“Madalyn Murray O’Hair once said, ‘an agnostic is just a gutless atheist.’” I was sixteen years old. My mother’s partner, Sheila, a former Catholic nun, had asked me about my religious beliefs. When I told her that I was an agnostic, she quoted O’Hair. And she was right, at least about me. For years I had been struggling to let go of a childhood acceptance (if not strong belief) in the supernatural, including a belief in God. At some point, I decided that there was no way to know for sure and declared myself an agnostic. But my agnosticism wasn’t just about being fair-minded. I knew there was no logical reason to believe in even the possibility of the existence of God. So why not go all the way to atheism? Was I afraid of being wrong? Was I afraid to let go of the last shreds of comfort that belief in the supernatural offered? The answer was probably a bit of both.
Like most people, I grew up believing the same things as my parents did. I guess you would call my family “casual Christians.” Once, when I asked Dad what our religion was, he said simply “Methodist.” What did that mean? Who knew? Probably not even Dad. At the time, I thought it involved drinking a lot of coffee. As a kid, if the subject came up at all, I just referred to myself as “Christian.” What that meant, I had no idea. I believed in God. I said grace before dinner and the “NowIlaymedowntosleep” prayer as quickly as possible before crawling into bed, but by the time I was in elementary school, I—and my parents—had lost interest even in that.
We rarely went to church except for weddings and funerals, where I began to get the idea that not everyone was as causal about being a Christian as I was. Everyone around me seemed to know the songs and the prayers, when to stand up and when to sit down or kneel, and what to say back to the guy talking at the front of the church.