I was raised as a Lutheran, and it’s quite possible that if my parents hadn’t sent me to an Episcopalian school, I might have remained Lutheran the remainder of my days. But when I was twelve, the local schools went through some kind of upheaval (details of which are still cloudy to me), and so, religious school it was.
It seemed innocuous enough. Some of the elements of Episcopalian services (daily, with communion on Wednesdays) were outside my experience (Sundays only), while others were more familiar. There were many things about the school that I didn’t like, especially the nun who taught science like it was an art class*. I didn’t complain. My father was very ill with the cancer that would soon kill him, and my problems seemed very small in comparison.
Spring arrived, and at a certain point, all the girls in my grade were gathered together and given a checklist** for confession. At no point were we told that we did not have to participate, and my experience at the school so far had led me to believe that if I didn’t do as they said, they’d give me a “mark,” which was sort of a point against students for bad behavior (five marks led to suspension, and I think two suspensions led to expulsion). So, despite the fact that I was Lutheran, I went to confession. I was put in a situation in which I felt compelled to violate one of the practices of my religion (confess directly to God/deity/FSM/what-have-you) in order to avoid bad behavior marks for not engaging in a practice (confession to a priest) that was not part of my religion.
Again, I didn’t think my problems were worthy of complaint. These were people of God. Surely they meant no harm. Surely they were good people. Surely they had my best interests at heart.
The next year, a Jewish girl started at this same Episcopalian school. She didn’t go to confession. So I didn’t go to confession. I was given a mark against my behavior, but they said it was for something else. But these were people of God. Surely they don’t lie.
They can’t claim ignorance. They taught (probably still do) a class on the history of religion, which is a bit deceptive, as it focused mostly on the many varieties of Christianity and the Judaic traditions that informed Christianity. I don’t recall anything on Islam or any of the Eastern religions. At any rate, the Protestant Reformation was covered, the fact that Lutherans don’t confess to their religious leaders was covered, and Martin Luther and his 95 Theses were covered. And they knew I was Lutheran.
It’s a terrible thing to compel a child violate their religious beliefs/practices. They don’t always understand exactly what’s wrong, especially if their parents teach them, as they themselves have been taught, that people of God are always good and trustworthy. (I guess I’m dating myself a bit here; the controversy surrounding pedophile priests in the Catholic church had not yet made headlines. Even if it had, my parents probably would have been relieved that the school was Episcopalian and not Catholic.)
So, on this 3rd day of July, 2011, I would like to thank that school for unwittingly teaching me the importance of the separation of church and state. While it was a private school, they ensured that I learned the principle of not forcing or compelling children to violate their religious beliefs. They ensured that I learned how important it is that society adhere to secular principles so that everyone’s rights and beliefs are protected, that my rights end where others’ begin and vice versa. They ensured that I learned that failure to mention God is not the same thing as denying God’s existence.
My experiences at that school did not make me an atheist, but they did make my atheism a possibility, even if I didn’t know it at the time. They made it possible for me to recognize my doubts for what they were, even though it took a long time to stop fearing the doubts. They eventually made it possible for me to think critically about what my religious leaders were telling me*** and that I could change my mind about my beliefs. They should be proud of these lessons because they are good and valuable, but if they knew they had set me on the path toward unbelief, they’d stupidly hang their heads in shame.
*Seriously. We used a one of those science coloring books. I had never seen one before, so I read the page titled “How to Use This Book.” I read the lesson, and colored the associated page as the book instructs, so as to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts in the lesson. Sr.ML gave me a C on the basis of my artwork. The next lesson, I didn’t read the lesson at all, and colored a pretty picture. She gave me an A. She’s now running the school.
**Among the possible sins we twelve-year-old girls could confess to were things like murder, adultery, theft, lying, and cheating at games. Being a novice at confession, the only thing I could think to confess to was cheating at games, and that only because I cheated at Solitaire. That’s right: I confessed to cheating at Solitaire. One of my classmates grabbed my checklist out of my hand and started reading it aloud. No one wanted to play games with me after that. Oh, well. It’s their loss. I could have taught them all kinds of ways to fix cards that had been laid down in the wrong order.
***God loves you; Christians are always good people, and if they’re not then they’re not good Christians; and you’ll always find comfort in the Bible. Apparently, they hadn’t read the whole thing either, or they expected me not to notice all the misogyny, which would be kind of like not noticing that you’ve been punched in the face and had your nose broken.