Evolution of a Freethinker: Catholic Education Forcing Young Minds to Deal with an Irrational Philos: Paul Harang

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

By Paul Harang

My first assignment in eighth grade: comb through my new religion textbook and change every date followed by “B.C.E.” or “C.E.” to “B.C.” or “A.D.”

That year I began attending a private Catholic high school, and the method for dating in our new parish-mandated textbooks proved a bit too progressive for us. Our religion teacher angrily explained the dangers of the secularization of American society: If we remove God from our lives, God will remove us from His protection. He could find no better representation of our country’s descent into godlessness than his religion textbook’s adoption of “Common Era” over “Anno Domini.” Powerfully vague, this explanation frightened us young students enough to erase the pagan Common Era from at least the first 29 pages of our school’s new books. In Catholic school, the administration often encouraged and always tolerated belligerent proselytizing by disgruntled faculty.

This baffling assignment marked the continuation of a lifetime of Catholic education, a prominent part of life in middle-class south Louisiana. I had become accustomed to similar sacred tasks in elementary school. In the third grade, we learned to capitalize any pronoun that referred to God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. The teacher taught this as good grammar, not just good Christian grammar. We constructed sentence diagrams, and we rejoiced in His sacrifice. We learned the difference between a direct and indirect object, and we felt sinful in His presence. In the fourth grade, I had to color a priest’s robes appropriately, according to each season of the Church year. A straight-A student, I earned a “D” for that assignment. A bad mark on such an assignment not only made one a bad student, it labeled one as unable to Defend the Faith. A private prep school, the only profession we were prepared for upon graduation was as a Defender of the Faith against Protestants and other brands of unbeliever.

Healthy young minds are naturally inquisitive, and my religion teachers made an effort to maintain a facade of support for our curiosity. In sixth grade, I asked a teacher if it was sinful to doubt God. She said it was normal to doubt God, as long as you do not really doubt Him. We must remember that Faith is beautiful because we cannot prove it. We can only believe. I asked her why we must believe, if we can’t prove it. She explained that we simply must believe. If we do not, then our lives will fall apart. Not only will our souls languish in eternal hellfire, we would also have trouble dealing with everyday realities like getting out of bed in the morning and tying our shoes. Nothing accomplished on our own initiative was enough, we needed to ask for and use God’s strength throughout, or our achievements carried no weight. Basically, it is okay to doubt, but not really.

Forced to make a decision at such an early age, a decision that would affect our souls for eternity, caused a good bit of neurosis. Otherwise innocent youths became hypocrites; mischievous boys became great rationalizers. The boy who would steal money from your mother’s purse when you invited him over to play would be the first person to loudly chastise anyone on the neighborhood baseball field for taking the Lord’s name in vain. The kid who viciously attacked another child because he was slightly different was on his knees, eyes tightly shut, twice as long as anyone else before Mass. In childhood we found and embraced that classic way to deal with our own sinfulness: pious dualism.

As I grew older and eavesdropped on my parents’ small-town gossip, I began to observe parallels in my peers’ behavior and the behavior of openly Christian adults. The respected Baptist reverend with the unhappy wife caused a family crisis because of pornographic material found on his computer at work. The beloved family priest was spied at Mardi Gras with his shirt off. After September 11, 2001, people gathered in the parking lot after Sunday Mass, excitedly talking about “turban hunting.” The deacon’s sermon that week blamed the homosexuals, not missteps in foreign policy, for the attacks. This was an act of God, not of 19 well-funded flight students. International terrorism was God’s wrathful plague against American sinfulness. A few months before the attacks, an internal memo to our principal from the Bishop was made public. The Bishop had been urging him to recruit suspected homosexual male students for the priesthood.

Religion fused with guilt for slavery formed the unique perspective of American History taught at these Southern parochial schools. Since religion was taught as a subject equal with math and science, revering deities was a legitimate academic tool. Thus, social studies teachers were free to portray our forefathers as more God than human. The unapproachable wisdom of American hero and accidental slave owner George Washington, the reluctant heroism of the working-class Confederate soldier, and the heart-stirring gallantry of slave-trader, pirate, and Battle of New Orleans hero Jean Laffite carried as much weight as the Pythagorean Theorem and the second law of thermodynamics. The metaphysical aspect of these schools made way for an even more powerful patriotic indoctrination than the standard public school history class. The pilgrims and Indians loved and respected each other, communists and anarchists were probably allied with Satan, Winston Churchill was without sin, and the U.S. soldier was by default a holy, Christian man.

Always taught to respect my elders, it was not until late adolescence that I decided to make my own decisions about God, my faith, and my personal moral code. I had seen too many people claiming to be Christians and tormenting others at the same time, and I had seen too many people who criticized, even mocked, the Church and still appreciated the worth of others. It always seemed to me that the point of religion was to make life more bearable and, in many cases, I observed my geographically specific brand of Catholicism doing the opposite. I recall the funeral for an old neighbor of mine who rarely attended Mass. The priest said that he was in no need of going to Mass (even though skipping one Sunday is a sin equal to murder); he went to Mass every day by being kind and helping people. This form of “worship” always seemed more useful and positive than the traditional, exclusionary kind. Even though this particular priest was most likely trying to ease the pain of the more faithful bereaved who feared for their relative’s eternal damnation where “there will shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42), I seized the idea of helping others and living in a positive manner instead of following a set of rules written by politicians millennia ago.

Even as a child, I was never able fully to come to terms with a god who blesses us with free will, but who punishes those who use it with eternal flesh-burning. I know that I am not the first south Louisiana boy to decide to think for himself, and I find comfort in knowing that I am certainly not the last.

Paul Harang is a 22-year-old student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science in May, and has begun working on his Masters in mass communication.

Freedom From Religion Foundation