It was not a rational decision.
I guess I should explain.
I was born into a family of believers. My dad’s side of it was pretty lackadaisical, Christmas and Easter Christians. But my mom’s side was very devout. I had two great uncles who were preachers under the National Baptist Convention. One had a tiny congregation in a storefront in West Philly. (He and my great aunt ran a grocery store. The church didn’t bring in much.) The other was a scholarly sort who taught religion at some university. I went to Sunday School every Sunday of my young life, meeting in the basement and then the annex of Union Baptist Church in Montclair, NJ. I memorized books of the bible. I listened to stories. I sort of cruised along as a young believer. I hated getting up early on Sunday, hated getting dressed up in those dresses and crinoline slips designed to slice open the backs of my thighs as I twitched in the pew. But church was church and Christ was Christ and that was that.
Then my mother died.
My dad had a fight with the minister and we left Union Baptist right after the funeral. He switched us, my sister and me, over to St. Luke’s, an Episcopalian church. He didn’t attend, but he threw a coat over his pajamas and drove us over every Sunday.
If you’ve never attended many churches, you might think they’re all the same. They’re not and I don’t think my dad could have found a bigger contrast than Union Baptist and St. Luke’s. Of the two, I think Union Baptist probably had a larger congregation, but the church was small, with light colored walls and stained glass windows not that much larger than regular windows in a house. St. Luke’s was huge, several linked grey stone buildings, with enormous stained glass windows and high Gothic arches. It was always cold in there, at least in my memory.
St. Luke’s was cooler in other ways as well. Union Baptist, though not as wildly fervent as Pentecostal churches, was an emotional place. Sermons built to cathartic moments. There was a great choir that my aunt sang in for years. I remember it as full of color and sound. St. Luke’s was a high Episcopal church, very stately, lots of measured ritual, with sermons that were appeals to our minds as well as our hearts. The colors there were ecclesiastical garments against cold stone, rather than the brilliant hats and dresses of Union Baptist’s congregation. The sermons there were intended to persuade, rather than move. I listened and after four years I heard something I didn’t like.
It was a sermon on Mary and Martha. The minister was telling about how it’s this holiday and Martha is getting the house ready and Mary is sitting outside listening to this itinerant preacher and not helping out. Martha is annoyed, goes out to get Mary (guests are coming, stuff needs to get done!) and is reproached by the itinerant preacher (Jesus). The minister goes on to talk about how we have to recognize when grace is at the door, blah, blah, blah. But I’m stuck on this whole incident.
I’m an older sister. I know what it’s like to feel responsible for things. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re the only one paying attention. Why couldn’t Jesus see that? Why couldn’t he see that she was only doing what she thought was right? Where’s the compassion for her?
I thought, “That’s not fair.” And I decided not to go back to church. I told my more religious grandmother I didn’t believe any longer. She told me to read the bible. I did. I still didn’t believe. I still don’t.
I became a rational atheist some time long after that. That means that I’ve thought about why there’s no good evidence for a deity or deities. This beautiful universe arises from natural forces, not supernatural ones. It wasn’t made for one species on one small planet out in the cosmic boonies. That’s as it should be.
But the start of my atheism was an impulse to fairness, a good beginning all around.
* The title? It’s a gospel song, a really good one.