Toward a More Democratic Atheism

S. Keyron McDermott

The iconoclastic Christopher Hitchens can be seen anytime on YouTube wryly advocating the teaching of religion in public schools: “I know of no other way to ensure a constant supply of atheists!” I laughed too, but he seemed unaware of how easily he could overshoot the mark on this one.

Years ago, as a journalism student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I wrote an atheist-sounding letter to the editor of the Denver Post, castigating him for some breach of the church-state firewall. Subsequently, I received a call from the head of a Denver atheist group who said he had seen my letter. He informed me the group met on Sunday mornings and asked if I would like to join them.

“You must be joking!” I howled into the phone and just about fell down laughing.

Clearly taken aback, the poor man muttered an apology and hung up.

I laughed for a long time: the notion of waging a hammer-and-tongs, tooth-and-nail battle for years to free myself from the Catholic Church, then turning right around and signing on to another organization that wanted to commandeer my Sunday mornings struck me as unmitigated lunacy.

My earliest recollection is of making my first communion. What I recall is not a nice white dress, veil, and new white patent-leather shoes (a major occasion for a kid from a poor home)—but a Saturday pre-communicant session we were required to attend at school. It was a blustery late March day, and I was wearing a lightweight green sweater. I genuinely do not know if I conflated shivering in the bitter wind as we walked up to the cemetery to think about sin and death with the chilling story of a man named Jesus Christ, who was brutally tortured and murdered though he was innocent of the crimes they accused him of. I was outraged, went home, told my mother about it, and asked her, “Why didn’t the police stop them?”

My mother explained that it was a very long time ago in another country and that I had missed the whole point of the story. This was Jesus Christ our savior, who died for our sins. Every time you tease your brothers and sisters, or don’t do your job—mine was pumping the water our family drank out of an enamel dipper from the pump on the north side of the house—you added to his misery. This made no sense, and I was fairly certain why: I was a dim kid, but not too dim to subscribe to the inchoate aphorism that presented itself: If you don’t know what you are talking about, it’s better to shut your trap than prove how stupid you really are.

I spent my grade school years memorizing the catechism. “Who made you? A: God made me.” “Why did God make you?” “God made me … .” Or I didn’t memorize it and got a D, further proving how dim I was.

The only class I really looked forward to was art, the last class on Friday afternoon. In seventh grade, with Thanksgiving approaching, we were to do a pilgrim scene. I did a Grandma-Moses-Brueghel-esque view of the whole community wending its way to church and was convinced mine looked more realistic than anyone else’s—skinny people, fat people, kids, horses, dogs, the hills, weeds, flowers, and the paths of green well-trodden grass. I was happily patting myself on the back when Sister Mary came down the aisle and looked at me like a prosecuting attorney about to embark on cross-examining a guilty defendant and asked, “What would make a girl do a very nice drawing and put a pornographic character right at the center of it?”

She was referring to the Puritan in the purple dress with very large boobs that I had drawn just right of center—undoubtedly the wishful thinking of an underfed pre-pubescent girl built like a pencil. I was destroyed and looked forward to art on Friday only with trepidation thereafter.

The fingerprints of the Catholic Church were all over our spirits, souls, and inner selves, and from time to time I devolve to wondering if not for those fingerprints, would I be someone totally different. Someone fun, confident, and quite unrecognizable to me? Nonetheless, once I made my first holy communion, I can reliably say I never missed Catholic mass on Sunday morning. Missing mass was a mortal sin, incidentally, which would condemn you to hell for eternity, or so they said. We seldom missed First Friday or Saturday confession either. To this day, nearly seventy years on, the sound of Lawrence Welk reruns on public TV recalls Saturday nights: hiking across town to confession, returning, and winding hair on rollers for a Sunday-best bouffant to attend mass in.

My father had died in 1955, when I was ten; a couple years later, Mom contracted tuberculosis, and we were piled into a station wagon with Blessed Mother on the side of it and transported to St. Mary’s Home & Orphanage in Dubuque, Iowa, where I spent sizeable chunks of time kneeling in front of the chapel for the sin of running in the hallway. Though I distinctly recall thinking that poor old Sister Mary Reginald’s bones revolted at seeing anybody run, so it was hardly personal. Dim kid that I was, it never occurred to me that I was dealing with an organization that could render a perfectly innocuous action morally indefensible and punish you soundly for it.

The home sent junior high kids downtown to St. Raphael’s Cathedral. Being the flagship diocesan school, it was quite likely educationally a cut above. Unlike me (I was in sixth grade), my younger siblings had classes at the orphanage. My middle siblings—so-called Irish twins, in their case triplets—did not benefit from this arrangement. Back home the following year, the middle kids were all struggling in school.

When Mom became an active tuberculosis case again in the winter of my eighth-grade year, we did not return to the orphanage but were farmed out to foster homes. I landed in a “country” school next to the Placid church, where I read a lot of books, tutored a lot of younger kids, and did a lot of watercolors. The eldest brother was in the lower grades (first to fourth) held in the living room of the convent, but he got rheumatic fever and spent the rest of that semester at the University of Iowa Hospital. By the time I was a freshman in high school, we were back home again, and all of us were having educational difficulties. We may have been marginal academically, but we were A+ flush with one notion: if we didn’t do the laundry, scrub the floors, and behave in school, we would be real orphans like many St. Mary’s kids we knew.

The Catholic school did not want my brother, who after a better part of a semester lying in the hospital bed was seriously behind in school—even though I personally visited the pastor to plead his case. Now that he was in high school, he had to ride the bus to the next town, and many of the friends he had here fell by the wayside.

Nonetheless, during my first two years of high school I made a genuine effort to be a “real” Catholic: I rose in the wee hours of the frigid Iowa morning for 6:30 a.m. mass and sang in the choir, which in those days was usually an “In memoriam” Requiem. The result was a lifelong affection for Gregorian chant, but not much improvement on the love-of-God front; he just seemed not to be listening.

By junior year, I had given it all up as a bad job. Three rural and two small-town parishes combined and built a new high school. I found myself a cheerleader, in a chemistry class, and in plays, with no time to worry about God or religion. Before I knew it, I was in college.

Why I ended up in a Catholic women’s college had much to do with how impressed I was by the upper-middle-class manners and morals I encountered there as a sixth grader in the orphanage through a “Big Sister” who was admirably and immensely kind. The fact that I ended up taking religion every semester but one—and taking three hours of Philosophy of Being, Philosophy of Man, American Philosophy, and Ancient Philosophy, some of which may have been thinly disguised religion—didn’t even occur to me until after I graduated.

The business of school attendance vis-à-vis my brothers was the last straw. As much, I suppose, because my youngest brother had a paper route and the public school was at the top of the hill while we lived at the bottom, Mom enrolled him up there. Unaffected by the educational rumpuses that my three middle siblings endured, he was conspicuously bright. The minute the pastor got wind of it, he arrived to inform my mother that she had a moral obligation to enroll my youngest brother in the Catholic grade school.

That flaming hypocrite!” I yowled.

What ensued was a discussion that let me fathom how she dealt with the relentless hypocrisy of what was the major social and philosophical influence on her life.

The people running the Catholic Church are human beings and therefore imperfect,” my mother explained. “We should not let them deface God for us.”

They ought to look at their backsides in the mirror. They are in the god biz, and their own behavior reflects badly on the old man, Mom.”

By then I was a senior in college—and a welfare kid certainly couldn’t sabotage a degree by transferring, so I duplicated their duplicity. The nuns knew something was up and would come up to me and ask, “How are things with you and God, S.?”

Well, I can’t speak for God, Sister, but things are fine with me,” I would reply.

One particular nun and I got into it repeatedly. My classmates and I eventually discovered she was a Jewish woman who had converted to Catholicism and joined the convent. So, we were on diametrically opposite trajectories. I once said to her, “Well, Sister, now that Vatican II has permitted mass on Saturday night, what am I supposed to do with all mortal-sin-Sunday-morning stuff?”

I don’t recall what she said, but by then it wouldn’t have made any difference. When the whole configuration of your soul, self, core, value system, and beliefs stems from a single source—any source—it seems that coming-of-age requires a top-down reassessment of everything you had ever accepted before you developed the critical intelligence to assess it.

The Church refers to us as “fallen-away Catholics.” That’s hardly accurate in my case, because I ran off in snorting contempt and swearing loudly. It was only through a lot of feminist reading later that I began to let the Church off the hook, acknowledging that what I experienced had as much to do with societal attitudes toward women and American attitudes toward the poor and welfare recipients as with the Catholic Church—though it handily reflected societal prejudice.

In 1986, after I sold the little medical ultrasound catalog I published, I went to Israel. There I chanced to meet Rona Hart, who become a dear friend with whom I spent many an absorbing hour on the terrace of her Tel Aviv rooftop apartment watching the Mediterranean sparkle in the distance and discussing religion, morality, and how they work—or don’t work—in a society. Hart maintained, “The most moral people I have ever met are those who were raised in traditional religions—Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism—and jettisoned the nonessentials … .” She came to my apartment and ate, though she knew it was trafe (pork in the fridge), and I believe she appreciated that when I visited her on Shabbat, I put a blouse and skirt on over my bikini out of respect for the day.

To this day, I am still engaged in teasing out what are the American attitudes toward the poor and women that may be likewise responsible for what I suffered through. Here’s hoping I have enough days left!

On Joining—or Not

The pages of this publication are frequently filled with anxious fretting about “Nons” and “Nones”: people who profess no religion, effectively atheists, who will not—as I repeatedly declined to—join, congregate, and be counted as such. (Well, I did subscribe to this magazine!)

Five or ten years ago, I joined the Democratic Party and had a very “Catholic” experience—I came across a short, egotistical woman whose objective, I concluded after a few minutes, was less the issue at hand than the sheer joy of getting other people to do it her way. Democratic Party indeed! Suffice it to say, I didn’t last as long in there as I had in the Catholic Church!

Organizations are often havens for men or—worse, and something that rankles me more—women with men’s personalities. Dominators. People fretting about us non-joiners also need to acknowledge the logic of our decisions in the microenvironment of our lives: I despise being told what to do, and I despise telling other people what to do. People generally know what is right (well, with the exception of Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, and a handful of other men whose greed has systematically disconnected them from their innate moral centers). And if they don’t, they should sit down and figure it out or read a reliable writer and get some help figuring it out. Non/None organizers/agonizers would save themselves a boatload of grief to comprehend the psychology they are dealing with and evolve a democracy of atheism that manifests this reality.

I realize that here I am supposed to describe exactly what that looks like, but I am not altogether sure myself. That’s the nature of this particular beast. Recently, intrigued by some advertised topic of discussion, I went to a secular-humanist lecture in the nearby town and ended up on their email list. I skim their communications when they arrive, but I am put off by being told not to wear perfume there. Scoff your head about why I let something so superficial as a perfume proviso determine what I attend. Psychologically, I am as hyper-vigilant as a deer in a forest that has gotten a whiff of a wolf. There may well not be one, but spooked-deer-people won’t risk it.

And when I have, I have rued the day.

Recently, I allowed myself to be talked into going to a funeral at my old church. Sitting there in the same pews I sat in as a kid, the idea that a responsible adult once stood up and tried to get a child (me) with neither the ego nor intellectual prowess to challenge the Jesus-Christ-father-son-holy-ghost-blessed-mother myth suddenly struck me very differently than it ever had before. I now recognized it as downright evil. I was frothing at the mouth by the time the funeral was over from contemplating the concept of prayer—especially how it functioned in a household of welfare kids like we were. It set up expectations that could only be dashed—and were!—when we prayed endlessly for bicycles, good grades, record players, new dresses, and … !

So, None/Non organizers should not let themselves be put off by the philosophical PTSD of some “survivors.” Don’t take it personally. Of course, folks are looking for an answer, some way around this resistance, but there may be none because of the very nature of this beast.

Perhaps only the survivor him- or herself can come up with it. Recently, I ended up at a party, where I happened upon a Catholic priest in disguise—not wearing a Roman collar. I had plenty of wine by then and really laid into him. It is laugh-out-loud amusing to me on this stony morning at the computer as I relate the story, but the effect was practically confessional!

Likewise, sitting here writing this, presuming an audience for it, is cathartic as well. Rather than trotting out more Non/None stats, perhaps the Free Inquiry editor might consider a “Breaking Free” column, to give readers a chance to tell such stories. There may also be catharsis in reading them.

I have one last reality check to offer agonizing organizers: I am not the first to assert that the dominant religion in this country is capitalism, which like many others is inherently immoral, allows dominators (a.k.a. owners) to treat individuals in ways that maximize profit and destroy human dignity and volition. I spent the month of January in a large Florida metropolitan area with adequate proximity to observe the daily lives of a niece and nephew who are a doctor and lawyer, respectively. Let me assure you that their jobs and the continuing education their fields require consume their lives. They barely have time for family responsibilities and two or three stints a week in the gym. They have none for joining or attending.

Difficult as it may be for organizers to contemplate, it may be possible that if you succeed in your objective, you may have already demolished what is most desirable to some of us about secular humanism/atheism.

Sorry ’bout that, Mr. Hitchens!

S. Keyron McDermott

S. Keyron McDermott's memoir "Tough Talk out of School" will be published late in the year by Bancroft Press.