Growing up as a non-believer in a family of Catholics
Red velvet poinsettias are scattered about the foyer of the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. The relatively tiny church on Edmonton Trail is packed with God’s flock donning the finest duds. The priest stands at the altar, his voice a compassionate and welcoming falsetto, a band of gold and white around his neck. It must be Christmas time.
I am 12 years old and I am not comfortable sitting on a polished wooden pew. I try to adjust my backside to make sitting on this glorified park-bench more bearable. My shoes seem to have ants inside them and those ants are scurrying relentlessly. The air is viscous with the bitter smell of frankincense and my nose scrunches at the potent scent.
The people around me are hypnotized by the words being spoken. They sit like statues all facing the same way, wearing muted colours and dreary faces. Brows are furrowed in worship and hands are either clasped together in prayer or caressing old yellowed hymn books.
The priest speaks and it’s time to stand.
I get up on unsure legs and try to shake the bugs out of my shoe to no avail. I look at my parents and my sister who are chanting in unison with the congregation. A mumble rises from the mouths of the flock and bursts like a bubble in the air. The shepherd wearing gold and white raises his hand.
The entire time I’m thinking — do people understand something that I don’t?
I understood religion to some extent. The belief of a God seemed a bit far-fetched to me though. I knew Santa wasn’t real, nor was the Easter Bunny. I knew this because I had never seen them. Why was God any different? Was I supposed to just believe?
I was born in El Salvador, Central America. The little country had – in ’86 – an estimated population of about four million people, more than 70 per cent of them Roman Catholic. My mother and father were among them. They weren’t fanatics in any way, but they did what was asked of them by the church and by Higher Authority.
I was born in the midst of a civil war, and escaped death when a 5.7 Richter-rated earthquake that lasted eight seconds shook loose a support beam positioned directly above my crib. The crib changed from furniture to wood slivers, and only seconds earlier I had been plucked from my bed by my godmother – a women I owed my life to on more than one occasion. My parents thanked the Lord that I was alive and realized somewhere between the rifles and the Richter, someone wanted us to escape our homeland.
Once enough money was set aside, my parents, an older sister and I moved from our motherland. On Aug. 9, 1988, when I was two years old, we came to Canada.
Throughout my childhood, I was bombarded with all things religious. I attended church regularly in Red Deer where we first lived, and prayer retreats in Calgary, Edmonton and every small town and city in-between. I fulfilled the requirements for my confirmation and reconciliation, and learned every prayer and important hymn.
“You shall worship no other god, for the Lord whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
—Exodus 34:14But most important of all, I learned when to stand, when to sit and when to kneel during mass.
Then I hit what I like to call the age of reason.
When I turned 13, I realized I wasn’t as devoted to church as I once was. I began to doubt. I began to ask why?
The question “why” is spoken by curious five-year-olds but as I matured in thought, “why” became a surprisingly important question in my arsenal. I often asked my parents “why” and they gave me carbon-copy answers: “You just have to believe, Guillermo. Put your faith in the Lord.”
Follow without question? I had a problem with that. Things I believed needed to be seen and felt.
Many friends from church said they felt God in their hearts and souls. Maybe I was missing something because all I could feel was blood pumping through my heart. As for my soul, I wasn’t sure what that meant. I ate and drank to survive, I inhaled and exhaled to live – this is what I needed and anything else was either material or not important. That included religion.
And, eventually, God.
I can’t pinpoint the moment I stopped believing in a god. Perhaps it was around the time I heard my favourite comedian George Carlin speak of Him.
“Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day,” Carlin began in a doubtful tone. “And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you.”
God is cruel. If you read the Bible literally, God is the leading cause of death throughout it. He demands your love and loyalty and all you receive is a warning.
“But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images – for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God,” it says in Exodus.
“Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come,” the Gospel of Matthew says.
A jealous God who will punish you for believing what you want to believe? It was unreasonable to be punished for being curious.
Like Voltaire against the bourgeois, like Che against Cuban oppression, I was not going to be intimidated into loyalty.
At first I would defend my beliefs – or lack thereof – as the religious would defend theirs. I would become angry and insulted and conversations would become heated.As a spy on the inside for so many years, I knew what nerves to hit and how hard to hit them.
A volatile, angry period in my life began. I would never entertain anything involving faith and the religious, and anyone not agreeing with me was undeniably wrong – even high school teachers. Many fights ensued as did many suspensions from the Catholic schools I attended.
Luckily, I grew up and learned to respect people and their beliefs. I began to read books by men and women with thoughts and theories – not parables and pomposities.
The love of my life believes in God and wishes to present the notion to our future children. I welcome the idea as I want my children to have an open mind.
I say this because I remember telling me parents about my personal paradigm shift. They burned with contempt. Ultimately, they respect my decision but will probably never accept it, and the effects of me telling them about my shift in religious beliefs are discernible even now. I’m the sheep that got lost in the fray and didn’t bother to return.
In Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s biography of Voltaire, she writes that he said, “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This became my mantra.
I began to live by these words and learned the importance of diversity. I do not attend mass anymore, but I’ve learned acceptance and patience.
But most importantly I learned when to stand, when to sit and never to kneel.