Vol. 20 No. 7 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. -
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Tie: Third Place College Essay
The Recovering Catholic: 12 Steps to Becoming a Freethinker
By Sally Jane Kerschen-Sheppard
When I was a sophomore in high school, my mother began to get worried that I had not yet been confirmed. Most of the other kids from my Catholic high school were already taking confirmation classes at their local parishes, and I was not. So she began trying to convince me that it was time to "commit myself to God," and I began trying to convince her that there was no way that I was going to stand up in front of a church full of people and profess to believe in something that I did not. Once she realized that the "do it for your mother" line was not going to work, she offered me a deal: I had to attend the confirmation classes, but afterward, if I still felt the same way, I did not have to go through with the ceremony. I took the deal.
As expected, the confirmation classes were just a rehash of all the religion classes I had ever taken in Catholic school since kindergarten, and the textbook we were provided was written on the intelligence level of your average third-grader. I tried to ask questions like "Do heaven and hell really exist?" and "What happens to people who are not Catholic?" but all I got were dismayed looks and no answers.
Needless to say, I was never confirmed. After high school I moved away to college, stopped going to church, and have been trying to recover from my Catholic upbringing ever since. Yet my decision to reject Catholicism in particular and all organized religion in general was not a sudden one; on the contrary, it was the culmination of a lifetime of experience surrounded by religious conflicts and inconsistencies that led me to question the religion into which I was born.
Religion first became a problem in my life when I realized it made me different. I was the only girl in my Catholic elementary school who had divorced parents and no siblings, not to mention being the only child in my extended family to have this distinction as well. I was pitied, but with the kind of pity that is tainted by disapproval. To make matters worse, my father was Protestant. My mother and her family were all extremely devout Catholics who considered those who were not Catholic to be inferior heathens. As a child it was very difficult for me to understand why they looked down upon my father, someone I loved, as someone unworthy of all the divine rewards to which they believed they were ultimately entitled. In addition, they considered him to be the cause of my parents' divorce, another unforgivable sin and reason for shame, and this only created further problems between the two halves of my family.
When I would go visit my father, my mother insisted that he take me to Mass on Sunday despite the fact that my father wanted me to attend church with him. All this conflict soured my views towards religion at a very early age, because I simply was not willing to accept that the god I was told to believe in would condone such open hostility on his behalf. My exposure to different religious perspectives outside of what I was being taught in school and at Mass, and my inability to accept that there was only one "right" religion, started me on the journey of questioning religious doctrine and affiliations.
High school continued to be a time of religious awakening. I attended a Catholic high school where everyone was required to take religion classes, but the students came from many different religious backgrounds including Protestantism, Mormonism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam. This clash of varying viewpoints, though often repressed, continued to fuel my doubts about the validity of any particular human-created explanation for the meaning of life and the possibility of an afterlife. The final straw for me occurred when a born-again Christian classmate informed one of my dear friends, a Hindu, that she would not be going to heaven because she did not believe in Jesus Christ. I could not reconcile the idea that I lived within a community that would condemn a good person like my Hindu friend, and yet offered guarantees of an eternal afterlife to anyone who claimed to believe in a particular deity but was an otherwise selfish and unkind person. I have refused to be a part of any kind of religious "members-only club" ever since. Simply believing that it means more to be a kind person than a righteous one has brought me a greater sense of peace.
It has been a long and tough road to de-Catholicize myself, so I have created a twelve-step process (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) to help me to remember what I truly value and how I got here in the first place.
The Twelve Steps of Catholics Anonymous
1) I admit that guilt, shame, and self-denial are not virtues; that they make life less joyous.
2) I came to believe that the power for goodness within myself could restore me to reason.
3) I made the decision to decide for myself what is moral and right, and not to simply adhere to what I have been told.
4) I made a searching and fearless moral inventory to help me understand what was right and wrong for my life.
5) I admitted to myself that I might not have all the answers, but the conclusions I had come to were enough for me at this time.
6) I was entirely ready to stop judging myself and others based on an arcane and often hypocritical religious doctrine.
7) I humbly admitted that I am a mere human being and therefore not arrogant enough to claim that I know all about this supposed god and what it really wants.
8) I made a commitment to be kind, accepting, understanding and altruistic in all that I do, and to admit when I may have done wrong.
9) I made amends with others and myself for all the conflict that religion had caused in my life.
10) I continue to question the validity of religion in my life and the lives of others all over the world.
11) I sought out others who shared my beliefs of tolerance and acceptance and learned from them.
12) I try to be a freethinker in all aspects of my life, and to always be open to new people and new ideas.
It has been a long journey, but I am happy with who I am and the decisions that I have made. I still have very religious parents, but they have realized that my lack of religion does not necessarily make me a bad person. I look forward to going through life with an open mind and an accepting heart, and I look forward to all that it will bring.
Sally will be attending Southhampton College of Long Island University in the fall. She will be a graduate student in the M.F.A. Writing Program and plans to graduate in 2004.
September 2003 Excerpts