Being an atheist never meant much to me until I really got to know the alternative. Growing up, I celebrated Christmas, Easter, and Chanukah, kind of knowing the stories behind them, unaware of the greater meaning each had for other people. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I observed Lent for the first time. I’d often heard that people gave things up for Lent, like chocolates and meats, and eventually figured out that it lasted from the day after Mardi Gras until the Thursday before Easter. It was that year, when I was fifteen, that I gave up being an atheist for that period of time.
I realize now that could have meant any number of things. For me it meant living as a Christian: going to church, reading The Bible, praying, I did it all. Perhaps saying I gave of being an atheist for Lent is misleading. I did it during Lent, but I did it for a girl.
I imagine your average relationship expert or advice columnist would say that when one partner in a relationship believes the other is bound for Hell for not believing in God, they had best go their separate ways (by which I do not mean Heaven and Hell). Not everyone can be Elaine and Puddy on Seinfeld. It didn’t seem that big a deal in high school. Also, as mentioned, I’d never given it much thought, and, not being a believer, I wasn’t worried anyway. It was important to my first girlfriend, though, I could tell, I just wasn’t sure what I could do about it. I wanted her to be happy, but I couldn’t just start believing.
Eventually, it dawned on me: try religion on for size. For her. Try to have a relationship with God to better my relationship with my girlfriend. That’s easier said than done, but I gave it my best shot, and she appreciated it. Her parents agreed to pick me up for church on Sunday mornings, very early and quite out of their way, and my parents agreed to allow it, which only in retrospect makes me wonder what they must have been thinking. I also took to reading, well, trying to read The Bible on a regular basis, and doing what popular culture had represented to me as praying before bed each night. I also tried to keep a diary of this experiment, but that was the first thing to fall by the wayside.
The praying felt like my habit from years earlier of looking out the window and wishing on the first star I saw each night (I even recited the well-known children’s poem about wishing on stars before each wish). The Bible, which I have since read all the way through, was boring to a teenager just getting into Harry Potter. Church was the best part, even though it meant getting up early, because there were people there. Nice people. Singing people.
In fact, since my girlfriend was in the choir, I spent a significant amount of church time in the choir loft with her, eventually adding Wednesday choir rehearsals to my Lenten resolution and then donning the blue robes and singing with them on Sundays. I loved the singing, both the prepared pieces and the hymns that the whole congregation sang, which were never very hard to sight read. I didn’t repeat after the pastor or speak along with the congregation when they affirmed their faith, not wanting to be so disrespectful of those around me as to lie by imitation, but I sang every word, because music is different.
The readings were interesting, most of them being stories I had never heard before, and I could usually take something away from the sermons. I don’t know if most churches are as accepting of outsiders as this one was, but I was welcome in the youth group, I helped my girlfriend look after kids during a service, and brunches, whether with the congregation right after the service or later with her family at a restaurant, were lovely. In fact, even when Lent was over, I still occasionally went back. I filmed her sister’s confirmation, so she and her parents could watch unimpeded. I saw The Blindside at a movie night shortly before going away to college. I even went back when my history class was studying the Protestant Reformation and we each had to visit a Protestant congregation and write about it.
I also once tried to impress a girl and her family by attending a Catholic church. Not for Lent, just for their benefit. I don’t do that sort of thing anymore. The Catholic church, though, turned out to be the same one my mom had attended when she first moved to town, which was an interesting connection. I don’t advocate going to church or any religious congregation and trying to adopt a belief system just to make your significant other happy. People have to accept their partners for who they are, God or no God, or it just won’t work. But for a teenage boy in his first relationship suddenly exposed to the world of religion, it was an adventure that probably got me off on the right foot as far as dealing with religious people, by whom I suddenly realized I was surrounded. It also made a solid foundation for a young adult novel I wrote.
This all happened before the “new atheist” book boom, and while I read and enjoyed the first of those books, and learned a lot from them, I’m glad they weren’t my first exposure to that world. Detached statistics and frightening famous examples of religious people need to be discussed and dealt with, but they might have effected me a lot more negatively if I hadn’t met and gotten to know the average believer first, and had that as a foundation for learning about these things. I think it worked the other way around, too: years later, long after we’d broken up, my first girlfriend told me that as far as she was concerned, I would end up in Heaven. I’m not worried about that either, but it’s the belief that counts.