Just a collection of very fancy symbols

While I personally identify more with the stories of gut wrenching adult deconversions, I love and am completely charmed by people’s stories of being precocious kids who reason their way out by making for themselves logical connections or sudden realizations that a worrisome number of adults will simply never manage. Telling the story of her deconversion while at Catholic school, Brienne Strohl offers several charming or moving vignettes. Here is the first one:

When I was little, I loved being Catholic. I went to a Catholic school in the Midwest, where religion classes were mandatory beginning in preschool. I guess “age of reason” was a pretty accurate description in my case, because by second grade I was very serious about understanding theology. I considered preparing for first communion a grave responsibility. It was, after all, the first sacrament I’d take of my own choice.  I was dedicated to understanding transubstantiation, why it matters, and what sacraments are really all about. I remember struggling with the idea of symbols; I was never satisfied by the explanations of them my mother and teachers would give.

I was told that symbols are “outward signs of inward grace”, and that they are there to help our small mortal minds comprehend God’s infinite love and wisdom at least enough to let ourselves be transformed by them. I was skeptical, even then. I was worried that symbols might actually be distractions, or, worse yet, artificial barriers designed by the Church to control my relationship with God. Why are priests the only ones who can ask God to turn bread into the Body of Christ? I wondered. If God is infinitely wise, what does He care for the infinitesimal wisdom accumulated through seminary? I felt fairly certain that the only reason priests could serve as special conduits of God’s grace was that their hearts were pure and fully devoted to Him when they made the request. It seemed implausible that the sacrament of Ordination, really just a collection of very fancy symbols, could grant you magic powers in virtue of its role within the thoroughly human structure of the Church.

I called bullshit.  I decided to become a priest.  “The Church doesn’t let girls become priests,” my second grade teacher informed me.  I told her I didn’t really intend to ask permission.

Read about where things went from there.

What about you, what heretical theological epiphanies did you have as a kid?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • tagbtr

    When I was 5, it was time for me to start attending catechism (Catholic bible study). Our teacher on the first day was the same priest I saw each Saturday evening at Mass. My parents weren’t church-goers at all — they sent me to church with my paternal grandparents. I never liked it — the tight pinchy shoes, the pins holding the veil on my head and digging into my scalp, all the “kneel, sit, stand, sit, kneel” … and all the long, drawn-out sermons that seemed preposterous to that very young me.

    On that first day, Father Whoever-He-Was started his lesson by reading to us from the beginning, Genesis. Even at that young age, my brain had too much of a logical bent, I guess. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around anything he was telling us.

    I kept raising my hand and asking questions. Father Whoever-He-Was answered them in a kind of non-answer. Then he got to a point where he said Adam and Eve’s children married and reproduced. UP goes my hand! Father Whoever-He-Was looked at me with sad eyes, and said “Yes?”

    I asked him who did they marry? Deep sigh from the priest. He replied gently but firmly that they married girls from another village. UP goes my hand! I asked him What Village? His eyes grow sadder. He replies “Just another village.” Very firmly.

    UP goes my hand! Father Whoever-He-Was refused to call on me again, and wouldn’t allow any further questions from me. When I got home that day, Mom asked me how it went. I told her that I wasn’t going back, because Father Whoever-He-Was couldn’t even answer my questions, and that it was all silly. Knowing I was a very bright little person, she never made me go back.

    That was the beginning of my journey to non-belief. I still didn’t profess my atheism to anyone until I was around 35 years old. It’s just so embedded in the culture here that it’s hard to tell anyone.

  • Rebecca Hensler

    I was raised a secular Jew, so I’m not sure that this counts, but two things come to mind. One is my lifelong love of mythology and how it related to my reading of the Bible. I was obsessed with Greek mythology, but also read Norse, Native American, etc. As a result, it was obvious from the very beginning that the stories in the Torah were just more myths. Kind of creepy ones too.

    The other thing is about Heaven and Hell. They never made sense to me, because we KNEW what was under us and above us. Up above was air and clouds and then space (where rocket ships went) and down below was a whole bunch of dirt and rock and minerals and stuff. People had dug really deep! If there was a Heaven and Hell, why didn’t we find them when we went into space or dug mines and drilled for oil?

  • Nathan

    “realizations that a worrisome number of adults will simply never manage”

    How do we deal with this? On the one hand, I enjoy witnessing my 12-year-old sister bluntly reject our parents’ naive beliefs–she is able to detect wishful thinking and insincerity at a young age. But what is there to do when you’re almost certain your parents, on the other hand, will simply die with those beliefs? What are the biggest factors in realization? Is it mostly egotistical (defensive)? Does one’s approach have to be non-personal?

    Do you think children, with less reputation/authority/power at stake, are thus more inclined to be reasonable?

  • SoRefined

    When I was six or sevenish, my parents would send me to church with some neighbors–real fire and brimstone Assembly of God types. The primary things I remember about the actual churchgoing was that I got to ride in the way back of the neighbor’s station wagon–huge thrill for an only child–and that there was a full immersion baptismal tub thing in the church that I found TERRIFYING.

    Around this time, I also had a children’s Bible that I read with great interest during naptime at the daycare center I went to. I don’t remember whether I thought it was supposed to be non-fiction.

    Anyway, the moment where I decided Christianity was pretend–I suppose I couldn’t say I rejected all religion at that moment, because I didn’t know anything about the rest of them yet–was when the youngest daughter in the AoG family, who was a year younger than me, tried to explain to me that Jesus and God were the same but that God was also Jesus’s father. My reaction was a bit of a smile and nod with an internal, “OK, so that’s clearly not true.” I still went to church with them sometimes after that, but I don’t think I ever even considered buying into Christianity from that point on. We moved away and again, I went to church with neighbors, this time a mainline protestant sect, but I feel like I was mostly in it for the singing and the youth group activities.

    In early high school, I sometimes went to church with a conservative Southern Baptist friend of mine, mostly out of politeness when she would ask. She was very concerned about my salvation. I stopped doing that after a particularly manipulative Easter activity. They gave us blocks of wood, hammers and nails and made us pound the nails into the wood while explaining that when we sinned we were effectively recrucifying Jesus. After that, I developed the ability to just say no to future attempts to get me into a pew on Sunday mornings.

  • GCBill

    Though I was sincere in my Christian faith up until my mid-teens, I remember puzzling on a few issues. I remember wondering if people who’d never been exposed to God/Jesus were shafted in terms of attaining salvation. I remember thinking about Hell, and whether or not the experience would be different for people of differing mental resilience. I remember thinking how unfortunate (and even unfair) it was that some people started out “at a disadvantage” because they were born into other belief systems. These were the things I thought of in grade school – come adolescence, the questions only got harder.

  • Katatonic

    My dad was a Navy chaplain but religion didn’t play a huge part in our home life. We kids were expected to attend Sunday school & my sis & I lighted candles for his church services until we were 8 or so. I remember sitting in Sunday school (and during services) and every time I heard “on the right hand of God” (where Jesus sits, apparently) I always wondered who sits on the left? The devil? I asked mom but she didn’t have an answer. When Dad retired from active duty & took a job as a veteran’s affairs counselor at Seattle Pacific College (now SPU) our family relaxed about weekly services, becoming typical xmas/Easter church-goers.

    When I was 12, I read some xtian novels for young adults and the security & belief of the protagonists was enviable-I wanted to be that happy, be that certain, be filled with the grace of god. By then, my folks had pretty much dropped active participation in church so I decided to go see for myself. Off I went to the local Methodist church one Sunday morning, on my own, and paid close attention throughout the entire service (might have been the first time ever). This was the church that my dad occasionally guest-pastored at and we all attended for xmas & Easter with my grandparents.

    When I got home, my mom asked how It went and I told her dismissively that all they were selling was fear. Fear of the devil, fear of god, fear of death, fear of sin, fear of condemnation, fear fear fear. I couldn’t understand why they were all so consumed with fear of pretty much everything in the world that might risk their salvation.

    I thought it was xtianity that was screwed up so took a decade-long foray into paganism in my early 20s (hey-at least it acknowledges the divinity of & empowers women) but surprise! Couldn’t make myself buy into that claptrap either.

    So even though I was baptized xtian and my kid was Wiccaned by the Farrars, we’re both atheists now and a lot more comfortable with the uncertainties & delights of life.

    • Little_Magpie

      and every time I heard “on the right hand of God” (where Jesus sits, apparently) I always wondered who sits on the left?

      And this kind of makes me think about handedness prejudice. (ie anti-lefthanded-prejudice)…. which, thankfully, isn’t so prevalent as it once was, but yah, that really is a thing.