In my childhood, praying was something I did quite regularly. Well, you couldn’t exactly call it praying since most of the time, it was a 15-20 times repetition of phrases like “Please make sure that our house doesn’t burn down tonight” or “Please make sure that no burglars break into our house tonight” (Note how I excessively used the polite imperative). A part of the procedure surely could be attributed to a small neurosis that I seemed to have as a kid – why else should I’ve repeated these mantras that often. But overall, I have to admit that the praying itself was more of a protective measure, comparable to hanging garlic next to my bed against vampires. If anything, you could call it “precautious” more than “religious”.
Nothing to confess, nothing to fear?
My slightly shifted understanding of religion accompanied me all the way through primary school. I remember having to go to confession within the context of our religion class in third grade. It was a strange thought to come up with sins just like that in front of a pastor we all barely knew. But as a kid, you just shrug your shoulders and be like “these adults surely have their reasons”. So I went to endure the process.
To my great surprise, the confession was not held in a confessional box like in a good mafia film but in a sterile back room of the church which smelled like incense and dusty wooden chairs. Feeling intimidated, I sat opposite the pastor in the middle of the room. What I told him in detail slipped my mind, but it must have been either half true or sinfully filigreed. On a day previous to the confession, I had thrown a ball so clumsy that one of my classmates sprained his finger and needed to wear a bandage. Since me – the evil third grader – had dashed the ball on purpose and with deadly precision on the finger of my classmate, I didn’t want to hide this insight into the chasms of the human soul. In hindsight, I believe that the pastor didn’t take a narrow view on that. After all, most of my sins were not severe enough for the last judgement, for which reason he let me go home with a handful of well-intentioned advice.
Especially in primary school, the notion of religion really takes shape in the heads of children. We learned about the bible and which lessons could be drawn from it as well as about what’s sinful and what makes a good person. As a child, I felt deep respect for the bible stories and especially the passion of the Christ always had the potential to impress me. But I also wondered why everything had to be about the forgiveness of sins and the unrestricted love for God. Everything felt very strict and gloomy as opposed to encouraging and joyful.
Church as a contradictory institution
Going to church always supported that view. In our town, it was a quite dark and barely lit place. Cement walls embracing dark wooden benches concentrated on three crosses behind the altar. In a dark corner, there was a baptismal font also made of cement, standing there as if baptism was a thing that has to be secretly hidden. The whole place just didn’t make sense to me since it didn’t match my views on how religion should be lived. Instead of feeling happy and uplifted, I remember leaving the services feeling down and oppressed.
Generally, going to any church soon began to frustrate me on a deeper level. For one part, we visited pretty much every church that we came along on vacation and for the other part we were one of these families which, after Christmas dinner and handing out presents, hit the road to church. I never understood this as a child. First you’re allowed to unpack presents but then you have to leave them behind to sing weird songs with strangers in a rather cold and packed room. Even for an educated music scientist, the orders of the lines were a mystery themselves. Of course it seemed self-explaining that firstly, you sing verse A, then five times verse B, then the chorus and then – of course – verse M. Even in the moments where there was no singing, I had to pull myself together not to drown myself in the baptismal font.
Unfortunately, I have to confess that I myself was a part of these occult procedures called worship services. After my communion (which appeared to me like the perfect invention money-wise), my brother and I signed up as acolytes at our local church. These poor souls supported the pastor while wearing bad-fitting and fittingly smelling frocks. We prepared the wine we were not allowed to drink and collected the collection from the innocent guests which we were not allowed to keep. Until today I am of the opinion that the most exciting job was to ring the bell at the start of the service.
I think it’s clear that I didn’t take my job as an acolyte very serious at all. Various times I had to suppress a conniption next to the altar when my brother or another acolyte silently commented on bible phrases. At last, we had enough of giving up our free time for such an unpaid side job (after all, we had to show up on most weekends and holidays) and finally decided to hand in our frocks. Just metaphorically of course, since we didn’t have our own frocks.
After choosing ethics over religion class in the 7th grade, I further distanced myself from church towards atheism. It just felt like the right next step to learn more about the enlightenment, humanism or the studies of Kant and Plato as opposed to further pore on my bible studies. I learned a lot in this class and it definitely resonated better with my values.
Finally, leaving the church two years ago didn’t feel that radical then. No regrets, no desire to go back. It was the end of a journey in which I subconsciously had never really wanted to take part. Retrospectively, I had always been a predestined atheist, who never quite got the entire fuss over the church and this thing called faith.
Now I am interested in your path. Maybe you found your way to faith in your late teenage years or much later? Maybe you experienced something similar to what I did? I would love to hear your stories!