I was nine years old when I found out that Santa Clause doesn’t exist. I don’t know why my father chose the moment he did to drop the first real disillusionment bomb in his twin daughters’ lives, but he told Betsy and I on a summer day that was so hot and far removed from Christmas that the words coming out of his mouth hurt not just for the truth but for the shock. Not quite to the part of the summer when malaise takes over and even the community pool offers refreshment but little else, we weren’t even thinking about Christmas yet, much less evaluating our behavior over the past twelve months to assess our chances of seeing matching black and neon green Rollerblades under the tree. There we were, fresh from fighting a battle in a neighborhood where alliances were as flexible and ever-changing as governments—one day you’re fighting alongside the Taliban/girl next door and the next you’re allied with Poland/the boy up the street—and in a single moment we entered the adult world of the disillusioned. Our dad softened the blow, There’s no Santa, with the caveat, And there’s no Jesus! which we already knew. A guy born in a barn to a woman so ashamed of her own sexuality that she tells her husband she got knocked up by a dude with a heavenly zip code? Right. Her baby daddy was part human and part celestial but obviously an above-average lover if he impregnated her from the moon. And Jesus’s step daddy was probably gay if he was willing to accept that Mary didn’t have a thing with the papyrus man but was actually knocked up by a wispy dude who lived on a cloud. Not exactly plausible. But Santa? Now that was a shock.
My parents are not the churchy sort. The combination of two fairly traditional religious backgrounds—she was raised Catholic, he was raised Baptist—ensured that their children would have only a cursory awareness of religion. If not for the prevalence of religion in our conservative hometown—warnings of eternal damnation are broadcast from billboards on I-40 with statements like, What if she had aborted Jesus?—I suspect I would have started college wondering why so many people wear ts around their necks. As it was, however, our brother Adam, Betsy, and I could not be shielded from the Christians around us. I learned about baptism the same day I learned that I had a one-way ticket to Hell that could only be refunded if I let a preacher dunk me in a river in a white dress in front of people holding snakes and convulsing. As unappealing as dresses and getting water in my nose was, learning that Betsy and I would be the sole third graders to spend eternity in that underground hotbox was seriously depressing. I became convinced that my only way off the heathen cafeteria table was to be re-born, the mere idea of which was confusing because even if my mom wanted to go through childbirth again, there’s no way I could fit in her womb. When I approached my mom about my fear of forever sunburned isolation, she quietly told me that it was fine if someday I wanted to join the church, but there was plenty of time to think about it. She made salvation seem like drinking or sex—adult things that I was free to choose but shouldn’t until my gray matter stopped growing. I imagine my dad saying something like, “Don’t worry. There’s no such thing as hell.” but I suspect his response was more like, “The only reason to go to church is for gospel music and cornbread,” before reminding me about our family mascot, the HMS Beagle.
Our rejection of religion in a religious town made us different. My parents didn’t teach us the Golden Rule; they taught us Kant’s categorical imperative. When my dad and I took walks in the evening, we talked about the history of human evolution: australopithecine, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapien. I knew who that our short and furry ancestor Lucy was named after a Beatles’ song before I knew long division.
But even though our parents rejected religion in their own lives and never made it a part of our lives, they realized that banning us from attending church was not a battle they should invest a great deal of ammunition on. So their son wanted to go to youth group because all his friends did? Fine. At least that was be a couple of hours the local cops wouldn’t harass him for skateboarding. So Adam went to a church basement every Wednesday evening, surely less interested in Jesus than in the youth groupies. Adam’s Christian education included watching a film that claimed that rock ‘n roll music can boil an egg. The intention of broadcasting this dubious fact was supposed to scare impressionable youngsters that if the Rolling Stones can turn raw eggs into brunch, it can likely do the same to your brain. Adam saw through Christly claim, and decided to prove the invalidity of the movie through his eight grade science fair project, Can Rock Music Boil An Egg? Despite blowing out the stereo during the scientific process, our parents were proud when Adam not only disproved the Christian right but won bronze prize in the science fair.
Although we may have been self-conscious that our parents let us play silent shepherds in bathrobes in the Methodist Church Christmas pageant but only attended a single performance and didn’t stay for the actual preaching part, while the other parents went to each painful rehearsal during the weeks leading up to Jesus’s birthday (we waited outside the church after the play ended and the preaching began with the boys whose parents were followers of Meher Baba, a 20th century guru who inspired the Bobby McFarin song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy), their refusal to be part of an establishment so fundamentally silly was later a source of pride. When I was in tenth grade, my mom had Christian Heritage Week, five days in which the school principal or a member of one of the school’s multitude of Christian clubs read a prayer during morning announcements, canceled with a call to the ACLU. This defense of civil liberties was not surprising by a woman who dressed her second grade daughter as her hero, Harvey Gant, a black man running for North Carolina senate against the arch conservative Jesse Helms, for Halloween, and who encouraged her daughters to sing and dance to the Neville Brothers Sister Rosa at a fourth grade school talent show.
There was a brief time when religion was the cause of a mildly strange family dynamic. As a junior in high school, Betsy attended a protest at the School of the Americas, a Georgia military operation that trains Latin American soldiers and police to violate human rights in support of American interests. Betsy spent much of the protest with Jesuit priests and nuns who risked their lives working for justice in Latin America. They were married to God, yes, but they also fought the corrupt establishment. Betsy was inspired. When she returned home, she said she had something to tell us. I braced myself for her confession of lesbianism, sure that she was going to stop shaving her legs and start saying things like, fuck patriarchy before spitting on the sidewalk, but next words out of her mouth were far more shocking: I’ve found Jesus. No one knew how to respond to this. It was the ultimate rebellion. Indeed, years later, when I was gently prodded out of the closet, it was essentially a non-issue. When I asked my mom who told her, she said, “No one. Your father has gaydar.”
Betsy lost Jesus after a few days, but there were, of course, other acts of rebellion: staying out late, underage drinking, smoking weed out of homemade bongs after our parents were asleep. But one thing has never changed: we have never forsaken our parents’ values—their beliefs in freedom and equality, their respect of science and reason, their suspicion of authority, their interest in the world. My parents gave up the dogma they were raised with. My mom left Catholic school after she was kicked out of her senior prom for bringing a black date. My dad’s teenage involvement in the Baptist Church ended after a summer working in a kitchen at a Jesus camp. He talks more about the butter sculptures he built in the slow hours than then any religious element of his summer job. I have friends who have rejected the gods they were raised to believe in and others who found religion later in life. But I have nothing to rebel against. I agree so fundamentally with my parents on the things that comprise my sense of right and wrong that the rejection of the values instilled in me is as likely getting pregnant by my girlfriend. Why rebel against reason, against justice, against equality? They raised us differently, yes, but they raised us well.