I climb up the wooden ladder that is attached to the top bunk by two metal brackets. As I rise, I pass by the hammock of stuffed animals that hang in the corner of the bedroom and they all smile at me as I lift my legs over the frame and crawl up into my bed. Wearing my Batsuit pajamas, I slide under the covers and pull them up to my face as Batman and Robin fight the Joker and the Penguin on my comforter. I stare at the Dinosaur Green wall that I helped paint and follow the story along the border that wraps the top of the wall in the bedroom. Nothing I do can help my 8 year old self fall asleep. I am too excited right now. I lift the railing that keeps me from falling to the ground when I am sleeping and I hang my head down to see if my little brother Shawn is still awake. He looks up at me and smiles.
“I can’t sleep. I’m waiting to hear the reindeer on the roof,” he says to me.
I correct him, “They don’t land on the roof stupid, we don’t have a chimney. Santa parks on the lawn so that the reindeer can eat the seed that we put in the grass and then he comes through the front door with his magic keys.”
“Oh yeah, I know that,” he agrees. “What do you think he’s bringing us this year?
“Probably everything that we circled in the KB Toys catalog, right?”
“Yeah, probably. I can’t wait until morning,” he yawns and before I realize it Shawn is shaking me and shouting “Wake up! Wake Up! It’s morning! We have to go wake up Mom and Dad.” I stretch my arms out and swing down to Shawn’s bed beneath me, too excited to bother with ladders. We run down the hallway and into our parents’ bedroom screaming “Merry Christmas!” The wait begins as Mom and Dad make their way downstairs, Dad gets his coffee ready and Mom readies her camera to get a picture of us at the top of the stairs before we come down to rip open the decorative paper that hides our new things.
The moment we see the flash of the camera we sprint down the stairs and turn the corner to the living room where the Christmas tree we decorated is now surrounded by boxes big and small. Our yearly routine is so engrained in us that almost nothing changes except what lies inside the wrappings. While Shawn typically looks for anything with his name on it to rip open as quickly as possible, I take my time to read who the gift is from because sometimes Mom and Dad give us gifts amidst what Santa brought. After opening a tabletop pinball machine, a new GameBoy Color, and a copy of Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back for Playstation, I reach for another box. I look down at the label and I see that it was from Santa. In a single moment, I am frozen as my brain fires and I have a moment of suspicion. We slowly finish opening each gift and all the while I am paying closer and closer attention to each label. As a family, we sit down to eat breakfast and Shawn and I each bring one of our new things to the table to stare at while we eat.
Dad cleans up the wrapping paper that we have thrown about the living room and Mom finishes cleaning up what’s leftover from breakfast. While Shawn plays with his own tabletop pinball machine, I wander into the kitchen to talk to Mom.
“Hey Mom, I have a question.”
She half-stops cleaning up dishes and asks, “What’s up Joey?”
“How come you and Santa write your ‘S’s’ the same way in cursive?”
The dish rests still in the sink as she turns around to face me. “An ‘S’ just looks like an ‘S’ Joe.”
“Yeah but, he has the same style that you do. Look,” I hand her two tags, one from Santa and one from Mom and Dad. “It’s the same thing Mom.”
“Well, sometimes Santa doesn’t have time to fill all of them out and Mommy has to help him out.” She seems worried.
“Mom. Is Santa just you? Is he even real?” I ask and I watch her mouth curl into a smile and she giggles a little. She sits down in one of the chairs at our kitchen table.
“I knew you’d figure it out eventually, but you cannot tell Shawn! Let him enjoy it.”
But… Who is the guy at the mall that I sit on each year? What does he do with my list? How do Mom and Dad make the toys? Do they make the toys?! I had all of these new questions but before I could ask her, I had to know “What about the Tooth Fairy?” Mom just smiled and nodded. “Easter Bunny?” The same nod and smile. “Okay, well what about God?”
The school year has well begun and we’re starting to get into more than just the basic introduction stuff that we all suffer through in September. Mr. Dunkerton is my 11th grade Physics teacher, and he is standing at the front of the class wearing a headset and his voice is amplified through the speaker atop the bookshelf.
“Gravity can be measured at negative 9.8 meters per second squared, meaning that when something is falling it is accelerating faster and faster until it makes contact with the ground. Sir Isaac Newton is often considered to have…” his voice drones on but becomes silent as my mind opens up. At this point in the year, we’ve covered some basic formulas about force and mass, and we’ve learned how to calculate the speed of something when thrown, friction and gravity into consideration. It’s so weird that there is an entire class dedicated to explaining how things and why things work.
Mr. Dunkerton’s voice pulls me back into attention: “…When you apply gravity, which we can now quantify, into our former set of equations, it begins to provide more definition to why a ball thrown at 50 meters per second will…” I hear what he is saying but it flows right from my ears and to my hand as I take note of the formulas he explains. So if we can explain through Physics why a ball will eventually hit the ground no matter the speed it was launched at, what else can we explain? How do planes stay flying? How does my TV work? Why- no, how do my eyes see what is on the TV? I just take these things for granted. They just always have been, but there is a reason that everything around me works.
Here he is talking about gravity and Newton and I’m realizing that everything that he has taught us just explains so much about the world to me. This is like when kids used to say that the sound of thunder was God bowling, but eventually I learned that thunder is the sound of lightning touching down somewhere. It’s all science. That can explain everything. Why do people still need religion when we have math and science to spell everything out for us?
Religion is prehistoric science. We as a species needed something to explain why the sun rises and sets each day. That’s where we came up with religion. It’s the same reason why we speak English and Russians speak Russian. When we needed some way to communicate, we made it up! It’s like telling a kid that babies come from the Stork, because the truth might be too much for them to understand. We’ve invented ways to make sense of things. This all seems clear to me now. Of course God isn’t real. He just explains the things that we don’t understand yet, so people believe it. What will everyone think when we can suddenly know exactly how evolution worked? What will happen when someone proves what happens when we die?
DING! DING! DING! “That’s it for today folks. Please finish up with Chapter 3 tonight, and complete the handout that you received on Monday. I’ll see everyone tomorrow; same place, same time. Be safe getting home.” Mr. Dunkerton pulls the headset off from his head and begins erasing the chalkboard behind him as we all hurry out the door.
Mr. Dunkerton’s class is at the end of the school day, so I leave at 2:15 and go right to my car. As I fight my way out of the parallel parking space out front of school, I fish my cell phone out of my pocket and flip it open to call my Mom.
“Hey Mom, how’s your day so far?” I ask as I quickly switch my feet between the gas and the brake while navigating traffic.
“It’s good. Busy morning but the afternoon is going by quick and painless. How was school?”
“Really awesome. This kid got nailed in the head with a carton of milk at lunch and then my guitar teacher was out sick so we all got to sit around for an hour just making up new songs for the band and then in Physics I learned that God is bullshit.”
“Well that’s good. Was the- Joe! Don’t say that! Did your teacher say that? What are you learning?”
“No, Mom. I just started to piece everything together. Physics just explains
everything that God used to. I don’t know, it just all makes so much sense to me, I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Oh Joe, I swear.”
“What? Am I wrong?”
“Joe,” she says sternly. “You just shouldn’t question God.”
“Why not? Something bad might happen? If God is real, let him crash my car right now,” I challenge her.
“JOE!” she screams. “Stop it! That’s not good.”
“Mom,” I reply softly, “Nothing happened.”
I am 20 and seated on my grandparents’ leather couch in their computer room by the fire on Christmas Eve. A chessboard sits atop their coffee table and I’m inspecting each piece that decorates the board. Shawn walks in and he sits down across the table from me on the floor.
“What are you doing dude, hiding out?” he asks.
“I’m just whatever. I don’t feel like dealing with Bridget,” I reply in reference to our older sister, who is sixteen years my senior.
“Why, what’s her deal?” he reaches forward and moves a pawn ahead two spaces from its starting position.
“You know how to play chess?” I ask surprised.
“Kinda. Devin taught me a long time ago but you’ll have to catch me up.” He stares at me still waiting for me to answer his question.
“No, I don’t know. Bridget just- every year I just wanna come up here and see the family and do the Merry Christmas thing but she cannot let go of the fact that her ‘little brother is going to hell!’” I mock her shrill voice and wave my hands in the air. “We barely see her now that she lives in Pennsylvania and whenever I do she wants to start a goddamned religious debate. What does it matter?”
He moves his Queen’s knight two spaces diagonally forward and I reach over and grab it, illustrating the “L” shaped line that it’s supposed to move in. He nods and says, “Yeah, I know whatchu mean. That’s why I just never bring up that crap with her. That or voting.”
“Dude, I don’t bring it up! Ever since I was sixteen she just jumps down my throat any chance she gets. She’s never even been super religious! She got into that car accident and all of a sudden she’s a preacher.” The floor creaks with the weight of approaching footsteps. I look left toward the doorway and oh shit… Bridget.
“What’s up brothers?”
I look at Shawn and whisper, “Dude, I swear I’m gonna snap.” He shakes his head and gives me a look of reassurance.
“Nothing, Joe is teaching me chess. Merry Christmas! What’re you up to?”
“Merry Christmas. Just got done eating, Mom’s got all of the food laid out in the kitchen and everybody is just grabbing and going. Merry Christmas my little atheist brother.” I turn and force a smile even though I’m immediately aggravated.
“Hey Bridge, Merry Christmas. How are you?” I stand up and walk over to give her a hug.
“Oh that beard is getting thick!” She makes a disgusted face as she ogles mine.
“Yup, pretty gnarly… So any big plans tomorrow?” I ask.
“The kids will open presents and we’ll eat and then go to church before heading over to the in-laws for dinner,” she replies.
“Well that sounds like a fun day. What will Santa bring the kids?” I ask.
“You? Saying church is fun? Wouldn’t expect that.” She states.
“I’m just talking Bridget. Has Jake figured out that you’re Santa yet?” referring to her youngest who is now 8 years old, as I try to deter the unwanted conversation.
“No, he hasn’t. I’m holding onto it as long as I can. You should go to church tomorrow to pay your respects.” She-just-won’t-stop.
“No thanks, I’m good.” I capture Shawn’s pawn after his failed attempt at a Queen’s Gambit opening.
“Yeah, I know you won’t, little non-believer. You’ll see one day when it’s too late. You’ll learn.” She has that awful smirk on her face like she has one over on me.
I stand back up from the couch and walk closer to her, “Learn what? To be an asshole and tell everybody else what they should think and do at all times? Is that what makes you so great?”
“I’m just saying,” she tosses her hands up in the air and shrugs.
“You know what Batman taught me Bridget? ‘It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.’ I do what makes me happy, and I don’t constantly worry about what is going to happen when I die. That’s a long time from now, and until then I just want to enjoy myself and be nice to people. If I’m doing what I’m doing and I’m not offending anyone or hurting anyone, why does it matter to you?”
“Batman? Come on Joe, really? He’s just a made up guy,” she insists.
“Yeah he is, Bridget, he’s just a made up guy.”
“It’s all real. Think about it. Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? I mean, whether Jesus is real or not, he – he’s had a bigger impact on the world than any of us have. And the same can be said for Bugs Bunny and – and Superman and Harry Potter. They’ve changed my life – changed the way I act on the earth.” – Kyle Broflovski, from the South Park episode “Imaginationland III”
 A popular chess opening where both players advance their Queen’s pawns forward two spaces.