There was no religion in our home. My parents believed in God, of course — everyone did back then — but in a general, nondenominational way.
I loved music and was old enough to know that church was where the music was, so every Sunday I'd put on my one dress (a blue-dotted Swiss) and head for church. In 1960, a 4-year-old walking a few blocks alone wasn’t out of the ordinary.
Fast-forward to age 6. Different house, different neighborhood. The Fitzgeralds on the next block were Irish Catholic and had a piano. Catholics were mysterious to me, but a piano was a piano, and I was there a lot. All eight Fitzgerald kids attended the nearby parish school with its iron gates and inscrutable nuns who wore flowing black habits and white wimples on their heads. The Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Maggie (known as Maggie only to her friends; at home, it was strictly Mary Margaret), gave me some basics on how to read the staff. From there, I taught myself. Thank you, Fitzgeralds, for taking in this heathen and starting my lifelong love affair with the piano.
Fast-forward to age 10. Different house, different neighborhood. I attended the Southern Baptist church with the neighbors. By now, I could hammer out the old hymns with vigor. After Sunday school, I would slip into the coat closet, then play the piano while everyone else was in the sanctuary for worship service.
At age 12 in the same church, during what seemed at the time to be the 61st verse of "Just As I Am" (it just continues, slower and sadder, until someone succumbs), I was overcome by emotion and made my way down to the altar. The following Sunday, I was baptized with plenty of fire and brimstone by the Rev. Ralph Longshore and was accepted into the fold.
It felt good to have it all figured out. In a place where people dressed up for church and the music was glorious, where folks actually sang the weekly hymns in four-part harmony, the swelling sounds resonating through the soaring church ceiling, I belonged and I believed.
I could have set my watch by how quickly it would end.
Everyone knew I was the child of alcoholic parents who did not attend church. The following week, two "elders" showed up at my house to talk to my parents about their sins and things got ugly. That Sunday, I stole a hymnal and that was the end of that.
By high school, I was an atheist and remained so for the next 15 years until my next-door neighbor experienced a religious conversion alone in her dining room one night. Apparently, I'd already caught the virus and had an epiphany of my own a few days later. I spent the next 20 years as a devout Christian, marrying in the Pentecostal church and dedicating all of my children on the altar. My faith was a great comfort and guidepost through life's trials.
When my children reached adolescence and really didn't enjoy church as much, I began to realize I wasn't enjoying it that much myself. Eventually, we gave ourselves permission to sleep in on Sunday. At that point, I made a decision not so much to test my faith as to approach it critically. The religious hysteria over Dan Brown's book, “The DaVinci Code,” had me thinking that my faith shouldn't depend on whether Jesus was married or celibate. This led to a natural transition of thought that perhaps there were other dogmata of the church which bore more objective examination. And so, I stepped out of the umbrella of the fold.
Spurred by my children who study the sciences, I’ve been an atheist for many years. In a country where 90 percent of Americans report believing in God in some form, we’re a mostly silent minority.
The term “atheist” is negative: it describes me by what I don’t believe. Agnostic? I believe what I believe just as you do, so I’m no more agnostic than you are. Humanist is a much more accurate term. I believe in the goodness of humans, the necessity of kindness, the spiritual connection between us all and personal accountability for our actions.
Humans are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty, a tendency which leads to narrow mindedness at best and religious fanaticism at worst. Until we become as accepting of belief systems as we are attempting to be with our other differences, I will take whatever you choose to call me without complaint. Just be nice.
I don’t believe in some of the things you might, like heaven or hell, but my view doesn’t affect your destiny. If whatever you believe makes you kinder, more peaceful and a better servant of your fellow humans, then I’m in favor of it.
My respected Christian friends will say, “You have left God — He hasn’t left you.” The agnostics will opine, “If you refer to a God, you must be allowing for its existence.” The truth is that age has granted me at the small wisdom to hold my truths while not offending those of others. I have no need to convince anyone else of what I believe. Isn’t that a great recipe for peace today?
— By Shari Savage, Tribune community columnist