The extent of my religious education was vague mentions of a “God” that created the universe, being gifted a Catholic children’s Bible (which was left on the shelf, unread), and most importantly, being told, “As long as you’re a good person, that’s what counts.”
What a concept.
I was never baptized, never taken to church, and never instructed on what or who to believe in.
And while my parents were themselves religious (very religious, in fact), my mother in particular felt it was more important to teach me to be kind than to be Catholic. She felt that there was no religious doctrine required to instill good values in her kids — so no particular doctrine was enforced.
My parents were less concerned with the rituals I did or didn’t participate in, and more concerned with me growing up to be a person with character and integrity. For some parents, religion helps facilitate this. But for mine, it was irrelevant — they knew that morality could exist with or without religion, and it was more important to let me find my own way than to chart the course for me.
And now that I’m older (and hopefully wiser), I have to give it to my parents: The decision to let me figure it out for myself is one that I’m glad for.
I’m not here to tell parents, religious or otherwise, how to do their job. But if you’re wondering what a kid without religion grows up to be like, I can say pretty confidently that I’ve got a good head on my shoulders.
There’s this misconception that if you don’t have religion in your life, you won’t have any sense of morality. “Sam,” they tell me, “How can you claim to have morals if you have no God?”
Let me explain.
When I was 8 years old, a car crash happened right in front of my family as we were sitting at a red light. My father, without a second thought, put the van in park and leapt out into the intersection to help. He coached one of the victims through a panic attack. And as bystanders saw what was happening, they, too, got out of their cars to help the victims.
As a child, I saw with my own eyes what the compassion of one human being could do for another.
Looking back, I can remember the many times I was told to help others, to look out for my neighbors, and to lend a helping hand wherever I could — those are lessons that, while they may be found in many holy books, I didn’t require a holy book to understand.
When I’m asked where my morals come from, I remember the look on that woman’s face when my dad held her hand through a shattered car window. I can’t say if God was there that afternoon — but I know that my dad was.
Even as a child, I came to understand that goodness counted for something — not because I’d be rewarded or punished in the afterlife, but because it could make a difference in someone else’s life in the here and now.
On that afternoon, my dad reached out and helped someone through a traumatic and almost deadly tragedy. It was my dad that was a light in the midst of all that darkness. It was my dad that assured her she was still alive and that she wasn’t alone.
I grew up wanting to be that light for someone else.
That’s how I was raised: Wanting to do the right thing not because I was serving a higher power or because an ancient book decreed it, but because the way we treat one another ultimately shapes the world that we live in. Like my parents, I wanted to see a world in which we treated each other with kindness and empathy — no conditions, no exceptions.
My parents told me that my generation would inherit the world; that we were the future. So every act of kindness or cruelty had a part in creating that future. I never forgot that.
Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t grow up despondent, purposeless, or lost — I grew up determined to be a positive force for change — to be the hand reaching in through the glass; the clear voice in the midst of all the chaos.
So what does a kid without a religion grow up to believe?
My brother will have his own answer for you — a moderate Christian with his own beliefs and convictions. And then there’s me, the liberal heathen of an atheist who happily resides on the other side of the fence. (Yes, apparently a kid without religion can grow up to be just about anything.)
No matter where we landed, I can honestly say that I’m just glad I was given the choice to figure out what I believed in without being told that it decided my worth, my fate, or my morals.
When I say that I’m an atheist, there’s a serious cringe or even animosity towards me, but I’ve learned to let it roll right off my back. I don’t dwell on the existence or non-existence of a higher power, because I’m busy.
I’m busy crushing the stigma around mental illness so that no one has to suffer in silence. Creating safe spaces for LGBTQ people to be authentically themselves. Standing firm as an ally in the struggle against inequity. Educating both myself and others on systemic injustice.
Like my parents taught me from the time I was a child, I’m committed to doing good and leaving this world a better place than when I found it.
For someone raised without any “real” morality, I’d say that I’m doing just fine.
This post originally appeared on Ravishly.