Growing up Normal
I have been in Texas and going to ACA events for some time now. One thing that comes up continually is the question of how people came to atheism. The most common story we hear is from people who were brought up theist and, over a period of time, had questions about their beliefs. Pursuing these questions has led to a loss of non-critical belief. The other extreme are people who grew up in a specifically atheist family. My background is a bit in between, and I call it growing up normal. Of course, normal for me was specific to a time and place. That included being white middle class in the Northeast during the 50’s.
My parents both had Christian upbringing, my mother Catholic, and my father a Congregationalist minister’s son. Both had so much of it that they reacted by rejecting religious observation. As adults, the religious traditions of their childhoods had little presence in their lives. My father never mentioned religion but my mother had vivid memories of being lied to. She trained as a nurse in a Catholic hospital with a program run by nuns. She had been told that on their deathbeds, sinners would be crying out for a priest to confess to and to be forgiven. In real life, she never saw this.
They did continue as cultural Christians but without any religious overtones. We had Christmas, but that was all about gifts from Santa, trees, colored lights. We had trips to 5th avenue to see the lights. Easter was dying of eggs, bunnies, and baskets of candy. The pagans gave us these rituals long before the Christians took them over. The holidays were not substantially different from Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and the 4th of July.
Knowledge of the presence of religion and particularly Christianity was inevitable. I have memories of my younger brother and me being baptized by my grandfather when I was in the 1st or 2nd grade. I remember us wearing matching Hawaiian shirts and having my cuticles pushed back by my grandmother. Anything about the ceremony or its meaning is completely lost to me. I had no proper instruction in Christianity and as a result would sometimes find myself in awkward situations where I was uncertain of how to respond. I remember on the school bus being asked if I was Catholic or Protestant and responding that I was neither. The other kid then said that I must be Jewish. I had no idea what it meant to be Jewish, but there was definitely something vaguely negative about it so I definitely did not want to be that. I stated that I was not Jewish but refused to commit to either of the other choices. In our kid world there seemed to be no concept of atheism.
Being part of a culture without being affiliated with a religion does lead to feeling out of place. My best friend in 5th and 6th grade went to a Sunday school and I was invited to go along. They were, however, Unitarians. The Unitarian church is a way to have the form of a Christian church service without having a heavy investment in supernatural beliefs. The sermons were generally more like lectures and there were often non-religious guest speakers. It gave a sense of community and that is why it was supported by the membership.
In spite of the experiences with the Unitarians that were not that regular, there was some anxiety about religious behavior. I found the changing of the Pledge of Allegiance that took place when I was in grade school to be upsetting to the point that I stopped saying the pledge. At the time, it was not a political statement but a result of being made to feel like an outsider for no good reason.
There was some inconsistency about what felt abnormal and what did not. In the fifties when I was in grade school, the Supreme Court had not made their ruling removing organized prayer from the classrooms of public schools. I remember that the Lord’s Prayer was part of the beginning of the day. In later years, I went to private school I remember the Christmas story being part of the December activities before Christmas break. I don’t really remember what I believed at that time. These activities seemed normal and since I was not brought up Jewish or specifically as an atheist, but a cultural Christian, I never gave them much thought. It occurs to me now that this sort of thing would have been offensive to non-Christians.
In spite of all the theism in culture of the community without any active indoctrination the supernatural beliefs do not really stick. It was probably the non-practice of religion by my parents that was the greatest influence. I did not use the term atheist, which is not really my label but something created by theists to define people different from themselves in a derogatory way. I am just a normal person.