I spent my high school years at a small Catholic Seminary. Why did I do it? It had to do with the fact that my parents were Catholics of course, and they had me go to a Catholic grade school in my town. One day a priest who was recruiter gave a talk to my 4th grade class about becoming a priest. He convinced me that this was a noble thing to do, that life was mostly about doing good works in order to go to heaven, and that there was no better way to get to heaven than by becoming a priest. There were a few contradictions: I was extremely shy. I have Aspergers syndrome, as I described in a previous post, and I had little understanding of people, little interest in helping them, and less than average social skills. So the only reason I was going to become a priest was that I thought it was what God wanted me to do, and I didn't even consider how ill suited I was for the job.
The seminary was situated near a small town. We lived on campus and were forbidden to leave, so it was a small town unto itself. There were a few dormitories, which consisted of large rooms filled with rows of beds and lockers, similar to a military barracks. Most high school kids have a room or share a room, but my "room" was a bed and a locker surrounded by the beds and lockers of 40 other students. There was no privacy. There was no way to personalize your area, to put your sacred "stuff" that normal high-schoolers surround themselves with.
This was not the way to learn the ways of the world. We were in our own little world. We saw the late sixties go by on television, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines. Here we were, supposedly being prepared to work with people who needed help, and we were isolated from society. We had typical classes along with religion classes. And there was morning prayers, Mass, and evening prayers. We even had to get up every day on weekends for prayers and more church services. Being at home for the summer was a culture shock. I had no friends from school to hang out with, and I was a different duck anyway after spending so much time at the seminary. Not that it mattered too much, because I spent most of my time working at a bean factory. The money went to pay for school. The lack of opportunity to mingle with a variety of people, especially those of the opposite sex, stunted my social skills.
After I graduated, I still felt that I was supposed to be a priest. So I enrolled in a college seminary. But I was starting to change. I was assimilating the new ideas and the unrest of the sixties. I suddenly felt the urge to think for myself, to question things that I heard from the priests who were teachers. For the first time, I even started to look objectively at religion. Why couldn't priests lead normal lives? Why couldn't priests get married? And then this started creeping into my consciousness… God… What was God? I prayed to him, but I didn't get any feedback from him. All I got was the standard line about his mysterious ways and that he talks to us in ways that you have to decipher the hard way, in coded messages or by the way someone looks at you, or any number of ways except directly and unequivocally. But I continued to believe in God. Maybe I just wasn't a good enough person, a holy enough person. I should have faith, which means that I should accept God despite any proof that he exists. The more you believe despite the less evidence you have, the more faith you have.
But as much as I tried to conform, the real me kept breaking out. I became more and more interested in the real world. I read about civil rights, the women's movement. I debated about whether or not priests should be able to get married. I watched as some priests became activists with the civil rights movement, and I saw the church disapprove of many of their activities. I created a new school newspaper that discussed current issues. I had trouble trying to focus on the classes that were taught -- theology, church history of the middle ages, Latin language classes. That stuff was stifling when so much real stuff of value was percolating all around me.
Then a crucial event happened that changed my perspective, my approach to life. It was a class assignment for a religion class. We were to research a theology subject of our own choosing and report on it. By that time, my mind had been drilling down to contemplating the basics of religion. What WAS this all about anyway? Where did it get started? Why doesn't everyone believe in God? Why was I embarrassed to reveal to people that I believed all of this stuff about God? I visited the library at Marquette University, a Catholic university with a large theology library. I browsed the books looking for a suitable subject to research.
Then I found it. A book that discussed the origins of religion. This surprised me a little. Didn't we know how religion got started? Wasn't it all written in the Bible? God created the world, Adam and Eve, and all the rest. Case closed. But the author said that there was more to the story. He described the cultures of the people that lived in Middle East centuries before Jesus Christ. He wrote about the cults and religions in the area. And then he got into something that really shook up my religious foundation: He described how the Jews had borrowed ideas about God and rules to live by from cultures that preceded them and with whom they coexisted. He mentioned the code of Hammurabi. He listed off several religious stories that were copied almost directly from other cultures and religions. This shocked me because up until that time I thought that the Jewish and Christian religion just popped up full-blown out of the blue, deposited by God. But religion evolved!
Evolved! That changes everything. I checked the book out of the library, read it through, fascinated. This was extremely interesting. I wrote a paper based on the book. I knew that this was not going to sit well with the theology teacher. I was headed down a path that was going to have consequences. But now my main motivational force was coming from within myself, a search for truth, and it couldn't be stopped. I didn't want to stop it. Once I started thinking about things based on truth rather than the religious party line I was hooked. I turned in the paper, and the teacher graded it a D. I knew my seminary days were over, my religious views were in for a big change, and my life would be different -- but it would now be my own.
I took a year off from college. I was lost. I had no direction. For the longest time I was going to be a priest. God was the reason for my life. So what was I going to do now? Who was I after all? I read Bertrand Russell's book "Why I am not a Christian". He described how man invented religion to explain parts of the world that science couldn't answer. In the cave man days, that meant gods for thunder and lightning, and for many other natural forces. As science progressed, the room for God got smaller and smaller. I finally had to resolve this once and for all. I decided to shake off emotion, the years of religious brainwashing and look at religion logically and objectively. And when I did that, I stopped believing in God completely. I became an atheist, and my life started over.