Moving On--Bidding God

Good Night

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

    I lost my religion in Religion Class.   We were a religious family - at least in name. Nobody I knew would have dared admit out loud that they didn’t believe in God. So after misplacing my faith, I kept quiet.

    I could hardly believe the loss   myself.

    I kept returning to the place faith had

been, prodding it like a sore tooth. How could this happen? I'd gone to Sunday school and church my entire life. I even went to a church camp. I knelt every night as a child and asked God to bless a long list of relatives while glancing nervously at the prayer over my bed: "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." I wasn't afraid for my soul. It was the dying part that scared me. Who knew you could be snatched away while you slept?

    In college, before taking the required Religion Class, I'd been devout enough to debate my aunt (who was also my English professor) about angels. We were reading Milton and she said when we die, we become angels. I said angels were another thing altogether, and the reason Milton put man above them was that we had the choice of being good or not. If we chose good, we were placed higher than angels, who were heavenly beings and - except for the fallen ones - by nature good.

    After she called our minister to check on this, she phoned my mother to say I was right. But, not wanting to show favoritism, she gave me a B in the class, which did not affect my belief in God, but definitely soured my belief in her.

    To graduate from my Methodist college, you had to take a year of religion: one semester of Old Testament and one of New.

    It was not the college's intention to undermine our faith, but religion was taught as history. Who were those tribes? How did they come to worship one God, and how did the books we call the Bible get written and put together? This is where it happened - in that first semester among the begats.

    I discovered that the Bible had come together over hundreds of years, written by different men in different times. Our textbook Bible contained the Apocrypha, the books that were once part of the Bible, but through one dispute or another, had been cast out. To me, they sounded just as plausible as the official parts.

    Doubt crept in like a poison, or maybe it was faith leaking out.

    All I know is, during those months, as I read my chapters, took notes and wrote papers, belief gave way to logic. God - at least the God I was kneeling to in church - was a construct, put together over centuries, codified, fought over, killed for, and what did we really know? Nothing, except we needed this story, needed to believe our souls went somewhere and that we didn't blink out like lightbulbs at the end.

    I knew better than to admit doubt. I continued to kneel in church and bow my head for grace during family meals. Was everybody pretending? At dinner, I opened my eyes a crack and peeped around. My sisters certainly looked pious enough. I never asked them what they believed for fear they'd ask me in return. If I told them the truth, they would shake their heads and say they'd miss me when they were in heaven with the angels and I was burning below.

    I graduated, left home without admitting my faithlessness, and quit going to church. Now and then I can feel doubt pinching at my atheism, but I repress it. When you've tasted the forbidden fruit, there's no going back to innocence, and no point being wistful about what you've lost.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, "The Last Resort," was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.