Below, we present the final group of essays in a series begun in our February/March 2014 issue presenting personal statements of individuals’ journeys away from religious belief. We begin with a powerful essay that demanded publication even though it significantly exceeded our requested length.—Eds.
Why I Am Not a Catholic: Sundays with Estelle
In a recent telephone conversation with my mother, Estelle—from whom I am geographically separated by over two thousand miles—the topic of miracles arose. Our discussion quickly degenerated into an argument. Her parish priest, she informed me, had imparted a story about his sick eighty-year-old aunt who had been admitted into hospice care with little chance of surviving. Out of the country at the time, the priest, upon hearing of his aunt’s sudden illness, offered to return to be by her side. Apparently, his relatives convinced him to remain where he was because there was nothing he could do. When he returned, the aunt had recovered and had been discharged from the hospice facility. This, according to the priest, was a true miracle! Being the devout Catholic that she is, my mother fully embraced the priest’s conclusion. For me, an atheist, this was a serious point of contention.
My mother was essentially raised by the Catholic Church. She was, as are all Catholics, indoctrinated into her religion shortly after her birth, having her so-called original sin washed away through baptism. She was then sent away to an all-girls boarding school to be prepared for a life of suffering at the hands of the nuns of the Religious for Jesus and Mary sect. The school, of course, saw it differently and claimed its program enhances young women spiritually and academically.
Naturally, my mother saw to it that her religiosity was duly forced upon her unsuspecting children. As far back as I can remember, I was a doubter, but I played along to maintain appearances. During my childhood, I was bored during church services and used the time for meditation; namely, I spent the time thinking of all the things I could be doing outside of that ridiculous detention. When I went to confession, I made things up. As for performing the penance doled out by the troll-like being firmly embedded in a type of religious indoor outhouse, his face obscured by a thin mesh screen, I would cheerfully make my way to the altar, feign praying, and quickly leave.
I was subjected to four years of Catholic school and mercifully made the change to public school at grade five. I routinely found my way to church every weekend until one fateful Easter Sunday in 1980 while I was away at college. I had an epiphany. I watched all the hypocrites who had donned their most elaborate clothing to impress no one but each other and realized that this wasn’t for me. I turned around and walked away, never to return.
Losing my religion was a slow process. In my mid-twenties, I married the girl of my dreams and undertook a career in law enforcement. In 1986, my beautiful daughter was born. Having a second child would prove to be far more difficult. Conception was made nearly impossible because of my wife’s endometriosis. We tried everything available to us—testing, medication, and even surgery, all to no avail. Years passed. These were trying times. My wife returned to the church, taking my daughter along, mainly to expose her to some form of spirituality. As a youngster, my child’s sentiments mirrored my own at that age: “I don’t like all this God stuff.”
In 1999, life seemed to be on a magnificent course. I was getting my first promotion, we purchased a new car, my wife had somehow become pregnant, and, with that news in our holster, we bought ourselves a brand-new home. Maybe there is a God after all, I thought.
My son was born in May 2000. Three months into his life, he stopped breathing not once but regularly for short periods. At first, we thought it was our imaginations, but the realization that something was dreadfully wrong soon sunk in. The pediatric neurologist on staff at the hospital emergency room diagnosed my son with lissencephaly, a rare genetic anomaly brought on by the mosaicking of chromosome 17. Literally meaning “smooth brain,” lissencephaly is characterized by a lack of neuronal migration to the cerebral cortex, essentially bringing normal cognitive and physical development to a halt. Our situation was painful and nightmarish; this was the kind of thing that happened to other people. Our son’s prognosis was heartbreaking: severe mental retardation, a lack of motor skills, blindness, seizures, and a life expectancy of two years.
I can’t say that I had been having second thoughts about God, but when Michael was born, he did seem to be a blessing. Maybe this was a terrible mistake, this lissencephaly. I immediately went to the hospital chapel and prayed. I had no qualms about my disbelief and asked only for divine intervention for my son. Surely God could rectify his error and reverse this tragic turn of events. Michael was, after all, just an innocent bystander.
Needless to say, nothing changed. All sorts of crazy notions went through my head: Was this punishment for my incredulity? Was I being tested in a Job-like fashion? Did I smoke too much marijuana as a teenager? Is God playing a bad joke on me? Regardless of what the answer was, Michael needed us to love him and care for him, and we did that to the best of our abilities. Nothing can prepare you to carry out such an enormous task.
Michael was a handsome little guy and, despite the severity of his handicap, he would laugh and raise his arm as a signal that he wanted to be held, which he loved more than anything. While holding him and enduring his many seizures together—which were often quite dramatic and painful—I again began to doubt the existence of a loving, omniscient, all-powerful god. I began to see how easy it is to adopt religion when life is going swimmingly. Heck, I was guilty of it myself. But it’s rough times, when a miracle would be extremely welcome, that push the limits of belief, simply because those miracles never come.
Atheists often joke about movie stars and athletes thanking their lord and savior Jesus Christ when they win a game or an award or are recognized for their achievements. In reality, giving such praise to a supernatural being—particularly for such trivial endowments as the ability to throw a ball, make a tackle, or to recite a line—is egotistical to the point of being moronic. Hearing people say that they are “truly blessed” because they have healthy kids, were able to land a job, or won the lottery were, for me, sources of irritation. More and more, I began to notice that these God-fearing folk were just too self-deprecating to accept credit for their own actions or to acknowledge coincidence. Instead, they would spotlight their great humbleness by attributing everything to God. This was a petty god that they worshiped, and I wanted no part of him.
Which brings to mind a famous Susan B. Anthony quote: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
Rather than viewing my son’s affliction as some type of sick castigation for my parting ways with God, I began to examine it for what it really was. I began to read about genetics, evolution, and atheism. I took the words of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and especially Jennifer Michael Hecht as my gospel. Other than our highly developed brains, we are merely animals, susceptible to germs, cancers, acts of nature, and genetic mutations. If Michael’s genetics produced a trait that improved his life, it probably would have been passed on generationally. Sadly, the opposite was true and, cruelly, survival was not in his fut
ure, for he was far from being the fittest. Michael was the purest of human beings; he never thought a bad thought, he never misbehaved, he never lied, and he surely never hated. (Perhaps highly developed brains are overrated.) He loved unconditionally, and he was loved unconditionally by everyone that knew him. The first two years of his life came and went. He made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere soon.
My mother prayed for Michael every day. I assume prayer made her feel better about the situation. She had lost her mother to breast cancer, and her daughter—my sister—to leukemia. Her father abandoned her and her three siblings when they were still children. She managed to uphold her faith despite much neglect on God’s part. Others would pray for Michael, too. Routinely, people would say to me, “God only hands out situations like yours to people who can handle them.” I still ponder that statement to this day. So God is somehow rewarding me for my strength with a grievously disabled child? Isn’t that a bit perverted?
Michael’s diagnosis was textbook, and his life progressed as the doctors had predicted. The prayers, though innocuous, were ineffectual. Through various conventional and experimental medications, the neurologists at Boston’s Children’s Hospital made great strides in controlling Michael’s maturing seizures. These epileptic episodes began as “blue spells,” then morphed into petit mal seizures, infantile spasms, and eventually culminated in grand mal seizures. Powerlessly watching my child suffer was excruciatingly painful. Knowing that my friends and family were praying to God—who, if he actually did exist, would be held responsible for Michael’s dilemma—was not only painful, it was outright contradictory. We needed those hands clasped in prayer to help us with Michael’s care, but no offers ever materialized. Michael’s problems worsened. His joints were dislocating, he developed kidney stones, and eating was becoming an ever-increasing problem. My faith was waning concomitantly. By Michael’s fifth year of life, I considered myself a full-fledged agnostic. Looking back, I was restrained in my misgivings only by the fact that, deep down, I didn’t want to give up on the possibility of a miracle for my little boy.
By the eighth year of Michael’s tortured existence, it became glaringly clear that there wasn’t going to be a life-altering supernatural phenomenon. The biblical god, creator of the universe, humankind, and all of the flora and fauna on Earth—he who could part seas, speak through burning bushes, and raise the dead—had proven, through his neglect and impotence, his fictitiousness. Natural selection gouged out the eyes of religion and exposed the pretentiousness of those who follow such an ineffectual spiritual leader.
Unbeknownst to us, Michael began aspirating his food, a common consequence of the neurologically challenged. Inevitably, this led to bronchopneumonia. Due to Michael’s frail condition, the doctors advised us that there was little they could do: my little boy was going to die. I can’t imagine there being anything worse in life than watching your child fade into nonexistence. I can, in fact, speak with authority on this subject.
To appease my mother, I allowed one last act of piousness into Michael’s life. Although she had trouble finding one of the priests from her parish to conduct a final prayer over my son, someone did finally materialize. Ironically, when the priest placed his hand on Michael’s forehead, eyes closed and deep into prayer, he witnessed the feebleness of his god firsthand. At that very moment, Michael had a violent seizure. You would think, with one of his agents asking for his succor in a time of great need, that God could, at the very least, give my son the peace that he deserved.
It was probably at that moment that I became a full-fledged, impenitent atheist. God was nothing more than a myth. A few days later, Michael died. Naturally, we heard the standard words that are supposed to comfort the grieving: “He’s with God now,” or “He’s in a better place.” The better place, in my eyes, would have been here on Earth, with me and his family. I am no better or no worse than most humanly fathers, but to those who refer to God as their “Heavenly Father,” I can only ask, “Why?” He is notoriously the antithesis of what we would consider the apogee of fatherhood: he is without patience, merciless, unforgiving, and shows a great unwillingness to help those truly in need. But there is a reason for his faults; he was created by man, in his image, as a form of control. Acts that are “miraculous” and attributable to the hand of God are nothing more than mere coincidences. Some people live; some die. Some can throw a perfect spiral; some can’t. Some recover from their illnesses; others don’t.
My parting ways with God has never sat well with my mother. To her and many like her, the term atheist conjures images of pure evil. Quite often I point out to her the atrocities of the Catholic Church—the Inquisition, the Crusades, the aid to the Nazis, and the pederasts both past and present who pass themselves off as disciples of God. In contrast, atheists have a live-and-let-live philosophy. There is no hatred. No threats. No punishments. We are only temporary guests here on this not-so-uncommon planet we call Earth, so why not enjoy life to its fullest, never causing harm along the way? My mother’s immersion into Catholicism is too deep, however, and her blinders too securely fastened, to see life any differently. Following unseeingly and keeping your mind closed like a vault is exactly what religion dictates. Never question the authority of the church!
At the beginning of this essay, I relayed the story of my mother describing a not-so-miraculous miracle to me, one that was pronounced so by a priest; therefore, it was so. An eighty-year-old who was sick and on the verge of death, who got better—if only to the extent that she no longer needed hospice care. I made clear that the situation could have gone either way: I’m sure lots of eighty-year-olds in hospice care all around the world expired that day. Was this geriatric patient chosen to live over all the others? It was foolhardy of the priest, and quite narcissistic at that, to think that God showed a preference because the life he saved was the sister to the mother of a cleric. But still, they believe.
Strangely, we never see “true” miracles any more. With the progression of science and its meticulous explanations for natural phenomena, God’s awesome powers have been relegated to making cameos in bags of Cheetos, on pieces of French toast, and on flour tortillas. Needless to say, I was incredulous to hear my mother’s story about a sick eighty-year-old who felt well enough to leave the hospice facility and trivially attributing her newfound health to an act of God. A “miracle,” she called it.
“Why would God come to the aid of an elderly woman and not to my little boy?” I asked. “Wouldn’t Michael be more deserving of a miracle than an octogenarian?” Her reply, as usual, was that she didn’t want to talk about it. Such a foolish hypothesis is, of course, indefensible. A believer’s typical response would be, “You have to have faith,” or “God works in mysterious ways.” But my faith has run out, and I have little time for mind games. God had his chance, and he let the opportunity slip away. The world was deprived of a vital young person who loved his brief existence. Life is better without religion. I’m better able to face life’s challenges, and I’ve discovered that making a difference in people’s lives is far more rewarding th
an waiting around for some nonexistent supernatural being to make changes in mine. I simply believe in the power of the human spirit. I am an atheist.
Mark Cagnetta is a retired police officer. He has a EdD in organizational leadership. He is married and has a daughter and two grandchildren.