Read Related: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About AtheistsMy upbringing very much fit the stereotype of the Catholic Latino family. We went to church every Sunday, attended Catholic school and observed all the church holidays with a big celebration. I had certainly met people from other faiths, but until that day in high school, I had never, ever met an atheist. In fact, I’m not sure I was even aware that there was such a thing as atheism until then! Nowadays, I consider myself a “cultural Catholic,” I no longer attend mass or observe the rituals, but I still appreciate it as a shared experience that links me to others. (The only vestige of my “past life” is that I still give things up for Lent, I’ve just always liked that practice.) Recently I’ve been wondering whether atheists have a culture, too.
It was 1988 and I was sitting in my junior year religion class at my Catholic high school. Despite the best efforts of my teacher (a perky ex-nun, think Kathy Najimy in “Sister Act”) I was bored to tears. Suddenly, the door to the classroom opened and the vice-principal walked in with a tiny, shy-looking girl. He whispered something to the teacher and left the girl behind. The teacher took the girl by the shoulders, turned to us and announced, “Everyone! Everyone! We have a new student!!! Her name is Kerry! Kerry, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and a little bit about your faith, all right? OK!” The girl swallowed hard, pushed her thick glasses up onto her nose and spoke in a high, quivering, lamblike voice, “Um, well…I’m Kerry and, um…I just moved here from Vermont and, um, well…I’m an atheist.” As the entire class erupted in a dramatic, pearl-clutching gasp, I thought, “Now this could be interesting!”