My mother understood the D+ in German. My Irish grandmother was only family member capable of speaking a foreign language. Her native tongue was Gaelic. No one else in the family could say a single word of the Irish tongue. She had a hard time with the F in religion.
I had been an altar boy in grade school. I could say the Mass in Latin. My marks in religion were As.
Nana took my older brother and me into Boston once a month on the trolley.
Our first stop was St. Anthony’s shrine, where we lit candles for the dearly departed. She visited the confessional to tell her sins. I followed her next and mumbled my wrongs. The priest punished my trespasses with five Hail Marys. I muttered the prayers without contrition. Nana's faith was a fire. Mine was a dead match.
“What will Nana think?” my mother asked while waiting to speak with my religion teacher on the phone. Their conversation lasted about two minutes. She hung up and looked at her second son with disbelief. “Brother Victor said he failed you, because you don’t believe in God.”
“I got all As in the tests and did all my homework. I don’t deserve that F.”“But you don’t believe in God. Tell me that isn't true."
"I have doubts." Certitude was a better answer.
"Brother Victor didn't say doubts. He said disbelief. What is it?"
I shut my eyes like a parachutist jumping out of a perfectly good plane.
"My son is a disbeliever." Her sigh left her lungs, as if her last breath had been stolen by the Devil.
She was shocked to the core. The Church had burned heretics for challenging the divinity of Jesus. Atheism was an even greater anathema than communism for Cold War America.
"You're 14 years-old. How can you know if you don't believe in God?"
My best friend had drowned in 1960. A caring God would have carried Chaney to the shore of Lake Sebago. Her God let the eight year-old drown. I had no interest in hearing His excuse.
"I've thought about it a long time. Sorry." I was incapable of doing right other than by accident.
“Your teacher said if you recant your apostasy, he will give you a B and your scholarship will be reinstated.”
My high school offered a better education than the town school, but it was all-boys. My girlfriend attended the town high school. Failing religion seemed like the fastest way to end my Catholic schoolboy career and I told my mother, “I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” She was not used to resistance to her will.
“I don’t believe in God.” The Christian god had exterminated non-believers. Genocide was wrong. I believed in anything, but Him.
“Wait till your father gets home.” These words were my mother’s standard threat of last resort.“Yes, ma’am.”
I was scared of my father, even though he had never hit me in my life. Punishment was my mother’s job. His was putting food on the table for six kids. My fear was based on the desire for his love and I had a tendency to fuck up.
Not too much, but enough to annoy him.
My father was an electrical engineer. They liked order.
That evening I waited for his arrival on the front steps. It was cold even for December. I almost thought about running away. The low sky was promising snow.
My father walked up to the house and groaned upon seeing my face, “Now what?”
“I failed religion.”
“How did you fail religion?” He was a big man and played football in college.
“I don’t believe in God.” I struggled with each word.
My father was stunned by my admission yet he listened to my explanation without anger. The Maine native had converted from the Episcopal Church to marry my mother. His faith was born of desire. Shaking his head he lifted me to my feet.
“If that is what you believe, then that’s up to you, but don’t expect any Christmas gifts this year. Christmas is for Christians.”My mother and he had words that night. My older brother put his hands over his ears. He was a believer too, but didn’t criticize my decision. He had been Chaney’s friend too.
Christmas morning I received gifts and our family attended the 8 o’Clock mass. The pastor’s sermon was about Christ’s sacrifice of divinity. His eyes fell on me several times. I didn’t not take communion. My mother said I was sick, but the rumors of my apostasy were spreading around town.
After New Year’s the phone rang every morning. The brothers at Our Lord’s Health wanted to speak with me. They pleaded for my soul.
“Come back to the faith and we’ll give back your scholarship.” The vice-principal offered a carrot. He was getting nowhere with the stick.
“I don’t believe in God.” I wasn’t biting at the bait. Football players were testing Kyla’s loyalty. I belonged somewhere other than Our Lord’s Health and that was closer to Kyla.
Our Lord’s Health suggested that I see a psychiatrist during the Christmas school break. Atheism was a sickness. I agreed to this experiment to please my mother.
She drove me over to Commonwealth Avenue. The diocesan shrink had an office on the grounds of a Jesuit seminary. A large crucifix hung over his desk. A painting of Jesus was bordered by diplomas from several universities. He greeted with a soft handshake.
“Please sit down.” He pointed to a pair of leather chairs.
I took the one closest to the door.
“I’ve read your file.” The chubby man sat next to me. “I see this problem all the time and it concerns the Cardinal when a gifted boy loses his faith. You were an altar boy and attended a few retreats for boys with a calling.I was familiar with the Cardinal. He said the rosary every evening at 5. My mother joined his raspy voice as did thousands of other Catholics around Boston. I looked out the window. Snow was falling on a withered lawn. The room was warm and the chair was too comfortable. I had a funny feeling about this meeting.
“Don’t you believe the Bible?”
I remained silent, because I couldn’t see myself as a Biblical figure, unless it’s as an extra in a BEN HUR chariot race and that movie has nothing to do with New or Old Testament.
“Are you going to tell me why you don’t believe in God.” His head was topped by a misplaced toupee. Sweat was trickling from underneath the crow-black rug.
“I have nothing to say.” His hands were soft as butter. I pushed them off my lap. He had a nice touch.
“The truth will set you.” He leaned forward and his right hand re-adjusted his wig.
“Why should I tell the truth to a man who lies to himself about being bald.”The shrink threw me out of the office, sputtering about blasphemy.
“The only reason you believe in Jesus is so he can cure your baldness.” I shouted before slamming his door.
The psychiatrist told my parents that I was a heretic.
My mother cried into her hands. I was lost to Satan. My soul was doomed to Hell.
“The man touched me.” It was my only defense and it was true.
“Touched you.” My father tightened his fist. He had nothing against queers. Arthur across the street lived with a friend. He had served in Korea and took care of his mother, but no one touched his kids.
“Yes.” I felt bad about snitching, but I was an atheist and not a heretic. To be truthful I didn’t know the difference.
“You’re telling the truth?”
“Yes.” I didn’t lie to my father. He respected the truth.
“I have to make a phone call.” My father picked up the phone and called my Uncle Jack. He was a lawyer. Uncle Jack had been a marine in Korea. Chosin Reservoir tested his faith. Some people called him a hero. He believed in the love of his wife and children. I was his godson.
My high school reevaluated my stance on no-god after Uncle Jack instructed them on the freedom of speech and religion guaranteed under the Constitution. He had won $500,000 for a deaf girl in a similar suit against the nuns torturing their students. The brothers folded like a wet newspaper.
My teacher changed the F to a C. I was told to keep my atheism to myself.
I wished that they had stuck to their guns and thrown me out of school, but my girlfriend was happy that I remained at Our Lord’s Health. Kyla liked her space. We stayed together until our senior year and religion had little to do with our faith in each other.
Talking about non-belief is difficult in America, which has IN GOD WE TRUST stamped on coins. Friends and family are deeply seduced by religion. I tell them my lack of belief does not subtract from my spirituality. I have visited some of the most holy sites on Earth. I’ve read countless books on devotion. Fundamentalists and born-agains have tried to reconvert my soul.
I have remained true to my non-belief and was proud to hear President Obama mention non-believers in his inaugural speech. Our numbers are not a few weirdos. We are at least 20 million strong.
Earlier this summer I was at a pool party at my doctor’s house on Staten Island. Two parents overheard my discourse against organized religion and said that their 10 year-old son was a non-believer.
“Could you talk to him, so he knows he’s not alone.” The mother was truly concerned about her son's divorce from the norm.
“No problem.” I walked over to the young boy. He was playing a video game. The other kids were cannonballing into the pool. He looked like he was winning his game. It probably meant killing aliens or bad people.
“Your parents wanted me to speak to you?” I flashed back to the shrink in 1967.
“About what?” he sighed, as if he had more than one problem.
He lowered his head and asked with resignation, “Are you a priest?”
“No, an atheist. I don’t believe in god and I wanted to tell you it won’t kill you either.”
I kept it short and sweet.
10 year-old boys rarely want to hear anything for a man in his 50s. I certainly hadn’t at his age.
“No worries.” I knew the road he had to travel. It wasn’t easy, but he wasn’t alone.
I took off my shirt and bellyflopped into the pool. The impact wave washed over the rim. The kids screamed with delight. I almost felt like Moses parting the Red Sea, but only almost like Moses. He had a big beard.
I got out of the pool and pushed back my hair.
The kids screeched for me to do it again.
“Only if we do it together.” I pointed to the little atheist. They called him by name. He put down his video game carefully to not let it get wet.
“One, two, three. Cannonball.”
We made a wave to make Noah proud and I broke surface with a smile.
It was good to be a kid again.