A 9/11 Story: From Catholicism to Atheism

By Diqui LaPenta

I grew up in a Catholic family, attending church every Sunday and catechism every week. When I started college, I stopped going to church except on holidays or for family funerals, and I finally became free of the dreaded, boring church services replete with fairy tales and admonitions. I was agnostic without openly or even consciously defining myself that way. If someone had asked if I believed god existed, I probably would have said that I wasn’t sure. It seemed unlikely, but I hadn’t shaken off years of indoctrination.

The morning of September 11, 2001, started like any other morning. I woke up as late as I could and grabbed coffee on my way to class. On my drive in, I turned on the radio and heard about the fallen towers and two other planes that had crashed. I was horrified, but I thought of it as happening far away and not as much of a direct threat to me. I got to my classroom, completed my lesson for the lab, and went into the stockroom for supplies. That’s when I heard that United Flight 93, traveling from Newark to San Francisco, had crashed in Pennsylvania. I got worried.

My boyfriend, Rich Guadagno, had been in New Jersey to celebrate his grandmother’s 100th birthday and was flying home that day. I didn’t know his flight numbers, only that he was flying from Newark through San Francisco and then home. I left class, found Rich’s parents’ phone number, and called them. His father Jerry told me that Flight 93 had been Rich’s flight.

My breath was knocked out of me, and I cried so hard I threw up. One of my coworkers called my parents for me. The campus paramedic was called because I was hyperventilating. My housemate was called to come get me, and he and another colleague had to carry me to his car.

My parents arrived two days later, having driven all the way from San Antonio, Texas, and we flew to New Jersey for a memorial service for Rich. Some very religious relatives planned to meet us in New Jersey. I asked my parents to ensure that those relatives refrain from religious platitudes. I didn’t want to hear that Rich was in a better place or with God or that it was all part of some plan that God had for us. From the moment I heard that Rich and thousands of others had been killed, I knew that the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God of childhood stories absolutely could not exist. Rich was not in a better place. There was no place he would rather be than with his dog Raven, me, his family, and his friends. I would never see Rich again, as there is no afterlife. Pretending that I would see him again would make it impossible to heal.

Before 9/11, I’d never considered myself an atheist. After that day I was, and I let people know it. When asked what church I attend, I reply that I don’t. If prompted to explain why, I say that I’m an atheist. Some people say, “But you have to believe in something!” I do. I believe in the power of rational thought and critical thinking. I believe that we should live thoughtful, peaceful, moral lives because it’s the right thing to do and not because we’re afraid of punishment or hopeful for a reward beyond the grave. We have this one life, and we should make the best of it for the short time we are here.

That is how I honor Rich’s life. I took care of Raven in the manner that he would have done. I do my best to take care of the environment and donate time and money to causes that were important to him and remain important to me. I struggle to let go of the past, live in the present, and work toward a better future where my government won’t use the deaths of innocent Americans to justify its immoral wars. And I don’t need God to tell me these are the right things to do.

Diqui LaPenta lives with her husband and their three dogs in northern California where she is a biology professor. She enjoys traveling, running, and eating vegetarian meals.