This is Part 1 of a 2 parter describing my journey to atheism. I'll put the second part up in 2 days. Dave
My childhood Catholicism was cultural and geographical insofar as I was born and raised in a Catholic family in Dublin, Ireland. Coupled to this, I spent large amounts of my childhood with my devoutly Catholic Grandmother who went, and brought me, to 7.30 am mass every weekday when I was on school holidays. My Grandmother never spoke to me about her beliefs, at least not that I can recall, but I do remember her earthy brand of belief as expressed in her pithy pain relief advice. When I’d present myself with a new cut, graze, or bruise my Grandmother would tend to the injury before closing the episode by saying; “Offer the pain up for your sins.” I’d pause, wondering at the strangeness of spiritual transgressions being offset by mild physical suffering, think of a suitable sin, and embrace the pain as penance. Childhood religious experiences don’t get much more Catholic than that!
The Brown Scapular
Apart from the usual ceremonies of first confession, communion, and confirmation there are two indicative occurrences of my early Catholicism that stick in my mind; one was a school visit by Brother Frampton and the second is a cornerstone of all good Catholic childhoods, guilt.
In senior primary school (ages 8-12) we were visited every May by one of the local Christian Brothers, Brother Frampton. Frampton was a very old, very small, and very softly spoken man with dancing eyes. Each time Brother Frampton visited our class he’d gain our attention by speaking in such hushed tones that we all had to fall entirely silent to hear what he was saying.
The topics of his orations varied. Sometimes he’d regale us with stories from his time as a missionary in Africa (I can’t remember if he was more specific but Africa was Africa to us boys) and other times he’d implore us to listen quietly to our souls to see if God was calling us to the religious life.
On one of his later visits Brother Frampton told us about the special power of the brown scapular (see image below). The gist of his talk that day was that if you wore a brown scapular as you died, and were sorry for your sins, you’d be forgiven. In other words, last minute repentance, accompanied by the correct neckwear, could save you from eternal damnation!
As Brother Frampton told us this story a reverent silence fell over the class. I can only imagine that each boy, like me, was making a mental note to never, ever take off their scapulars once the brother dished them out from the crumpled plastic bag he had placed on the teacher’s desk. The idea that you could escape hell on a technicality left a deep impression on many of us in the class. Years later, in showers after football matches, the occasional brown scapular could still be spotted. There’s a green scapular as well but none of us ever cared what it’s mythical powers were.
As a child I used God the way most people use emergency services, in moments of crisis. These moments involved a world ending catastrophe such as losing my maths books again, or getting into a fight, or getting caught robbing cream cakes from the baker’s van, or getting a disciplinary note home from school that required my Mother’s signature, you get the idea. I rarely prayed for forgiveness if I got away with something but if I got caught, or knew that apprehension for my misdeed was inevitable, communication with God was inevitable.
During crises such as these I’d find a quiet spot and swear to God that I’d never, ever lose school books/fight/steal/misbehave again (delete as appropriate) if only He could pull off a miracle this one time. This bargaining was in large part an appeal for help but it was also a sneaky demand for proof of His existence. I can’t remember if any miracles occurred but I’m pretty sure I’d remember if they had.
My relationship with God remained bartersome for the rest of my childhood but as adolescence arrived there was one classic Catholic development. Guilt. I felt Guilty when my Grandmother died, convinced that her death must have been my fault in some way. I felt guilty when I skipped school, kissed girls, smoked, drank, took drugs, masturbated. It still amazes me that any believing Catholic survives their adolescence psychologically intact. Most things that seem worth doing as a Catholic teenager are illegal or immoral. In some ways this adds to their excitement but in another way there is the creeping sense that you are failing your God daily. Luckily, I still wore my tattered brown scapular!
Having turned to God wholeheartedly during a crisis when I was 17 my relationship with Him evolved. In the same way that the man with the hammer thinks every problem is a nail I started to see the hand of God in all events in my life, good and bad. By this stage I had little interest in going to mass or formal Catholicism of any kind but I still enjoyed the occasional confession, often startling the priest with my ruthless self honesty and attention to sinful detail.
I became an a-la-carte Catholic. I ignored the parts of Catholicism I didn’t believe or approve of and gorged myself on the parts that made sense to me. I read and loved The Confessions of Saint Augustine and still love the beautitudes behind The Sermon On The Mount. My faith ceased to be mystical or other-worldly and became an active part of my life. I prayed every morning, at stages during the day, and at night I analysed my performance in a way that was largely free of guilt.
Throughout my 20s my faith became central to who I was and gave me a sense of purpose and self-improvement that I’ve rarely experienced since. I gained a sense of inner strength that I’d never felt previously and I attributed this to God. My faith eased my resentments, soothed my angers, and lessened my fears. In short, it made me a happier, better, human being. I felt so strongly about my faith that when I was on holidays I got the praying hands tattooed on my stomach. I felt like this until my wife miscarried at 11 weeks in 2007.