Sara Eckel | Longreads | June 2018 | 17 minutes (4,267 words)
Sometimes, while out with a friend I’ve known for 10 or 20 years, I’ll pivot on my barstool and ask, “Did I ever mention that I’m a born-again Christian?” The question rarely computes. My close friends know I grew up in an agnostic household, and they’re pretty sure the only Sunday morning activities I leave the house for are yoga and brunch. Some have even heard me casually describe myself as an atheist. Nevertheless, on a bookshelf in my parents’ house, there’s a Bible with an inscription in my loopy 10-year-old handwriting: “Today, I am a born-again Christian.” Below that, the words “Hallelujah!” in a woman’s elegant, slanted script.
The ceremony took place at that woman’s house — in my memory, her name is Mrs. Hannah — in the suburb of Cincinnati where my family lived during my grade school years. For my parents, southern Ohio was a six-year tour of duty — just a place where my dad got a job. For my younger brother, it’s barely a memory. But for me, it was where I first encountered the world and where I was repeatedly told I lacked something essential.
“You have a black hole in your soul,” a little boy told me on the way out of kindergarten one day. I walked home and promptly burst into tears in front of my mother.
A 21st-century reader might pause at the idea that I walked home alone from kindergarten, but in 1970s Ohio, there was nothing strange about a free-range 5-year-old. However, our neighbors were appalled that my family didn’t go to church. On the playground one day, I tried to explain it to a group of baffled classmates gathered around me in a semicircle, but it was like saying that we didn’t brush our teeth or eat dinner each night. The kids weren’t mean; they simply didn’t know how to reconcile a classmate who spent her Sunday mornings lounging in her pajamas and reading the funnies.
Once, while walking to school with my two best friends, both named Debbie, the girls had a jokey debate about what would happen after I died. I had obviously not cleared the prerequisite for heaven. On the other hand, I was their friend — eternal hellfire didn’t seem quite right, either. They imagined a fight between God and the devil, with me floating up and down through the ether.
“She’s too good for hell,” the devil would say.
“She’s too bad for heaven,” God would reply.
I think they were trying to work out how God could be so cruel as to reject their friend. On the other hand, they had to go to church. They had clocked in hundreds of Sunday mornings wearing rayon dresses in the too-warm air while I was kicked back on the couch eating cinnamon doughnuts. There should be some consequences.
Thus the image of my misfit soul, batted back and forth between the forces of good and evil. I went along with the joke for a while until it hit me — hey, we’re talking about my eternal damnation. I wasn’t exactly mad, but it seemed I should be. So I stopped talking and affected a hard look in my eyes. I discovered, for the first time, the power of stony silence. Eventually they noticed and shut up.
When I got home from school that day, my mother said I’d be okay — I’d been baptized to appease my Catholic grandmother, so at least I had something over those careless infants who made the mistake of dying before their parents could lock down the holy water and were thus relegated to the bizarre Catholic netherworld of Limbo.
‘You have a black hole in your soul,’ a little boy told me on the way out of kindergarten one day. I walked home and promptly burst into tears in front of my mother.
Things weren’t easy for my mom either. She was perpetually greeted at the door by neighbor-ladies bearing pineapple upside-down cakes and Rice Krispies Treats, asking if she wanted to join their Bible study group. She did not.
But I wanted in. I wanted to put on a puff-sleeved dress and sit beneath the stained-glass Jesus with my family — dad in a suit, mom in a silky blouse and pencil skirt, baby brother squirming in her lap. I wanted to bring dishes of Swedish meatballs to family potlucks. I wanted to us to sing, “The Lord said to Noah, you’re gonna build an ark-y, ark-y. Make it out of — clap! — trees and barky, barky. Children. Of the. Lord.” I wanted to be normal. And normal people went to church.
It wasn’t happening. My mother had been traumatized by her Catholic grammar school, where nasty nuns forced her to write with her right hand, informing her that her left-handedness aligned her with Satan. While she didn’t get into specifics at the time, she did explain that religion had been forced upon her, and she didn’t want to do that to me. When I grew up, I could choose my own religion.
I liked this idea — of course, it made sense. This was a big, grown-up decision. What little kid could make it? For now, I could just scope out the scene. I got a lot of invitations to go to church with my friends’ families — Debbie C.’s parents seemed particularly worried for my soul. But it wasn’t like I was attending anyone’s synagogue or mosque. My tour of religious institutions was a blur of Protestant denominations that all had essentially the same message: God loved me and was with me all the time. Also, he was everywhere. He loved everyone else and was with all of them all the time, too. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the last part (still can’t), but I took great comfort in the first.
I was a shy, solitary child. My baby brother, six years younger, was funny sometimes, but he also cried a lot and I didn’t share his main passions: dump trucks, and fire trucks.
So I spent a lot of time in my head, and it was nice to have this God fellow around. I always imagined God took extra-special care with me because, let’s face it, the Debbies were already a lock. But I had questions. The biggest one was: Are you real? I was having a conversation in my head — I did have a sense that someone was “answering,” but maybe I was just making up God’s lines, telling myself what I wanted to hear. He sure did say nice things. The God I spoke to might have loved everyone, but I got the very strong sense that he loved me just a little more.
But I still needed confirmation, some hard evidence that my musings were more than daydreams. I needed a sign. At night, I’d pull back the pink curtains of my bedroom window, gazing upward and looking for — what? A burst of light? A message in the stars? A friendly wink from the Man on the Moon — I see ya, kid!
I grew up with a certainty every child should have. I knew my parents loved me completely, but this understanding also rendered their opinions somewhat meaningless. It was the world’s love that I craved, and the world required proof of my worthiness. But outside my family’s weirdo secularism, I was an unremarkable child. I was terrible at math and gym and not particularly good at coming up with the right answers on multiple-choice tests. I wanted my teachers to see something in me, some innate specialness that would at least make up for the stuff I was plainly bad at. I wanted to be the girl who got the solo in the school Christmas pageant. More specifically, I wanted Britta J.’s part. During a song called “Dear Santa, I Just Got the Measles,” I stood with 30 or so classmates on a tiered riser while Britta, her face dotted in red makeup, sat at a desk up front in in her pajamas, writing the letter we recited: “Dear Santa, I just got the measles. And I need your help right away …”
I also hoped to shine in art class — that’s where kids who stink at volleyball are supposed to excel. I loved art, but when I glanced over my shoulder at John S.’s drawings I saw that the horses and people he drew looked much more realistic than my own depictions, which looked like … kids’ drawings.
But I did have a moment. For about a month in the fourth grade, we had a student teacher named Miss Shrine who gave us creative writing assignments that began with prompts like “Help! Something’s coming out of the sink!” She sent my papers back adorned with bouquets of stars and smiley faces. One night, I overheard my father reading one of my stories to my uncle on the phone, nearly in tears with laughter. My parents always praised me generously, but this was different. He was talking about my story with someone else. I felt a strange kind of power. I had done something really well, and it was effortless.
But after a few weeks, Miss Shrine was back at teachers’ college, and I resumed my place in the middle-level reading group and as the last kid picked in gym class. I was, once again, a girl who tried her best but somehow always missed the shot.
God though — he got it. He understood that I had something inside me, something important, even if I didn’t know exactly what it was. Maybe no one at my school saw it, but someday, God assured me, they’d see!
Even when he wasn’t giving me a pep talk, I loved that God was just always there, filling that hollow feeling I got sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, or when doing something really boring with my family — furniture shopping or visiting the relatives who always had football on. God was always with me — filling the hole in my soul, understanding me completely, knowing I mattered.
Of course, I also knew that a big part of winning God’s favor was “being good,” but my princessly notions of goodness were more focused on having bluebirds perch on my index finger than, say, helping my mom unload the dishwasher or racing Matchbox cars with my brother. On television, C.A.R.E. commercials informed me that my 50-cents-a-week allowance could save a starving child. At school, I silently witnessed my developmentally disabled classmates endure a never-ending stream of psychological torture from my peers. If God was such a great guy, how did he allow this to go on? Then again, I couldn’t really criticize. I did not befriend these children myself, and each Friday I devoted my allowance to bubble gum and comic books.
Anyway, God never got on my case about this. His role was to simply assure me that one day I’d break free of this life — ordinary kid in Ohio — and have great adventures while my peers slogged through the lawn-mowing and car-pooling mundanities of adulthood.
I might have just gone on this way, enjoying the emotional spoils of my private, yes-man God. But when I was in the fifth grade, my Girl Scout troop began meeting at the Catholic school. One afternoon my mother came with me for her “volunteer”* stint as Troop Mom and discovered that each meeting was followed by a Catholic mass. During communion, she watched me line up with the other girls and let the priest pop the thin wafer in my mouth. My mom was still Catholic enough to see this as a problem. You’re not supposed to take communion until a number of things happen — classes, vows, blessings. She decided she had to get on it.
Through a friend, my mom got a meeting with a priest, who handed her a stack of paperwork to homeschool me on the sacrament. My mother, then 30, hadn’t been to Sunday mass since she’d left her parents’ house — and even then “going to mass” often meant hanging out with friends in the diner across the street.
The God I spoke to might have loved everyone, but I got the very strong sense that he loved me just a little more.
By the time of my illicit communion-taking, even my grandmother was sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Her loss of faith had started with Vatican II. What do you mean it’s now okay to eat meat on Friday? What do you mean we can go to mass on Saturday? To Grandma, losing some of the rules made them all meaningless — is it God’s will or not? (A solid point, really.) Several years after my baptism, the cardinal of her local archdiocese retired, leaving the organization deep in debt. When parishioners started knocking on her door to collect money for the bailout, Grandma was done.
My mother hadn’t stopped believing in God, but she knew she didn’t have the chops to shepherd my journey. So instead, she sent me to Mrs. Hannah’s house once a week for private Bible study. I liked Mrs. Hannah. At Debbie C.’s house, God was always watching to make sure us kids stayed in line, and he was frequently disappointed. Mrs. Hannah’s God was more like mine — a super-nice guy who thought I was pretty cool. It was like meeting for an in-depth discussion of Santa Claus. It also gave me a place to voice some of my mounting doubts regarding starving children and tormented classmates. Why was life so unfair? Why would God allow it? Mrs. Hannah said something about the Lord working in mysterious ways.
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We also went over the logistics of my first communion. That pasty wafer, she explained, didn’t just represent the body of Christ; once the priest performed the requisite miracle, it was the body of Christ. On the one hand, this was weird and kind of gross. On the other hand — a miracle! How often did a kid in southern Ohio get to see that? They happened in storybooks — all those magic lamps and secret passageways — but our neighborhood, for all the God talk, was maze of claustrophobic cul-de-sacs and aluminum-sided houses hiding behind wide-mouthed garages. Even a daydreamy young girl had a hard time locating the divine over the glare of blacktop and the whine of power tools.
I had never heard the term “born-again Christian” before Mrs. Hannah brought it up. She explained that the vow wasn’t required — I’d still get into heaven and all that. This was just an extra-level commitment, on top of the first communion ceremony, to show I was all in. Mrs. Hannah and her husband had taken the vow, but again — my decision. Though I had some hesitation, declining this offer was not a possibility for an eager-to-please 10-year-old girl. Of course I wanted a gold star in Jesus, and I wanted Mrs. Hannah to think I was all in.
The ceremony was pretty subdued — no dramatic kiddie-pool dunking, just some water sprinkled on my head at Mrs. Hannah’s house. Afterwards, I sat with my parents and the Hannahs at their dining room table, where there was a bakery cake with blue roses, coffee for the grown-ups, and my present: a thick, paperback New American Bible. Mrs. Hannah opened a page for our inscriptions, and I wrote the words that, while visiting my parents decades later, I’d read and think, “Wait, what?”
Most Catholic kids get their first communion in the second grade. In a special service, they all march down the aisle — the boys in suits, the girls in short white dresses and veils. Since I was receiving the sacrament alone as a fifth-grader, my ceremony was tacked onto a regular Sunday mass. I wore a calico sundress over a white French-cut T-shirt and Dr. Scholl’s sandals. The young, bearded priest told the congregation that mass would be a bit different today. Sitting with my family in the front pew, I felt both embarrassed and proud to be singled out like this, and I vainly imagined the other parishioners marveling at the innocent and wise child who’d found God on her own.
But it wasn’t true. I still didn’t know what I believed, my bedroom-window surveillance failing to deliver any concrete signs — no blossoming lights, no gossamer apparitions. Peer pressure had brought me to this moment, clacking in my wooden sandals to the altar. If God spoke to me, it was only through the perplexed faces of my classmates.
The week after my first communion, my family moved back north to Central New York. In our new town, the neighbors were more concerned about your Christmas lights being tasteful (tiny, white) than whether or not you accepted the celebrant as your personal savior. Similarly, the kids in my new middle school showed no interest in the state of my mortal soul. Here the questions that mattered were: Where do you live, and what do you wear?
On these points, I was lucky. Our address fell within an acceptable radius, and my mom believed me when I said my social survival depended on me ditching my JCPenney blouses and Supercords and replacing them with a rainbow of Levis corduroys and Izod polo shirts. It must have been a relief. This time, it only took a quick trip to the mall to give her daughter what she needed to fit in.
My mom was also happy to shed her role as neighborhood infidel. Now the women who knocked on our door with cakes and casseroles became her lifelong friends. While some did go to church, they didn’t care whether we did. With my mom, they just wanted to hang out over coffee or wine, swapping mystery novels and complaining about what huge pains us kids were.
I made nice friends, too, and mostly forgot about Ohio and the sacred vow I’d left there. In my new school, I was still unremarkable, but at least I wasn’t actively weird (or not until I chose to be a few years later when I chucked the name brands and started shopping at Salvation Army).
I wanted to believe. I wanted to think that through the loneliness and uncertainty of life, there was a benevolent father figure teaching me difficult but meaningful lessons as he watched over me in the sky.
But the hole in my soul was still there. And sometimes on Sunday mornings — after sleeping until 10, eating toaster waffles, and reading the paper in my pajamas, I’d put on a white Izod and some rust-colored Levis and walk to the noontime mass at St. James Church.
I didn’t pester my parents to join me, or even tell them where I was going most times.** Church was my thing. It was the rare place a preteen girl could sit by herself and think. This was in the pre-latte era, before nearly every town had a cozy third space for angsty young girls to stare out the window. Our house was usually a riot of my brother and his friends playing Star Wars, but at church I could be alone with my mind. I could also listen to a narrative that differed significantly from the ones I heard at school or on television. At church, worldly success — grades, sports rankings, popularity — was irrelevant. Here what counted was your kindness, your compassion, and your willingness to embrace mystery. Sporadically — very sporadically — I participated in various forms of church-sponsored altruism: visiting a home for disabled kids, delivering food baskets to shut-ins.
On one such outing, I rode with a bunch of other kids in a van, delivering canned goods for Thanksgiving. My assigned house was a mustard-colored trailer in the middle of a field of dead grass, laundry hanging in the frigid air. I tapped on the aluminum door, excited and nervous in my role as Gift Bearer. I could hear the television inside, but no one came to the door. I placed two plastic grocery bags on the doorstep, feeling slightly defeated as I walked back to the van. Later, it hit me: Of course, they didn’t want to see me.
Mostly, though, I was interested in the mystery — or, rather, in cracking that mystery. I’d watch the ancient ritual, the robed priest raising the host to the sky, completing the conversion from bread to holy flesh. I’d allow the priest to place the wafer on my tongue, sip from the gold goblet of wine-blood, and pause for a moment before the sad, wooden Jesus. I’d expertly make the sign of the cross — forehead, chest, left shoulder, right — and solemnly return to the pew, taking my place on the padded kneeling bench.
Hands folded, head bowed, my “prayers” were mostly a laundry list of teenage yearnings: Please make this boy like me. Please let me get a speaking role in the school musical. But once I’d worked through my stew of adolescent desires, I could sometimes find space for bigger questions: What are we here for? What do I do with my life? Are you real? If so, would you please give me a sign?
I’m sure many of my fellow atheists never believed in God, finding the notion fantastical or plain unappealing from the start. An all-powerful overseer watching our every move from his control center in the clouds? Uh, yeah, no.
But I wanted to believe. I wanted to think that through the loneliness and uncertainty of life, there was a benevolent father figure teaching me difficult but meaningful lessons as he watched over me in the sky. I wanted to know that beyond this world’s chaos and injustice a honeyed light purged all sins.
I grew up, moved to New York City, and became a writer. I found some of the professional recognition I craved and, for the first time in my life, a social group where I truly fit in. But the hole in my soul remained. I used many things to try to fill it — prayer, yoga, meditation, sex, alcohol, altruism, work. Finally, I realized it wasn’t going anywhere, and maybe it shouldn’t. The world was ruthless and arbitrary. Why should I have assurance that everything would work out for me when each day the newspaper delivered a roster of the forsaken? If there was a God, his work was pretty sloppy.
The rap on atheists is that we’re just as dogmatic as any Bible thumper, that we have the same arrogant certainty. We have seen the truth, and we’re very sorry for you wretched souls still trapped in your delusions. But when I say I don’t believe in God, that doesn’t mean I claim to know what, if anything, is “out there.” It simply means that after many years of gazing out of windows — at my parents’ farmhouse, in the dorm rooms at my Catholic university, in my many New York City apartments — I finally concluded that that glorious burst of understanding would never come.
I could offer some of the bullet points on the God/No God scorecard — terrible things that happened to people I love, wonderful things that happened to people I despise. No single incident would explain why I stopped trying to believe, but I do recall watching the news one night and hearing the survivor of an explosion say God had saved her, while offering no reflection on why she was favored over the many others who had died in the incident. Listening to her, I felt like someone who had spent years trying to complete a puzzle, suddenly realizing the pieces would never fit. Finally, I could get up from the table, feeling free and blameless as I walked out into the sunshine.
My husband Mark’s older brother is an evangelical Christian, and he prays for us. I know this because every few months I’m included on a mass email in which he lists the people he prays for each morning, giving us the exact times he prays for the men (first), then the women (I’m incorrectly listed with my husband’s name), and then the children.
Mark and his twin brother are atheists like me, and their older brother is worried for our souls. It must be awful for him to think of our collective futures: the three of us mining molten ore while he and their other brother clink glasses at their eternal garden party. It must be maddening to see his baby brothers so blithely unconcerned about the unending torment that awaits.
But that’s how you know you’re an atheist: when the stories have no power. It’s like leaving a relationship. You realize the love is gone, or maybe never was there, and you finally stop trying to summon that feeling. You feel sad, and possibly terrified, but mostly you feel relief.
I still get the hollow feeling, but it’s not so bad. Now it no longer seems like a sign that something is missing, but evidence that I’m alive. And I’m glad for the memory of that little girl, squinting hard to see life beyond her hedge-clipping neighbors. She may not have found the promised land, but there was something sacred in the search.
** The exception was Christmas Eve mass, which I, in a fit of teenage righteousness, insisted my family attend if we planned to enjoy the material perks of the holiday. “We’re such hypocrites!” I raged.
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe‘s Globe Magazine, the Daily Beast, Lion’s Roar and other publications. She is working on an essay collection about belief.
Editor: Sari Botton