Like most people, my first religion was chosen for me. I was baptized into the Catholic faith in the usual way, as an infant. Over the course of the next twenty-one years I received five of the seven sacraments and attended Catholic grammar school and Catholic high school. I attended mass with ruthless regularity, and I put my coins in the collection plate on Sundays, but I never really believed any of it. I was, in other words, a typical Catholic.
My mother had been raised Catholic. Irish Catholic, in fact. One of her sisters was a nun in the order of Dominicans. My mother and both of her sisters attended Catholic grammar school and high school, even though to do so was a considerable financial strain on the family. My mother’s entire family made a good show of being good, practicing Catholics, but I don’t think that any of them really believed any of it either. Rosaries were said, and novenas were prayed, but I’m pretty sure that it was all for show. My mother was afraid not to believe. Not so much afraid of God, or hell, but afraid of disappointing her own mother, and definitely afraid of what people would think. She had a very fearful temperament in general, and was driven in all things to please and impress other people.
On my father’s side, my grandfather practiced Catholicism in much the same way that my mother’s family did, but with much less rigor and without caring what other people thought. I think that for him it was a social thing. He had been a member of the Holy Name Society, those are the male parishioners who act as ushers at masses on Sunday. He was famously observed on Sunday mornings to yell, “Jesus Christ, where’s my God Damned Holy Name pin?” My Grandmother was an indifferent Lutheran, raised by a German family for whom religion played little role in life. My father’s religion seems to have been mathematics. I don’t recall him ever going to church. As a boy, he received a public school education. He never mentioned religion except to make sarcastic comments about religion in general.
At the age of almost five I began my indoctrination at the kindergarten of the local Catholic school. That was in St. Fidelis parish, in College Point, Queens, New York City. The church was named for a medieval German saint. His brutal martyrdom was painted on part of the ceiling of the church. There were plenty of volunteers for nunnery in those days, and almost all of our teachers were Dominicans.
I have described elsewhere the complete failure of religion to take root in me, much less thrive. As first graders we received our Baltimore Catechisms, and I quickly came of the opinion that the whole thing was ridiculous. Maybe it was the illustrations that put me off, the line drawings of angels, the stairway to heaven, the depictions of heavenly beings with robes and beards, sitting at desks and pouring over books. Maybe it was the endless rules and the charts, and the lists of sins. Who could take such things seriously?
I went along for the ride, because there was really no way out of it.
By the eighth grade I had had enough of the discipline of the nuns and the religion itself. I had friends in the public school system by then, and I longed to go with them to Flushing High School. There were girls there, and the teachers didn’t hit anyone. My mother, however, found that whole idea shameful, even though my father had gone to Flushing himself. It was decided that I would go to the best Catholic high school that would have me, and as bad luck would have it, that was Holy Cross. No girls; no tight pants; no longish hair or pompadours; no “square-backs;” no Cuban heels. Most of the teachers at Holy Cross were Brothers of the Holy Cross. They, like the Dominicans, were mostly people whom bitterness had turned cynical and mean-spirited.
A little consideration for me would have been great. Flushing would have been a lower stress environment, I’m convinced of that. Religion was only part of it, but it was a substantial, negative part. At Holy Cross we were constantly badgered about sin, the evils of girls, the mortal danger of masturbation, and the proper degree of respect that was due to all authority. But I was a fragile youth, perhaps unworthy of consideration, and in any case, expecting consideration in this life is a condition almost as ridiculous as religion itself
Noto Bene!!! A Little Diversion! A note here about the power that children have without being aware of it . . . the power to affect their own destinies. I did seriously consider putting my foot down about my choice of high school. Maybe, I thought, I should just go to Flushing and sign myself up, and then just go there every day. Refuse to even set foot in Holy Cross without handcuffs on. I would get some good beatings over it, and there would be a lot of screaming and threatening going on, but all of that would have died down within a month or so, and I would be where I wanted to be. I know that now, but at the time I couldn’t get past worrying about the beating and the screaming part. I would have been immeasurably better off at Flushing, and almost certainly much more successful in life.
High School, continued. As it was, my four years at Holy Cross nailed shut the coffin of my education for twenty years. On my first day I resolved not to cooperate with them at all. My self-education continued all though high school. I read a novel every week, and I read widely of history and newspapers and magazines, but I never read assigned material. I never did homework, preferring to copy it from friends the next day. I was forced to sit in the classes, and it turned out that paying attention there was enough to barely pass the tests. I graduated number 271 in my class of 291 students.
I graduated from Holy Cross two months shy of my seventeenth birthday. By then I had received countless hours of religious instruction. I had also attended countless masses. And not just Sundays and Holy Days either. First Friday masses; first Saturday masses; masses just for the hell of it. I took two important steps upon graduation: I started to publicly smoke a pack a day of cigarettes, and I stopped going to mass. I was beginning to declare some kind of independence.
The United States Navy
The next few years were largely free from religious annoyance, but one interesting thing did happen. I joined the Navy, and I discovered that the Navy is very interested in two things: 1) distinguishing marks and characteristics (to facilitate the identification of your partly exploded remains; I was put down as “half circle scar, left palm”); and 2) your religion (so that they can send for the correct chaplain when you get killed). This time it wasn’t me being annoyed for a change. It was me that was annoying the Navy.
“Religion,” it said on the forms. I always wrote in, “no preference.” At boot camp, they became insistent immediately. “That’s not one of the choices,” some petty officer told me. “You got to pick.”
“Okay,” I said, “Buddhist.”
“That ain’t one of the choices.” He informed me that the choices were limited to Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. If I had to do it all over again, I’d definitely choose Jewish. Those lucky guys got picked up and taken to temple on Friday night, where they got a great meal, free calls home, and a chance to hang out with girls.
“I’m putting you down as Protestant,” he said, “you’re protesting something.”
So I got my first set of dog-tags stamped with the “P” for Protestant. As though all Protestants were the same! In the midst of the big silly, you almost lose track of the little silly. Out in “the fleet,” I easily got new dog-tags marked “NP.” No preference.
A few years later I got married, and religion again reared its ugly head. My bride-to-be had, like me, gone to Catholic grammar school (the same one that I did), and Catholic high school (the “sister school” to my school). She had also, like me, more or less discarded religion after high school.
The only religious professional that I was on speaking terms with at the time was the rector of the St. Paul’s Chapel, which was part of the Episcopal Trinity Parish in lower Manhattan. He was a nice guy, a little on the young side, very smart, and altogether decent. St. Paul’s was the church, the very same building, where George Washington had attended services while he was president. (New York was the capital of the United States at the time.) I spoke to him about getting married there, and the prospect of it was thrilling.
“We have a wedding that day in the morning,” he said, “so I can just leave the flowers up.” The organist would cost me $20, and the minister’s services, and the church itself, were free. That is the very definition of value for dollar! That beautiful church still had George Washington’s private pew, with his personal copy of the Book of Common Prayer, roped off in purple. Alexander Hamilton, among other notables, was buried in the churchyard! Twenty-fucking-dollars! Try that in any Catholic church. No, my friends, money is a horse of a different color with the Catholics, and the color is green.
My girlfriend was happy about the idea, and we reserved the date. We began to plan. Our families, mine much more dramatically, went insane.
I got a call from my Aunt Mary F., which had never happened before. She was an almost sinister figure in my mother’s blended family. She was a step-sister, and filed a role very much like the step-sisters in Cinderella. “We need to talk,” she said. I went over, and she laid it out for me with great theatricality. “If you do this,” she said, “it will kill your grandmother, and your mother will end up in a mental hospital.” I thought, but did not say, “oh, shit.” And then I folded immediately.
Because, you know, it just wasn’t important enough to worry about. I had read my Mark Twain, and I believed, like him, that such events are not primarily for the nominal celebrants, rather, they are for the greater group. My girlfriend agreed.
We got married in the Catholic church of Saint Fidelis Parish, where we had both attended the grammar school. Thus chalking up sacrament number five. And we paid inflated prices for flowers and a limo, for which the church got kickbacks; we paid more for the organist; and we paid for the church; and we paid, as was customary, a large gratuity for the priest. Pay, pay, pay . . . with Catholics, it’s all about the money.
There was only one glitch. We were called to the rectory to talk to the priest. He took down a schedule and asked us about times and dates for Pre-Cana Conferences. “Oh,” I told him, “we’re not going to any Pre-Cana Conferences.”
“But I’m afraid that they are mandatory,” he said.
“Well, we’re not going.” My girlfriend indicated that she shared my feelings in the matter.
“But you cannot get married in the church without attending!”
“That’s fine with me,” I told him. I explained that we were just doing this as plan B, at the request of other people. “We’d rather go back to the Episcopalians anyway.”
He made that face that priests make when they are faced with making lemons into lemonade. “Ah,” he said in a eureka moment, “I see that you both attended Catholic school through grade 12, so we can waive the Pre-Cana Conferences.”
So we got married.
My Farewell To Religion
We got married when almost 500 American soldiers were dying every month in Vietnam. All that, and uncounted tens of thousands of Vietcong, NVA soldiers, and Vietnamese civilians as well. One particularly disagreeable feature of the time was that the boss Catholic of the Diocese of New York was one of the biggest war-mongers in America: Francis Cardinal Spellman. I found this problematic.
Every article that mentioned Spellman included a recitation of the number of Catholics in America. The number was huge, many tens of millions, and the inference was that the number gave greater credence to Spellman’s noxious opinions. It was upsetting to think that I was inflating that number, so I resolved to quit the church, officially.
I stopped by the rectory and asked to speak to a priest. We sat in the same small office where the Pre Cana Conference discussion had taken place a year or two earlier. He asked me the purpose of my visit. I blandly told him that I wished to be formally excommunicated. I don’t think that he had ever heard that one before, and I’m sure that from the character of our two interactions in this office he would cheerfully have signed the order himself, if he’d had the power to do so.
I told him that I did not believe any of it, and that I disapproved of the church’s behavior in matters financial, social, political and theological. I explained that since I had been educated in their schools, and married in their church, I was surely counted in their tally, and I wanted no more part of it. I suggested grounds for excommunication, including disbelief in the virgin birth or the divinity of Christ. I cited my failure to recognize the authority of the church or the pope. There were more, I assured him, if they were required. He told me that there was no mechanism for someone to request excommunication, but not to worry, because I had obviously broken away from the church already.
Independence established, I declared victory and went home.
Religion is supernaturalism; it is no more or less silly than the belief in ghosts or superstition. The whole enterprise of religion would be comical if it didn’t wreak so much havoc in the world.
Religion is making something of a comeback in American society and politics, which is a terrible result for both things. One can only hope that this apparent re-invigoration is only some kind of death throws, a thrashing around preliminary to expiration.
Many people do seem to be getting the message. I got out myself, and one of my cornerstone rules of life is that if I can do a thing, just about anyone can do that thing as well.
More people should consider it.