By Erin Louis
Sid Vicious was my brother’s cat. We discovered that Sid was a female when she gave birth to a litter of kittens in my brother’s bedroom closet. Sid was my first experience with a pet and also my first experience with death. She was hit by a car in front of our house when I was 7. My mother held me as I cried and comforted me by explaining that God had taken Sid to heaven. God had a plan for everyone and everything, and that was his plan for Sid.
I was told as a little kid that I was Catholic, although the only times we went to church was when someone died or got married. That caused quite a bit of confusion for me because I had a tendency to conflate the two events. What I also found confusing was the whole concept of God. He loved us, created us, and would answer our prayers if we believed enough. Oh, and that little pesky hell thing. Supposedly he could do anything at all, and loved us, but would not hesitate to burn and torture us forever if we failed to love or believe in him. My understanding of love didn’t include torture. In fact, the idea of hell itself seemed counter to the idea of an all-loving God.
I didn’t want to go to hell, so I tried to believe in God. I wanted my prayers answered, so I prayed to him. I wanted to believe that Sid was in heaven, so I tried to believe in that, too. When I questioned the existence of God, to the dismay of my family, I was told that the evidence was all around me. Every time something good happened, that was proof of his existence. What about the bad stuff? Well, that was a test of faith, part of his plan. When I questioned why God had to test our faith, when he could just give it to us without the bad stuff or the threat of hell, for that matter, I was told that God worked in mysterious ways. So, I stuffed my growing doubt and tried to believe. Apparently, my doubt was part of God’s plan, too.
I tried to believe because I was taught to. As I grew, so did my doubts. The bigger my doubts, the harder I tried. The harder I tried, the bigger my doubts became. One day I realized that I wasn’t trying anymore, I was simply pretending. I wasn’t afraid of a god or hell that I was pretty certain didn’t exist, I was afraid of upsetting my family. I was afraid of being ostracized by my friends. So, I kept pretending.
If what I was taught about God was true, he wasn’t something I felt deserved worship, even if I had succeeded in believing in him. He wasn’t loving; he was cruel and vindictive. He didn’t bring comfort; he brought pain. The whole concept of God meant a lack of control over my own life. The idea of heaven was a pleasant one, until you considered the requirements to get there. The God I was taught to believe in would send plenty of innocent people to hell for the simple sin of not believing. If God has the power to control everything that happens, then that makes it his choice to send people to hell. Why create it in the first place if he didn’t want people to go there? Not only had I stopped trying, I stopped pretending, as well. I became a reluctant apostate.
I understand why people would want to believe that there is an omniscient and omnipotent being in control — that no matter what happens, someone else has the wheel, that it all has some deeper meaning. It’s how I felt in my mother’s arms the day Sid died. It’s a nice but ultimately hollow thought. It creates a barrier to accepting life as it is. It takes the control out of your hands and puts it in the hands of a deity that works mysteriously. It also removes the responsibility. Until you accept the things that are out of your control in life, you aren’t free to accept all the things you can. Belief in God obstructs acceptance of the tough things that we face in life, and acceptance brings healing.
Trying to believe brought a sense of failure, but admitting to myself that I didn’t believe brought a sense of relief. Understanding and accepting that I am in control and responsible for my own path in life brought a sense of freedom.
But it also brought a sense of loss. I wanted to believe, I really did. I did not want to become an apostate. In my family and among some of my friends, apostasy was akin to evil. To renounce not only my Catholic faith, but also the concept of a god or a higher power, was the ultimate sin. I would be a disappointment to my family and would likely lose a friend or two. To reject the religion I was born into was to reject my very eternal soul — at least to my family.
But to continue to pretend to believe in something I did not was to reject who I knew I was as a person. I would be rejecting myself to soothe the fears of the believers in my life who were certain I would go to hell. I did not want to become an apostate, but I couldn’t force myself to believe in something that I simply had no evidence for.
As I learned to accept myself as an atheist, I also learned that there were many who were still trying to pretend to believe. I encountered people who knew that they no longer believed but were afraid to say so. I realized that to be an outspoken apostate was to provide comfort and support to those who still felt like they were in the dark. Apostasy can be a lonely place to those who are surrounded by believers. I knew because I was in that place. The more of us that speak up, the more reluctant apostates can stop pretending to believe.
FFRF Member Erin Louis lives in California with her husband and son. She’s a classically trained pastry chef, writer and an unabashed atheist.