I was at a Catholic girl's school in the 1960s when the nuns changed their habits and started looking like real women, when the mass was sung to rhythm and blues and the whole world began to rock. In religion classes we were taught about civil rights, feminism and sex. Yes, that's right, sex. Out with rote learning the dogma of catechism, in with questioning everything and figuring things out for ourselves.
Back then, I was an Anglican in a Catholic school, so I was already questioning things. And every year I won the religion prize -- mainly because I was atrocious at maths and spelling and they knew I was bright enough to get some kind of prize. But the girls called me a heathen and beat me up in the toilets for being a non-Catholic who kept winning bibles. I didn't understand their reaction... they hated confession, hated mass, and hated religion class unless it was sex education with Sabby Guts -- that's Sister Sebastian to everyone else.
Poor old Sabby Guts, with her chest flattened from tuberculosis, her big-boned hands and deep voice, standing there at the head of the class going on about love and sex and saving yourself for the sacrament of marriage. She didn't have a clue about how we rocked at mass, kissed boys after school, and clustered in the toilets talking about diaphragms and condoms and the pill (that is unless, of course, I'd won another bloody bible). Occasionally we chatted about venereal disease and gay sex, but these were the things of other peoples' lives. We focussed on contraception and there was nothing sacramental about the sex we had in mind.
Inevitably, I wanted to become a Catholic. Perhaps it was winning all the bibles, maybe it was because I knew more about being a Catholic than an Anglican, or maybe it was the beatings in the toilets. Hard to tell.
But the priest in whom I confided this desire said: "Why on earth do you want to be a Catholic?" And he spat it out as if I were a complete fool. Then he said: "What if you fall in love with a protestant boy, then where will you be?"
I thought he had a point, though I did go on to fall in love with more Catholic boys than protestants. But, on that day, that priest told me we were all free to believe whatever we want. We lived, he said, in a secular world, there was no need to sign up to being a Catholic. And, that evening, I walked home convinced that in this world you could be anything you wanted to be, except a Catholic.
Flash forward to 2016. I've spent a lifetime being secular, questioning, reading, travelling, listening, figuring things out for myself. I've discovered I'm not cut out for atheism, that there's a force in nature that affects us whether or not we believe in it, and that sex is almost always sacred.
Please don't mistake me for a cherry picker, or a hippy-dippy, new-age guru worshiper. What I believe has come from my experience and I have no urge to pass it on to others. However, because I live in a secular world, I never thought I needed to hide or deny I what believe, so it's out there for all to see.
It has come as quite a surprise, then, that when two or more of my intelligent, ex-Catholic-now-passionately-atheist friends begin proselytising their version of atheism -- which seems to be a rejection of a Catholic version of god coupled with a fear of anything that sounds like hippy-dippy spiritual stuff -- then things start to go wrong.
Because I have a different view, they jokingly call me 'spiritual', but it sounds just like they're calling me a naive fool. So I overreact by saying: "I'm not f**king spiritual." It just blurts out of me, because I've gone to a lot of trouble to avoid adopting unexamined beliefs and I hoped my friends had noticed. All this leaves me embarrassed because, to me, the word spiritual in fact does mean hippy-dippy, new-age guru worshiper, and I have a rather unfair judgement about that.
Although I know we live in a secular world where all beliefs are embraced, on these evenings I find myself ostracised for not subscribing to what seems to be the dominant religion of our time -- an atheism based on little more than a rejection of Catholicism and it's unforgiving god.