I spent much of the summer after my eighth grade year hanging out at graduation parties. My class only included 17 kids, but we all tried to schedule our parties on different weekends, so they ran through most of the summer.
One went later into the evening, and I remember laying on a lawn chair, looking up at the stars with four or five of my former classmates. We were pointing out the constellations we knew (well, the Big Dipper and Small Dipper, anyway) and talking about the immensity of it all. I remember saying, “You know, I feel like a real jerk saying it, but I sort of think there might not really be a God.”
That was the first time I had even considered the notion. I was raised Catholic and had just finished eight years in a Catholic school, and was about to start four more at a Catholic high school. My family was never incredibly religious, but we went to Mass every Sunday and said Grace before dinner every night and generally tried to be decent people.
The next time I questioned my faith was two or three years later. I think I was a sophomore at the time, because I told my Mom I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go through with my Confirmation the following year. She got pretty upset and insisted that I talk to our priest about it before I made a decision like that, so I just dropped it to keep her happy and didn’t think much of it for a couple more years.
In that time, I became involved in The Rock, a youth ministry group based at a church a few towns over. In order to make Confirmation, the Catholic Church requires that candidates take part in a retreat - we were one of the groups in the area that was capable of giving these retreats.
I met the group the summer after my sophomore year. My best friend Bill’s mom knew someone at the church where the group was based, and had found out that they were going to a weekend-long youth conference in Ohio. I guess they had more spots available than people, so Bill was invited to go and asked me to go with him. I had a great time when we went, and became more involved with them after I made my own Confirmation retreat with them that November. I started going to the weekly meetings and taking part in the retreats, and got to be really good friends with the core group of people that were involved. During my senior year of high school, I was also a member of another group at my school that put on retreats for the other classes (a much less involved group, but with a similar intent).
I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but even then, I had some serious doubts about my faith. However, I loved the people in the group so much that I sort of buried those doubts and pretended to be an upstanding young Catholic man capable of leading other young Catholics in their commitment to the church.
It certainly isn’t something I’m proud of now, but at the time, I had myself convinced that I really did believe it all.
I did find out later - maybe not explicitly, but I definitely got the idea - that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. None of us were terribly religious people - our weekly meetings often lent themselves to pretty raunchy conversation and plenty of teenage-hormone-fueled innuendo. However, we all loved the group so much that we were willing to put on our “game face” and spread a little Jesus every other weekend.
Once I left for college, I stopped going to Mass and pretty much lost touch with most people from The Rock. I still talked to a few of them every now and then, but it’s been at least two years since I’ve spoken to anyone but Bill. For the first couple months, my parents would nag me about finding a church near campus or going to Mass at the interfaith center (at one point, I’d used that as a selling point for the school). It was another year or two before they stopped hounding me to go to Mass with them when I was home for Christmas or Easter. For a while, I went just to keep them happy, and still would if they insisted on it. I say Grace when I have dinner with them - “Oh good, he still remembers the words,” my Mom always comments to Dad.
I think I knew I was an Atheist even while I was involved in the two retreat groups, but never consciously admitted it. When I left for college, I left everything and everyone I knew, and basically started a new life. Most of my friends at school where Atheists (or religiously indifferent), but I think that says more about the people I hang out with than the decline of morality in Those Damn Kids These Days.
At this point, it’s difficult for me to take religion seriously. I’d like to think that I generally respect the opinions, wishes, and choices of others, but I’m not sure I do a great job of it. Honestly, the whole concept just seems ridiculous to me now. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I feel like modern science and logic preclude the existence of some higher being. Even so, I consider myself to be Agnostic - I don’t believe in a God, but I also know there’s no way to prove it one way or the other. I just couldn’t possibly convince myself to believe in something that offers no proof of its existence. The Intelligent Design campaign just baffles me - how can you accept as fact a book that was written a couple thousand years ago by a variety of unknown (or unverified) authors? One of the most common lines in those religious forwards from my parents is something like, “Why is it that we’re willing to believe everything we read in magazines, but question the Bible?” Makes me laugh every time (and seriously, I’ve seen it in a half-dozen different e-mails).
Honestly, I don’t mean to offend religious folk - to each his own, whatever makes you happy, and all that. But really, I approach religion in much the same way I approach over-zealous Star Trek fans - I just don’t buy into the fantasy, and I don’t understand why anyone else does.