Raising Episcopalian Atheists

episcopalian atheists

By Sarah Shermyen

When the Darwinian desire to continue on my genetic line results in kids 10-15 years from now, I know already that I’ll be indoctrinating them with 1960s rock, British television, and Calvin and Hobbes. I want them to be able to cook well, be healthy, and grow a small garden should I once again be living somewhere with a backyard. They will read and read often, and if everyone thinks they’re weird in middle school, it’ll just build character. They will also, almost certainly, be raised as Episcopalians.

I’m an atheist. I should mention that now. When my Sunday school class taught the story of Abraham and his son, I failed to take away the lesson that God is loving if you believe. Instead, I figured it was a story about bluffing The Almighty. Sure, I’ll kill my kid for you, wink, wink; we both know you won’t let me and you’ll reward me for my trust. I took all of the biblical stories with a grain of salt, trying to find whatever moral was to be found there, or better yet enjoying them for their entertainment value. I never fully bought into all the teachings, believing early on in evolution and knowing of the many contradictions found in my holy book. This didn’t discount God for me quite yet; I was perhaps agnostic, despite continuing to attend weekly services, by the age of 11, but I finally admitted my atheism to myself a few days after being confirmed into the Episcopal Church at 15.

I had, and still have, many issues with the diocese in which I was raised. Though Episcopalians are fairly progressive despite our adherence to the Book of Common Prayer, old hymns, and the use of the term “Father” in addressing our priests, politics are politics and they existed in a church structure where hierarchies of priests and bishops set the tone for a greater community of believers. Yet I still want my kid to go through Sunday school, first communion, confirmation, all of it.

I’ve tried to reason this out logically. After all, I rejected belief in God after deciding it to be illogical. Perhaps I like the idea of encouraging faith before understanding because for me, it created a shield of safe feeling before I could name and address my fears, and made dealing with ideas of death and loss something I didn’t have to entirely come to terms with in elementary school. I’m not sure religion instilled a sense of right and wrong in me; I credit my parents and extended family with my moral code and extreme susceptibility to guilt. Morality outside of religion, actually, I find more satisfying as the uncomfortable possibility of doing good simply to avoid Hell never enters the equation. That being said, I was part of a community that ministered to the homeless, or families in transition, and became exposed to the idea of helping those who had not been born into secure environments like my own in a way that I might otherwise have not.

From an academic side, I’ve always appreciated my upbringing. While unable to quote line and verse, I am familiar with a healthy number of Biblical stories, and simply attending church on Sundays and memorizing the orders of service, the Nicene Creed, the colors of each season in the church year and what they mean, gave me a greater understanding of the place of both Christianity and Anglicanism in Western society. My familiarity with traditions and stories put me ahead in history classes, and as an English major, the role of Christianity in western literature continues. I would never have been able to have the same appreciation for Joyce or O’Connor without religion in my life. I know the mental struggles it puts one through, how it gives birth to endless questions of life and death and purpose, to authority and the intent of certain words. It helped in me to understand religions other than my own by finding similarities in doctrine or practice. In my particular sect of religion, I could watch the different ways in which women were treated throughout the evolution of Christianity, without being subject to the same harsh biases; one of my priests was a woman, and I was never instilled with propaganda of sexual purity in my classes. How to treat intimate interactions was left strictly to my parents.

Maybe, to me, giving my child choices means educating them in every way I know. Some may say to teach only one religion, if wanting to expose the idea of faith, is closed-minded. Perhaps so, but to try to expose a child to all religions in a more than merely academic fashion would be near impossible. At the very least, I can give her an understanding of a religious community and to this day, I love singing hymns and attending Midnight Mass. I have fond memories of my time in Christmas pageants, progressing from a sheep who kept insisting on joining the shepherds, to a member of the angel choir, to the angel Gabriel himself, booming out my lines to Mary, much to the chagrin of the director. There is an odd sense of pride in knowing that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights is Anglican, and I love having an advent wreath, three blue candles, one rose, on my kitchen table in December. It was about tradition and history, understanding the strong faith of my grandfather, or my grandmother’s upbringing with a priest for a father. It granted me the opportunity to wrestle with my faith; I consider questioning my faith a privilege. I was able to learn from it, and then be able to ultimately disagree with it, instead of being given no choice to begin with. This faith in an unknowable being taught me to give the benefit of the doubt, and ultimately rejecting it allowed me to see when to stop trusting in something or someone. I think that when I die, I will die, that science will explain the universe, that my time here is not a rehearsal but the actual thing; and to me that is beautiful and magical. I am an Episcopalian by tradition, if an atheist by faith, and see no problem reconciling the two.

[divider] [/divider]

About Sarah

sarah shermyenSarah Shermyen originally hails from the greatest university town in Florida, but now lives in New York where she is pursuing a BA in English at Barnard College. She doesn’t have the patience to get a proper degree and figures life as a transient busker isn’t such a very horrid future. She enjoys missing references to popular culture and quoting British sketch-comedy shows; at least her brother understands her. She used to be a model or something but then puberty happened or something and, lacking the hand-eye coordination to play sports, she now uses her height to reach the highest shelves for others. When not selflessly reaching cereal boxes for her roommate, she cooks the things her parents send her and tries to figure out a way to make the kolrabi in her weekly CSA palatable. Sometimes she sings things and sometimes she acts in things; she was a part of Columbia University’s Vagina Monologues cast in 2013. She has a long list of books to read and movies to see but right now she just wants to enjoy some Flannery O’Connor and a small glass of rye, maybe try to write poetry, okay? You can read those attempts at her inconsistently updated blog, meandthehyacinthgirl.tumblr.com

[divider] [/divider]
View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll To Top