I believe in reminding everyone that they have the option not to believe.
I was raised Roman Catholic. The traditional messages of the Church were reinforced to me at mass, in Catholic school, and at home. There were things that one should do, and, more importantly, things that one should never do. I focused more on the latter, because I was raised to believe in a literal hell, one that I would spend a tormented eternity in if I transgressed against the rules I was taught to follow.
This was not a matter that was up for debate. For the majority of my youth, I had no idea that there was a world beyond Catholicism and the constant anxiety and obsessive avoidance of sin it created in me. Because the religion and its rules permeated every minute of each of my days, I didn’t know that there was any way to live outside of its confining structure.
In other words, I did not understand that belief was optional or that I could leave it behind, stop following its rules, and stop worrying about going to hell for doing so. I did not know that I had the option to not believe.
At sixteen, I became an atheist, giving up both Catholicism and my belief in God. This created tension and emotional torment, both at home and at school, but it was, without doubt, also the single most liberating choice I’ve ever made. I was finally able to escape the suffocating atmosphere of religious fear. But, more importantly, I also understood for the first time that I had a choice regarding belief. It was a profound and empowering awakening.
Because I spent so long not understanding that belief was optional, I’m passionate about reminding everyone that it is. Religious faith isn’t an inherited trait. You don’t have to believe what your parents did, or what you were taught at school. Tradition and authority are no reason to maintain unquestioned beliefs. Examine your beliefs and see if there are good reasons to hold them. If not, ask yourself why you continue to believe and remind yourself that you do have the option not to.
If I’m grateful for anything from my childhood religious indoctrination, it’s that the fear and pain that it inflicted upon me eventually led me to question why I continued to profess belief in something I knew to be both untrue and damaging. After years of not understanding that I had the option and the responsibility to examine my beliefs, exercising that option was like gasping for breath after emerging from underwater: at first, I was panicked because I didn’t know whether or not I’d ever be able to breathe properly again, but when the gasping and coughing subsided, I realized that I had come out onto the surface, could breathe perfectly well on my own, and had left the murky, dark waters of unquestioned belief behind me for good. I hope to inspire others to do the same.
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