The Evolution of an Outlaw, or How I Became a Freethinker: Danielle Jones-Pruitt

I will no longer let a person end a discussion with “my church says” or “I believe.” I will stand up to all attempts to snuff out reason.

This essayist was awarded $2,000 as the winner of the 2007 FFRF college essay competition.

By Danielle Jones-Pruett

I was raised in a Catholic family. Not an “Easter and Christmas Catholic family” but a true, five o’clock Mass, potluck supper, CCD-attending, Catholic family. The first six or so years of my life I slept on the hard pew during midnight Mass; I wore the white dress, clasped my hands, and accepted first communion; I nearly had my fingers crushed by my sister when I turned to ogle the family behind us. My mother was a true Roman Catholic, having grown up in, well, Rome. My father, from Massachusetts, was also Catholic. My brother once considered becoming a priest. My sister taught catechism on Sundays. Everyone took the “good message” at its word. So why, I wonder, did I see things so differently?

I wasn’t always an infidel. In fact, I was an altar girl. I liked being an altar girl. I liked being on the “stage” of the Mass, the priest whispering secret things in my ear (not perverted things, things more along the lines of “I’ll make this homily a short one”). And I loved to ring the bell. I wish I could say at any moment I felt some deeper stirring in my soul, but I did not. Faith to me was a ritual, something you did without thinking about it, like a housewife doing dishes, or the long drive home from work.

However, at 12 years old I did feel, for the first but not the last time, anger toward the church: By edict of the pope I was disrobed and stripped of all my altargirlness. I couldn’t understand it; couldn’t understand how my being a girl made me unworthy of serving the god they said loved everyone the same. I wanted to write the pope a letter; I wanted to complain that it was unfair. But I didn’t. I just kept going to church. I kept going to church, but I began to sit in the back. The time I had once passed transported in the unfolding rituals of the Mass I used for thinking.

I thought about why the church needed the new plush carpet or brass fixtures; wondered if this was where the money went when it left the collection plate. Thought about what this meant for the poor we were supposed to be helping. I thought about why the priest had a boy living with him and a “maid” named Martha. Perhaps my best thinking came on the heels of reading a Greek mythology book. I cannot remember the exact book–I’ve looked for it often–but I remember well the last lines: “A voice cried over the land that Christ is born and the great god, Pan, is dead.”

Those words sent tremors through my 12-year-old world. I did not understand at that time all the subtle meaning those words held; I had not yet studied religion, did not yet know how Constantine had incorporated paganism into Christianity. I didn’t know that Pan was not dead at all, merely hiding in hell. What I did understand the day I read those words was one very significant thing: The Greek gods, the stories we now unabashedly call myths, had once been very real to an entire group of people.

The aforementioned revelation changed me in one major way: It introduced doubt within the hermetically sealed bubble of my world. However, I was still firmly lodged in dogma. I did not fully realize I had choices. Then I met a psychiatrist I will forever know solely as Dr. Clarke. My family had suffered a loss that was very trying, and my mother had decided therapy would benefit us all. It most certainly did, but in the most unexpected way. After I had known Dr. Clarke a little while, she asked me to keep a journal for her in which I would describe myself and how I felt about things, for example whether or not I believed abortion should be legal. I was stunned. I stared at her, mouth agape. “Of course abortion shouldn’t be legal. It’s murder,” I said blankly. She just smiled (understanding, perhaps, by the level of my indignation how naive I truly was) and reiterated her point about the journal.

But something had happened. A light bulb had gone off. Suddenly and irreversibly, I realized there were choices. And not just about abortion, but about so many things. This is not a memory I am painting in retrospect. Honestly, in that one moment the world opened up for me. Where there had been black and white there was, in an instant, a world of color. And Dr. Clarke had given me a second, perhaps even more powerful, gift. She had put a pen in my hand.

Like most people new to freedom I went a little crazy. Where there had been a semblance of faith there was sudden cynicism. I did everything in my power to shock, to contradict. I read Nietzsche. I wore all black. I wrote long, angst-filled passages in my journal about the stupidity of “the sheep” around me. The Christmas before I turned 14, I was helping my mother bake cookies for the holidays. My brother was coming with his new wife; my mother was drained. We worked in silence. She rolled out the dough and cut the sugar cookies; I decorated them. For some time we continued, silently, making the Santas, stockings, bells, and so on. Finally, as I gave an angel a harlot-red hairdo, I broke the silence with “I don’t believe in god.”

It was the first time I had spoken the words. My mother didn’t even look up. Under her breath she asked, “Does that mean you aren’t going to help me finish the cookies?” Shocked by her lack of shock, I had to prod her further. She told me there had been times in her life when she had doubted god’s existence, but as she had gotten older, she had decided it was best to believe. “It’s like insurance,” she said. “You don’t know for sure, so why not believe just in case?” This statement gives a lot of insight into my mother’s sense of pragmatism, which is the core of who she is. It also could not be farther away from who I am.

I spent several years aimlessly searching for something I could believe in. I read philosophy books; I traveled; I became an interpreter; I married and had a child; I worked countless jobs, from carny to chef. I had freedom, fun, intelligence, love. But I never, never once found the security I had when I was sealed within the belly of the church. Then I returned to college and found science. There was no need to look any further.

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan describes science as a perfect blend of “wonder and skepticism.” These are two things I am fully and completely capable of. The myths created to explain the world’s unknowns are no longer needed; they no longer serve a purpose. In fact, they pale in comparison. Some churches even acknowledge this. For example, the Catholic church teaches evolution–it realizes the truth, in its splendid complexity, is much more godlike than the limited human tale of figures drawn from dirt (reminiscent, by the way, of Greek mythology). Other churches refuse to accept they are at odds with reality; like the person with no facts in a debate, they just shout more loudly, red-faced, to drown out all other answers. Unable to win with logic, with reason, they bully, brainwash, bribe. Since George Bush took office in January 2001, it has become the mode in America.

Religion has become an acceptable excuse to suspend discourse, a shield to cower behind. Even worse, it has become a viable option for thinking. In my science class, I had to listen to students present “research” on social topics like abortion or drug use. A third of the students, at least, used their religion, or the bible, as their only source. They stood before the class and gave their opinions. I don’t know what grades they earned, but I would have failed them. Science isn’t about opinions, it’s about conclusions drawn from facts. It’s about understanding–not hoping, wishing, desiring, or believing–but understanding.

I understand enough to know I will no longer let a person end a discussion with “my church says” or “I believe.” I will stand up to all attempts to snuff out reason. I will not shrink before catchphrases or give in to starry-eyed stares. I will vote for candidates who remember that church and state are to be separate; who say, when asked, that religion does not, and should not, enter into their politics. Most important, I want to be the psychologist or professor or writer or activist or mother who inspires young people to think, who kindles the questions inside them longing for flame, for oxygen: “What do I really know? What do I really, truly believe?”

Danielle Jones-Pruett is currently a senior at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala. Pursuing a B.A simultaneously in psychology and English literature, Ms. Jones-Pruett’s main areas of interest are political psychology, gender and ethnic studies, and the effect narratives have on societal beliefs. She recently co-authored with David G. LoConto a paper entitled “The Influence of Charles A. Ellwood on Herbert Blumer and Symbolic Interactionism,” published in The Journal of Classical Sociology. She is currently conducting research on social bias under the supervision of Dr. Heidi Eyre. Ms. Jones-Pruett will entertain all serious offers made by well-funded graduate schools.

Freedom From Religion Foundation