Recently I’ve heard a lot of people speak about their non-belief in god, and how they feel a bit sad they’ve lost their faith. They observe those of faith with a kind of longing. ‘I wish I could believe.’ they’ll fret. ‘I wish I could believe the way they do.’ I seem to hear this a lot around Christmas time, with all the cribs, the mulled wine, the carols and the family feeling. It’s easier at this time than any other to feel like you’re missing out by not believing in God or religion. I’m not one of these people. I LOL’d so hard at the news that the Pope had joined twitter that I ruptured something.
Now, let me say outright I’m not getting at anybody for their religious beliefs- as sacred as sacraments are to some, so is their freedom to believe in what they like to me. I know good Christians, good Muslims, good Unitarians and a load of good wishy-washy non-denominational people with a spiritual bent. I’m cool with religious people. It just really isn’t for me. It isn’t for me for the following simple reasons- when I was religious, I wasn’t very good at it. I’m bad at Catholicism, full stop. Here are the list of things that made me a bad Catholic.
I’m not good at being told what to do.
I don’t like the taste of communion host.
Incense makes me sneezey
I used to try and take the baby Jesus out of the crib and use him in my dolly’s games
I have masturbated many times a week since 2008
I love eating chicken on a Friday.
I was a practicing-ish Catholic until 2010. I went to Mass pretty often. I believed that generally, God had my back. Even as I drifted from Catholicism, I had my own personal relationship with god. I had a firm faith in the afterlife.
You can trace my split with the Catholic church back to the early days of 2000, when I had a massive nervous breakdown in Second class. When I was in second class I made my first Holy communion and so we were taught by Sr.Dympna, a nun who was a very cool old lady but also very firm. She was old school in a nice way; big on handwriting, sums, nature and common sense. Being as I was bold as brass, completely disorganized, scruffy and unfocused she had a lot to work on. In fairness to her, she saw my potential, which many of my later teachers didn’t. We once had a class inspection by a Christian Brother.
When I was seven I was very sensitive to bad smells. And that day, the classroom stank of a vegetable stench. It was everywhere- it was sort of like raw onion. I still remember the feel of it in my nostrils, choking me. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever smelled. Even now 13 years later when I get a hint of that smell I gag. It was in my throat and up my nose and giving me a migraine. I could hardly breathe.
Of course, when you’re seven and you can’t cope with something, you naturally have a little freak out. I didn’t know where that smell was coming from- I actually think it might have been an onion bulb that the class had in a jar of water, growing the roots- but my tearful cries of ‘the smell! It’s such a bad smell!’ were interpreted by Sr.D as the seven year old saying ‘the christian brother is smelly!’ My mother was spoken to sternly outside the door when she picked me up early for a dentist’s appointment- the nun was disgusted that I would insult a christian brother by calling him smelly, or indeed calling the room he was in smelly!
That’s where it began.
When I was 11 and making my confirmation, there was a huge encyclopedia of world religions on the classroom bookshelf. When I’d finished my work I’d take it down and read about another place in the world- I learned about Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Tao, Buddhism, Hare Krishna, The eastern Orthadox church, and so many others. I think I read the entire thing by years end. The priest who came to quiz our class on questions of faith- a gentler, watered down version of the dreaded catechism questions my parents suffered- only once did the topic of other faiths come up. He asked a trick question about the two different churches, and everyone of course answered ‘Catholics and Protestants’ and he smugly bobbed on the balls of his feet, waiting to correct when I stuck my hand up and talked about the Orthadox church. I was decidedly agnostic by the time I was 13, but I still clung to the hope that god existed.
I lost my faith entirely in 2010 when my Granny got sick and I had to watch for 18 months as she slowly declined. I couldn’t reconcile the suffering with my vision of an all loving god. I became really uncomfortable with the moral guidance the church- my church, Catholicism- offered. I began to disagree so much with the kind of comfort they offered. The vague idea that it’s all in god’s plan when everywhere all I could see was people, doing bad things and good things. I think that’s the reason I turned to atheism; because I couldn’t see god. I could see where others would think there is one- In the little coincidences that bring us together and put angels on shoulders.
I don’t think I lose anything by not believing in God. On the contrary, once I stopped believing an entire universe of possibility opened up to me. A thousand moral and ethical questions sprang up at me. I decided my guiding principle in life was no longer going to be ‘live to make God happy’ and was now ‘Have fun without being a massive dick to anyone.’ Try and make life a bit more fun for everybody. masturbate furiously. Eat lots of chicken on Fridays- that’s my kind of philosophy.
A lot of things my religion class had taught me – about relationships, about sex, about identity and about life didn’t seem applicable once I got into college. The idea of sex being something both dangerous and sacred confused me. On the one hand, we were told it’s an awesome, powerful sacred act that brought you closer to God, but ONLY for married people. So don’t do it. We had talks from the Catholic marriage association telling us that the rhythm method was the only form of contraception accepted by the church- the absolute refusal to admit that recreational sex existed bothered me, even then. The complete denial that female masturbation exists annoyed me too. The more I tried to apply my faith to my life the more I found it lacking. I don’t feel any regret in saying that the Catholic church is massively out of touch with the real world.
So in the absence of a religion or a god, I just followed my ‘have fun and don’t be a dick’ ethos- and it’s worked very well! I’ve never felt more fulfilled and happy. I know that bad shit’s going to happen, and that when it does there isn’t a silent, celestial being above me with a good reason for hurting me- it’s just going to happen. Accepting that there are no answers was a massive relief. It felt like the burden of a lifetime had been lifted. I don’t feel guilty about things that hurt absolutely no-one- giving yourself an orgasm doesn’t hurt anyone. Some of the kindest, sweetest and most sexually well adjusted people I know are gay, and their right to marry doesn’t affect the sanctity of anyone else’s union. Maybe it’s a bad idea to tell people in Africa that condoms don’t protect against AIDS. The values I held were too remote from my church’s for me to ever go back.
Now of course, I know you can still believe in God while supporting the LGBT community, eating chicken whenever you like and masturbating furiously. I’ve been to a few Church of Ireland services, and those are some chill bros. They don’t believe in Hell! THEY DON’T BELIEVE IN HELL YOU GUYS. Quakers are impossible to argue with, Unitarians are down with anything you want to do. Even Catholics- who I hold are brutally oppressed by a massively abusive hierarchy- can be groovy. But my own experience of spirituality, through the prism of Catholicism, has been wholly unpleasant. Religion just isn’t for me. Some people leave the Catholic church for other faiths and I respect that, but it’s not for me.
I don’t wish I could believe again. I’m happy where I sit. I’m content to be confused, to be scared and to understand that this might be all there is to life. I have about 90 years in which I have to have as much and spread as much love as possible. As for religious experiences, I have Lady Gaga concerts, black coffee, friendship, and orgasms to make me feel that way. Going back to believing would be a backwards step.
Niamh ‘@Pontifex please RT’ Keoghan