My Life Without God: Yekaterina Bachko

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

By Yekaterina Bachko

The passage from infancy to adulthood is fraught with battles large and small; the two sides permanently engaged in a tug-of-war of ideas and boundaries, of wants and needs. One catalyst for conflict is the older generation’s attachment to traditions, and the desire to see those beliefs carried forward by their children. Although my childhood was typical in that it was dotted with normal skirmishes, I believe that my secular upbringing not only protected me from the dangers of a rebellious youth, but also instilled a strong sense of personal responsibility.

As citizens of the Soviet Union, choosing atheism was an easy option for my parents, who were born after the Communist government outlawed the practice of all religions following the revolution. Still, because both my maternal and paternal great-great-grandparents had practiced Judaism, both my parents’ passports labeled them as Jews, making life even more challenging on an impoverished country besieged by food shortages. Anti-Semitism was highly prevalent in the Russian culture at the time, and it affected every aspect of life: from what you could study at college to where you could live or work. Even elementary school teachers treated their Jewish students with disdain.

I was a stranger to this. My parents shielded me from this hatred throughout my youth, but when the KGB arrested my father for an offhand remark at work, my parents decided to emigrate to the United States in 1989, not long before the collapse of the USSR. At this time, I didn’t know that our plight was connected to a stamp in a passport and an affiliation with a religion and a culture unknown to me.

I was already eight years old when I found out that my family was Jewish. It was a warm summer evening in Santa Marinella, Italy, and all the Russian refugees awaiting entry visas into the United States gathered in the park to hear a messenger deliver news from the American consulate in Rome. While the adults stood around smoking and griping about trouble finding Soviet favorites in Italian grocery stores, the children mimicked the seriousness of the adults and discussed visa rejections.

A tan little boy and I sat eating gelato and chatting. When I revealed that my family had left Russia so that we could swim with dolphins, my younger but savvier conversationalist brought out the harsh truth. We–everyone standing around the park at twilight–were all Jews and we all left because the USSR didn’t want us.

Bewildered, I asked my mother about this new addition to my identity. I was referred to a dictionary, then an encyclopedia. When I returned unsatisfied, I was furnished with a children’s bible, filled with sumptuous, glossy illustrations. When I finished, my parents explained that although the bible was a book just like any other, it had special meaning for certain people whose whole existence was governed by its rules. This answer satisfied me for a few years until I was thrust into a religious atmosphere.

After our arrival in the United States, my family settled in a diverse neighborhood of Brooklyn. Brooklyn undoubtedly had religious neighbors, but we never encountered public discourse about religion, except I did notice that some of my classmates were dismissed early once a week to attend CCD sessions to prepare them for confirmation. When I turned 12, however, my family moved to a suburb in New Jersey, where “What church do you belong to?” became the first question classmates and teachers asked.

In this religiously-charged environment, I began to question my family’s secularism. When my friends invited me along to Sunday services after sleepovers, I accepted their invitations. However, as I visited church after church with my various friends who belonged to Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic or Lutheran congregations, the sermons I heard from the pulpit gave me pause. It seemed that my friends and their families came to hear the same lessons that I’d learned over dinner debates with my parents or through books I’d read. But unlike the dinner table discussions, church lessons were always presented alongside dire consequences, hellfire and brimstone, whereas I learned that respecting others and myself were essential qualities of a member of the human race regardless of fiery threats.

It was at this time in my life when I realized how lucky I was to have been raised without religion. Unlike my classmates who attributed their understanding of right and wrong to biblical teachings and church doctrine, I felt secure that I had attained these principles through my personal discovery. As a child, I’d been treated as a fully reasoning individual. Rules were handed down in the form of questions, instead of dogma. My parents would ask, “Why should we be kind to others?” In this way, I believed that I had chosen my own code of ethics, which made it more appealing to uphold because it was developed by me for me. Being allowed to develop my own understanding led me to feel full ownership of my moral compass.

Now, as my friends prepare to have children, I am struck by how vestiges of religion linger even in people who seem modern and rational. Recently, one of my friends, who has not attended church in the eight years that I have known her, revealed to me that she would resume her childhood churchgoing when she had kids in order to “instill morality” in them. This statement broke my heart, with its hypocrisy and shrugging of parental responsibility. She may not have realized that she was speaking to a perfectly moral person who had never been taught to adhere to any religious dogma and had succeeded in navigating the moral gauntlet. If one day I decide to have children, I could only raise them as freethinkers, because anything else will inhibit their ability to develop critical reasoning skills and a comprehensive and tolerant worldview.

“I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1981 and immigrated to the United States with my family in 1990. I am attending a one-year masters program at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. My bachelors degree in psychology is from New York University. In my professional and academic endeavors, I am guided by the same principles of respect and social justice that I have always adhered to. The current media climate is replete with religiosity, from the prevalence of the creationism discussion in the early presidential debates to the influence of the evangelical movement in politics. As a journalist, and as a secular individual, I look forward to reporting objectively on these trends in national affairs. I believe that my secularism grants me the ultimate objectivity because I am not biased toward a specific belief system and can draw on rational arguments, instead of faith. My interest in journalism stems from a desire to inform the populace and enable a rational debate regarding the greatest common good.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation