So I'm free, now what? D'oh!
Obviously, it's not quite as pat as all that. I had already been a strong critic of the various mainstream religions for a long time. In fact I had been a naive atheist in my younger days when I stopped believing in the Christian God around 7 or 8 years old, around the same time I stopped believing in Santa Claus. I have now read so many similar accounts that I can't say for sure whether I'm remembering my own experience or combining it with that of others*, but here's my version:
When I was 7 or 8, I went downstairs one Christmas eve when I heard motion in the living room late at night. I wanted to see Santa, dammit. What I saw instead was my parents putting presents under the tree. That in itself was no big deal, I always got some presents that were labelled "From: Santa" and some that were labelled "From: Mom and Dad". I figured they were putting their presents for me under the tree before they went to bed. After all, my bedtime was 7pm, right after You Can't Do That on Television and Danger Mouse**, and grown-ups got to stay up later.
The next morning, I tore ass down the stairs along with my brother Johnny, and my sister Tina came in from her room, and we all went and woke up Mom and Dad because we weren't allowed to open presents without them. That doesn't mean we wait, it means they have to wake the hell up! It's present time! Hail Santa!
As they groggily shuffled in we all got under the tree and were pulling out presents, sorting them into piles and figuring out who got the bigger pile of loot. (All kids are greedy Republicans, but what the hell, Reagan was in office.) Somehow in my frenzy of paper wrapping I noticed that some of the presents I had seen my parents putting under the tree were labelled "From: Santa." This was strange.
By the way, this isn't as implausible as it sounds. We were supposed to write thank you notes to our relatives who gave us presents, so along with Santa and Mom and Dad, we had to notice labels from Grandma and Grandpa R. and/or N., aunts, uncles, cousins, great-grandparents, etc. The Santa presents were the ones we didn't have to write notes for, which made them extra special, as they had no chores associated with them. I had figured out that loophole in a previous year, when I pointed out that I didn't need to write a note to Santa, as I had already thanked him by leaving out milk and cookies. No wonder my Mom sometimes says I have the soul of a lawyer.
Anyway, I can't say that I drew the connection immediately, but as time went by, the incongruity of finding the wrong label puzzled me, until I realized what I had. A mystery! Just like the Hardy Boys, or Encyclopedia Brown. I was gonna solve this. So the first thing I do, I go ask my friends. Of course I can't ask my parents. I wasn't supposed to be downstairs, so I'd get in trouble if I asked them. I'll start with Doug, my best friend. His dad is Lutheran, his mom is Jewish, and his birthday is in December, so he gets presents for Christmas, Hannukah, and his birthday all in December. He's gotta be the expert.
Doug isn't much help. Rather than getting 3 times as many presents, he gets roughly the same amount as me, he just gets them bundled all together. What a ripoff for him. At least my birthday's in July, so I get biannual loot. But wait! He lives in a basement apartment at his Grandma's house, and his parents have less hiding space, and he tells me that for the last few years, he's found his presents ahead of time, and always found Santa labels. He didn't have anyone to talk to about it before, but he tells me that he thinks his parents are Santa.
"How can both your parents be Santa!? Your dad is the right shape, but he doesn't have a beard, and that leaves out where your mom fits in!"
I was a bit slow on the uptake.
"No," he tells me. "I don't think Santa is real. I think he's just a story. Even if I didn't see the presents beforehand, I don't have a fireplace. How would Santa get in?"
This was irrefutable logic for me at age 8 or so. Come to think of it, MY house had a chimney, but I didn't have a fireplace either. What's up with that?
"So, Santa is a lie?" I asked.
"I'm not sure, but I think he must be," Doug confirmed.
Neither of us had much appreciation of the distinction between a lie and a myth at this point. I can't speak for Doug, but I was too amazed by the revelation that parents can lie. Why do they get to lie? They always tell me that lying is bad, and I'm not supposed to do it. Then I thought it through.
If Santa's a lie, what about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy? What about Jesus? For me at 7 or 8, I had much more compelling reasons to believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. They gave me toys, books, candy, and money. I could see them on tv. I had evidence, dammit. Jesus wasn't a big deal, I didn't mind if he was a lie, because he was a major inconvenience to me anyway. More importantly, he didn't give me anything except for a really crappy cracker periodically, and I could live without that. Plus I had to get dressed up in a white suit and memorize a bunch of boring words to even earn the cracker, and that wasn't worth the effort.
Jesus was just someone that I heard about in church, and the less I had to do with Church, the better. Church made me dress up nice just to go and sit and be bored for an hour, and I couldn't even just sit, they kept making me stand, kneel, and sit, and they kept changing it up. Couldn't we do all the standing and kneeling and sitting one after the other, instead of mixing it up? At this point I was already allowed to bring a book to church to read so that I wouldn't be fidgeting, and all this additional business with the standing and kneeling ate into me finding out what Frank and Joe had discovered in the cave. I knew Christmas was Jesus's birthday, of course, but it was always a bit puzzling to me what he had to do with it, because I'd looked at that Nativity diorama my parents set up every year really closely, and I never did a find a reindeer in that barn thing, just sheep, a cow, and a donkey. So even though I technically had access to a toy set associated with Jesus, it still made no sense as I got yelled at when I tried to have Snake Eyes ride the donkey.
Back to the point, I now knew that parents could lie, but somehow I wasn't allowed to. That wasn't fair, so I figured I'd lie back, that would show them. I'd keep pretending that I believed in Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and I suppose Jesus too, but I wouldn't actually. Jesus didn't matter so much, but as I long as I still lied and said that I believed in the rest, I'd still get books, toys, candy and money. Serves them right, hypocrites (not that I knew that word yet, but I would soon).
Obviously my knowledge about religion got more sophisticated as I got older, but even after I stopped pretending to believe in Santa and the rest, I still kept going through the motions at the Catholic church services and catechism classes I kept having to go to, all through maybe sophomore year of high school, whenever confirmation happened. At that point, I wasn't even keeping the fact that I believed none of it a secret, but I went through it because the family wanted to be able to celebrate the empty rituals. After confirmation, I put my foot down, though. No more church.
This has also gone long, although I think funnier, so I think I'll end this here and continue with part 3 later, probably tomorrow.
*Plasticity and self-editing of human memory is yet another flaw with self-reported supernatural experiences, but I'll address that in a future post.
**I'm pretty sure that those shows didn't air on Christmas Eve, but the airing of those on regular days is how I remembered bedtime. Sue me.