Rejecting Religion, Embracing Human Rights and Dignity: Jennifer Kirby

This is one of several honorable mention” essays in FFRF’s 2007 contest for college students. Jennifer received $100 for her essay.

By Jennifer Kirby

At some point during elementary school, I became preoccupied with thoughts of my best friends’ after-lives. Unlike my family, theirs did not go to church every Sunday, which, according to the teachers at CCD, or Catholic religious class, made their status for gaining acceptance into heaven questionable. One teacher, who was particularly adept at frightening children into following the rituals of Christianity, would show her young students videos that depicted the Virgin Mary’s image appearing mysteriously in cornfields in the Midwest, accompanied by apocalyptic interviews with people who claimed to have direct connection to Mary. As I understood it, Mary was furious at humanity, and if people didn’t start regularly praying the rosary, things were going to go very wrong on earth; and that would involve some sort of raging inferno and lots of horrible lightning storms. Motivated by newfound anxiety, I set up a small prayer space in the back of the family coat closet, and began praying the rosary obsessively. I would later remember with embarrassment that my sister and I also tried to convert our best friends to Catholicism.

Despite having (probably unknowingly) sent my sister and me to a class taught by an extremist, my parents do not represent the epitome of extreme right-wing Christianity. In many ways, they are deeply compassionate people who played an important role in helping their kids develop an awareness of the injustices of poverty and oppression. My mother worked as a nurse at nonprofit services for the homeless for most of her career, and she and my father volunteered for a variety of social service causes. Their practice of religion is imbued with a sense of duty to remember and serve people who are suffering. Because their religious values were not hate-filled, my later rejection of religion was not a simplistic choice to leave a setting of blatant bigotry. It was a complex line of questioning throughout my youth that ultimately led me from fervent belief to atheism. Unfortunately, this did also mean learning the limits of my parents’ tolerance.

While I was an independent thinker early on, it is possible that my ability to begin questioning the church at a young age was, ironically, partly attributed to my parents’ role in developing my social consciousness. My mother disagrees with many patriarchal aspects of the church, and I took on her belief in feminism as a young girl. Later, as I studied the struggles for women’s equality, health, and rights–including the right to choose and the importance of access to contraception–I increasingly found reasons to question the church. By the time I was a teenager, I had decided that I would never marry, and I felt that the church’s rule against sex outside of marriage was a way for society to control women’s bodies and to repress any expression of sexuality that falls outside of heterosexuality and monogamy.

In the years leading up to this point, I had challenged the homophobia and sexism of the church in the context of the church youth group and gospel choir that I participated in until I was about 15. I managed to convince our skeptical director that allowing discussions about these issues at our annual retreat would be a good thing, because it would show that we could debate our religion and still have strong spiritual beliefs. At our retreat, the group dove into an emotional debate about church views on gay marriage, contraception, and women’s right to choose. The discussion unearthed much anger, even bringing some participants to tears as they came up against a solid refusal on the part of a few male members to acknowledge the validity of homosexuality or the importance of women’s equality and rights. This experience highlighted for me the real danger of religious doctrine. I felt that I had closely observed the ways in which people use religion to avoid confronting their own hatred and fears surrounding sexuality and gender, and thus perpetuate an environment where violence and discrimination against GLBTIQ people are encouraged.

Around this time, I asked my mother how, as a feminist, she could still participate in the church. She told me that she went to church to reflect on the positive lessons it offers about true compassion and generosity, and she encouraged me to do the same. However, as the CCD-inspired fears of my childhood dissipated, I realized that even if I focused on these aspects, and even if the church adopted a progressive view of gender and sexuality, this would not solve the larger problems I was having with it. The “good messages” found in Catholicism amongst the sexism, homophobia, and guilt did not in themselves justify to me a belief in the idea of a conscious, supreme being.

While Christians are supposed to believe that the men who wrote the bible were essentially channeling God, in my parents’ progressive Catholic circles we were also to understand that humans are imperfect and so the bible was not always to be read literally. To me, this represented stunted questioning. It made no sense that those men, and the present-day (fallible) priests, bishops, and pope were direct mouthpieces for God. I thought, if there was an omnipotent and perfectly benevolent god, that god would make sure that people got the right messages delivered to them without having to navigate the twisted mouthpieces of humanity.

At about 16, decidedly atheist and feeling no need to go every Sunday to hear an uninspiring man, who, presumably, had no sex life, deliver an (at best) mediocre speech through which everyone was required to sit silently, I did what I now half-jokingly call “my first civil disobedience.” I locked the bathroom door one Sunday morning and refused to leave for church. Whether or not it was always in my own best interests, I was, at that time, a strong and persistent debater. Through the subsequent lengthy punishment, abusive lectures, and visits to the psychiatrist, I held fast to my reasoning. As my parents’ logic for forcing their kids to go to church ultimately faltered, it became clear to me that the real reason I upset them was because I had rejected their control. Unfortunately, my challenge to their authority caused a fast decline in the quality of our relationship, and I ultimately had to leave home at the start of my senior year of high school.

Despite the distancing in our relationship, many of my parents’ social justice values stayed with me and I became active in environmental, human rights, and anti-corporate globalization causes. I focused for a few years on housing justice issues, eventually organizing takeovers of abandoned buildings with people who were experiencing homelessness. However, I had no religious motivation for my activism. In fact, I strongly disagreed with the idea of religious belief even as a source of altruism. To me, religious motivation for helping someone places an unhelpful barrier between people who need resources and the people imparting them. Furthermore, I find it problematic that people can feel they are fulfilling their religious duties by volunteering at a soup kitchen or other service while ignoring the need for real solidarity in struggles for equitable distribution of resources. Particularly in the context of organizing around homelessness, I realized what a destructive force religion could be when it came to struggles for real change. I met so many people who stayed in shelters in D.C., and in Covington, Ky., where I did some organizing with the National Coalition for the Homeless, who were humiliated by the religious preaching they had to sit through in order to obtain certain basic necessities, such as food. In Covington, when making a list of demands for changes in the city’s approach to homelessness, the first thing that the large group of people who slept on the banks of the Ohio River demanded–even before adequate shelter and affordable housing–were secular services.

My parents and I eventually became closer again, in large part because of our shared values around social justice. As the media released images of the organization I’d started–Homes Not Jails D.C.–removing boards off the windows of an abandoned building in order to address homelessness, I think my parents’ feelings toward me turned from fear and embarrassment to something like pride. As they made efforts to support HNJ, I saw even more clearly in them the innate sense of humanity and the true inspiration that drives people to work for social change. I realized that what most inspires people from their core to love, give, and act on behalf of each other is not religion: it is witnessing people taking firm stands for their beliefs–not in abstractions, but in the rational idea that everyone on this planet should be free and all should have the resources to secure their rights to housing, healthcare, education, food, and a life with dignity.

Jennifer Kirby is a senior at Goddard College’s BA in Individualized Studies Program, studying history and fine art. A community activist, she primarily organized with housing justice movements before attending school, and is currently helping organize for U.S. sex workers’ rights and empowerment. For her senior project she is creating a graphic novel about D.C. prisoners’ struggles for their human rights.

Freedom From Religion Foundation