Your life is now

I grew up in northern Illinois in the 80s and 90s, and while it wasn’t too unusual that we didn’t go to church, it never occurred to me to say to anyone that I didn’t believe in God. Daughter to a lapsed Catholic and an Episcopalian who’d rejected the whole notion of the church, there was no religion in my world. There was only reverence for nature and compassion, an awareness of the power of people to change the world, and a sense that there’s *something* out there. And so, as a product of my two parents and their two lapsed formal religious upbringings and their lived values… I believe in people. I believe what we do on this earth matters. I believe that we have to value the life we have because it’s the only life we’re guaranteed. I believe we are in control of our choices and our actions. I believe in acting in ways that will lead to a better life, a better world, and a better society. And I do not believe in a monotheistic god, nor do I believe in any supernatural otherness. I am an atheist. Period.

I’ve spent most of my life nervous about saying that out loud, and the place I grew up in didn’t help.  When I was about 19, my cousin got married, and I was a bridesmaid in her Catholic wedding. At the rehearsal, they told us that we’d be offered communion and if we chose to refuse it, to just shake our head and they would pass us by. So I did. The server offered three times before finally leaving me alone, feeling incredibly self-conscious as I stood there, the source of the hold up in the smooth flowing process, saying no in the approved manner and being pestered to do it anyway (while standing in front of a zillion people at the front of a church!). I felt awkward and embarrassed and ashamed, and then I felt mad for feeling those things.

Five years or so later, I went to church with my friend Tim because we were all going to go do some family-type thing afterwards. Tim’s dad was an altarboy with my father years prior at Emmanual Episcopal in Rockford, so he looked at me askance when I slid to the side of the pew to get out of the way during communion. He smiled at me.

“You can go take communion.”
“No, thank you.” I always just said “no thank you”, because I believe in being polite, and really, who wants to stand in a church and say “I’m an atheist, so, no.” Not me. He didn’t give up.
“Everyone’s welcome.” He gestured for me to exit the pew.
“No, thank you. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“What? Why not?” Now he’s just confused. But, beliefs aside, I’d read the welcome pamphlet we’d all been handed, which invited all guests who’d been baptized or christened to take communion in this church.
“Because I haven’t been baptized or christened, and so it’s not right for me to take communion.”
“Well. We could fix THAT, too, you know.”

So that was the last time I discussed religion with Don. I didn’t want to get into it — not then and there, and not anywhere, really — that I believe that people’s traditions and rituals have meaning for them, and I respect that, and I wouldn’t want to disrespect them by taking part when I don’t believe. I feel like it belittles  my respect for what others believe and it makes me into a liar.

Also, I’ve never been christened nor baptized, and feel no need to be. So there’s that.

Around the same time another librarian asked me, with absolute seriousness and pure puzzlement, how I could know right from wrong and have a moral code if I didn’t believe in Jesus and didn’t have the bible to tell me what was right. I was so taken aback that my spluttering rage at the absurdity of that question fizzled away, and I answered her question as earnestly as she asked it. We know right from wrong because we’re taught right and wrong, regardless of the framework in which we’re taught those values. “Because that’s what my parents showed me is right” is no less powerful than “Because the bible tells me so.” She struggled to hold onto those ideas. They were so counter to her beliefs… and her beliefs were what I grew up surrounded by.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. Maybe I’m writing it down because I finally feel like I can. In his first inaugural address President Obama explicitly acknowledged that there are American citizens who are non-believers, and I cried. And at nearly 40, I don’t feel wary about saying I’m an atheist. Or, not as wary. I still live in a distinctly homogeneous community… but times are changing, attitudes and expectations are changing, and my own self identity is pretty damn solid at this point.

We are all starstuff, I believe in kindness, and your life is now.



  1. Bets

    I no longer receive communion, even though I’ve been baptized, confirmed and was at one point in my life very devout. I’ve rejected organized religion and have finally allowed myself to be an atheist. When I was a young child I asked my mother how many lives we had. Her sage reply was “Well, people believe different things but most believe we only have one.” I was devastated, having planned what my future lives would be–I only asked because I needed to know how many to plan for. I think reincarnation makes about as much sense as what modern religions would have us believe. Maybe the Greeks and Romans had the right ideas about greater powers. Yes, a god of basketball, a god of canines…that would work.

  2. ranger

    What you wrote reflects my experiences, except that I’ve worked in Catholic schools/summer programs off and on for many years. I’m still very wary about saying aloud that I’m an atheist because people treat me differently. I should start owning my beliefs, though, and live honestly.

  3. I’m pretty much the polar opposite of you, belief-wise. But I can definitely relate to your post, because of who I tend to hang with when I’m out and about at library-related things. Because there, I’m the different one.

    It’s usually not an issue, but once in awhile people start talking about something, and I’ll realize that: 1. I have the opposite viewpoint; 2. I’m the minority here; and 3. if I share what I really think, I’m in for an argument or weird stares or … who knows.

    Sometimes I just listen, and wait for the topic to change.

    And sometimes I jump in, just for kicks. I still remember the incredulous, gaping, open-mouthed stare I received when I shared with someone that I was one of those christian homeschool dads they were making fun of. Then we had a good chat about it, and it was ok.

    So yeah – I get it!

    1. Jenica Author

      Thank you for that flip-side perspective, David. I didn’t realize… because libraryland, and the prevailing modes of discourse there don’t open the door, do they?

      I wish we had more moments in the world where we all agreed to “have a good chat about it, and it was ok.” Because that’s where the human kindness, compassion, and community come into play, and those have value to us all, I think.

    2. FWIW, I like breaks in the echo chamber and I’d like to hear more of your perspective. I am quite confident I will disagree sometimes ;), but I will probably also agree in ways you didn’t expect, and I can disagree with people and still be friends.

  4. People who behave as did your colleague baffle me. I was raised Catholic, and the teachings of Jesus Christ are far from the worst tenets on which to base the way one chooses to live one’s Life. But Jesus hardly had a monopoly on those ideals! The notion that Goodness can only come from Him is ludicrous. You just keep doing Good and being you and everything will sort itself out.

    [I am surprised that a Catholic Eucharistic Minister was so insistent! Catholics are the most conservative of Christians when it comes to communion, believing that the host and wine, post-transsubstantiation, are literally the body and blood of Christ. If you’re not Catholic, you are not supposed to partake in a Catholic Church.]


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