You down with G-O-D? (No, Really; Are You?)

When I tell people that I was raised with no religion, it’s usually met with a certain amount of skepticism. I never realized what an anomaly it was until I moved away for college, and childhood stories, stories from home, were a matter of course in the ‘getting to know you’ conversations, and bitching about abandoned family religion was a hot topic.

“Never? You’ve really never been to church? What about Christmas? Easter? Seriously?”

Nope, never means never. At the age of 18, I had never sat in a pew and attended a church service. We weren’t high Holy Day Jews, or Easter-only Catholics, or even Unitarians in it for the social aspect (as my Dad was raised, until he was given the option to stop going around age 12). American demographics being what they are, my exposure to religion was haphazard, but fairly broad. I had friends of many religions, though I was too young to really understand what that meant, beyond a weekly time commitment. More importantly, I knew no one for whom it was a problem that I didn’t believe, just as I didn’t care if they did.

Even with this lack of Christianity, Christmas was (and is) a big deal in my home. A tree with an angel and packages and cookies and friends and family, the whole nine yards, the family tradition. Looking back, it’s odd that we had tiny creche figures that we got to remove one at a time from our daily advent calendar, complete with baby Jesus, but it was part of the package. We believed in the story, but that was as far as it went. I knew that Jesus was a good guy, a leader of men, but…he can’t be the son of God if you don’t believe in God. So, when I moved from the liberal stronghold of Seattle to another, New York, there were certain genres of America that remained largely theoretical for me. When George W. Bush was elected President, I was genuinely baffled. Literally no one I knew had voted for him, yet he still won. Conservatives were out there…but where, exactly?

Finally, when I was 20, I found them. My long-time college boyfriend came from a Southern Baptist family in Tennessee. I didn’t know this until we’d been dating for a while; he didn’t go to church, and his religious upbringing was mentioned only in passing. So, imagine my surprise when I went to visit him over New Years, and the first thing I saw was an absolutely enormous tapestry on the wall, embroidered with a psalm. Beneath it, a bookcase overflowed with the following titles:

The Case for Christ

Falling in Love With Jesus

The Bible

Share Jesus Without Fear

The Bible, again

Champions for God by Jerry Falwell.

Uh oh.

It really should have come as no surprise when, on my last night in town, his father snuck this into an previously innocuous conversation: “So, Gemma, [boyfriend] tells us that you don’t believe in God.”


And the interview began. Sitting on the floor, pinching the ever-loving hell out of my boyfriends thigh under the coffee table, I hoped for some intercession, but none came. The questions about my beliefs, or lack thereof, kept coming, and awkward though I was, I tried to answer honestly. I felt like I was holding my own until we got to “Why do you think people are good to other people?”…and I stopped. This had to be a trick question, right? I sorted through the language, looking for the real target, but in the end I settled on something unspeakably halting like, “Well…I guess people have figured out that if they are kind to others, others will likely be kind them, and it creates the most happiness for the most people.”

“Oh, and God has nothing to do with it? Well, clearly I believe something different.”

And with that, the conversation was ended. At first I was just f*cking confused, but when that wore off, I was livid. Absolutely raging. I had gone to church with his family. I had bowed my head while grace was said before every meal. I hadn’t sworn once. I had respected his household and his beliefs, and here he was, implying that there was something wrong with me, that I was a lesser human being, incapable of true kindness, because I didn’t believe as he did.

Excuuuuuse me? I am kind to my friends and family. I volunteer at animal shelters, and I give pregnant women my seat on the subway. I send thank you notes, remember birthdays, and I call my grandmother. I’m not Mother Teresa, but I am a pretty good person. My beliefs are informed. They are my own, and they are a matter of personal pride.There is no void in my life, but to this man, that didn’t matter. I had been judged, and been found lacking.

After the interrogation, my boyfriend and I fought about it constantly. I couldn’t understand how someone so logical could be a part of something so rigid, and he couldn’t understand how I just…couldn’t understand it. I tried, I did. We give up believing in Santa before we leave elementary school. How could I learn belief in an unknowable God as an adult?

So, how has this affected my adult life? I still exist in a fairly liberal bubble. My community is made up of artists – writers and musicians – and there is little variety in the Bush-hating members of (as my Mom calls it) The Church of the Brunch. But, I make an effort to keep myself out of the closed-minded Liberal category – those who fancy themselves free-thinking and left-wing, yet automatically write off anyone even slightly to the right of center as ignorant.

That being said, I have learned that I am not going to change. I admit that when perusing online dating profiles, the ‘religion’ question is important to me. I think faith itself may be the important element, and the form it takes less so. However, if you’ve got it and I don’t, that’s all well and good, but it is one of the few differences in my life I have found to be truly irreconcilable.

[photo courtesy of]

My Organizing Odyssey: Office and Bedroom
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