Fear of Prayer: An Atheist’s Lament

Josef didn’t realize how little I thought about religion—how complete my lack of belief.

“Are you religious?” I asked on one of our New York subway trips. I wonder now why I asked. I didn’t have the slightest premonition. I was making a joke, teasing, the way I might have said, “So, are you secretly addicted to amphetamines? Biting long, slim, feminine necks? Plucking wolfsbane in the middle of the night?” I was tickling. Didn’t realize I was asking a bigger question than I knew. Wanted to see if he’d giggle or flinch. He did neither.

I couldn’t believe how great this guy was, so I thought there had to be something wrong with him. There wasn’t, although his answer threw me—almost literally. I remember clutching my subway seat as though I were afraid I’d hit the floor.

To my surprise he nodded calmly. “Yes,” he said.

Yes, he was religious? Had I heard him correctly? This might be weirder than wolfsbane. An affirmative answer was the last thing I expected. He was a graduate student living in L.A. and somehow that added up to secular—at least to me.

“Really?” I said, after I’d caught my breath. He explained he was Catholic and Bavarian—I had yet to learn how completely these two identities merged. He wanted kids, and so did I, but I hadn’t realized he’d want the kids to be Catholic. He was asking whether this was okay with me. His expression said he wasn’t kidding. I looked him over.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s okay.”

Given his personality, I’d be doing our children no harm. I got that if I were to object, the deal would be off. He couldn’t contemplate raising non-religious children. But I still thought of his religion as a harmless eccentricity, the expression of a deficit: a few more New York Philharmonic concerts, another Alvin Ailey performance, throw in a Swan Lake—and I’d convert him from Catholicism to culture, I assumed.

Dr. Sternbach said when dealing with a schizophrenic patient (he reassured me I wasn’t quite that bad, although, he pointed out often, my brother and father were), he would walk in and announce, “I’m God!” Then, my analyst claimed, the crazy person would trust him and listen to him.

I didn’t consider myself remotely religious. From my frosty heights of presumed superiority, I told myself I’d grown up in a middle-class New York family suffused with art, dance, theater, and psychoanalysis, while he had grown up in a tiny German village to parents whose Second World War experiences and dawn-to-dusk backbreaking farm labor left no room for consolations other than churchly. I figured he grew up the way my father did. Traveling preachers presented the only form of entertainment in Dad’s North Carolina town. No books, no movies, no art, no circuses—just fire-breathing Presbyterian ministers spouting gruesome depictions of hellfire. My father had shaken the dust of old-time religion off his feet when he moved to New York, diving into psychoanalysis almost as soon as he got there. Mom swam in soon after—the two were united by their doting, or scheming, psychoanalyst, who kept a tight grip, bringing in a colleague of her own to manage me the minute I hit adolescence.

Josef had Catholicism, but I had Dr. Sternbach.

My fiancé hadn’t grown up with visions of hellfire, but rather maypoles sporting Bavarian flags, baby clothes and baby bottles—the latter two pagan holdovers meant to encourage fertility. He described huge bonfires on summer solstice—he and his friends, in an inebriated state, leapt over them. Before that, on Walpurgisnacht, a young man could plant a decorated birch tree outside the window of a young woman he liked. The ceremony was technically about St. Walpurga, but that phallic tree was about fertility and witches, drinking and cavorting. Although, he confessed, he and five guys planted a tree in front of the window of a fat, homely girl because they wanted to make her feel better.

His descriptions made me think of Breughel’s The Kermess, especially in the William Carlos Williams version. Jolly, fat peasants dancing, drinking, and doing what my Chaucer professor said peasants do: have sex in the fields so the recently planted seeds get the right idea. For my husband-to-be, religion seemed a merry combination of official Catholic ritual—he drank that wine and took that wafer, under the watchful gaze of plaintive Madonnas and soulful Jesuses hanging from gory crucifixes—and happy-go-lucky paganism. The jolly mood of forgiveness, the singing, the lights, the candles, the gleeful baroque angels, the community, seemed the dominant themes.

I could go for all of those, I thought, in the dreamy unreality of unexpected pregnancy. For a moment, I considered the possibility of miracles, since I was forty-one. Practicality took over: Josef had a home, the likelihood of a full-time job, and the luck of German health insurance, which would extend to his bride. We were to enjoy two more successful pregnancies. To this day, I attribute them to champagne, sex, and our unconventional fertility specialist. Josef doesn’t.

A few weeks after I’d moved to Bavaria, there was the moment when he asked, “But you do believe there’s a God, right?”

Surprised, I put down my cup of tea.

“I’m an atheist!” Where had he gotten this idea? Had I somehow said this?

His eyes widened.

“But you said you believed in the teachings of Jesus!” I shifted in my seat. I had indeed said that, but the one thing had nothing to do with the other. Memories of playing “telephone” as a child were now flooding into my mind.

“Yes, I do, but I meant Jesus is a great philosopher, a great psychologist!” Josef put his hand on his heart.

“Please don’t tell the priest that.”

His eyes traveled to a flaw on the rim of my poly-fleece pullover; I’d gotten too close to a burner while cooking, and a little spot had melted away. You could barely see the burned part, but his thumb gripped it. A bit ruefully, he said, “This is what happens to people who don’t believe!”

“You don’t really mean that, do you?”

I’m not sure he didn’t.

“I hope you can feel God’s love,” he murmured after the mandatory meeting with other betrothed couples and a Catholic priest in a roomy church.

“I can feel your love!” I told him.

The priest, if I remember correctly, talked about finding one’s wife sexy even when she’s wearing an old granny nightgown. The Catholic doctor wearily remarked, “That was too much material to fight with!” He was okay with the pill, since no life had begun, but experienced moral qualms about the IUD, since it worked to destroy a zygote potentially implanting in the lining of the uterus. The church, said both priest and doctor, didn’t like homosexuals “because they don’t have babies! We want children.” On the plus side, they said sex was “the mirror of the marriage,” and since Josef and I were having sex around eight times a day, I figured we’d be fine. We rode home through sunny fields filled with hay bales and had a nice dinner.

*     *     *

As I settled into life in devastatingly quiet Bavaria, taking long walks through the woods, my thoughts got louder. Now I had time to write. But I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I did produce a few half-baked descriptions of my parents and growing-up years, but always, an angry, disapproving face appeared in my mind’s eye—the face of the psychoanalyst whose patient I’d been for decades, and whom I thought of as a father, if not a god. He had raised me, in the sense that I considered my four-to-five day-a-week sessions in his office the central experience of my life from ages fourteen to almost-forty. He knew everything. He said so. Occasionally, I thought him a little selfish, but I felt guilty thinking that. He had done so much for me. I was very grateful to him. He insisted I go to college and graduate school. I had wanted to study dance and theater. He called me his “masterpiece.”

He’d been wrong about Josef. He’d said Josef wasn’t interested in me. When Josef flew to New York just to see me, Dr. Sternbach told me not to sleep with him—Josef would surely never marry me if I did. I didn’t. It took another few years for Josef and me to get together.

Even so, I told myself, walking that ploughed field trail from the shining meadow into the piney woods, the baby a snoring bump on my chest in his bright-blue Snugli, Dr. Sternbach was just trying to protect me. He had put so much effort into me. He said so. He hadn’t wanted me to feel disappointed was all. My marriage was my reward, and the person to whom I would forever be grateful, Dr. Sternbach, had cured me so that I, unworthy though he knew I was, had still managed to get married.

“We don’t ask for perfect,” he had said, looking me over one day when I’d been crying about wanting to be married. I still had many problems, I knew, that he, with a frown and a wagging finger, had daily pointed out to me. He warned me to keep everything about myself and my crazy family a secret from my husband. I had been “a brat” but now I was passable.

*     *     *

If you were to tote up superstition for superstition, ritual for ritual, obsession for obsession, sin for sin, and god for god, my husband’s Catholic faith and my own hidebound devotion to a secular deity irrationally enraged as an old testament prophet, then my husband would come out ahead. Way ahead. His was a god of love, and a relaxed one. Yes, my husband observes Lent, that holiday right before Easter when religious Catholics give up something they really love in order to honor Christ’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Just the kind of holiday I used to think of as an unnatural torment for innocent people who don’t know Freud.

My husband always gives up peanuts and beer, his very favorite things. At first, I thought this a cruel thing to do to himself—so out of character.

“Except for special occasions,” he said, smiling. “And… some weekends.”

I was always relieved to see him crunching away in front of the TV, washing down his Lenten peanuts with a glass of Weizen.

Did I have anywhere near the same easygoing self-indulgence in my own religious observances?

Walking from the subway stop on 96th and Broadway to Dr. Sternbach’s home office on 96th and Central Park West four days a week, I developed the habit of chanting to myself, “Dr. Sternbach is always right,” and this consoled me, because I liked absolutes and so did he—his absolutely right and my absolutely wrong ways of doing things. I was miserable, but I had the solace of certainty. I feared uncertainty. If I didn’t believe in him, I thought, everything would fall apart. I made sure to chant “he-is-right” in order to prevent what a Puritan would call “backsliding.” I had a need to remind myself that he knew better. I must be wrong, wrong about the boys I wanted to kiss me, the jazz dance classes I loved, and alas, about ballet.

I believed, no matter how miserable it made me, that my psychoanalyst had healed me, not destroyed me. I might as well have been Sister Melissa of the order of Perpetual Humility, devoted to Saint Sigmund the All-Powerful.

“You are not a dancer!” he spat.

My analyst always said he was an atheist, and praised Freud’s atheism, so I read every single thing Freud ever wrote about religion.

None of it’s flattering. But it’s clear that if you don’t believe in the Oedipus complex, you cannot be admitted to the world of psychoanalysis—you remain forever in the outer darkness with the people who believe in religion instead. Naturally, I considered myself an atheist too—I followed Dr. Sternbach’s contempt for religion. Having faith in everything Dr. Sternbach said was just part of the psychoanalytic deal—the only way I could ever be healthy, he said.

I never admitted to myself that I’d put my psychoanalyst in the position of a god, or that he’d encouraged me to do so, even though I joked about doing so, or he did, in almost every session. A Viennese refugee from Hitler, he said I was psychotic.

It’s easy to believe something bad about yourself when you’re fourteen, and when the grown-up spouting such poppycock has an exotic accent. When I was first sent to him, I was desperate to do anything to get away from my father, who drank and threw things, my mother, whose girlish helplessness appealed to everyone but me, and my brother, whose real and imaginary friends frightened me. Dr. Sternbach said when dealing with a schizophrenic patient (he reassured me I wasn’t quite that bad, although, he pointed out often, my brother and father were), he would walk in and announce, “I’m God!” Then, my analyst claimed, the crazy person would trust him and listen to him.

I was just young enough or nutsy enough not to question him. Or if I did, he yelled so loudly that I learned not to repeat my mistake. He loved a story about entering his building on a cold day and running into a patient. As they waited for the elevator in the freezing lobby, she looked him up and down, remarking, “God doesn’t wear an overcoat.” My analyst repeated that anecdote often.

Mostly, he insisted he was always right. I believed him to the point that I chose a college in New York City because he told me I needed psychoanalysis so could not leave him. I believed him to the point that I didn’t apply for a Time magazine internship during my senior year in college because it would have interfered with sessions, and he refused to let me have sessions at any other hours than those convenient to him. When friends expressed surprise or shock at the amount of time I devoted to psychoanalysis or blanched at some remark he’d made that I found amusing and they did not, I brushed off objections. I told myself my analyst knew better. I was smug. My analyst and I: we were the initiated, the ones in the know. I believed him when he said, “I am the only one who can help you.”

Sometimes, now, I look at videos of women in polygamous cults in their identical pioneer-style pastel dresses and hairdos, all smiling, all saying they are happy. I wore my analyst’s ideas, assertions, beliefs. I buttoned them on tightly—I strapped myself into them. I thought I had no idea what I wanted because I didn’t dare think about ambitions he had warned me to forget. He had a therapeutic group, and all members sat quietly when he interrupted, or yelled, that they were wrong and he was right. His expressions of disgust, uninhibited and extreme, seem to have impressed us all as the natural anger of a Jehovah who had every right to tell us what to do. His ideas, his beliefs, his assertions, were righteous. Ours were worthless.

*     *     *

In a village not far from Eichstätt, where Josef’s brother and sister-in-law had a farm, Josef and I visited his old friend, the retired priest with whom he used to have a beer, and who was going to marry us. The priest asked, “So are you willing to raise your children as Christians? With the knowledge of Jesus?” I rearranged some definitions in my head, smiled at the priest, whose face was filled with expectant hope, and said, “Yes.” The look of rapture on his face in the moment that misleading answer fell from my lips astonished me. I felt homesick. I had visions of my children stepping into dark confessionals and being told to say Hail Marys if they’d masturbated. On the other hand, the old priest didn’t look the punitive sort—he now had such an ecstatic look that if he hadn’t been a Catholic old man, I could easily have envisioned him dancing the Hora.

“You don’t actually believe in the devil, do you?” I asked my husband as we made our way back to the car.


“You mean a guy with horns and a tail?”

“Well, no, but we feel there is evil in the world, right?”

I could go with him on that. There was evil in the world. I decided to leave religion up to him. I remembered to make fish, or anything but meat, on Fridays, and discovered that baptisms and first communions seemed mainly occasions for big parties, good food, and presents.

“Daddy, will I get a camera?” was, to my relief, a pressing question of far greater interest than any doctrinal issue about Mary, Jesus or the Trinity.

Anytime a religious inquiry arose, I deferred to my husband: “Daddy knows about that! Ask him.”

A moment came when the kids wanted to know my religion. I admitted I’d been raised without any. When they pointedly asked what I believed, I confessed to atheism, remarking that Daddy and I had decided Catholicism was the best for them. Secretly, I wished our eldest would become a New York intellectual. Lo: he lives in Berlin and studies law.

“Mom, why didn’t you tell me there wasn’t a god?” he complained at about age sixteen. I started to say we didn’t actually know that, when he interrupted: “When I was ten, I thought there was something terribly wrong with me because I didn’t believe in God. You could have said something.”

And then I realized that I needn’t have worried—our children would make their own way, just like their Dad, who worried the most with our firstborn: “I wouldn’t want him to marry someone Jewish or Muslim.” That was too far from the true faith.

“You mean like you wouldn’t marry an atheist?” A look that was hard to interpret—a slight chagrin? being found out? embarrassment? guilt?—crossed his face. He grew up in a world where his Catholic saint’s day was a far bigger deal than his birthday, yet he and his brother both married non-religious Protestants.

Our younger two children went along with their first communions—they especially enjoyed choosing their costumes, my daughter her lacy white dress and patent-leather white Mary Janes, my son his “real suit!” For them, the church means becoming a grown-up, belonging to a group, and being in on the Christmas nativity scene. I worried all priests would be child molesters, but since German schools teach children about such things, I figured my kids would let me know about any funny business. Benjamin came home from his confirmation class with the information that when he told the priest, “I want to be the best,” the priest had advised, “You should just want to be yourself.”

That particularly good piece of advice was exactly what his fundamentalist Mom had never heard from her psychoanalyst, who was determined to make me over in his own image. My worst fear—that my children would go into religious orders—turned out to be what Freudians call a “projection.” It was I who had entered the religious order. I believed, no matter how miserable it made me, that my psychoanalyst had healed me, not destroyed me. I might as well have been Sister Melissa of the Order of Perpetual Humility, devoted to Saint Sigmund the All-Powerful. Whenever New York City came up in conversation or on TV, I’d get annoyed at my husband’s joke: “I’m glad I got you out of there!” Until one day I realized I was glad, too.

*     *     *

When my husband’s lungs worsened to the point where he had to use a portable oxygen tank and start losing weight in order to be eligible for a lung transplant, when my X-ray revealed a six-centimeter cancerous tumor on my femur, when we realized we had to start thinking about guardians for our young teenagers, I asked him whether he believed that our illnesses came from God, or whether the kind of God he believed in could condone or allow such things. I still don’t believe in a god, but when I’m scared I wish I did. In flights of fancy, I imagine Apollo and Dionysius, sun chariots, grapevines curling around trees, vats of purple wine, dancing fauns, Athena waltzing in with a dove and a shield, Hermes with his winged shoes flying me in some miracle cure. I could pray to all of them. Occasionally, I have. When I walked home in the evenings before I got sick, I loved to gaze at the full moon and recall Shelley’s description of her as a dying lady, “lean and pale,” but I imagined her as some sort of mother goddess and the evening star as the twinkling sidekick of my imaginary pagan companions. I half-believed I was praying when I asked Apollo, “and Josef’s God, if you’re around,” for good health and long life for my whole family.

That particular prayer seems not to have been heard, or maybe the gods resented it. I’m a part-time believer, a person who prays when she’s in the mood, which is not often. I don’t get down on my knees or go to church, except occasionally, to keep my husband company, and I don’t sacrifice sides of beef to anyone. I think of the Old Testament god liking the smell of burning meat. I not only haven’t barbecued a single sausage for him, I’ve forgotten him and all possible divine cohorts for long, happy periods.

I’m a part-time believer, a person who prays when she’s in the mood, which is not often. I don’t get down on my knees or go to church, except occasionally, to keep my husband company, and I don’t sacrifice sides of beef to anyone.

But I asked my husband what he thought, since I wanted to know how he was coping, too. He didn’t think God caused our illnesses.

“It’s fate,” he said.

It took me a moment to realize that wasn’t just his kindly stoicism responding—that was a quintessentially German answer. Fate, for Germans, is a massive, unyielding thing that cannot be fought and must be accepted.

I had a different answer, one I must admit is typically American. These illnesses—they’re a mistake, a fluke. There’s a new cure around the corner every minute, and if I just Google enough clinical trials, raise enough money on GoFundMe, consult enough experts, I’ll live. I’m a can-do gal: I’m American.

But I am still afraid to pray. So far, the gods have given me the opposite of what I requested. I must be doing something wrong. I can’t keep talking to them if they don’t like me, can I?

Then I see I’ve crucified myself on the remnants of my psychoanalytic past. It’s the angry analyst who’s behind my fears. I might as well assume kinder gods out there—like the one to whom my husband prays. He married me after all, though his mother, once upon a time before we met, allegedly waved a pitchfork at a woman not romantically entangled with him, but known to be Protestant. What would his poor mom do if she knew two of her sons married just the kind of women she’d chased with that pitchfork? Luckily for her, she was gathered to her foremothers by the time her youngest, and, I suspect, favorite son proposed to me. But if I know the family, and I should, after almost two decades of marriage, she’d be raising a Weizen, shaking her head merrily, explaining things to God so he wouldn’t get bent out of shape or feel insulted.

*     *     *

A friend told me of the man she wanted to marry, but could not, after meeting his parents. She is Jewish, and he’d grown up with German-speaking parents, in a very non-Jewish mid-western flyover town. His father, a Pole who had survived Auschwitz, and his mother, a German Protestant, both refugees from Hitler who lived in a permanent state of fear, insisted: “Children born of your union must not be Jewish—they’ll never be safe.” This doomed effort to erase identity deeply saddened my friend, who couldn’t imagine raising children with a buried identity.

When I met my husband, he said, “I’m a Bavarian.” He took me to the circus and a local cathedral. He never tried to convert me, but I could tell that secretly he felt sorry for my lack of belief, just as secretly I felt sorry for his entrapment in old wives’ tales. Loyalty, his chief quality, would never allow him to abandon the religion of his parents. But he makes of it what he will.

I, of course, started my marriage with the notion that I wanted my children exposed to the brilliant insights of Sigmund Freud, not the pathetic superstitions, as I saw them, of the Catholic church. But the brilliant insight of the Catholic church lies in the original meaning of καθολικός (katholikos, from two Greek words meaning throughout-the-whole or, approximately, all-inclusive). In the best sense—which reverses what the church as an institution has become—Catholicism means universal love, all-embracing acceptance. Psychoanalysis, meanwhile, has institutionalized a set of beliefs about insight and personality, with the notion that the seeker of truth needs a guide to get through the “underworld” of the unconscious mind, the way Dante needed Virgil to usher him through the Inferno. Dante’s Virgil remained, of course, his own construct—a piece of himself.

You might as well walk that trip through your personal Inferno alone in front of your keyboard, or your canvas, or your big hunk of clay. Costs less.

Now that I’ve relinquished psychoanalysis, I find I haven’t, really. A world devoid of dreams or an unconscious mind is one I can’t imagine; I could say Dante or Shakespeare or Woolf provided these ideas before Freud, but I’d be whistling in the dark. If I’m heading for that very dark place Hamlet calls “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” I want a pathfinder. You can’t analyze death; analysis is all about distilling the known from the unknown—not the inaccessible. I can’t assume there’s a god out there in the way I can assume I might figure out what makes someone tick using high-tech psychoanalytic tools. I doubt I’ll ever talk myself into religious devotion, and I’m still with the Freudians in the notion that “man creates God in his image.” I can’t seem to exorcise the irritated face of Oscar Sternbach, even after years of happy marriage to someone as far removed from Sternbach’s world as I could find. Take it on faith, however, that I will try to do so.


Melissa Knox’s book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, was published by Cynren Press in January 2019, and has received advance praise from Helen Fremont, Phyllis Chesler, and Charles Monroe-Kane. Recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Streetlight Magazine, Eclectica, and Empty Mirror.