I grow up godless, learn that God doesn't mind
March 5, 1984
As a boy, my lack of religion seemed to bother people around me more than it bothered God, and I figured he knew more about it than they did, so I wasn't bothered either. I made a study of it as a youth, less to figure out why I didn't believe in God than to learn why so many other people did. My answers were not flattering to believers, but then I once believed TV cowgirl Gail Evans was the coolest girl ever, so I already knew how fallible we humans can be.
I wrote about some of thee experiences in a 1979 column, "Who Went to Church?" and then forgot all about it.
I addressed the public dimensions of religion several times over the years. See "Religion" on the topic page Society, etc.
Like most youngsters, I had much natural religious feeling as a boy but little piety. My parents were not churchgoers, for reasons which they never explained. My father’s family, for example, had been the scene of grim factional wars between his German Lutheran father and his Irish Methodist mother. His father and mother attended different churches on Sunday all their years together. This left my father with the notion that religion was a lot like gasoline—pretty useful stuff, but too explosive to allow into the house.
Whatever the cause, my sisters and I grew up unchurched but hardly heathen. We were taught to be respectful of God and other people’s opinion of God, without ever being told why. God’s presence, I guessed, was something that everybody understood, or said they did. I never understood it, but then I’ve often had trouble understanding things other people believe.
The absence of firmly held views made our household a singularly tolerant one. I was interested to hear Thomas Merton insist (in his 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain) that “all Protestant children hear” from their childhood onward “how wicked the Catholic Church was,” what a “vague and evil thing” it was. I can recall no such instruction, and it would not have been for want of occasion, since most of my friends were Catholic. My parents seemed to believe with Merton’s that “all religions were more or less praiseworthy on purely natural or social grounds.” This view made the drawing of distinctions superfluous. “Methodist” and “Baptist” and “Presbyterian” were categories as mysterious to me as “Hottentot” or “Kurd.”
Indeed, it was some time before I managed to piece together the fact that Catholics were different from Protestants, in spite of the fact that each remained Christian. As for the differences between Protestant sects, well, I decided early that if so many people could find so much to disagree about in religion, I had no business sticking my nose in it.
I did pick up a fear of hell, which grownups found to be a handy stick with which they could beat us without raising any bruises. It was my first experience in the misapplication of dogma, and I have not forgotten it. Beyond that, my discomfort at my lack of formal religious training was social, not spiritual. I did not envy my friends their mysterious Sunday morning errands, since none of them seemed to enjoy them. In fact I was rather lucky. The hours I spent wandering around the fields which abutted our new subdivision on those lonesome Sunday mornings took me closer to the sublime than my friends were able to get in church—although it wasn’t until years later that I realized that what unimaginative people call “God” can be called by other names as well, and be no less sacred for the difference.
At school I pledged allegiance every morning to the flag and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God. I had gotten used to saying I believed things I didn’t understand in school, and this daily hypocrisy caused me no qualm. My sister was not so lucky. I had Mrs. L., a woman to whose students she verged on the holy herself, insofar as her beneficence and infallibility were concerned. But my sister ended up under the thumb of Miss R.
Miss R.'s was a thumb grown calloused from a half-century of leafing through her Bible looking for lessons with which to terrorize children. Every Monday morning, Miss R. demanded to know by a show of hands which children had gone to Sunday school that week. My sister never did, of course. She could hardly be held accountable for her failure, any more than she could be held accountable for the fact that my mother served macaroni on Thursday night when the Hanselmans next door had meat loaf. Even so, she was made to feel ashamed, as if it had been she, and not her parents, who decided such things. Thus trapped between her parents’ waywardness and her teacher’s busybodiness, she did what any intelligent child would do and lied.
I thought even then that it was none of Miss R.’s business whether any of us went to Sunday school. Sunday was church and Monday was school, and just as I was profoundly uncomfortable when my parents tried to contradict anything Mrs. L. told me in school about how to multiply a number with a zero in it, I resented the idea of a teacher presuming to pass judgment on what was a purely family matter. Things were complicated enough in the sixth grade without mixing up God and Miss R.
My turn came in the ninth grade. Miss N. was not at all like Miss R. She was our music teacher and choir director. I liked her, because once she got so mad during rehearsal for a concert that she yelled, “Shut up, dammit!” (I don’t remember why. Probably because the basses were singing “The Duke of Earl” in the back rows.) Anyway, Miss N. also directed the choir at her own church, and had arranged for a few of us to augment that group at a Christmas service. Miss N. polled the groups, asking each of us—we were standing in a group around the piano, so our answers were public in the most awful way—to which religious denomination we belonged. I am not now sure whether she did this out of concern that our families might object to our consorting with her Congregationalists, or whether her Congregationalists were picky about whom they booked for their Christmas show.
I didn’t pause at the time to reflect on her question’s relevance, or even its impertinence. I was too busy trying to stifle my panic. She started her quiz at the far end of the line, and as she worked her way toward me my mind spun. What would I say? What could I say? It was perhaps the first test I’d ever faced in school which I hadn’t studied for.
I could have said Catholic, or Presbyterian; I knew they were both safe, because I had a couple of friends of each. But that seemed dishonest, and besides, too many people would know it not true. Not for the first time in such matters, my education let me down. I hurriedly reviewed the religions I’d encountered in books. I knew the Incas and Mayans had had gods, but if any of my friends had seen human sacrifice at their churches I’m sure they would have said something about it. I had read about the Huguenots and the Puritans, but I understood that the former had been slaughtered somewhere, and that the latter wore uniforms. I knew more about shamans than Christian Scientists.
I knew I didn’t want to say “None,” even though it was the truth. Not because I was ashamed; I had by then learned that virtue and churchliness are only accidentally related. I was more afraid that I would be asked why, and I didn’t know. Had our churchlessness been a matter of principle—had our parents been atheists, for example—I would have been armed with argument against the disapproval of the conventionally pious. But I was not.
When my turn came then, I blurted out a name I’d found in some dim corner of my brain, where it lay, vaguely remembered from a magazine which I’d seen about the house. It came each month addressed to my mother, whose name apparently had been placed on a mailing list in a hopeful gesture by some relative. Weakly, I said, “Latter Day Saints.” Miss N. looked surprised. “Oh, Mormon,” she said, not unkindly. I wanted to answer, “Really? What’s that?” but I was pretty sure she wouldn’t understand.
That was more than twenty years ago. The indifferent churchlessness of my youth has become a matter of principle in the man. I bow my head at table when someone else says grace even so, out of civility. But what I do as a man by choice, 1 did as a boy out of fear of being thought odd.
Which is why 1 regard any attempt to allow formal sanctioned prayer in public schools to be pernicious. Children are natural bigots, and hardly need the spur to intolerance which religion provides. Far from instructing them (in the words of an unfortunate editorial by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette) in “a correct way of life,” public prayer will only school them further in hypocrisy, in the arts of going along, in the social utility of professing what one does not believe, in the courting of official opinion.
I have read a half-dozen editorials on school prayer in the last week, all but the News-Gazette's properly disapproving. But I have read no words wiser than those E.B. White wrote in 1956 upon hearing that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down a New York state prayer because it violated the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion. White praised the court for confirming what he called the “simple theme which ennobles our Constitution: that no one should be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe because of nonconformity.” New York’s state-authorized prayer, however well-intentioned, had created what White recognized as “a moment of gentle orthodoxy in public school life.” And the nurturing of orthodoxy, even of the gentle sort, is not what schools are for. □