Not Quite a Heathen

By Kelli Korducki

Even at my high school Bad Kid worst—when I was failing half of my classes (because, well, I didn’t attend them), sneaking out of the house on the regular, and smoking whatever I could get my ill-behaved fingers on—I never skipped church. While I don’t feel I came from a super religious household, Catholicism was so engrained in my family’s identity that the prospect of opting out of Mass seemed, at the very least, like more hassle that it’d be worth (and, at worst, a guarantee my mom would act on her occasional threat to ship me to a Salvadoran boarding school where “those nuns will fix you.”)

But I’m a heathen now. My brothers are both heathens too. We’ve flown our parents’ multi-crucifix nest and cast aside their religion with it. We don’t bring it up, but I suspect our parents have figured out that we only join them at Mass during visits home out of filial duty.

Truth is, when religion is so deeply intertwined with a family’s cultural makeup, rejecting it outright can feel awkward. And, I suspect this isn’t a terribly uncommon conundrum among many North American children of immigrants, or people who immigrated young enough to this comparably secular society that their spiritual beliefs diverged from those with which they were raised. At random, I polled two of my friends who fit this criteria to see where they stood.

My friend Tom is one of them. Though he’s lived in Toronto since his teens, Tom grew up in a Brazilian city where everyone, he explains, is a “lapsed Catholic” who becomes religious when they want something, like when they’re short on cash or looking to conceive. While Tom’s parents were never particularly observant, he thinks they both believe in a Judeo-Christian god and he certainly isn’t going out of his way to announce his personal rejection of faith to them. Atheism, Tom says, doesn’t go over so well in Brazil.

“When people started asking me about my faith, I realized I didn’t have a good answer and that I didn’t really buy the biblical stuff,” he says about coming to terms with being an Atheist. “It’s always what I was, I just had to realize it.”

In his mid-20s now, Tom’s never directly professed his beliefs (or, I guess, lack thereof) to his parents, but he says, “I try not to go too in-depth in talking about religion with them because I’m still kind of worried this might offend them or something.” With other family members, like his grandparents, it’s a subject he avoids altogether.

My friend Sena, a second-gen Canadian whose parents grew up in Pakistan,  describes the household she grew up in as “not that religious in terms of practicing Islam (praying five times a day, fasting for 30 days every year, etc); but in terms of drinking and dating, those were strictly not allowed.”

“It definitely was not a neat process where one day I decided to just ‘give [Islam] up,’ and in some ways I will always be identified with it whether I want to or not (based on race in combination with my name), until a lot of people are able to see people who come from Muslim communities as more nuanced,” she says.

“Up until recently I’ve identified as Muslim, in some ways for political purposes, in others because it’s what feels comfortable in terms of accessing my spirituality. I’ve just warmed up to the idea that spirituality and how I view whatever it is that handles the things that are outside of my control, is something I can participate in on my own. I would say it was self-realization and doing a lot of work around letting go of an idea that just never really worked for me to begin with.”

I asked both Tom and Sena if they had any friends who were religious and if religious difference was a strain on those relationships.

Tom: “A few. I try to avoid the religious talk as much as possible. I’m not a Dawkins-style Atheist. I don’t run around trying to convince people that God doesn’t exist. But if people try and have that discussion with me, I usually don’t shy away from telling them how I feel. It’s strained a few relationships in the past, though it’s been awhile. Seems like everyone in university these days is either agnostic or atheist.”

Sena: “I have some friends and family that are religious. I feel like, amongst the people I know at least, there’s a certain acceptance that there are various levels of religiosity that people engage in. I think in some ways I do feel slightly uncomfortable when someone seems to be more religious around me in a way that seems self-righteous or judgmental towards me. This doesn’t happen in most cases though, so generally I get along with people who tend to be ‘very Muslim.’ We just end up talking about things other than Islam, or if we do, it’s more in an engaging way than alienating.”

I, personally, have very few friends who are religious. I used to go to Mass with them sometimes, early in university, when I was homesick and hungry for the well-worn rituals of 18.5 years’ worth of Sundays. But these friends no longer live in Toronto, and when that old itch strikes once or twice a year I’m left to my own devices. The last time was Mardi Gras. I phoned a Dundas West church about Spanish-language Ash Wednesday services and received a grumpy Peruvian priest’s spiel on how I should already know the answer. And I realized, after stumbling through my spotty Spanish request, that he was probably right.

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