Losing My Religion and Gaining Another
I don’t believe that heaven waits for only those who congregate.
“But if one carefully considers all the facts, one must be convinced that at the basis of all suffering lies the principle of craving desire. If avarice can be removed, human suffering will come to an end.” — The Teaching of Buddha
“In Japan, it’s a religion to be Japanese.”
That’s what a Japanese man once told me at a cocktail party in Bangkok. We spent about an hour discussing U.S. politics, religion, his country, and its people, and of all the things he said, he said that sentence, and it was the one that stuck with me.
While acknowledging the dominant religion in his country as Buddhism, he made the interesting point that Japan’s true religion is embracing elements of all religions. That, he insisted, is what it means to be Japanese.
And that, I thought to myself (or maybe I said it out loud — I did, after all, have three glasses of white wine that night), is unorganized religion I can get behind.
Introducing a vengeful, wrathful God
I grew up in a Caribbean-American household in Kissimmee, Florida, where organized religion played a huge role in everyday life. Two of my paternal uncles were preachers, so I suppose I was born into it.
My family went to church Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and sometimes several weeknights, too. During especially holy periods (like whenever a nationally known televangelist swept into town), I probably spent nearly as much time in church as I did in school.
I would have preferred to devote the bulk of my waking hours outside of class pursuing other interests, like reading about U.S. history and Norse and Greek mythology, whose gods I found far more interesting than the star of those church services. The only thing that frightened me more than the wrath of God, though, was the wrath of my mother.
She’s the loveliest woman I’ve ever known, but she also can be the most intimidating. Church wasn’t optional in her house, and I did as I was told.
The only thing that frightened me more than the wrath of God was the wrath of my mother. Church wasn’t optional in her house, and I did as I was told.
It wasn’t all torture. I enjoyed the song services when the choir took over and wished that would have been the end of it. It wasn’t so much what the preachers said during the sermons that followed that made them so tough to sit through. It was the lack of short and sweet — particularly the sweet — in their presentation.
Vengeful and wrathful, two qualities frequently linked to God during those lengthy monologues (black preachers can go in for hours), didn’t paint the warm and fuzzy picture one might associate with a savior.
It was difficult for me to embrace the standards of the Church of God, my family’s religious denomination, when it seemed to be based primarily on fear and blind faith. I was already a cowardly kid who didn’t need to be constantly threatened with “the burning flames of hell” (the actual name of a film screened in church one terrifying Sunday evening), and as I am a stubborn, headstrong Taurus, my blind faith was always fragile.
Alas, fear of those burning flames of hell kept me mostly in line from childhood to adulthood. It wasn’t until I read Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov at age 23 that I truly began to lose my old-time religion. Once I started to see the light, I left my blind faith in the dark.
Dostoevsky nailed my sentiments in the Karamazov chapter in which Ivan had his nightmare tête-à-tête with the devil. When he wondered why God would bother giving us free will if His endgame was to get us to follow Him blindly, Ivan was practically speaking my mind.
If He was the one who bestowed upon us the gift of rational thinking, which might lead us to reject Him, could he really blame us if we did? Why did he stop at creating man in His own image? Why didn’t he also fill man (and woman) with an unwavering desire to follow Him? Wouldn’t that have made everything so much easier?
Atheist or agnostic?
As doubtful as I’ve always been, especially for the last 27 years, I never have been able to bring myself to completely reject Him. So what does that make me? I’m not sure. “Atheist” seems so cold and austere. It’s too black and white. “Agnostic” falls more within the borders of my philosophical scope, but it’s such a drab, negative-sounding word.
I’m still undecided about life after death, but I do feel there has to be something, or someone, bigger than us. When I look at the world, and I see the beauty and organized chaos in nature, my gut tells me it’s not merely a product of science. I believe science had its place, but maybe someone set science into motion. The Big Bang theory and creationism are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that’s a topic for another post.
Despite my tendency toward theistic evolution, the thing I have the most trouble fully embracing in organized religion (besides all of the judgement and intolerance) is the traditional Western concept of God. I have a difficult time believing there is someone watching over me, a God pulling the strings whom I can thank for all the good I have in my life, and one who only demands that I worship Him in return.
Besides the obvious arrogance of a character who would create an entire race to worship Him or else, there is the “Why me?”/”Why them?” factor: Why do some people get to be rich and famous, or beautiful, or finders of true love? Is God really responsible when Beyoncé wins a Grammy? Why do some people have to live with the burden of blindness or deafness or limited mobility?
They say one out of eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Is He pulling the strings to determine who will be the lucky/unlucky ones? Why them?
If I had been raised on Greek mythology, and not just reading books about it, I wouldn’t be so quick to bow to Zeus, who was basically a gigolo in a toga.
Organized religion has never answered these questions to my satisfaction, and as long as it doesn’t, I will continue to doubt. I respect those of blind faith. If piety gets you through the night, then by all means, go with it.
And if the Bible is just too fantastical for you to accept, then don’t. God knows (if He exists), that if I had been raised on Greek mythology as the gospel truth, common sense — and my prudish inclination — probably would have stopped me from bowing down to Zeus, who was basically a gigolo in a toga.
Go East, young man
Aside from The Brothers Karamazov, the thing that most influenced my religious views as an adult was a class on Eastern religion that I took in college. The ones we studied seemed to be based more on practical psychological concepts than the Western ones with which I was most familiar.
I once found a book called The Teaching of Buddha in the drawer by the bed in my hotel suite in Bangkok. I guess I should have known better than to expect the King James version of the Bible in Thailand, a country where Buddhism is the primary religion. I opened the book, and the first words I read spoke to me more powerfully than anything I’d read in years.
“Where is the source of human grief, lamentation, pain and agony? Is it not to be found in the fact that people are generally desirous.
They cling obstinately to lives of wealth and honor, comfort and pleasure, excitement and self indulgence ignorant of the fact that the desire for these very things is the source of human suffering.”
It’s easier for me to embrace a philosophically sound idea that I can apply to my everyday life than it is for me to accept being told that heaven awaits only if I follow some arbitrary and predetermined life plan.
Religion is supposed to make us better people, yet historically, it’s spawned so much physical and psychological turmoil. Major wars have been fought in its name, and too many people use it to justify their intolerance. I won’t have what they’re having.
I like the idea of picking and choosing bits from different religions and applying them to your life in a way that works for you. And while I’m selecting what to use and what to discard, I try to remember this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
It’s called the golden rule for a reason. Live it, and life — and others — may do unto you in the most extraordinary ways.