I was fifteen years old when I decided that I didn’t believe in God. For some reason, the memory is always tied to my 9th grade History class. Maybe we were learning about Greek philosophers when I learned the word “agnostic”. However I learned it, I thought the term described me perfectly. I didn’t have any good reason to believe, but no good reason to disbelieve, either. Not quite an atheist, but definitely not a believer.
I didn’t know much about God at that point. My year and a half in CCD during childhood and a few years of regular attendance at Sunday Mass had taught me that God was a big man with a robe and a long beard who looked down on everyone from his clouds in Heaven. His son, Baby Jesus – who was somehow both an infant and a man on a cross at the same time – liked to go bowling and flick the light switch on and off when we had rainstorms. God had lots of chubby baby angels surrounding Him as well as grownup angels in pastel robes. Somehow when you prayed to Him He was supposed to involve Himself in your life, but really what He seemed to care about was whether or not you were being good, and if you weren’t you were supposed to tell the priest.
With so little information to go on, it’s no wonder I wasn’t interested in learning more. Church was a place with lots of standing up and sitting down and uncomfortable kneeling. A place that echoed when it was silent, and where the smallest laugh would earn you a dirty look. (Funny story: a few years ago I asked my mother to go to Mass with me when I was visiting – I thought she would enjoy it, even though she doesn’t attend church regularly now. A few pews ahead of us, an adorable baby girl was munching on cereal. I giggled at her, and my mother gave me a Look. Later she told me she had thought I was laughing because the priest was holding a giant communion wafer. What am I, Mom, eight? Okay, maybe that story is funny to no one else but me.)
One of the chores I was responsible for at home was drying dishes, and while I don’t remember the content of our discussions those days, I remember standing at the dish drain, my mother at the sink to my right, both of us frustrated: me because I had to dry even the inner lip of the Tupperware lids before I could go back to the Nintendo or whatever book I was devouring, and she because she didn’t understand my lack of faith. More importantly, she felt guilty and responsible for not raising me to be stronger in sharing her religion. She felt like she had failed me.
When adult me learned who Jesus really was, and I let Him into my life, I thought that the tension between my parents and I surrounding religion would vanish. What I have discovered instead is that the gulf between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism – especially the loose, casual Catholicism my mother holds – may be even greater than the gulf that I felt when I turned away from the Catholic Church all those years ago.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matthew 10:34-35 )” This verse always comes to mind when I think about talking with my family about religion. I thought that accepting God would somehow make things “right” in my family that for nearly all my life have felt wrong. Instead, it has simply made things more confusing.
My mother and I still argue, but now it’s about things like the purpose of heaven and hell, and which sins Jesus died for, and whether or not we each have a guardian angel protecting us. Just as before, our discussions often take place in her kitchen, and just like then our discussions end with one or both of us changing the subject in frustration. Now that I’m grown up, however, I can go back to playing Nintendo without having to dry all the dishes. Part of me wonders if maybe that’s not actually a win.