It started in Sunday school.
I was born into a Hispanic Catholic family in New Jersey. Mom is Puerto Rican, and two generations before that her grandmother was a full-blooded Taino native. Dad is Cuban, and his grandfather came to Cuba from Galicia in Spain, if I remember the story. Dispersed among the other near ancestors are all of the essential bits of the Caribbean Hispanic’s famously heterogeneous facial structure: Celtic, Roman, Taino, Arab, African. Dad was born in December as Fidel Castro’s Communists were gaining control of Cuba, and his story is of escaping a Communist country back when it was officially hostile to any religious expression. My grandfather escaped some time later, after spending some time in prison for his role in the Bay of Pigs disaster. Mom came to the mainland for a better life; Dad came to the United States for any life at all.
They brought with them the syncretized, idiosyncratic Roman Catholicism that the Spanish Caribbean grew around Arawak animism, Yoruba notions of destiny, and the imperious halls of Iberian cathedrals. But they were not santeros, and they would glare at me for implying that their faith and the Nigerian chanting and animal sacrifices of the white-robed babalawos had anything in common.They look down on the Caribbean’s peculiar religion as something barbaric, crude, and cultish. It is ironic, then, that the specific way that they live their faith owes much to karmic ideas equally at home in Yoruba drum circles and Buddhist temples.
In New Jersey they made sure Spanish was my first language. It wasn’t hard—Spanish has a long history in the United States, and if it were not for the inbred racism of manifest destiny, the language of Christopher Columbus’s employers might have even greater currency there. As it was, New Jersey was home to a large Puerto Rican diaspora filtering down from New York, so Spanish was not hard to overhear. But even then, I could tell it wasn’t the language I would need. When I was young I spoke English with a Puerto Rican Spanish accent, and my lack of proficiency embarrassed me. I was a first-generation American, and I could tell that I was being excluded from something. I considered it a personal triumph when I added the English version of the Lord’s Prayer to my repertoire, alongside the Spanish.
That sense that something wasn’t quite right, that things were different from what they seemed, would pervade my future dealings with the overlapping cultural spheres I would thereafter inhabit.
I gained enough English to thrive in an English-language school with friends whose last names were Salermo, Schultes, Crump, Sauvie (that one was ethnically Korean), and Tang. It might have taken me longer if my parents weren’t honing their own English by talking to me and my siblings, and the result was that my Spanish proficiency took such a nosedive that it was no longer worth the trouble to check the “English was not his first language” box on school forms. I would be lying if I said whatever understanding of my culture I had before was badly damaged in the language shift, but the truth is, there wasn’t that much to damage. This was still elementary school, and I was still awkward, confused me.
My parents took me to several Sunday schools, seemingly unable to find one that they liked. I remember this period as a whirlwind of elderly faces and crowded halls, of never knowing where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be doing. I gave my name once as “Alejandro Gonzalez” because a teacher called me that after I introduced myself as Alexander, and got a bunch of forms someone was filling out for me thoroughly borked; one day Mom couldn’t pick me up on time and told me to walk the few blocks home, and I walked for hours in the exact opposite direction before a car mechanic named Louie called out to me and got her (and the police) on the phone. She didn’t let me walk home again.
Maneuvering social situations was a minefield for me, and I lost myself in books about anything and everything when I wasn’t concocting elaborate imagination games with the handful of friends who seemed to “get” me. The only part of Sunday school that I even somewhat liked was the many lists and exercises of rote memorization and categorization. Writing and re-writing standard prayers, memorizing the various categories of sins, and listing the various sacraments provided a small sense of order amidst the maelstrom. That was a pittance compared to the special happiness I found in the sciences—geology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and most of all, biology. Out there, I was continually put in situations that made absolutely no sense to me, even after they were concluded or when I saw them again seven days later. But in science, something that didn’t make sense was a challenge, and the answer might be in the very next book. My parents, to their credit, encouraged me, perhaps reasoning that my academic drive would be my ticket to one of the two educated professions that are the only ones Hispanic parents respect: doctor and lawyer.
Nothing exemplified that sensation more than Sunday mass. By then my Spanish proficiency had decayed to where any Spanish but my parents’ may as well actually have been a foreign language. I understood not even the words I was hearing, let alone their import, and the repetition of sit, stand, kneel was not only opaque, but unnervingly bizarre. Church was just another time when I was surrounded by people whose modus operandi I was not equipped to comprehend, performing another ritual whose purpose I could not divine, where the prospect of talking to anyone filled me with terror. The sermons were simply loud background noise that reinforced my perception of Sunday as a day for not knowing what the hell was going on.
Religion was a mystery like the three kinds of rocks or the structure of salt crystals. And I intended to solve it.
I paid rapt attention in Sunday school, now that my family had settled on one. By then, the class was primarily preparation for our first sacraments. I was made to memorize a list of sins that included disobeying one’s parents and getting into fights with one’s siblings, so that I could recognize which ones I’d committed and make my first Confession. As someone who squabbled endlessly with his brother out of personality conflict and an overwrought sense of personal entitlement without any sense that doing so was wrong, and who increasingly found the idea of taking orders from anyone just because uncomfortable, that list rankled me. Obedience, while of greater importance to my family than I yet knew, was not a moral issue for them. That distinction would become vitally important.
Subsequent Sunday school lessons would offer me very little of what I wanted. I remember one class that hinged on the teacher establishing two distinct classes of objects, those made by man and those made by God. She spent a long segment of that class pointing at objects—books, trees, plastic bins—and asking us whether they’d been made by man, or made by God. She seemed impressed with herself when most of the class wasn’t sure in which category to place her wooden chair. The wheels were already turning in my mind, after reading and re-reading books on astronomy and biology that made emphatically clear that God did not personally place the oak tree outside the church window. It grew there, in a process that was still going on. Perhaps if I’d asked a question then, instead of mulling over this new contradiction and taking it home with me, I’d have been temporarily sated with some quintessentially Catholic sophistry about how acorns are just how God makes oak trees. But I took that confusion to the only authority that had, up to that point, given me answers that even smelled consistent with one another: reading.
My Spanish too damaged to attempt the old Bible that sits in my bedroom in my parents’ house to this day, I devoured an English children’s Bible instead. I had been given no notion that certain parts of the Bible were “metaphor” and others were not. Such exercises in Catholic hand-waving were saved for higher-level classes, and while I’d long since moved to the “gifted and talented” program at my real school, my Sunday school schedule stuck with the quasi-literalist style that works when one is simply sharing stories with impressionable children. So I read the stories of Adam and Eve and the Fall, and Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark, with the idea that they were a factual account of the world’s history, just as I was meant to take the notions of Original Sin and Jesus’s suffering on the cross as undeniable truth.
And then I re-read Seymour Simon’s books about the solar system. And my books about dinosaurs. And my books about weather and geology and chemistry. And I noticed a problem that has vexed theologians for centuries.
I rattled my brain over the separate explanations that made no pretense of even acknowledging one another. I invented out of nothing the Deist conception of God setting natural phenomena in motion. I added multiple creation and destruction events so that God could create both the Precambrian world and the modern one, an idea that I later learned had been codified by the nineteenth-century French palaeontologist Georges Cuvier in opposition to Darwin’s theory. I reviewed and re-reviewed these conclusions, inhaling more science texts as I did so. I had not resolved the conflict between Catholicism and science—only rephrased it.
I spent a lot of time watching Discovery Channel specials, back when they were still valuable. There are many still on VHS in various cabinets and closets in my parents’ house, and when I wasn’t reading, I was watching the Ultimate Guide to Sharks or their brilliant speculative piece Anatomy of an Alien. One special that I had waited with bated breath to receive in the mail was Galapagos: Beyond Darwin, a documentary on a multi-pronged expedition to survey the palaeontology, zoology, and ichthyology of the Galapagos Islands. It had originally played past my bedtime, so the cassette was essential. I wanted to see it because of the Johnson Sea Link submersible and its amazing systems for capturing deep-sea marine life for examination on the surface, but I remember it for its treatment of evolutionary thinking itself.
Galapagos: Beyond Darwin introduced Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the consequence of a lifetime spent studying and cataloguing the diversity of the world’s plants and animals and finding that their attributes simply did not match what would make sense if they had been placed on Earth in their modern forms, with or without a separate, ancient origin. On the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific, Charles Darwin witnessed a perfusion of creatures whose ancestral species he had met on nearby landmasses, and got to thinking.
A lifetime devoted to seeing the world as it is led him to the question that filled Charles Darwin and his family with doubt and terror, a question Galapagos: Beyond Darwin then posed out loud to me:
What if the Bible was wrong?
The contradictions and conflicts and inconsistencies that had driven me to reading every bit of non-fiction I possibly could, they were all resolved in that singular moment.
The Bible was wrong. Catholicism was wrong. Christianity was wrong. Religion was invented by people, and it was wrong.
That epiphany was such a relief, such a hurricane of fresh air into the dank and muddled crevices of my frustrated mind, that I’m not convinced I didn’t lose consciousness for a moment.
I, a humble fourth-grader, now had the solution to the conflict between science and faith that had dogged humankind since science was invented, and I wanted to share.
Soon thereafter I acquired my next lesson in non-belief: the world wasn’t ready for it. The earth-shaking revelation I had experienced got me shouted at as a blasphemer by one of my better friends, got confused looks from my brother, and got me a long, still more confusing talk from my parents. Even then, there was nothing I could tell them that they would understand, even if my own thoughts hadn’t been too new to be fully articulated.
It’s a testament to how much I take after my paternal grandfather that my response to that talk wasn’t “I need to believe,” but “I need to not tell them that I don’t believe.” I was who I was, and keeping secrets to get by was in my nature. Not one week into being an atheist before I knew the word, I had already picked up the first and most important lesson of being a nonbeliever in the United States: if you want to survive, keep secrets. Especially that one.
I don’t remember if my First Communion was before or after that, but at some point the Sunday school stopped, and my parents didn’t bother trying to get me Confirmed, as they eventually did with my brother and sister.
In 1997 we watched the news coverage of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide and my parents warned us not to get mixed up in any weird cults. Maybe they would have given that advice anyway, but I suspect the earlier conversations led them to imagine that I’d somehow be more vulnerable to that kind of thing, instead of less. This was only the first incident where my parents showed their somewhat ironic discomfort at people taking specific action based on their interpretation of religion. That knowledge, too, would soon be valuable.
Elementary school was not a good time to be a young atheist in a religious household in a diverse community, and I spent the rest of those years with a nagging pain in my mind. I knew something they didn’t, and I wasn’t allowed to share. My development and theirs were being stunted by social convention, and I’d be shouted at and alienated and probably sermonized about ecumenical interfaith bullshit by my teachers if I tried to do anything about it. If I was awkward and introverted before, I became more so, just as adolescence was about to start. I developed an abiding disdain for both religion and the entire concept of fiction writing, and spent a lot of time reading field guides. The irrational, Dawkins-like distaste for fiction soon abated, to my credit.
I carried that suppurating loneliness with me when my family moved to Miami in 1999. Much of my father’s family was in Miami, as one might expect of Cuban-Americans my grandparents’ age, and they needed our help. My family had been settling its affairs in New Jersey for some time, and the year I finished at William F. O’Halloran School #22 seemed opportune.