I went to my parents’ house for Easter. This is the home I grew up in. The home I fled six years ago after coming out as gay & atheist. As I’ve noted in the past, going back to this house is often an anxious occasion for me. This was no different. And this visit raised some familiar issues - specifically church attendance. But not mine - one of my cousin’s.
My cousins are 21-year-old fraternal twins. They both attend Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. They’ve both been raised Catholic. I was there for their Baptism and Confirmation. I was already an atheist during their confirmation, but I was not out at that time. I attended because my uncle asked, and I had no good excuse not to go.
These two young men are two of the kindest, most thoughtful, and helpful young people I’ve ever known. They’re both incredibly different, though. They both strongly resemble one parent each. Let’s call them Luke and John (not their real names).
Luke is like his mother. He’s a talker, funny, kind, laid back, empathetic. John is actually more like his grandfather than his father, but they definitely have many similar qualities - quiet, stern, serious. And when there is something to say, it is not softened or wrapped in platitudes - it is the blunt, simple truth.
As so often happens on occasions such as Easter, it usually ends up with myself, my parents, and my aunt and uncle sitting around the kitchen table, chatting on whatever subject rears its head. The subject is rarely, if ever, the occasion being celebrated - Easter and Christmas are almost always about the food, and maybe some talk about old family traditions of the past. Thanksgiving includes an opening prayer, but then it’s on to the meal (ironic that the decidedly less religious of the three holidays gets the most attention to its actual purpose).
Some time into the conversation, my uncle relates a story of when my cousins were home during a recent break. My aunt, uncle, and Luke had all gotten into the car to go to church one Sunday morning. My uncle asked Luke where John was. Luke said that John had decided not to come.
This is where the story turns familiarly dark for most atheists who grew up religiously. My uncle’s solution was less than subtle. As he relates it, he went upstairs to John’s room, and told him that, as long as he was living under his roof, he would attend church, or he would lose that roof, the car, and financial support for attending Penn State.
John is attending Penn State for engineering - it is an unforgiving program which will leave John with remarkably better future prospects than most college graduates. There is always demand for engineers. And although the workload and classes were a struggle at first, he has turned it around. John has remarkable potential.
John’s father, however, would see that potential destroyed if his son doesn’t want to attend mass. John did the practical thing - got up and attended church with the rest of them. He later attributed his desire not to attend mass to the church’s constant begging for money (more on this point later).
I don’t like to confront these kinds of things with family members, especially when my own parents are around. So I sat quietly for a bit as the conversation moved forward, and started centering around blame. My aunt first blamed college classes he might be attending. I can’t say I attended many engineering or math classes at college - in fact, no engineering and maybe four math classes graced my transcript. But I did start out in computer science, and such disciplines have similar approaches. There is simply too much complicated stuff to cover in 15 weeks that there is no time for religion or philosophy in either an engineering or computer science classroom. I can guarantee that any professor, confronted by such questions in those kinds of classes, would brush them off as a distraction from the subject matter. There would be no desire to examine such questions - simply outright dismissal.
There are, of course, general education classes that are required, too. I’m not sure exactly how many of these classes they’re still attending. Luke and John are nearing the end of their college years - at this point, most of those credits are under a student’s belt. In my own experience, I saved one gen ed requirement for later, just to break up the course load with something a little different. Even so, contrary to the popular conservative Christian perception of universities, there are not very many classes or professors out there willing to outright demand that their students disbelieve. Some philosophy, history, and literature courses can introduce students to new ideas, but in my personal experience, no professor is going to force specific ideas on students. If John’s mind was changed by something, it was through simple exposure - not the demands of a professor or specific course work.
My mother essentially supported this and dismissed the class theory outright. She attributed it to “that age.” How at that age, most “kids” (her word, not mine) think they know everything. I spoke up at this point, and quickly shattered that theory, by pointing out that, through the entirety of my college experience, I did, in fact, attend mass. At “that age,” I had not dismissed the notion of the church. I even pointed out that I attended mass early in the morning, and then spent the rest of my Sunday morning and some afternoon attending other churches where my friends went.
My mother related her time in college and dealing with church attendance, which is a story I’ve heard often. She was raised in the Byzantine Catholic tradition, which is notably different from the Roman Catholic tradition in style and practice. The Byzantine mass is quite different from the Roman mass. It is closer to Greek & Russian Orthodox traditions, but is still under the jurisdiction of the Pope. So when the college town she lived in only had a Roman Catholic church, the shock of the change in practices was disappointing, and downright depressing, to her. When she was at her college, she never attended mass, but it was not due to a falling out with the church - it was from a lack of familiar, comforting experience. She continued to attend any time she was home with her family.
My uncle then related his time living in New York as a young man. Where he lived, the closest Byzantine church was an hour away. He said he attended it a few times while living there, but usually opted for the closer Roman Catholic church.
The conversation started to die down a bit around this particular subject, but I had considered what I wanted to say by this point, so before the subject changed, I interjected with some ideas of my own.
I advised my uncle that, in the future, when John and Luke come home for the summer, just prepare to go to church, and ask John if he wants to go. If he says no, just let him stay home, but continue to ask him each week. Don’t threaten him, and don’t push. Just ask once, and accept the answer. Any further pushing could lead to resentment.
My father asserted that the matter was already decided from my uncle’s initial response. I am not at all surprised by his support of that idea, and am certain that, if I was not financially independent, my father would have similarly threatened homelessness and financial ruin.
After his time in New York, my uncle moved back in with his parents for a time for some financial safety, while he prepared to move on to a new life back where he had grown up. He would, apparently, make a habit of staying out very late at night, and end up not attending church because of how late he was out. He told me how his parents similarly threatened him, and that he started attending church regularly while living with them. He credited this for his continued attendance to this day.
By this point, I didn’t really have the strength to continue the discussion in front of my own parents. Upon reflection, I felt I should have stopped by my aunt and uncle’s house afterwards and just tried to tell them my story, alone, without my parents interfering. By the time I thought of this, though, I was more than halfway through my drive home, and couldn’t justify turning back. So, I decided instead to write this continuation and response to their reaction.
Let’s start with John. John made a move of extraordinary courage - a defiance of the religion he grew up with. It’s not something I could do at his age. Especially when I saw what happened to my sister when she left the Catholic church - a perspective that John lacked, so perhaps less surprising an act for him than for me. I was also partially driven by a misguided desire to be the less troublesome child in comparison to my sister.
John’s reason - that the church talks about money too much - is a familiar one. So familiar, and cliche, that I struggle to completely accept it as the only reason. It’s a comfortable means by which to dismiss the church, one that many can empathize with, because the church does, in fact, talk about money to a gratuitous extent. But my doubts stem from something else.
The town where they, and incidentally I, grew up is close to a city, but remarkably sheltered. It is populated mostly by people who never leave home, let alone the state or country. Exposure to new ideas is low. State College, PA, however, is very much a different experience. Penn State is not just a college for people who grew up in sheltered portions of a rust belt state. It attracts all kinds, from other regions, states, and countries. Even the small university I attended attracted quite a few international students. Simply attending such a school can expose you to a vast number of new ideas and perspectives. An approach to this in curriculum alone is not required. My first semester landed me with a practicing Hindu roommate. My last semester I shared a student apartment with a Muslim, who was an amazing roommate and a fast friend. If this can happen in the small school I attended, it can certainly happen at Penn State.
John is also living in a world with a remarkable conduit for discovery of new ideas - the internet. Even in all my time at my university, and exposure to new ideas, I remained a theist for years afterwards. Later on, however, the internet, and people I met on there, helped me along more than I could have expected. And the internet is quite easily available to them, even more so than it was to me. The internet was slower, smaller, less defined, and largely unrealized when I was in college. Today, it is a machine for quickly disseminating information. And for a questioning young adult, it is an avalanche of life-changing perspective.
I don’t believe that John is only bothered by the petitions for money. I believe that this is the easy, relatable cover. My theory is that his troubles with the Catholic church go deeper - into full disbelief. This is not based on knowledge. I am entirely inferring that this is the case based on his current surroundings, current technology, and the flexibility that affords him.
Ultimately, this brings me back to my uncle. When I counseled more restraint in trying to get John to go to church, and he told me about living with his parents, and their requirements, I warned him that the aggressive, threatening approach was quite likely to make John resent him, and the church. My uncle’s response was that he never resented his parents for their approach to him, but I think this misses key differences in the situations.
For one, my uncle stated that he would stay out late at night and be too tired the next day to go to church. This is quite different than someone being well-rested and free to attend church, and choosing not to (even if they were ultimately forced to, like John). Additionally, this is after my uncle’s time living and working in New York for a while, where he admitted to occasionally traveling fifty miles one way to attend a Byzantine church, and otherwise attending a closer Roman Catholic church. Maybe my uncle thinks he would have fallen out of the habit had his parents not forced him to go, but traveling such a long distance is something you could never convince someone who did not want to attend church to do.
The church is losing John. It may even be losing Luke, but he might be too worried about making his parents happy to let it show.
One final grotesque note - when my uncle told how he threatened John, and how John decided to go to church after that, there was, somehow, pride on his face. Congratulations, I guess? Your son chose to spend an hour in a boring ceremony over homelessness and financial ruin. The extent to which religious delusions fuck up a normally reasonable mind into thinking such despicable cruelty is somehow justified will never cease to surprise me. And taking pride in such acts is something we should never strive to understand.