Awakening From The Dreamworld Of Religion: Andrew Bernardin

By Andrew Bernardin


Andrew Bernardin

I grew up in a religious family: two parents, three sisters, four brothers, a dog and a horse. All Catholic. Though I’m not positive about the horse and one of my sisters.

By and large, individuals acquire religion from their parents when they are young, before education and experience and a fully matured cerebral cortex have inoculated them, to one degree or another, against accepting fantasy as reality.

As a grade-schooler I “did time” as an altar boy. Mom thought it would be character-building. Little did she know she was putting me in harm’s way. For those few years I may have walked the walk, and repeated the talk on cue–“Praise be to God”–but I never thought the thoughts. Not really. Religion was a Sunday thing in my house. Monday through Saturday the issue hardly came up.

For a while, the Hulk and Thor did occupy my everyday mind. I read about them not in the Bible, but in soft-cover comic books. The Sunday morning stuff about Lord Yahweh, ruler of the universe, was tepid next to the adventures of Spider-Man and the Flash. Yet even these characters eventually lost their appeal.

You may wonder how I made the transition from being a self-described Catholic to atheist. As implied, I was never truly a believer. I did what was expected of me. My youthful religiosity consisted of a set of hoops I was enticed or coerced to jump through.

Every single Sunday without fail and facing resistance, Mom shuffled us off to church. From an early age I understood what a tragic waste of a weekend morning this was.

Why did we attend church? Because that’s what a good family is supposed to do. Mom wanted us to be a good family. And who knows, maybe making her family attend church was one of the hoops she was coerced into jumping through by her mother, my grandmother, a woman whose vocabulary lacked the word “fun.” To my mom, I suspect, dressing up her children and dragging them to church was as important as keeping a clean house.

When an altar boy, I wore an effeminate white smock (kinda cute, a boy in a smock like that). I genuflected; I lit candles and rang bells and watched the priest drink wine. I paid half-attention to our supposed spiritual role-model. Had he been the Hulk I would have paid full attention.

The priest recited lines and talked and read and recited some more while I acted out a part in the play adults directed. Not quite “King Lear,” but close. I had my stage directions and lines (“For the glory and the power and the something-or-other are yours, now and forever, amen,”) yet the adults were fully in charge. Had the ceremony involved painting my face and dancing around a campfire, I would have done that.

Before and after Mass, in the sanctum behind the altar, the priest often placed his large hand on my shoulder–in reassurance and guidance, it seemed. Years later I learned that the heavy-set, bespectacled man had been kicked out of the church. As part of his calling, “Father” had been visiting a local prison to serve the spiritual needs of the inmates. And he got caught serving other needs.

Denying and repressing human sexuality reminds me of the arcade game, Whac-A-Mole. No matter how hard you whack that mole, it just won’t stay whacked.

As a Catholic kid, I learned about a whole line-up of saints who filled the supernatural pantheon of Power Rangers. Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint Michael, Saint Christopher, Saint Francis, Saint Nick. . . .

I remember wearing a St. Christopher pendant as a prepubescent boy. It was round and as big as a quarter with an image of the saint protruding from the front. This was a bit of a problem if the pendant got turned around beneath my shirt and my brother punched me in the sternum. St. Chris did nothing to protect me from that. Maybe it’s because he had his back turned.

Saint Christopher, my mother informed me, was the patron saint of travel. For those of you unaware, each saint has his own area of specialty. So say you’ve got a problem with the oceans. In this case Saint Neptune would be your go-to guy. Why a nine-year-old boy needed a patron saint of travel, I don’t know. It is true that I never got hurt on my bicycle trips to the candy store, despite the many times I got my pants leg caught in the chain. Nevertheless, I enjoyed owning and wearing that medal. It made me feel special.

I also learned about, and repeated each week in Mass, “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” I understood how the Father was related to the Son, but no one ever clearly explained where the Holy Ghost fit into the scheme of things. Most of the time, these words were just words. It could have been, “the Father, the Son, and the Catalytic Converter” and the effect would have been the same. Other times, the ghost word was a cabbage in a fruit basket. I was familiar with Casper on television and had been assured that those types of ghosts don’t exist. So what was this Holy Ghost?

The first giant step I took in losing those few loose tendrils of belief that comprised my religiosity came upon the heels of my confirmation. Ironic, yes. Part of the deal I struck with my mother during my increasingly autonomous adolescent years was that once I had made it through all the hoops that led to my being confirmed, I would then be free to choose whether or not to attend church. I chose not to. Having hit the finish line, I wasn’t about to turn back.

The second giant step in my immersion into lucidity came upon transferring to the University of Vermont for my sophomore year. I was randomly assigned a roommate. Mark, a philosophy major, always had a lit cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. The smoking bothered me so I requested a room switch. Nonetheless, the chain-smoker and I became friends. He was the first person I had ever met not sleep-walking through life.

Mark persistently asked the question, “Why?” Why go to class? Why dress one way and not another? Why study subject A and not subject B? Why believe what your professors say? He even dared to ask the question, “Why live?”

My world was shaken. And it was good.

The third giant step in my losing any propensity to think magically came upon entering and completing graduate school. I studied psychology, and during those years I learned to ask the question, “How?” In particular, I learned to ask, “How do we know a statement or theory has validity?”

I also discovered the joy that comes from learning a belief you hold is mistaken. Yes, joy. The most liberating experience a thinker can have is finding where he/she has gone wrong.

Liberation. Freedom. To me, a life without religion means a life of greater freedom: a life of asking any and all questions you want to, a life of determining for yourself what is closer to the truth and what is further.

Perhaps most importantly, freedom from religion means never again being forced to spend precious Sunday mornings in a church.

Freedom From Religion Foundation member Andrew Bernardin grew up in Massachusetts and was educated and married in Vermont. After a 4-year stint in New Mexico, he now lives in Florida.

A tabloid-worthy detail about Andrew is that his Bernardin genealogy is believed to stretch back to a hillside town in eastern France. Some of the occupants of the town were monks at the Saint Bernard monastery. The townspeople named the illegitimate offspring of one or a number of the monks, “Les Bernardin”–the little Bernards. Naturally, Andrew is grateful that vows of celibacy have always been difficult to uphold. But yes, he is a bastard child of the Christian Church, and the feeling is mutual.

Happily married for 17 years, Andrew and his wife enjoy bird-watching, snorkeling, and surfing.

Currently an adjunct professor of psychology for Daytona Beach Community College, Andrew is a frequent speaker at humanist/freethought events. Skeptic magazine will be publishing his article, “Religion and Behavior: Are religious people healthier, happier, and more moral than nonreligious people?” in an upcoming issue. Andrew authors/operates a freethought website, and invites you to check out his blog and podcast “A Daily Dose of Doubt” that appears in the “On Atheism” subsection.

Freedom From Religion Foundation