Dick Hewetson’s Speech at FFRF’s S.F. Mini-Convention: From Christian To Human Being (June/July 2000)

These were the stages of my life: kid, Christian, priest, non-attendance at church, ex-priest, atheist, human being. I’d like to briefly fill in the blanks of what I mean by all of those things.

I grew up in a very poor family in a time referred to as the Depression. I grew up in the ghetto. We moved from place to place so I had no roots. I didn’t have a lot of friends because I was always changing schools. I had an inferiority complex and I knew I was different from everybody else.

When I was a teenager my mother started singing in a choir at the Episcopal church. She decided that as a good Christian she should get us there, so we all started going to church. It was a wonderful experience for me because every Sunday I got to dress up in nice clothes and be in a beautiful building with flowers and stained glass windows and wonderful songs and everybody told me I was a child of god. I really belonged. For the first time in my life I belonged.

We sometimes don’t realize one of the ways churches really do provide for people. Some of the largest churches are in very poor neighborhoods, because it is a place for people to go and feel important.

So that takes me from kid to Christian.

Then, because this was all so wonderful–I was going to be able to help people and be able to serve god and all these wonderful things–I decided to be an Episcopal priest. I decided that the lord was speaking to me (how, I don’t know). So I went and talked to my parish priest and found out that in order to become a priest I had to go to four years of college and three years of seminary. (I had not gone to college because we did not have any money.) I worked my way, literally, through seven years of higher education and ended up with this wonderful doctorate of divinity degree, which is not very useful out in the secular world. (Unless you work in a candy factory.) I’m the first college-graduated member of my family except for my grandfather way back when, who also happened to be an Episcopal priest.

All the way through this experience I didn’t really believe any of this Christian stuff. It was all so bizarre to me. I was this person with very low self esteem and I thought: all these people believe this and I don’t, so obviously the problem is me. The church has comments about that–everybody doubts, but you should pray, and the more you pray, the more faith you’re going to have. So I tried all of these things but nothing worked. Nothing fails like prayer.

Here I was. I’d spent seven years preparing for a profession and my livelihood was going to depend on it, so I found myself out in the ministry. The hardest time I had every week was preparing a sermon because what are you going to say to people when you don’t really believe it? In the Episcopal church they have this liturgy–there’s two bible readings for every week. They taught us in seminary that you should base your sermon on those. Well, I would sit there and go through those things and try and figure out something in there that was relevant to talk about. It’s interesting, too, that when I was going to seminary they used to say our job was to make the gospel relevant. That kind of says it’s not relevant, doesn’t it?

In 1972, I finally had reached a new stage. I’d taken a secular job and stopped going to church. I remember the last Sunday I was in church–I could not wait for that service to end. I literally ran down the aisle out of church and have never been in one since, except for funerals.

There I was. I didn’t believe any of it. But, on the other hand, I would not have said I was an atheist. I would not have said I’m not a Christian. I would not have said that I don’t believe in god. I fell into that category where everybody says “I don’t believe in organized religion.” The longer I was out of the church, the more objectively I began to see it.

Just about this same time, I was reading in the paper about the gay liberation movement and I thought, that’s really interesting ’cause I’ve always thought that’s what I was. It was one reason I felt different. I tentatively went to some meetings of gay liberation groups. Everybody there was in their 20s and they were counterculture people. I was in my 40s and I’m this middle-class Episcopal priest.

Freedom From Religion Foundation