New York City is, from many perspectives, an ideal haven for the newly godless. It is a stronghold of American secularism, its flagship store, if you will. Religion is mostly not discussed, at least not among the twenty- and thirty- somethings I've met over the last six years, except perhaps as a political force, a cause of explosions in distant marketplaces. I have never heard anyone at a gathering here casually reference his or her faith in any god -- not my Jewish friends when discussing their plans for the High Holy days, and especially not my friends raised Christian. Even the unlapsed, I suspect, fear seeming naive at best, at worst, evangelical.
So we do not talk about faith, even though New York is also a city teeming with believers -- Muslims and Sikhs, Jews and Jains, Wiccans and Jehovah's Witnesses, all practicing openly. In the almost subterranean studio I occupied on First Street in the East Village a while back, I had the Catholic Workers across the street, the Hari Krishnas around the corner, and, three blocks up, the Hell's Angels. The broker who helped me find that apartment confided in me without an ounce of embarrassment on the way up to the lease signing that she had known I was going to beat out other applicants because the Virgin Mother had appeared to her in a manhole cover on 2nd Avenue and told her so. A couple of years ago when I was reporting a story on the United States' only and now defunct Kosher Gym, I saw a man spread a small rug between two parked cars on Coney Island Avenue, kneel facing Mecca, and prostrate himself. I envied all of them their devotions.
I grew up in New Orleans, a city steeped in Catholicism, with all of its ritual and guilt and the convenient offer of regular absolution. I gave up my religion around the time I went to college, and tried not to think too much about it. I had recognized years before I did not believe Catholicism's most defining dogma, that at mass the bread and wine were physically, not metaphorically, transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. There was also the problem that I saw little difference between the faith of the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth and those taken in by modern cults, and I could no longer honestly claim that the marvels I had always named as proof of the existence of a benevolent, omniscient creator -- the human body, spring -- are examples of anything but the order into which, marvelously indeed but following to no master plan, evolution channels entropy.
The irony of my experience with religion was that it first instilled in me the aversion to dishonesty that eventually made it impossible to maintain faith. That doesn't mean losing your religion is easy. In an extended 2006 online debate with Andrew Sullivan, a believer, Sam Harris, an atheist, wrote, "Not lying to oneself and others takes discipline." I thought I had summoned that discipline when I stopped attending mass with my father and stopped taking communion when mass couldn't be avoided. I consigned myself to the ranks of the lapsed, got my degree, moved to New York, which is where you go if you have a diploma and no place reserved for you anywhere else, and let faith slip my mind. Almost unbelievably, I managed to live in the city for two years, floating in the passive secular, without it once occurring to me that I had so recently been a believer.
I was reminded at exactly noon on a weekday in the spring of 2007. I woke up in the bed of the first woman I had been with (another reason not to think about religion), to the sound of recorded bells from a nearby church. The hymn was one I had thought unique to the small Catholic girls school I attended growing up. The song was addressed to Mater, the school's image of the Blessed Mother as a young girl, pre-annunciation, before all hell broke loose for her. We sang the song once a year during a May ceremony in which the girl in each class voted the nicest -- never me -- processed up the aisle of the sunlit chapel and adorned a statue of the virgin with flowers.
I had been back to that chapel since for the weddings of alumnae brides, but had not remembered myself as a student, sitting in the diminutive pews always varnished to a lacquer, bowing my head over my folded hands, talking to God. The synthetic bells in Brooklyn transported me back not just to the many assemblies and masses I attended in that space but the times in high school when I used to steal down there alone at lunchtime and kneel in my uniform and take solace in the sense that Something was watching over me.
That was all magical thinking, of course. I was no less alone then than I am now, and those who watched over me were a group of doting teachers, mostly lay people, who probably knew about my trips to the chapel because they cared. Still, the sudden surfacing of the memory, the heady safety of belief and of someone knowing where I was going and that it was right, made my life since relinquishing it to reason feel like a wasteland in comparison, a frolic in the land of false idols.
Case in point: On a Saturday evening in late December, the med student, the editor, the Ph.D. candidate, the startup manager, and the nonprofiteer crowd around a too-small wooden table with its requisite votive. A look around the small bistro and the one next door and the one next door to it would confirm that we are doing the same thing that everyone else our age and station is doing at this moment up and down the avenues. Behind so many storefronts, at so many altars, we the unbelievers try to summon what being young in New York supposedly felt like to previous generations, a something-in-the-air sense of our own limitless potential, and that we participated in some important cultural moment. While we wait to feel it we drink wine, we order small plates. Endive and stilton. Patatas bravas. Carciofi al Judaia. We were here.
Afterwards we ride or walk back to our respective apartments, which do not feel like home, and on the way peer into store and restaurant windows, gazing at the human forms inside, the mannequins and the animate, and resist feeling all kinds of empty that we can't name and can't begin to fill and which has given rise to whole new myths: that we can do more than one thing at a time, that it will only take twenty minutes to get there, that sleep is for the weak and the dead, that we'll pay it off next month, that it doesn't get any better than this.
It's hard to believe that the suspension of disbelief that faith involved didn't serve me better than these new myths. And yet there is no turning back. I am no longer a Catholic, and it would be an insult to the faithful I respect to sit among them and say the words just to be comforted by the familiar cadence. But it does not feel like a victory, and always, always, there is the temptation to play along once more, to take shelter in the words that, aside from a few conflicts between translations, good, intelligent people have believed for two thousand years are the right words. It is hard, too, to resist the gestures. Growing up I used to make the sign of the cross whenever an ambulance or fire truck passed in a feeble gesture of solidarity with the people whose lives the siren was about to scream through and more selfishly in an attempt to cope with the constant possibility of pain we can't foresee and can't necessarily prevent or quell. There are times in New York when I have to make a conscious effort not to go through that motion. When I visit my parents in New Orleans, where I am unlikely to run into someone from my adult life -- to be caught playing at faith -- I sometimes let it happen. Sometimes even in New York, when I'm at my wit's end, I find myself sending up a plea for help. And afterwards, in the face of all reason, I sometimes feel relief.