The opiate of the masses
Yeah, that one. Religion.
I have a long and complicated relationship with religion. Who doesn’t? I was raised by a Presbyterian/Methodist mom and a Catholic dad. Well, my dad’s more of a nominal Catholic at this point, but he grew up in the church and his parents were devout. Although my parents both are from Christian backgrounds, I think they have sort of a quasi-interfaith marriage, which makes me a product of a quasi-interfaith family. That said, the first time I attended a church more than a time or two was when I was 10 or 11, when my mom spent a few years at a startup Lutheran church. We didn’t go every Sunday, but I think my mom felt like she should be raising her kids in a stable religious environment instead of church-hopping a few times a year, so we went to the Lutheran church pretty frequently. Mom found a group of friends there that had a monthly playgroup, and the playgroup kids were my siblings’ ages, so they all got some social enjoyment out of it. I got a few babysitting jobs out of it once I got into high school, but at the time, I was at that awkward age where there was nothing for me to do in the playroom with the kids and nothing for me to do in the kitchen with the moms, so I always brought my latest art project or a book to read. The playgroup wasn’t churchy; it was just a group of families that met through church.
Most Christmases, we either visited my dad’s family in South Holland, IL or my mom’s family in St. Charles, IL. With my dad’s family, we had a pretty solid routine. Afternoon Mass (on Christmas Eve) at Holy Ghost, dinner at Glenwood Oaks, then back to my grandparents’ house for the good part–gifts and laughter and family time. I was never too thrilled with the prospect of sitting through Mass, but I like singing Christmas songs, so it was okay. Dinner was always nice, but by then I just wanted to get home and get to the good part. The Christmas routine as a whole was really focused around family, not religion. My feelings on extensive family time definitely varied (cue 13-year-old me wanting everyone to shut up and leave me alone) but in general, my Christmas memories are good.
Easter is, I guess, the other big Christian holiday. I haven’t celebrated Easter since my egg-hunting days; my family doesn’t make much of a deal of it beyond sending chocolate bunnies (which are very much appreciated, for sure). I’ve been to a few Easter church services, but not in a long time.
So I was raised basically “Christianish.” I went to the occasional Sunday school and learned “Jesus Loves Me” and got dressed up for Christmas Eve Mass. Culturally Christian, I guess. It wasn’t until middle school that I realized how seriously people take religion and how intense the environment can be.
In middle school, I started to think critically about religion. My thoughts weren’t sophisticated by any means, but I came to the conclusion that “Wait a minute, God made people and then killed them all in a flood? And what are all these insane rules in Leviticus? How does anyone know that Jesus was the son of God? Seriously, rose from the…yeah, no.” I had ventured into the danger zone: ATHEISM.
I say that facetiously, of course, because I’m veering near that zone as I write, and I don’t find it dangerous. Not, at least, until people find out.
Eighth grade. I literally got crowds of kids at my desk, yelling at me about how atheists go to hell and why can’t I just accept Jesus and Christianity is the only right answer for everything. My best friend at the time, who has now grown up into a wonderful person and genuinely good friend, was a strong Christian and had been taught that only Christians go to heaven, so she was pretty distressed at the prospect of her friend being tormented by her loving God for eternity. I don’t know which hurt worse–the mean-spirited proselytizing from the kids crowded at my desk or the not-too-subtle conversion attempts by my friends. “I just want you to go to heaven!” “I want you to know the peace of Christ!” I still don’t know if those things are honestly well-meant, but I try to think that they are.
Well, finally I said “screw it” and gave in. I even know the date: July 16, 2001. Aforementioned then-best-friend had just left for a trip to Europe, I was in the middle of a serious depressive episode, this was before widespread internet access so I had absolutely no contact with the one person who was keeping me sane. I realized after just a day or two that I was crushingly lonely, and I thought, well, I wouldn’t be lonely if there were a god. So I prayed, awkwardly. My actual motivation, though, was pretty obvious when my friend got back from Europe. Once she got over her jetlag, I told her that I was now a Christian, and I don’t think I’d ever seen her that excited for me. As a fun little complication, I had a ginormous crush on her, so her reaction was a big endorphin rush for me, and I totally pushed aside the niggling feeling that I’d really only “converted” because I wanted her to like me better. And from what I could tell, it worked.
My mom, at the time, had started taking my siblings and me to a Methodist church. When I was 13, I was supposed to go through confirmation and baptism, become a member of the church, the whole shebang. I went to a couple of the classes and couldn’t memorize any Bible verses through my burning rage. I was a firm atheist then, and I’d already “come out” as such to at least my dad, but I was also a “problem child” (in retrospect: emotionally disturbed) and I was made to go to church for a couple reasons. First was the simple “If we let you stay home, your siblings will want to stay home too. Consistency.” Admirable. The other reason, I think, was the desperate attempt of frustrated parents to figure out who this screaming teenager was and what she’d done with their honor-roll daughter.
Anyway, I’d finally convinced my mom to let me drop out of confirmation classes, probably in part to make me shut up about it! But after July 16th, I was all about the youth group. Read ALL the Bibles! Take ALL the notes! That lasted for…I don’t even know how long. A couple months, maximum? Just enough time for me to get brainwashed into thinking that doubting my religion was just the devil talking. I could’ve dodged that bear trap, but once you get a toe caught, you can’t move much.
It wasn’t even a very conservative church, and we’re talking Methodist, not Pentecostal, so they were relatively easy on the fire and brimstone. There was a kid in the youth group who stood up and gave an impassioned speech about how Harry Potter is the work of Satan and knowing that led her to go on a mission trip or something of the sort, and everyone clapped for her. There was a kid who, after the Columbia disaster, stood up and said sadly that “Well, we know two of those astronauts are in hell–one was Jewish and another was Hindu.” There was the creepy boy who flirted with me (there’s one in every youth group) and the youth leader who tried to take me under her wing as a new Christian until I told her I was gay, at which point she said some things about Sodom and Gomorrah that I knew well enough to tune out. I eventually stopped going to youth group and toned down the new-convert RAH RAH JESUS stuff.
Throughout high school, religion wasn’t much of a factor in my life. I considered myself a Christian but rarely went to church; I eventually came up with some form of “I’m a Christian but not one of those crazy ones” ethos.
In 2004, the movie “The Passion of the Christ” came out.
I still haven’t seen it, nor do I care to, because I’m pretty sure it’s just a snuff film for the lord. A bunch of my friends saw it, though, and overnight, en masse, they went from “eh, church is okay or whatever” to I LOVE JESUS AND YOU MUST LOVE JESUS AND EVERYTHING IS A SIN. It was, to put it lightly, jarring. Like all new converts, they settled down after awhile, and after a couple strategic social events, I found myself tagging along with them to church. Hayrides and ice cream and rock music–what’s not to love (insert obligatory Admiral Ackbar here)?
There were inconsistencies upon inconsistencies with what I couldn’t help believing, but I managed to sort of barely tread water. I held on to my basic moral values while being surrounded by fundamentalism. I still considered myself a Christian at the time, while simultaneously believing that God made me gay, non-Christians can go to heaven, the Bible shouldn’t be read literally, and Paul should’ve shut the hell up.
Enter college. Religion wasn’t a big deal for me freshman year. It all ramped up again sophomore year, though. I started sophomore year clawing my way out of a pit of depression and self-injury (yeah, that was a fun summer, except totally not). I started getting closer and closer to Kate, my best friend, as we helped each other sort through really gnarly feelings and experiences. Kate started going to church a lot. I wanted to spend time with her, so I tagged along (Ackbar again). The group she went to was connected with Campus Crusade for Christ, a well-established group with cultlike tendencies. She found some good in it, and I once again found myself playing along in hope that it would make us closer friends. In April, I went to a weekend retreat with that group, an experience that I can really only describe as “anxiety-inducing” and “scarring.” I must be a hell of an actress (hint: I’m not) because I somehow convinced myself that I was totally “moved” by the experience. Yeah, we call that a “weekend-long anxiety attack”–you’d be emotionally volatile too.
I heard so many stories of people’s “born-again” moments. “And this is how I KNOW Christ is my savior!” “The moment I accepted Lord Jesus…” “I have no doubt in my mind…” The implication, and sometimes they did away with implication entirely and stated it outright, was always that if you have doubts about Christianity, you’re not a good enough Christian (and therefore, of course, not a good enough person). You just need stronger faith! You just need to confess your sins! Read the Bible! Trust Jesus! Who needs logic when you have faith?
I couldn’t buy into it. Oh, I told people I was buying into it. I told Kate that “I know God exists because if even I believe in him despite all my skepticism, he must be real.” (What the FUCK, pardon my French, kind of logic is that?) I twisted my mind through all kinds of hoops and knots and semantic technicalities in the hope that I could somehow find a way to get my mind to believe in religion.
Honestly? I’m still doing it. It’s crazy, I know. It’s absolutely insane and frighteningly illogical. The last label I gave myself was “agnostic theist.” Meaning, I don’t follow any religion, but I believe in a god, but who really knows? The thing is, what god was/am I believing in? If it’s the Christian God, the dude already has a backstory. Floods, commandments, and a son. If I don’t believe in that stuff, which I really just can’t, then it’s not the Christian God I believe in, it’s some out-of-canon fanfiction God. Like an omnipotent imaginary friend. It’s a wonderful thought. I like the thought that there is a being that designed the universe and has allowed it to unfurl, who loves each person (and, I would hope, each other living thing) unconditionally, who’s going to let us crash at his awesome pad when our bodies quit working. Sweet, right? Who wouldn’t want that kind of love and attention? Unfortunately, if there’s a supreme being who’s giving me that kind of love and attention, why is he (she) allowing incredible suffering in other parts of the world? If I pray to God for a job or for easy traffic, I sure hope I’d be further down on the heavenly priority list than people who lack basic human needs, but seeing as I have a job and a car and relatively good health and all that and still continue to have good things happen to me, apparently the priority list got scrambled. I’m not sure I want God answering my prayers when he hasn’t gotten to the important ones yet. If it were a person behaving like that, I don’t think I’d want that person to be my friend. If I’m going to believe in (and “trust”) a god, I want it to be a responsible god, and I want to believe that there is a responsible, omnipotent, loving being out there, but you can’t argue with reality. I can’t, anyway. I’ve done it too much and I’m over it.
So I don’t know what I am, religion-wise. I guess that makes me agnostic, which ironically is the one thing I can be sure of. If I’m an agnostic theist, then I come down on the side of believing that there is a god (but not claiming to be sure of it). I don’t know if I can do that. The only reason I have to believe in a god is that I’ve been trained to. That’s a shitty reason, and it’s not belief, it’s indoctrination.
I might be falling back on the side of atheism. In a vacuum I’d be perfectly fine with that, but the social implications are big. Not as big as they were when I was a teenager in conservative Greenwood, but still big. In my more irrational moments, I worry that if I settle on a lack of belief in a god, my Christian best friend will be disappointed. I have every confidence that she’ll always love me for who I am (hey, I am capable of belief–in things that make sense), but if she were to feel sad for me, or believe that I’m hellbound, or distance herself from me–again, this is my irrational mind speaking–that might be more of a rejection than any blatant rejection. If I can come to a comfortable conclusion about where I stand on the religion issue, I want the people I love to be happy for me and proud of me for it, and I’ve never heard of a Christian being proud of someone for declaring her atheism.
Then again, I also worry that I’m falling into the same damn trap, giving myself a religious label only as long as it will have a positive effect on my relationships. It’s comically stupid, but humans are social creatures; we’re wired to want acceptance.
And then there’s Pascal’s wager. Nothing to lose by believing in God, everything to lose by not believing. Unfortunately, for this to apply, belief would need to be a choice. Trust me, if belief were a choice, I wouldn’t have written this long blog post. And if there were a god, would he (she) have created me without belief, with the intent of sending me to hell? That doesn’t fit with the whole “a loving God” thing.
And those are just the big, overarching questions. I have all kinds of little doubts and disbeliefs about the Bible. “Virgin birth” is a pretty convenient “miracle” for a pregnant teenager who would’ve been killed for adultery. What if the historical Jesus had been a mentally ill man with delusions of being God and a striking charisma that made him a great cult leader? And the whole “risen from the dead” thing, oh really? That occurred to them before, say, grave robbers or people wanting to, for whatever reason, tamper with the body of an incredibly controversial political figure? And don’t get me started on the freaking ark or the garden of Eden. If the only condition for living in the garden was that Adam and Eve had to remain ignorant (don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil blah blah blah), I would’ve gotten the hell out of that garden too.
Those are only details. Cracks in the foundation. The other stuff, now that’s the sledgehammer. I don’t know at this point if I believe in a god. I lean toward no, but then the guilt and fear start nagging. The guilt and fear that I got from the church itself. If this were a relationship between people, it would be an emotionally abusive one. And you know, that alone should be reason enough for me to get the hell out–religion is still trying to stamp out my intelligence. That’s how it stays afloat, anyway. If religious establishments didn’t trample human intellect, the religious establishments would fall apart. I’ve already made it clear, years ago, that I want nothing to do with organized religion. I know I’m not a Christian. And if I’m a hundred percent honest with myself, social implications aside, fear and guilt aside, I see no reason to be anything other than an atheist.