In eleventh-grade English we had to read an essay called “The Bright Side of Pessimism” [by H.L. Mencken?] in which the author claimed that is was good to be pessimistic about the future. If the worst came to pass, you would feel vindicated for being right. If something wonderful happened, you would be pleasantly surprised.
Recently, I have been feeling that there is a bright side to my having been an atheist for the first 38 years of my life.
As a kid, I felt privileged to have total freedom on Sundays. Other kids had to go to church, but I didn’t. My Sunday was as footloose as my Saturday, until the upper grades made me hate having to cram homework into Sunday nights. I continued hating Sunday nights into my adulthood since I chose to be a teacher and an English teacher at that. The thought of facing a pile of essays to grade gives me the heaves to this day. But even church-going English teachers feel this way, so it’s really irrelevant.
My parents had been forced to attend church (Dad the Methodist, Mom the Baptist), even though their parents didn’t attend. I despised the hypocrisy of the grandparents and rather liked the integrity of my parents. They would not send my brother and me to church when they themselves didn’t go. I twice asked my dad if he believed in God. The first time he said, “Well, I’ve never seen him.” The second time, as he neared death, he said, “Yes.” Both of these answers had profound effects on me. Kids go to their parents for the truth about God. My truth was that God probably didn’t exist, but for sure church was not the place to find him.
I did, however, feel left out. All my friends went to some kind of church. One was Jewish, one Unitarian, one Congregational, one Baptist, one Episcopalian, and one went to the Church of the Brethren. We didn’t talk about God at all. It was not a cool subject. When a bunch of Jesus freaks tried to tell us that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel was about Jesus, we scoffed. The public school was not a place to learn about God, even though the English teachers had to teach Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Blake and other writers who can’t keep from mentioning God. I actually tried to fill the gap in my knowledge by taking “Bible as Literature” in both high school and college. I figured I needed to know the stories of the Bible even if I didn’t believe.