I am a Closet Atheist Catholic
These are some of the answers I got when I asked questions about God, or the church, or religion as a child. Simple answers for not so simple questions. I remember asking who made God and where heaven was and getting vague responses or being flat out ignored. Once I asked why God would let children suffer and starve after I saw one of those Feed the Children commercials. I was shocked by the small children with their extended stomachs and flies on their faces. But all I got in response was “because God works in mysterious ways.” HUH?
Growing up in a Catholic household, you didn’t question the church or their rules, much less the existence of God. To do so was akin to an eternity in Hell. But let me be clear, I didn’t grow up in a fire and brimstone home. We were “by the books” Catholic. We went to church on Sundays and holy days of obligation. We dressed in our best on Christmas and Easter. And we didn’t eat meat during Lent. And you just followed all the rules. Speaking of the “no meat during Lent” thing, this is one of the first times I remember arguing with my Mom about the rules. As a kid, I hated fish. So why was fish allowed and not meat? “Because it is.” I remember her getting mad when I said it was because they were all fishermen and not cattle ranchers. Then I was told it was about sacrifice. Really? Because it doesn’t seem to be much of a sacrifice when my parents happily enjoyed their tuna casserole or when McDonalds and Arby’s are making money off their fish sandwiches.
As I grew up, I found myself questioning not only the church more, but also the existence of God. But with every question there was a familiar twinge of Catholic guilt. When my brother got married to a non-Catholic woman outside of the church, my mother was beside herself. If you don’t get married in the church, the marriage isn’t recognized by God, so she said. I asked her how an all-powerful being wouldn’t be able to find them on a beach and recognize their marriage and was promptly told that’s not how it works.
I grew up in a small town within an even smaller church community. I went to a Catholic grade school where there were barely over a hundred students in the entire school and not one person of a different race. Everyone I knew was Catholic and white. I yearned for different. But instead I went to an all-girl Catholic high school and found more of the same. The same type of people, the same stories from the bible. The same answers to my questions. But I started to notice more too. I remember one Sunday during church there was an African American couple sitting in the pews across from us. And immediately after mass let out, these so-called Christian people stood right outside of the church and made racist comments and wondered “where they came from.” I was stunned.
Shortly after that, I asked my mom (on a Sunday morning while I was arguing against going to church) why we needed religion at all. “Why can’t we just be good people and help each other out and get along?” I asked. Why does standing in a building for an hour make me an okay person, but not my behavior? That’s when I was told I shouldn’t say things like that. Not going to church on Sundays is a mortal sin, after all.
And now, I’m 37 years old. I realized a long time ago that I’m an atheist, however, I’m in the closet. I still go to church on (most) Sundays because of my mother. The Sundays I do skip, I get the guilt piled on me and the speech of my wasted Catholic school education and all the money they spent on me, and my damned soul. I’m a grown woman! But it’s easier for me to keep quiet than to deal with my family. I dream of coming out of the atheist closet to my family. My mother would say she failed as a parent and say that she’s glad my dad’s not here to see this. My sister wouldn’t believe me or think it was just a phase. There would be snide comments and sideways glances. My brother would try to save my soul (the same one that broke the rules and got married outside of the church and later divorced his wife. Two big no-nos. But rules don’t seem to matter much when they’re not applied directly to your life. This is one of the things I find most discerning about religion. The hypocrisy. The cherry picked Bibles. The rules that are okay to be broken by some, but not by others.) I have argued those points to my family, but I’ve never fully admitted that I don’t believe in any of it.
Quite frankly, even after 12 years of Catholic school I still don’t understand the whole Jesus dying for our sins thing. What sins? How did that help if we still sin? Why were we given free will but then punished for using it? Again, questions that I will never get a good answer for. The thing is, atheists are still looked down on and viewed as evil. People’s opinions of me would change if I came out. I’d be villainous. I’d be asked Pascal’s Wager again and again. People would think I had no moral compass, no value of life.
But I have learned that the opposite is true. I value life and nature and living more so than ever. I still know right from wrong. I’m certainly not evil and I do more now to help others than I ever did through the church. I try not to judge people and I know that everyone has a story. I have met many different people of all religions and cultures and I embrace it. I am amazed by science the same way believers are amazed by their gods. But to the believer, none of this would matter because I don’t have God in my life (whatever that means). So to all the closeted atheists out there, it’s okay. You’re going to be okay. I wish I had a better way of helping you come out, but I don’t. I’m still working on that myself. But I do know what I believe and what I don’t, and I’m alright. It takes a long time to fight the doctrine and to change people’s minds. It takes a long time to find acceptance. But the times are changing and people’s views are shifting and perhaps, one day, there will no longer be a need for anyone to hide in a closet.