James Robert Smith
Imagine being raised in a religious void.
There’s nothing there, in the past, no religion at all. Your parents have never said anything. You’ve never been to church or temple or mosque, that you can recall. And you’ve never been indoctrinated into any religion, at all.
You sing religious songs at school, from time to time. But “Jesus Loves Me” is just a song, because you don’t know who “Jesus” is. “Jesus Loves Me” might as well be “Don Gato” for all you know. Or care.
And then one day, in the third grade, you get a teacher who insists on someone in class getting up in front of the other kids before the day really begins, and reading a quote from the Holy Bible. This is the mid-60s, the days before anyone actually pushed a separation of Church and State. You don’t know what the Holy Bible is. It’s just another book, but with a black cover. Not as big as the dictionary, and surely not as interesting. But one day it’s your turn, and some of the other kids keep telling you to look for short verses. Something curt. Like, “Jesus wept”. But you can’t find “Jesus wept”, so you find something a couple of lines long and you read it.
No one discusses the verse. For Pete’s sake, we’re all eight years old! The teacher, this Miss Goody, she just wants us reading a verse from The Book. For our own sakes. This is the same teacher who, when we’re singing religious songs with “Hellelujah” in it, won’t let us pronounce that final syllable, that “YAH” sound. ‘It’s a vulgar sound,’ she tells us. Just say “Hallelu”. So we drop the “YAH” and end with “Lou”, but we have to drag it out “looooooouuuuuuuuuu”. (And in my mind, I always added that “YAH”!) She’s a real hoot, this woman.
So now I begin to realize that there’s something out there called “religion”. And I realize there’s this thing people call “God”. And there’s this guy people call “Jesus”. And there are these nebulous jerks people call “The Twelve Apostles”. Like a group of some kind. Maybe like “The Dave Clark Five”. One kid in class walks around all puffed up with pride because he can name all twelve of them. I can’t name those twelve damned apostles, but I know the Beatles, and I know the seven original astronauts. I tell the other kids the seven original astronauts whenever they bring up the twelve apostles. This always succeeds in changing the subject pretty darned fast. Only one other kid in the class knows even six of the astronauts’ names. John Glenn and Gus Grissom are a lot more important to me than Paul and Peter.
However, the damage done, I start to ask about religion. The teacher explains to me about “God” and “Heaven” and, by golly, it all sounds pretty good to this eight-year-old. Then, a few days later, someone talks about “being saved”. I file that away, not wishing to display my ignorance. For, you see, I’ve been raised in a religious void. It’s amazing that my parents were able to do this. Just amazing.
This “being saved” stuff: it’s bothering me. What is it? I decide to ask my mom.
After school, I go into the kitchen. We have a sandwich bar in the kitchen, with tall metal stools with vinyl padded seats just like in a diner. I nab me one of these stools and sit down at the bar. Behind me are windows that look out on the playground of my school where my third-grade teacher has begun to tell me about “God” and “Heaven” and “being saved”. (My parents are lucky, to live right next door to Oakhurst Elementary School and this son just has to walk out the door and about thirty yards and he’s in school each weekday morning.)
I’m sitting there at the bar. My mom’s just on the other side, where she usually is this time of day getting ready to make supper (“dinner”, we call it there in Atlanta). My head, as I say, is full of these cool thoughts of this loving “God” and this absolutely perfect placed called “Heaven” where you get to go when you die.
“What’s ‘being saved’ mean?” I ask my mom.
“Saved?” she asks, repeating me.
“Yeah. ‘Saved’. I heard it at school today.” She doesn’t ask me who told me about this, and I’ve always assumed she just automatically knew. I don’t volunteer it.
“Well, you have to be saved before you can get to Heaven.”
I sit there for a second. This doesn’t make sense. What about the unconditional love and all that stuff? Finally, I say, “You mean, you have to be saved before God will let you into Heaven?”
“Yes.” She goes on about her business of getting dinner ready.
“So, not just anyone can go to Heaven? Not everyone is allowed in?”
“That’s right. Not unless you’re saved.”
‘Damn! There are strings attached,’ I think. This is not right! At that moment, then and there, all the tumblers fell into place. All the circuits closed. All the switches flipped. That mother of all cornerstones, weighing as much as all of Logic, it went down with a solid and immovable thud.
“Then I don’t believe in God,” I told her. “I don’t believe in Heaven. It’s all a big lie, isn’t it?”
My mom stopped what she was doing (pouring water onto lentils in an enormous pressure cooker, as I recall). She wiped her hands dry on a blue towel, some green lentils clinging to her hands pink from hot water. “That’s right,” she said. “There’s no such thing as God or Heaven. Good for you.”
And that was that.
The next day, in class, the teacher asks whose turn it is to read from the Bible. I raise my hand. She points to me.
“I don’t want to read from the Bible any more,” I tell her.
“Why not,” she asks.
“Because I don’t believe in God,” I tell her.
Some of the kids gasp (some girls, smarter than most of us boys and realizing the implication). Most of the children don’t give a damn, because they’re only eight years old, for Pete’s sake. My teacher looks at me, then down at whatever workbook she’s perusing. And she says, “Well, Mr. Smith, you can be an atheist if you want to be.”
‘Atheist’. That’s a new one on me. I don’t ask her what it means, but I think I know. And there’s that dictionary sitting at the back of the room, by golly, and I plan to look it up as soon as I have a free moment.