Religion was such a simple part of my identity as a child. I was Polish, which meant eating pierogies; Polish sausage; a nasty, bitter soup that the adults had on Christmas Eve called czarnina; and Christmas cookies called kolackies that had a little dollop of jam in the center. And, of course, also on Christmas, going to midnight Mass.
By the time I was ten or eleven, I’d figured out that church was theater. The priests had lines, and the audience had lines. I knew all the priests’ lines as well as my own, and in that I took a certain pride, since I wanted to be an actress when I grew up. Theater of all sorts required study. Then I started listening—really listening—to what the lines were saying.
I stopped saying one particular line when we recited the Profession of Faith: “We believe in one holy and apostolic church.” I found this sentence to be offensive. I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t support what it stood for.
My mother wasn’t allowed to date the Lutheran boy down the street because he was not Catholic. My parents had both been warned when they moved away from Chicago that in the wilds of Montana they might end up living among Protestants or Jews or who knows what. Imagine their amazement when it turned out that people from all those other denominations and faiths were actually very nice, and it was actually kind of a shame they were all going to hell because they weren’t Catholic. I refused to believe my Jewish and Lutheran and Methodist classmates were going to hell. So I refused to say that I only believed in one Catholic Church.
As soon as I pulled one thread from the tapestry, the whole thing unraveled. Religion isn’t woven; it’s knitted. There is one string. Keep tugging, and you have a pile of yarn, not a garment to keep you warm on those chilly days of doubt.
I learned that Catholics said my dog wasn’t going to heaven. Well, I wasn’t going to any heaven that doesn’t acknowledge the soulful sweet wisdom of a half-terrier, half-sheepdog who never said an unkind word and always offered to play or a shoulder to cry on as needed. Every dog owner knows what a horrible, horrible thing it is to claim that dogs have no souls.
All those times the Apostles’ Creed brought up heaven irritated me, and I had to stop saying more lines. The entire beginning talked about God “creating all that is seen and unseen”—so he created my dog, but he wasn’t going to allow her into heaven? I couldn’t say that anymore. God was not much of a judge of character.
If God was such a poor judge of character, what about his son, Jesus? If the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, what made him qualified to “judge the living and the dead”? Getting yourself killed by some Roman guy with a funny name didn’t seem like a good credential for being a judge. Especially if Jesus wasn’t letting my dog into heaven either. I had no interest in living in his stupid kingdom, where my classmates and my dog are not welcome.
This left the Holy Spirit. That made no sense. What was the Holy Spirit, why were we talking about it, why was it worshiped and glorified? No nun or religious education teacher could give a satisfactory explanation of the Holy Spirit or even show me a picture of it. Think about it: there are pictures of God, say, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. There are plenty of pictures of Jesus, even if it is weird that older art always shows him with brown eyes, and in newer art he has blue eyes. But there are no pictures of the Holy Spirit.
By now, so much of the entire Creed was suspect that the remaining shreds looked suspicious. What about this resurrection thing? Sounded like a lot of hocus-pocus. A few years ago, adults were lying to me about Santa Claus in order to get me to behave; were they lying to me again, saying I’ll get to live forever if I behave? My trust was not holding up.
One of the few lines left was about “the forgiveness of sins.” Then I remembered my first confession in third grade. The priest was badgering me to confess something bad I had done, but I couldn’t think of anything. I hadn’t killed, lied, cheated, stolen . . . finally, I had to lie just to make the man happy. I made up some story about pushing my little brother. If I had no sins to confess and had to make them up so that they could call me a sinner and feel good about themselves, there was something really wrong here!
I never went to a second confession. In third grade, I’d already figured out this was some sort of bizarre power trip, and I was not doing it again.
What was left? “He was born of the Virgin Mary.” I didn’t know what a virgin was, so I didn’t know what that was about. I tossed it out. “Fulfillment of Scriptures?” Which scriptures? When the priests read from the Bible, they never read some Old Testament thing that said “This guy named Jesus will be coming along later. Catch his magic show.” So that line was suspect and had to go.
I had to stop saying the Profession of Faith altogether. I looked upon it as a contract: every time you said the words, you were renewing the contract. I could not sign this contract. It was faulty. Furthermore, if it was faulty and lacking in substance, was it all a lie? Was there a God? Did I care if a guy named Jesus claimed to suffer for my sins? I didn’t ask him to, and they’re still calling me a sinner; so his suffering didn’t do any good, now, did it?
I was thirteen when I informed my parents that I was an atheist. My mother (despite being a good heathen whose idea of a prayer was to argue with God and point out to him that he was being an asshole again) was astonished and appalled. I don’t think it was the lack of belief that bothered her—but could I still be Polish if I wasn’t Catholic anymore?
Profession of Faith (Nicene Creed)
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and all that is seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Jeanette Watts is a dance instructor, seamstress, fencer, actress, and writer. She is celebrating the publication of her first book, Wealth and Privilege.