the back seat. All along the forty-five minute or so drive to Mont Ventoux, Michel and his sister sparred verbally with each other as a brother and sister might. Soon disinterested in their discourse, I turned to my own thoughts. As the drive wore on, those thoughts gained depth and turned to the issue of religion.
I had been raised a Catholic in a nominally Catholic family. By that I mean, that lip service was paid to the rules of the church and avoiding sin and such but I never got the notion there was any feeling behind any of it. I didn’t sense any religious feeling at home, and I certainly didn’t sense any such thing through all my years of Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school or even the first years of college.
During my high school years, freshman religion classes focused on de-mythologizing all the years of Catechism we had so meticulously memorized in grammar school. We were taught that there was no such literal place as heaven or hell (they were states of being,) that Jesus was only figuratively the son of God (anthropomorphic language) and that the bible taught only stories, not the literal truth (it taught history, not science) I took all this to mean that all the years of study in elementary school were for naught. Nonetheless, I was excited to learn about the possibility of a new, more mature form of religion. I could hardly wait for the next year when they would surely teach us the real truth!
Well, to my extreme disappointment and confusion, in following years, the religion classes contained only courses on family life, comparative religion and the like. No Catholic truths were ever disclosed to us. By the time junior year rolled around and we were supposed to be choosing a college, all I could think was that despite eleven years of Catholic school to date, I was being seriously left in the lurch. I had been stripped of all I was taught to superficially believe and nothing was left in its place. For this reason, I felt my main task in college would be to study religion at a higher level so that I could finish my education with a solid base on which to live the rest of my life.
Enter the Catholic University of America. The high school guidance counselor demanded that my parents appear in his office to discuss my choice of college. He told them in no uncertain terms that it was a “radical institution” and maybe dangerous. This was the late sixties and I suppose my parents assumed he meant politically radical. He didn’t elaborate further and my parents had confidence I was not at risk for politically radical behavior so I set off for Catholic U. with their full approval.
Well, my early years at college included a couple of religious experiences that seemed to deepen my faith – the original type taught in grammar school.* (see below for details of some religious experiences) But all the while, the theology and philosophy courses that formed the equivalent of a college minor encouraged us to question everything we had ever been taught. Theme papers were assigned on religious topics and we were informed that if we quoted catechism answers we would fail the course. The professor wanted original, personal thought. Many of the theologians we were assigned to study were essentially non-believers. Their logic was carefully digested and elaborated upon. It was also during these years that I acknowledged to myself some examples of extreme hypocrisy among many of the traditionally religious people I had known - women I remembered from my hometown, who would so piously walk down the aisle from Communion each Sunday that you could just about see a halo above their head, who would then turn around come Monday morning and tear a fellow member of the Margate Mothers’ Club to pieces behind her back. Meanwhile, the people I genuinely admired most seemed to be those who felt no need for church. Much of this information I was carefully sealing away in some corner of my brain but I still held on pretty tightly to the original religion I had been brought up in.
Fast forward to that fall day in Avignon. I was a French major you see. It was part of the mission for that year to become as French as possible; to leave behind as much American-ness as possible and truly assimilate another culture. I was only just beginning to get into this by November. But, well that trip to Mont Ventoux, with the interminable car ride and me being left out of the conversation (argument) found me at a point where I had already left behind a lot of the normal cues to behavior and belief I was brought up with. The theology courses at Catholic U left me with a lot of questions I had dared not articulate even to myself while existing in the confines of my birth culture. But spared of all the habitual cues to thought patterns I was accustomed to and being in a culture that largely upheaved my own anyway, I spent that time in the car to Mont Ventoux ruminating over all the religious concepts to which I had been exposed to date. I allowed my logic to take me wherever it might.
Suffice it to say that I had gotten into that car as a traditional believer and I walked out essentially an atheist! In under an hour I had decided that logic and reason trumped fourteen years of religious training. There was and could be no such creature as the God of the catechism classes. No angry punishing God who would condemn you to eternal damnation if you were accidentally hit by a car on your way to confession with a mortal sin on your soul. No being in the sky who would grant your most meager prayer if only you had been good enough. I decided that no such God was necessary. No such God was possible. Yes, there was evil in the world, but there was too much good for an angry punishing God to have created it all. And if there were a supreme being, he or she could not possibly harbor such petty, human emotions as the God I had been taught about. That God could only have been conjured up by man, a figment of human imagination.
Most of all, I decided that to live a good life, it was up to me. It was not dependent upon whether I could commit sins and then get to confession in time to have them forgiven. How about if I just lived by a standard where I didn’t do wrong things?? If I avoided doing the things I considered wrong simply because it felt better to do the right thing, I didn’t need to concern myself with eternal punishment or reward. If I didn’t believe there was any life after death, how could I care about reward vs punishment? I decided the only thing that counted was the here and now; that life right here on this earth was an incredibly gift. It was gift enough that if only I took every opportunity to make this of this life the best I possibly could, then if by chance, there was an afterlife, no sort of god up there could fault me for the use I had made of that gift. I would determine my life’s course and as long as I followed my own conscience, I would always know I had done my best.
So I had taken a huge leap before stepping out of that car as an atheist! But you see, that moment did indeed represent my very first step toward personal growth. It was my first step in taking an adult level of personal responsibility for my life. I was not waiting for God to show me the way. I knew it was up to me. Now I know a lot of traditionally religious people are going to point fingers at me for showing false pride, and such. Well, I just want to point out that that I knew immediately this was a very serious step. It meant there was no God to fall back on in times of strife. If it was all up to me, then that would apply to the adverse circumstances as well as the good ones. I could tell at the time I had made a decision that required great strength and determination. It was uncommonly liberating to be freed of the fear of inadvertently transgressing on one of the “little” laws of the church, missing Mass, not going to confession. It was very empowering to know that this decision meant there would be circumstances wherein I could not rely on the rules of the church to determine my choices in life. I would have to figure out each situation as I went along. It felt good! It felt scary – but I was ready. I plowed full speed ahead.
In retrospect, thirty-five years later, I realize that my decision that day was just the first of many growth steps I have taken since. The belief stance I took allowed me to seek further growth opportunities and further truth all along instead of being close-minded and self-satisfied that I had the only real truth all my life. It led me to a point where I could appreciate others points of view and others’ beliefs. It has been a blessing beyond compare and I have never for a moment regretted leaving behind the God I learned so much about in Catechism those early years of Catholic school.
For other stories and surrounding commentary, see my blo: BeliefStagesandGrowth.com