I was raised by a Roman Catholic mother and a father who believed (and still does, I think) in God, but always refused to step inside a church. They were both engineers, so my religious upbringing was characterized by the sometimes awkward convergence of reason and faith.
Sometime between seventh and eighth grade, I took down all the religious objects that for years I’d scattered throughout my room. I see my room as it was then: the walls an almost imperceptible shade of pink. I see the porcelain cross hanging precariously above the door frame, the Virgin Mary statuette reigning, arms outstretched, over my bookshelf, the bible and prayer book coated by a delicate layer of dust on my night table, and even the plastic rosary forgotten on a corner of my headboard.
I prayed every night before bed, asking for protection and giving thanks to a being that felt distant and dimly understood. I remember fear, an indiscriminate fear of a world I thought dangerous and threatening. I was frightened of everything I didn’t know about life, but most of all, I was fearful of God. I was terrified that my prayers were not good enough, that the small lies I’d told on previous days, the fights I had had with my brother, the words I had talked back to my parents were the final straw in an endless judgment of my goodness.
I remember one conversation with my grandmother, who was folding clothes in my brother’s room. I was in my white pajamas, holding my prayer book. I turned to a page where I’d seen the word Hell and asked her why it was such a horrendous place. She answered that she didn’t think Hell was a place like the prayer book described, but was a state of mind that people lived and died with.
I recognized then that faith in God should be introspective and genuine, that it shouldn’t be the dark, looming and inescapable fate I’d lived with. I started to observe how I felt performing my bedtime rituals. I discovered that when I prayed, when I made sure the cross was still in place above my door and that the Virgin Mary was watching, I felt a fear that reached deep into my core. I noticed that my belief in the power of these objects was directly and exclusively related to my fear of the world.
I stopped attending Sunday Mass with my mom and began researching religions. I found reading about religion almost therapeutic. I thought to myself that it didn’t make much sense to choose one religion and condemn all others to the suffering of nonbelief. After several years of introspection, I was ready to call myself an atheist.
That brings me back to the muted pink walls of my room. I understood that the objects I had relied on for so long for safety at night were only stunting my progress. I felt infinitely clear and free already. Getting rid of all the religious objects was my final challenge. I put it all in a box that I hid in one of the deepest and darkest drawers in my room. My grandmother would be horrified if I told her now that the simple explanation she gave me that night instilled in me the desire to question what I read and was told.
Now, enrolled in a women’s liberal arts college, I proudly call myself an atheist. I’m at peace, with none of the uncertainty I felt originally, the slight fear whispering in the corners of my mind renouncing God as a mortal mistake. I live free of fear and hatred.
A lot of my peers seem to think living God-free is like living without belief altogether, but I believe in and am passionate about plenty of things. As an art history major, I believe in creativity and the importance of artistic expression. I believe in human rights, education, tolerance, family and love.
I have defined myself as a negative atheist for some time. Because of my relationship with certain religious family members, I’ve come to be more tolerant of religious discourse. I don’t seek to destroy others’ faith but to foster understanding and critical thought. I am dedicated to encouraging reason and tolerance and living my life as rationally as I can.
I am a firm believer in separation of church and state. Many of the injustices that continue to plague our legal and social systems stem from the general inability to tolerate varying systems of belief or the lack thereof. Issues such as women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights are grounded in such a shortcoming.
I feel a connection to other atheists or those who struggle to define themselves in an environment that engenders unquestioning faith. The most destructive habits to break are the nonquestioning, the blind acceptance, the assumption that what you are told is infallibly right. I remember the error I felt within me like there was a misunderstanding between what I thought and what I was told to think.
I am glad that I can write about a series of events that, without question, made me who I am today — the person I’ve learn to love and appreciate.
Maria Castex, 19, Miami, Fla., lived in Argentina until she was 8. She’s a sophomore at Barnard College in New York City and is pursuing an art history major. Her academic interests include anthropology and women’s studies.