My immediate family was irreligious. My grandparents were raised in contradictory faiths, and their first grandchild was the singular blessing, the lone scandal, that could unite them in disbelief.

By Joshua Roebke

I was born and raised in the hinterlands, a place more properly known as Ohio, where every spring the dark brow of Earth lay furrowed unto the horizon. My family lived in a shabby, two-story farmhouse, mortgaged in the interest of the bank at 19%. That house was wind-blocked by a grove of evergreens and set back from an undivided road, which some bureaucracy had named P-9, as if a droid. It was more than a dozen miles to the nearest city. Hundreds more to civilization.

Closer to home, down Old State Route 65, a reflective sign welcomed visitors, of which I can remember one, to the corporation limit of what was lawfully, but just barely, a village. There was one stoplight, two pizzerias, three churches, four bars. The tallest building was a grain elevator, whose tip I sometimes peeped over the stand of evergreens near home. Locals celebrated every occasion too grand for the American Legion Hall at the second-tallest building, the sandstone Catholic church, although the unholiest of jubilees were usually relegated to its parking lot or basement.

My immediate family was irreligious. My grandparents were raised in contradictory faiths, and their first grandchild was the singular blessing, the lone scandal, that could unite them in disbelief. I arrived six months after my teenaged parents married, inevitably, inside that Catholic church. When I was five years old, I already knew enough about math, husbandry, and unceasing repression to reckon the facts of my existence.

I was baptized into that Catholic church, shortly after the greatest snowfall of the 20th century, so I could attend the adjoining school, the better of the only two for miles around. My parents splurged on a Catholic education but did not foist religion upon me. I slurped holy water from the fountain, and I became an altar boy because my friends were skipping class to nip the sacramental wine. I ate of the body and drank of the blood, but I was never intoxicated by their spirits. If transubstantiation were such a miracle, why did the offerings still taste like brown paper and cough syrup?

I was a precocious and exacting child. When I was eight years old, I started reading our alphabet of encyclopedias at the letter A. My mom had purchased the leather-bound, gold-trimmed volumes in monthly installments, from a sweaty man who traveled to our village preaching self-education, and who ate all the snacks my mom had set out for him only after she wrote him a check. I woke my parents every morning to quiz them on the current letter of my knowledge, forcing them to buzz in and give their answers in the form of a question. Mom was co-parenting me with the television, and Alex Trebek was my old man on most weekday afternoons.

Because I was surrounded by religion but sheltered from devotion, Catholicism became the subject of my toughest quizzes. In the third grade, during the compulsory religious instruction, I asked my teacher whether I and my impious relatives, but especially my mom, were going to Hell. My teacher, smiling as she swallowed her irritation, assured me that God was everywhere, listening to everyone’s beating hearts, as if some kindly physician. That’s how God knew the good inside all of us, she said. And that was why God loved us all, believer or not.

But God would answer only the prayers of believers, could forgive only the sins of the righteous when they were in need. Everyone else had to suffer their iniquities, else the world was unfair to the just. She must have swallowed that, too, before feeding it to me.

I was scarcely iniquitous, too young to either transgress or disbelieve. And there was no justice to my family’s need. My mom was simply not Catholic, and all my kin were poor, reverent or not. Small towns are the seats for moralizing because there is so little to do that is superior to sin. But most in my family were better moralizers than sinners, except at my conception (pre-marital, libations). I was born in sin, but innocent of it. Surely, God would respond to an ask from me.

One evening, after I had kissed my mom goodnight and climbed to the top of my half-occupied bunk bed, I undertook my first inquisition. I joined hands and closed my eyes and imagined the man whom I had seen in dour paintings around school, the man with a vaguely Greek mien. I implored this man, this God, for His help and His grace. I asked for stability, for food on the table, for better toys, for a pious heart and a righteous mother who would be kind to me, spare the rod, and always be by my side.

Night after night, I repeated this prayer, sometimes peering into the depths of space, well beyond the stars, to convey my need more directly to the heavens, even though God was supposedly with me, inside me, listening already. I gave as much credit to faith as I could in joining my hands, again and again, for so many nights.

Nothing happened.

I could not fathom a God who ignored a somewhat poor, sometimes hungry child for so many faithful weeks. A God who would test a person’s stamina or his will rather than excuse the meek from their unwarranted damnation, first on Earth then in Hell. I reasoned that God either did not love me or did not listen.

But my teacher had promised that God loved everyone, even the damned, because they carried His good inside them. And surely an omnipresent God had no trouble hearing my pleas. I had even prayed out loud so He could hear me over the cicadas, who practiced their scales in the trees marking our property.


Perhaps, then, God could not answer everyone’s prayers. Omnipotence, however, guaranteed no ability was beyond Him. So, He must have chosen not to answer. Yet if God simply had no answer for some, if He were unmoved by this child’s earnest need, if He did not recognize the good that He had instilled in me, then He was either fallible or indifferent. And if He simply refused to respond, then God was unworthy of my worship. Unless, of course, God was unworthy because He did not exist.

I devised an experiment to test that final hypothesis. Rather than pray after the lights went out one evening, I looked to the heavens and sinned, the wickedest way I knew how. I took hold of the instrument nearest to hand and experimented on myself. I even spoke directly to God, daring Him to intervene, to strike me down for laying a hand on myself so innocently, at eight years old.

Nothing happened.

On my third birthday, I quit sucking my thumb because of a vow that I had made to my mother (incentivized by a dose of ipecac). On my fifth birthday, I relinquished my dearest companion, my imaginary friend Jacky, because I was too old for delusions. When I was six, I stopped believing in Santa Claus because I had booby-trapped our chimney, slept on the couch, and spied my mom at the tree. At eight, I pledged never to speak to God again.

Joshua Roebke is an author, instructor, and a researcher at the Institute for Historical Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. He was a long-time magazine editor and writer. Some of his articles have appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, Los Angeles Review of Books, Joyland, Scientific American, Wired, Quanta, Salon, Kenyon Review, Physics Today, Massive, and elsewhere. He is working on his first book, a cultural history of particle physics in the 20th century, to be titled The Invisible World. The book will published in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in the UK by The Bodley Head, and in a dozen or so other countries and languages around the world. An excerpt from the book won an inaugural Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant.