Dorothy Stephens

Dorothy croppedI have fond memories of the Anglican church of my youth. God was loving and forgiving; the sermons were comfortably boring; the music was soothing; there were teas and craft sales. My mother played the organ and I sang in the junior choir. It cost no more than any other social club. All the neighborhood kids attended one of the local Protestant churches. We knew nothing of fundamentalism, creationism, faith healing, tithing, hell, speaking in tongues, or judgment day.

Other than as a Sunday morning ritual, religion played no part in our family life. I vaguely remember reciting grace at mealtimes and bedtime prayers when I was little, but both were dropped in early childhood. We owned several Bibles, but no one read them. They sat on dusty shelves, used occasionally for reference. My father mocked TV evangelists, calling them charlatans and con-artists. My parents valued education and critical thinking. I don’t remember ever believing in the literal existence of a supernatural god; the Bible stories were just too far-fetched. I viewed them as legend or allegory, and Jesus as a historical figure, but didn’t waste much time thinking about it. Looking back, I believe we attended church mainly because it was important to our (English) cultural identity.

Beginning in my teens in the 70’s, a series of experiences led to my gradual disillusionment with religion. First, as a strong-minded feminist, I clashed with my parish priest over my views on abortion and the ordination of women. Then after a high school classmate committed suicide, my attitude toward homosexuals began to diverge with that of most Christians back then. Although some displayed more sensitivity than others, I began to realize that religion was no moral leader on these issues.

In the mid 1980’s, my parish priest confessed to and was convicted of sexually molesting altar boys. Almost as horrific as his behavior was hearing some members of our congregation excuse and defend him, and learning that our bishop had known about and ignored the problem for years. When I later read about the widespread child abuse scandals involving clergy, and the tragic legacy of aboriginal residential schools, I was no longer shocked.

Exposure to other religions, past and present, further eroded any lingering beliefs I may have had. Stephen Roberts said “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” I had not heard this quote 40 years ago, but I remember learning about Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology in junior high, and wondering about all those ancient people who were convinced that their gods were real. In my late teens I took a summer job as a live-in nanny for a Jewish family. It was a fascinating insight into another culture, but the rules were inane, and I wondered how those nice people could be so convinced that their religion was the right one and mine, therefore, had to be wrong. I concluded that each was equally nonsensical, and by my twentieth birthday I declared myself agnostic. Yet despite all this, I continued to attend church. Although I had seen some of its dark side, I had been raised to associate religious affiliation with respectability, and still viewed it as mainly benign.

In my late 20’s, I left Winnipeg and lived for 7 years in a small town. We joined the local church where I began playing the organ and directing the choir. The liberal, easy-going priest focused on humanitarian issues, including social justice for political prisoners, aboriginals, and the poor. But small-town life was a culture shock after the big city. For the first time I was exposed to Christian fundamentalism. I had neighbors who belonged to a small ‘home-based’ church and thought of Halloween as satanic. I took on private music students, some of whom were home-schooled, a novelty for me. I snuck a peek at a science textbook left by a home-schooler. The page I looked at described animals’ camouflage as “designed by God”. I was vaguely disturbed but didn’t know what to make of it, since I knew little of creationism.

I once wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper protesting a biased article about the local ‘pro-life’ group. The day after my letter appeared, two families withdrew their children from music lessons, even though I had never mentioned religion to my students.

On a happier note, I made a friend who lived a completely secular life and never attended church. She was the first person I had ever met who had been raised completely without religion. She was a well-respected community leader and volunteer, and a role model who showed me that one can be ‘good without God’.

We were still living in that town when the Manitoba Schools Act changed, forbidding school-sponsored prayer. My oldest child was starting kindergarten, and there were petitions circulating, first to appeal the legislation, and then to start prayer groups. I refused to sign either, which stigmatized me. Then when school started, the teacher confided to parents that one child in the class came from a Jehovah Witness family. The poor kid was excluded from everything, even birthday parties. All class celebrations had to be scaled back to avoid traumatizing this one poor child. My opinion of religion sank lower and lower. But at no time while we were living in that town did I ever challenge any of these believers about their views. Back then I would not have known what to say or how to say it. I thought of them as odd and left it at that.

My religious journey finally ended when our priest resigned. His replacement was a fundamentalist who advocated prayer and Bible study. At first, I decided to give it a try. I bought the reading guide (Our Daily Bread) and started in. It didn’t take me long to become completely disgusted and an affirmed atheist, but out of morbid curiosity I continued reading for about 6 months, wondering how much more cruel and/or absurd the stories could get. Then I walked away and never looked back. Not long after, we returned to Winnipeg.

In the early 90’s, there was no internet, and not many books critical of religion. I read the few that were available in the public library back then. They included Why I am Not a Christian; Leaving the Fold; Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism; Unholy Orders -Tragedy at Mount Cashel; a book on world religions, and several on cults. I also read something, somewhere, about Humanism, and began to self-identify as a Humanist.

For the first few years after I left the church, I didn’t pay much attention to religion. I was relieved to be out of it, and Sunday mornings became family time. I gradually ‘came out’ as an atheist, but I was too busy working and raising kids to spend time pondering philosophical issues.

In the 2000’s, all that changed. In the US the religious right began to rear its ugly head. Abortion clinics were bombed and doctors assassinated. In 2001 radical Muslims attacked New York. The LGBT rights movement was coming to the fore, and gays became the scapegoat of fundamentalists. I used to believe that extremists weren’t a problem in Canada, but then I watched them mobilize forces here, too, in first the Reform, and later, Conservative Party. With my kids nearly grown, I began to pay more attention to politics, world news, and social issues. Around that time I discovered the works of the “new atheists”. For the last few years I have soaked up books, videos, lectures, and debates about religion, science, philosophy, and skepticism. I am fascinated by everything I have learned, but if I had to pick the one writer who most influenced me to join the secular/atheist movement, it would be Sam Harris in The End of Faith.

Today I indulge my nostalgia for traditional sacred music by singing in a community choir and overdosing on Christmas carols every December. I am grateful to be part of the supportive community of HAAM members and to promote humanism, science and critical thinking as a basis for living.