the little children
stopped believing in God because of a grammatical error.
I was about five years old and sitting in church, which was decorated
in that trademark way of Catholic churches in the late '60s
concrete block walls, soaring ceiling and little in the way of decorative
detail except for stained-glass windows showing biblical scenes.
I was bored, as usual, by the droning service and the priest talking
about nothing I understood. I started looking at the stained-glass
windows, as familiar to my eyes as the teeth in my mouth are to
my tongue. It was that lovely time of life for me when I had just
started reading and the world was no longer able to keep secrets
from me. This particular Sunday, I realized I could now read the
text on the stained-glass windows.
One window showed the long-blond-haired Jesus with a few small
children at his feet. The picture had always looked nice to me.
Jesus's arms were out to the children and the children seemed happy
in his company. This day, however, I learned or thought I
learned the secret of this window. There, on the window,
was the following sentence: Suffer the little children unto me.
Suffer the little children! I may have had a limited vocabulary
but I sure knew what "suffer" meant. Jesus was saying
he wanted little children to suffer. In that moment, because I didn't
know that "suffer" had multiple meanings, the small doubt
I'd been having about religion started to grow.
That doubt eventually grew into a fine and healthy case of atheism.
How funny that this verse in particular was the crystallizing moment
of my loss of faith. It turns out that the real context of the verse
is Jesus telling his followers to bring little children to him so
he can show them the way. This little child went the wrong way.
My doubt originally started when I heard two biblical stories from
the nuns in Sunday school. In one of the stories, Satan and God
make a bet about a man named Job, who believes in God. Satan is
sure that if he does enough awful things to Job, Job will eventually
turn against God. God is sure that the man will remain faithful
and tells Satan to inflict whatever he wants on Job, short of killing
Job, of course, remains faithful to God. But during the fun game
that God and Satan play with the guy's life, all of Job's children
In the other story, God tells Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, just
to prove Abraham's love for God. I later found out that Isaac is
supposed to be a full-grown man, but in Sunday school, I read a
kids' Bible with illustrations of a little boy cowering on a rock
as his father rises above him with a knife.
God has an angel stop the sacrifice at the last minute, which is
supposed to be a happy ending. But I couldn't get over imagining
what that little boy went through and how he must have felt. From
these two stories, the picture I got about God was of this mean
and insecure God, who needed to see extreme proof that people really
loved him and used his almighty powers to get that proof. And because
of this need, children die or are terrorized.
I had a shameful moment in my adult life when I was walking with
one of my dogs. I suddenly had a picture of making the dog sit and
stay while I turn from him and walk away. I wondered how far I could
get from him. I had that one, short moment of wanting to test my
dog and see which won out his desire to please and obey me
or his desire to stay by my side. But it passed quickly and I felt
really creepy to have even thought of it. God, on the other hand,
had no such qualms.
There were other reasons that made me turn away from religion.
It really bothered me to be told that "God is watching you
all the time." Basically, I had one question in response to
that: "Even when I'm on the toilet? Jesus Christ, that's gross."
Then the whole crucifix thing started to bother me. Everyone in
church wore a necklace with a little cross on it, except for the
priest who wore a necklace with a huge cross on it. The cross, I
was told, was to remind us how Jesus died and that he "died
for our sins" a phrase I never really understood.
I started thinking about other ways Jesus might have died and how
it would've affected religious jewelry. A tiny gold noose. A shiny
little revolver. I could picture any number of death-causing instruments
cast in metal, strung on a chain. It was a delight to open the game
of Clue one Christmas and find that it came with a set of tiny,
metal murder instruments.
I was also mad when one of the nuns told me that anyone who has
not accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior will go to hell. I asked
her, "What about children who never hear of Christ? If they
die before they know about Christ, do they go to hell? Isn't there
some kind of special dispensation for ignorance?" No. The nun
told me that once you reach the age of reason, God expects you to
find out about Christ, however you can, or else.
Despite the fact that I knew about Christ and was old enough to
save my own soul, I was certain, by the age of six, that I did not
believe in God. I started spelling God with a small g. In school,
when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I would silently mouth "under
God" as a token protest. The teachers could make me move my
mouth, but not actually say the word.
In the last couple of years we've heard that there are biological
differences in brains of religious people versus the non-religious.
I can believe this.
I know that, as a small child, I believed in God and Jesus. But
as I reached the age of reason, I couldn't maintain the belief
the same way, really, that we outgrow the belief in Santa Claus.
My son was about five when he said, "I know there can't be
a real Santa Claus. Nobody can fly in a sleigh."
Logic had kicked in and he couldn't allow the myth to go unchallenged.
Maybe not everybody has that logic pathway. Maybe logic is just
another form of faith: "I have faith in that which I can work
And here comes another Christmas, the festival of two myths: the
birth of Jesus Christ and the perennial coming of Santa Claus.
Sometimes I wonder what it'd be like to believe in something. To
believe that the heavens turned on a special star when the baby
Jesus was born, that the birth of one child could change the world,
or that all children really got presents from Santa.
Sadly, I cannot believe in any of it. Another Christmas will come
and go with me remembering the reason for the season, but not really
Instead, I'll resent the music in stores for the next month, the
pressure to buy my son some incredible present, the secret hope
that I'll get some incredible present and the inevitable letdown
on Christmas afternoon presents opened, no snow outside and
nothing to do but wait for normalcy to return.