I am going to Hell, they tell me. Jokingly, with a twinge of superiority, friends and neighbors chuckle at the thought of my eternal demise. But their words never bother me. If there be a Hell, I doubt they decide who passes through the fiery gates.
Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul if I have a soul.
Growing up, my community was predominantly Roman Catholic. My grandparents on my mom’s side, who lived with us for most of my early childhood, were devout observers of the faith, and that devotion was passed down to my mom. My dad, an atheist, lost the popular vote in our household, so I attended private Catholic schools from kindergarten to the end of high school. Because I feared social repercussions for disobeying teachers and parents, I partook in the various religious rites of passage prescribed to children in this school system: Baptism, First Reconciliation, and First Communion. But religion was never something I believed in; it was just something I did. I considered the practice on a similar level with doing homework — annoying, yet unavoidable.
My grade school — kindergarten through eighth grade — was small. Each grade level was composed of about twenty students who, for the most part, stayed together for the first nine years of their education. Religion was prominently featured in the curriculum, with at least one class per day devoted to studying the Catholic Church, at least one religious ceremony or tradition marking the schedule each week, and at least one (torturous) hour spent in Mass each Sunday.
Otherwise, religion was a non-factor in my life. My friends and I played violent video games like all the other kids. We went to the beach and the movies. We played sports (albeit only against other Catholic schools) and competed in academic competitions. And, other than those couple hours per week in class, religion was never part of the discussion.
Things changed when I got to high school. I moved from a class of twenty to a class of almost 500. (It was, in fact, the largest co-ed Catholic high school in the western United States.) And religion changed from something you did to something that defined you. My friends were no longer shy in discussing religion or the Church — a product of the groupthink mentality that emerges in large, homogenous populations. More often than not, I found myself on the wrong side of arguments about matters of biblical teaching: Did God really flood the entire planet and only save Noah? Did Abraham really die at the age of 175? Did Jesus literally rise from the dead after three days?
But the debate stemmed from something more than logical fallacies. I also found myself on the “wrong” side of arguments about matters of faith and spirituality. I came to realize that many of my friends — the ones who had rarely mentioned faith in the years I had known them — were much further down their path of spiritual development than they had led me to believe. No longer was I one of the crowd; rather, I was the one standing against the crowd. The pain of being treated like an outsider in my own community wore on me until it no longer felt like my community.
One Sunday afternoon, after a particularly grueling sermon on the importance of all-encompassing devotion to the Church and its teachings, I finally told my mom that I wasn’t interested in going to Mass anymore. I officially removed myself from the Church, unsure if I might ever find my way back.
My high school, like my grade school, required students to attend regular religious classes. The mandated ninth-grade curriculum was “Catholic Life Choices.” Our teacher — a 30-something, unmarried layperson — was tasked with teaching a roomful of walking hormones not to have sex or think about sex or even say the word “sex.” She stood 5 feet tall, wore floor-length dresses and black-framed glasses, and alternated between quiet murmuring and bouts of screaming. On the best days, the class consisted of chitchat and busywork; on the worst days, it involved forced proclamations of faith and allegiance to the Church.
During a discussion about spirits one day during the middle of the semester, a member of our class asks the teacher about Ouija boards, mystical playtoys marketed as a means to contact the dead. (Despite such ominous claims, they are primarily used by preteens to entertain their friends at sleepovers.)
“Are they really possessed by the devil?” the young boy asks.
His tone suggests he really just intends to rile the teacher and to create a classroom ruckus. The teacher, however, calmly addresses the class and says that, in fact, the spirit of the Devil can possess such toys. As a preventative measure, she suggests that anyone who owns one should bring it to a priest to have it exorcised, and she insists that students not throw such an item away (lest some residual demons be left behind in the garbage can, I suppose).
My ninth-grade self feels nauseated that a paid educator can suggest to a classroom full of students that a $13.16 piece of cardboard and plastic manufactured by Hasbro is a threat to their safety. Can the makers of Jenga really bring Satan into my home?
The next day, I visit the room at lunch to probe the issue further.
“Do you really believe a toy could be possessed by the devil?” I ask, hoping to reveal some major miscommunication from class the day prior. Despite my disagreement with large portions of the Church’s doctrine, I feel compelled to at least attempt to understand how such beliefs arise. Typically, I find the resulting conversations illuminating, and, even though they rarely change opinions, such open dialogue is helping me establish my personal creed.
“Well, let me put it this way,” she replies. “Do you believe in angels?”
“No,” I reply.
I don’t mean for the answer to come out so bluntly, but I can immediately tell she is taken aback. I’m momentarily embarrassed, but hardly surprised. Teachers at my school are rarely prepared to deal with students who openly question the Catholic doctrine, which I have now done by eliminating angels from my worldview.
“Oh, you couldn’t possibly understand what I’m talking about then,” she says. “It’s a matter of faith.”
For many years now, I have considered myself a religious agnostic. I acknowledge that humans have a limited capacity to understand certain aspects of their universe and that, try as they might, they cannot obtain absolute or ultimate knowledge in any given subject.
Back when my mother still dragged my brother and me out of bed for Sunday morning Mass, I was told what to wear, what to say, and what to do. The process was repetitive and often brainless. Never was I allowed, as I had wished on so many occasions, to raise my hand during a homily and to ask the priest to explain further. At first, the lack of independent thought was a nuisance. But as I grew older, unanswered questions burned inside me. Every time I got close enough to someone with “sacred” knowledge, the questions only became more intense and troubling.
Since coming to college, I have felt more at ease about my lack of religious affiliation. Studies have shown that about one-third of college students consider themselves secular, compared with about 6 percent among the general population. Very few of my friends identify with a religion, and those who do often discuss questions of faith openly with me if asked. I’ve felt that college promotes a certain amount of agnosticism in everyone. Classes in biology and chemistry don’t just teach students the nature of science but, rather, how to ask the right questions.
I may find faith again one day — faith either in the Catholic Church or in one of the other major or minor religions practiced. If agnosticism asks individuals to acknowledge uncertainty in life, then I must recognize the possibility that religion can be the right path for me. But I will never give up my ability to question. To question is to learn, to grow and to believe.