Christianity, Paganism & Atheism

I come from a Roman Catholic background. For over two decades of my life, I went to church with my family every Sunday; I listened to the songs, I listened to the sermons, took communion. Didn’t do much else religion-wise, though: I went to confession twice in my life, when I was very small. I had my Confirmation at the age of 13 or 14, too young to know whether Christianity, let alone Catholicism, was the thing for me. I don’t think I was every very religious. I sort of quietly believed, never imagining that things could be any other way.

Gradually, over the years, my vision of God changed. I wanted to look beyond the words I heard, beyond the sermons, beyond the dogma. God became more and more abstract, distant and impersonal. It was still a loving and benevolent God, but not one I could pray to. That was no big loss: I’d never prayed much anyways, and only when I was younger.

First one, then both my brothers stopped going to church. I was left alone to go through the weekly ritual with my parents. Actually, I didn’t mind too much. I thought it gave structure to my spiritual life (such as it was). But mostly what kept me going was inertia. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, and that sooner or later I would join my brothers in the ranks of nonpracticing Catholics. But it had to be my own decision for my own reasons, and certainly not out of peer pressure.

In May of 1992 I came out of the closet, starting a profound—if at first gradual—process of self-discovery and self-transformation. I connected with parts of myself—anger, activism—I never knew I had. I was starting to form my own rudimentary belief system, and to question Catholic doctrine more and more. By March of 1993 I was ready to finally let go. All I needed was a trigger.

That trigger was a speech given at my university by Svend Robinson (Canada’s first openly gay MP). Sitting in the bus on the way home, I realized my fears of being openly gay were fading. On a somewhat unrelated topic, I also realized I’d been defining my beliefs too negatively, in opposition to Catholic dogma. I’d thought going to church gave structure to my spiritual life. But all it really gave me was something to disagree with on a weekly basis. This was not healthy. It had to stop. The next Sunday I told my parents I was staying home. They didn’t argue, any more than thay had argued with my brothers. And that was that.

Months passed. Memories of church faded, and so did my identity as a Christian. In October I went back one more time, to make sure I’d done the right thing for the right reasons. And, if so, then I had to say goodbye before I could move on. Once that was behind me, I found I could breathe again. It was such an amazing sensation to not have all that dogma weighing down on me, to know I could finally walk away from it all. I hadn’t realized how much it had affected me until it was gone. And now I was free.

Out of tradition I went to Midnight Mass with my family that year. Didn’t enjoy the experience at all. Since then I haven’t set foot in a church, except for weddings and funerals.

Inspired by a couple of totally cool Witches I met in November, I decided to look into Paganism, buying the (IMO) excellent Drawing Down The Moon, by Margot Adler. Over the next couple of years I borrowed from the library books on mythology, Goddess religion and related topics. (As a Christmas present in 1994, I received from my twin brother Martin a copy of Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, another excellent introduction to Wicca. In an amusing twist of fate, he got interested in Paganism through reading my books, and eventually became Wiccan himself.)

It took me a while to realize that I was still looking for something, that I didn’t feel whole. After a lifetime of lukewarm theism, I needed something to replace it. I wanted a revelation; I yearned for a thunderbolt from heaven (or wherever), to read about a particular god or goddess or religion and know that this was for me. In short, I wanted to believe. It never happened. I was very much drawn to Wicca and Neo-Paganism, but couldn’t bring myself to take the leap and really adopt them.

Slowly, my desire to believe grew weaker, even though my taste for mythology stayed with me. In late 1995 my focus shifted from European cultures to Native American ones. Again there was this nagging wish to somehow adopt them, but I knew in this case it was totally out of the question. My background is French-Canadian; I have no claim on any Native culture. Most importantly, I have no right to simply pick and choose what I think is interesting about someone else’s still-living religion.

Maybe that’s what caused my decision, in January 1996, to stop looking for great truths outside and start looking inside myself. I knew it was the only way I could find what I needed. I developed my own spirituality, my own way of relating to myself, my past and my future. I consciously adopted as one of my basic principles a line from a favorite comic book: The only maps that take you places are the ones you draw yourself.

In June or thereabouts I discovered alt.atheism and the net.atheist communities. Even more so than with my discovery of the net.pagan communities, I felt like I’d come home. It put in perspective what I’d been feeling for months, and soon I came out as agnostic. Though deep down I realized I was also pretty much an atheist, I didn’t want to identify as such for several reasons. First, “agnostic” seemed less threatening, less “in-your-face,” more middle-of-the-road, which was what I wanted. I wasn’t ready (yet) to be a freethought activist. Second, I believed identifying as atheist as opposed to agnostic would mean having to explain myself, explain why I was “that way.”
Third, my heart had never strayed far from Paganism, and I didn’t want to ignore the fact that, someday, this inward exploration of mine would lead me to discover/create personal gods. (Which hasn’t happened yet, and probably won’t happen anytime soon.)

This situation lasted until last winter, when several things happened to change my mind. In December I experienced direct, personal homophobia for the first time, wrapped in Christian “love.” That, and living with a right-wing, pro-life Catholic guy for six months hardened my attitude toward organized religion even more. Middle-of-the-road just wasn’t enough anymore. Also, I learned that idiot Christians didn’t know what the hell agnosticism was. They either saw it as a position of confusion and indecision, or else confused it with atheism anyways, which meant I still had to explain myself.

Finally, reading the posts of an atheistic Witch on alt.atheism made me realize there didn’t have to be a contradiction between atheism and Paganism, as long as one saw gods as symbols, either of natural forces or aspects of oneself.

So, armed with these new insights (plus another more personal one which I won’t relate here) I came out as an atheist in mid-February. Of course, I’m still agnostic, which makes me a weak atheist.

Things didn’t end there, though. Since last summer I’ve been experimenting (on and off, at first) with very rough and simple rituals, to give structure to my spiritual life. Real structure, to a real spirituality, unlike what I had in my church days. At the end of March I had an interesting experience that made me reconsider my identity once again. For about a month and a half I identified (to myself only) as atheistic Pagan. But now I realize that label isn’t accurate. I’m an atheist first and foremost. Yet I can’t ignore my Pagan roots. I must acknowledge my belief in the interconnectedness and sacredness of all life (To call something sacred is to say it has a value beyond its usefulness for human life); my belief in the power of myths and dreams to shape our lives, for better or for worse; the part of me that responds to stories of ancient (and new) Gods and Goddesses; my spiritual life, and my growing use of ritual.

So here I am. For a time I thought Paganism was just a phase, between christianity and atheism. But now it looks like it’s here to stay. A little while ago I received an email from someone who was confused that an atheist would include “pagan stuff” on his home page. I find this both amusing and annoying. To be frank, I don’t really care who I confuse: I am who I am, with atheist mind and Pagan heart, and no apologies. This is my path, and I’m proud of the fact that I’m walking it alone, with no maps to guide me but the ones I’ve drawn myself. And where will it take me? I have no idea, and wouldn’t dare make a guess. But I think it’ll be fun to find out.