When I was six years old, my father sat me, my brother and sister down on a park bench and told it to us straight:
“There is no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy and no God. Questions? No? Ice cream?”
I was already sort of hip to the Santa/Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy racket, but the God thing threw me for a loop. Later the same day over the roar of the vacuum cleaner1, my mother said: “Don’t worry. I had you baptized so you’re going to heaven regardless.”
Regardless of what? Of the fact that Dad was an atheist, that we’d never been to church? Well, almost never. Once Mom told him we were going out to look at Christmas lights, chose a random church and snuck us into midnight mass. The service had already started and as we walked up the hushed aisle my brother yelled, “GODDAMN, THIS JOINT IS PACKED!” I can only imagine how we must have looked: my mother in her orange poncho and Frye boots, towing three scraggly-haired children spouting obscenities.
As if that weren’t enough, when the congregation stood for the first hymn my brother decided he’d rather stay seated, thank you very much. Unfortunately he was sitting on the hem of my mother’s elastic-waist skirt and the skirt didn’t rise when she did. Only my sister was too young to be embarrassed. She looked around at the stained-glass windows with round little oblivious eyes then turned her attention to sucking on a peppermint she found stuck to a hymn book.
So that was that. Fine by me. What I’d seen of church wasn’t half as entertaining as Sunday morning cartoons. Besides, when you’re lounging in front of the Gummie Bears with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch there’s not half as much chance of seeing your brother expose your mother’s stretched-out beige panties to hundreds of strangers.
For a while being godless
didn’t seem like a big deal, until school began and I started to figure out that other kids went to church all the time and even saw each other there. I was beginning to feel excluded from some big weird club. At my church we do this. At my church we do that.
“What church do you go to?” the kids asked me.
“Church of Mind Your Own Beeswax,” I retorted with the middle finger. “Here’s the steeple.”
In the third grade I found out that a lot of girls at school were attending Catechism classes at night, which I misinterpreted as Catty-kiss-him. They talked about how cool the teacher was, how they got to eat doughnuts and talk to cute boys from other schools. I wondered, were they kissing these boys? Who was Catty?2
By the time I was 100 percent sure there was no Santa Claus, I started to seriously question whether there was a God and if not, why did so many adults believe it? I mean, they didn’t believe in Santa Claus, right?
I took out a piece of paper and wrote down everything I knew:
Things I know about God (if He exists)
You must capitalize the first letter of God’s name even though it’s not really a name as much as a title. If you are speaking, you should say it with a lot of emphasis so people will know there should be a capital letter there.
God has a book called the Bible that we are supposed to read so we know what things not to do.
If you want him to know who you are, you have to check in regularly at a church.
He only picks certain kids to learn about him.
He has no problem with doughnuts.
He died on a cross for Our Sins.
Not very impressive.
“Excuse me,” I said, bursting in on my mother while she was on the toilet. “I don’t think God wants me to believe in him. If he did, wouldn’t he have given me to parents who go to church?”
“I don’t know,” she sighed, exasperated. “Maybe he’s testing you to see if you can believe in him all by yourself. Now hand me the toilet paper, would you?”
For the next few years I made an effort to believe in God all by myself but it wasn’t very successful, especially when some dink from the church was invited to our school to hand out little copies of the New Testament. They were red with gold-etched pages and on the inside cover it said: This book belongs to ______________. Just for the hell of it, on the blank line I wrote my name as BOOGALOOGA.
I made the mistake of showing this coup to my father and when he realized what the book was he jumped all over it. He made a huge stink at school and turned the whole thing into a media circus. The way people reacted you’d think my father was the Prince of Darkness himself.3
At some point I gave up and decided I’d just ride the baptism thing into heaven.4
But time passed, I got boobs (unrelated) and suddenly being godless became the coolest thing ever. I could do anything I wanted, guilt-free. Some of my friends had to go to confession after we did bottle tokes in the woods behind Penhorn Mall, but pas moi. The same girls who shunned me for not having a God suddenly worshipped me for the same reason. They were about to be confirmed, which meant they would no longer have to go to Catechism classes that they admitted had become a drag, or do anything else related to God besides go to church and sit on their ample asses and they’d be in his divine graces for life.
But the night of the Main Event one of them called me in a panic.
“Meet me in front of the church,” she whispered.
I walked down Gaston Road and met her outside The Church of the Holy Spirit across from Leo’s.5 She was hiding in a bush. I could see her combat boots peeking out from underneath her blue flowered dress.
“What’s up?” I asked. “Shouldn’t you be inside Confirming your place in God’s heart or whatever?”
She looked around wildly. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t think I believe all this stuff. I have to kiss Jesus’s feet. Fuck!”
Sacre bleu! One of the chosen ones rejecting God’s son? What a waste of doughnuts.
It turns out she wasn’t the only unbeliever. By high school all those girls had more or less given themselves over to what I’d termed “The Darkness.” Gone were the days when my friends had to get up early and go to church; suddenly Sunday mornings were spent at the coffee shop discussing the various shapes and sizes of penises we’d touched. Heaven.
And then BAM! We graduated high school and were thrown to the wolves. Some of us got pregnant, some went to university. I was lucky enough to fall in the second category and in the second year of my BA stumbled into the Comparative Religion department. The first prof I talked to was raised Hindi in Calcutta, spent five years as a Benedictine monk in Wales and married an Inuit woman in a traditional ceremony up north.
“Don’t come to my class expecting answers to crazy questions,” he said in his thick Indian accent. “I don’t know who or what this thing God is.” He gestured with exasperation to some small idols of Ganesh and Buddha sitting on his desk. “You ask me a stupid question about these guys I will punish you, I swear to God.”
I was in.
Through fall and into the spring I read most of the Bible, the Koran, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I studied the finer points of Hinduism and Bah’ai. For a project I hooked up with a Mi’kmaq chief who tolerated my exhaustive queries about the Great Spirit and only once told me I reminded him of a fart. I discovered a whole wealth of religions and gods and I realized, holy shit, I was blessed! When my father imparted his personal belief in the non-existence of anything as powerful as God or the Easter Bunny, he did me a favour. I may have spent my youth on my knees citing the Lord’s Prayer from memory, wearing an ash on my forehead, kissing statues and not have had a single clue what any of it meant to me. Now I could choose my own God.
Or invent one!
So I did. My unnamed personal religion has few rules. All I have to do is be a good person and basically that means I don’t do anything my gut says a good person wouldn’t. There are no commandments. No rituals. Certainly there will be no funeral.6
I don’t hate Christianity or anything. I was in Italy a few years ago and saw people bent low in high churches communing with their Catholic God and it really moved me. I mean, it moved me like a rock on the ocean floor. I was swept away! Once on Brunswick Street I heard a choir singing “O Holy Night” in an empty church and there was no way you could have convinced me they weren’t angels. I stopped and died for 10 minutes until the end of that song. However, I do think there is a lot of shit in the Christian religion that needs to be ironed out. Soon.
Anyway, my general opinion is this:
Maybe faith is God. Maybe love is. Who knows? Not me. Not you.Not even your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother.So let’s not sweat it.Let’s keep being beautiful and blind and try to fall hopelessly in love with this fucked-up world (like we were meant to)and I think we’ll be alright
in the end.
Sarah Mian hails from the Dark Side but now lives in Halifax. She was published last year in To Find Us: Words and Images of Halifax and in a recent issue of the Antigonish Review.
1 Because why stop doing housework to discuss the fate of my eternal soul?
2 It turns out they were all catty because as soon as they found out I was sans saviour they started telling everyone I was exiled from the church due to my mother’s occult leanings. “You cast one spell on a dentist…” she seethed when I asked her about it.
3 For a while the neighbourhood kids called Dad “The Bad Man” and our house “The Bad Man’s House.”
4 Kind of like if you keep the training wheels on your bicycle forever so you never have to learn to ride it properly. My sister did that.
5 Leo’s was a corner store and Leo used to slice the tops off our freezies with a giant machete.
6 I can’t wait till we all agree that dressing up a rotting corpse in a dress and keeping it in a box in the ground is fucking sick.