Deep Thoughts: Religion
Internet, I think I may be an atheist, and it’s all thanks to this woman:
OK, let’s pump the brakes so I can preface this shit right quick: Religion is a dicey topic. I know this. I don’t want things to get ugly or judgmental up in here. I honestly, truly, 100% respect a person’s individual religious beliefs. I may not agree with them, but if you think the divine Holy Father is present in your pudding cup, well then, I absolutely respect that. And I’m sure as shootin’ not going to dive into my Snack Pack around you.
As my lovely readers have always been consistently civil and otherwise awesome in the comments, I’m saying this not to lecture YOU GUYS in any way, but to just make it known that by presenting my personal feelings on this topic, I am not trying to shit upon anyone else’s beliefs. Cool?
Now let’s shit on some religious beliefs!
(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
So, I was raised Catholic. My entire extended family (on both sides) is all Catholic, and for a long time, I wasn’t aware that there were people in the world who DIDN’T go to a Catholic church on Sunday. I had a Jewish friend when I was in second grade, and I remember riding in the backseat of our car with her after she spent a Saturday afternoon playing at my house. As we passed church after church, we had the following conversation:
ME: “Is that where you go to church?”
ME: “What about there? Is that where you go to church?”
ME: “Where do you go to church?”
HER: “I don’t go to church!”
Aside from knowing that she was definitely the luckier one for not having to suffer through a seemingly eons-long mass every Sunday, I was totally fucking bewildered. She doesn’t go to church? Whaaa? Don’t her parents care that, like, God will be mad at her and stuff? And I’m pretty sure that God is BFFs with Santa, and she is going to be totally screwed come December when they compare notes and decide she’s not getting anything for Christmas. Wait, what? SHE DOESN’T CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS?!
I eventually came to understand that there were other religions in the world, thanks in small part to our move to West Virginia, where, like, NO ONE is Catholic. Our town had one Catholic church, unlike Pittsburgh, where those darn Catholics are uuuurverywhere, and your Lenten parish Fish Fry options are as numerous as they are delicious.
My childhood memories of church are, well, BORING. This is not news. Church is boring for kids, period. It’s lots of sitting still and being quiet and NO TV OR TOYS, and I pretty much saw it as one big obstacle standing in between me and a pancake breakfast at McDonald’s. It wasn’t until I got older that I learned that some churches actually provide alternatives for kids during Sunday services – like, they take all the under-twelves away to go sing songs and color in pictures of Jesus and stuff. Brilliant! But that wasn’t the case in the churches we attended (not sure if that’s a Catholic thing, or just my personal experience). I had Sunday School (CCD), sure, but I had to go to that IN ADDITION to going to church. This means that my Sunday mornings consisted of an hour of mass with a 60-or-90-minute CCD chaser.
In the back of my mind, I always imagined that church was something that made more sense when you were a grown-up. I figured that the all-encompassing love of God and connection to religion was something that came with time, so – while I definitely kept my dread of Sundays to myself – I didn’t sweat it. Although it always really bothered me when the CCD teachers reminded us that we were supposed to love God more than ANYTHING in the world, more than our parents or our pets or JON BON JOVI, even. I wasn’t entirely sure how that was possible (or fair) to ask of someone, but – as was a pattern for me in this area of my life – I kept my mouth sealed shut about it. Even though I knew from CCD that God would be perfectly aware if, in my heart, I was placing Bon Jovi on a slightly higher pedestal than Him.
By the time I reached the ripe old age of 14, I was ready to be confirmed (confirmation = becoming an adult in the Catholic church). It’s certainly not unusual for religions to bestow the title of “adult” on you at this tender age, but when I recently asked a priest why the Church asks you to make an adult decision before you can even drive, he said that it’s done so early mostly for convenience. It’s just easier to confirm the kids while they’re still in school, he said, so that it’s all “out of the way” by the time they graduate, and then they’re in the clear to receive their next sacrament (marriage).
To sum: 8th-graders are asked to commit their lives to the Catholic church because it’s convenient.
Internet, allow me to share with you what was going on with me when I was 14:
This girl could barely make a sound decision regarding HER OWN HAIR, and you expect her to make a very adult commitment regarding the rest of her spiritual life?!
During a particularly heated discussion about religion with my parents, my mother asked me why – if I had always been so unsure about my faith – I had agreed to be confirmed. Internet, she might as well have asked me why I’d agreed to be born with a vagina. There was no AGREEING or DISAGREEING involved in my confirmation process. I was getting confirmed, PERIOD. No room for discussion there. I mean, I can’t even IMAGINE the shitstorm that would have been unleashed if I had said, “You know, I just don’t think I’m ready to go through with this.” So, not committing myself to the Catholic religion when I was all of 14 years old = NOT AN OPTION.
Of course, all of these strong feelings re: my confirmation have only been developed in hindsight. At the time of my actual confirmation, I was still operating on the theory that I’d, like, probably be all into God later, and all this crazy Jesus and Bible stiff would surely make more sense when, I don’t know, I’d been getting my period for more than a year? I really didn’t think about it much.
After my confirmation, though, I definitely started to feel more strongly at-odds with my religion. I was becoming more aware of issues like birth control and abortion, and quickly realizing that my opinions ran exactly opposite to what they were “supposed” to be as a Catholic. I was in that “I AM MY OWN PERSON” stage of teenhood, and I very much did not like that fact that – just because some dude in a pointy hat said so – my mind was supposed to be made up for me regarding so many important issues. And according to my parents and my CCD teachers, holding my non-church-approved beliefs did not come without consequences. Having my own (wrong) opinions was a flaw, something that was deeply disappointing to God. I still held a weak hope that I’d “outgrow” my opinions and magically gain that obedient and God-fearing nature that seemed to come so naturally to everyone else in my family.
My experiences with the church during my high school years were disheartening at best. My church was affiliated with the town’s only Catholic school, and didn’t give much (or any) thought to their teenaged parishioners who weren’t able (read: wealthy enough) to attend the school. I’d always been insanely jealous of the youth group at the Presbyterian church across the street that many of my classmates attended. They went on ski trips and camping excursions and just generally seemed to be enjoying themselves – nothing like the TWO-HOUR-LONG high school CCD class I was forced to attend after church each Sunday. Internet, this class was awful. We had a TEXTBOOK, for shit’s sake. Our only trips were to the convent down the street and to an old folks’ home, the only two places IN THE WORLD less interesting than our regular classroom. Our teacher, as you can imagine, had quite a time trying to engage the ten or so sullen teenagers in her charge, and one day, in a fit of frustration and boredom, attempted to engage us in a discussion about “real” issues (our usual curriculum involved studying the Catechism of the Catholic Churczzzzzzzzzzzzzz). What follows is a nearly word-for-word transcription of what unfolded, as it is permanently etched in my memory (you’ll soon see why):
TEACHER: OK, everyone close your books. Let’s have a real discussion here. I want to hear what you think.
(ME and PRO-CHOICE FRIEND RUTH prick up our ears, because WHOA, Straight-Laced McGee up there is going OFF BOOK? Wha?)
TEACHER: Let’s talk about abortion. How do you feel about abortion?
(Stony silence, as we are all kind of IN FUCKING DISBELIEF that she is choosing to dive into ABORTION TALK after six solid months of dissecting Vatican II.)
TEACHER: Come on, guys! Tell me what you think! Ruth, what do you have to say about this?
PRO-CHOICE FRIEND RUTH: Well, I’m pro-choice…
TEACHER: THAT IS WRONG, YOU CANNOT BE PRO-CHOICE, ABORTION IS MURDER, IT MURDERS BABIES AND THE CHURCH IS AGAINST IT SO YOU CANNOT BE PRO-CHOICE!
(Stony silence, the sequel.)
TEACHER: OK, open your books back up to page 56…
Internet, I may be paraphrasing, but I am not exaggerating. It wasn’t exactly a think tank up in there.
My parents – in an unprecedented move – actually allowed me to stop going to CCD by 11th grade, when it became clear I was gaining nothing but an even stronger distaste for my religion. I looked forward to college as my escape from going to church every week (as well as my escape for, well, just about everything in my life up until then).
As it turns out, escapism involved a lot of kegs. Who knew?
I think I went to mass at the Newman Center on campus all of three times (two of those with a full-on hangover) before I gave up on the charade altogether. I was going mostly for the free (and surprisingly good) spaghetti dinners anyway. My parents, however, were under the impression that I was going every week. Thus the lying about going to church began.
Fast-forward to 1999, when I got engaged to Brad. I decided to get married in the church based on the following reasons:
- My parents expected me to, and I just wanted to get married already and not rock the boat;
- I had always pictured a church wedding, and never really thought to entertain any other scenario;
- I still (STILL) honestly thought that I’d magically become a faithfully devoted Catholic someday;
- I was 22 years old, and apparently clueless as all get-out.
In hindsight, I really, really fucked that one up. I never should have gotten married in the church, but I just didn’t know how else to go about it without seriously damaging my relationship with my parents. I wanted (and still want) their approval, and I knew that starting out with a non-church wedding wasn’t the way to go about getting it. I don’t blame them for this colossally bad decision, but I know that it would have been World War III up in that bitch had I shunned a Catholic ceremony.
So, a church wedding it was. Followed by roughly four years of not going to church but telling my parents that I was.
Oh, I tried to go. Everywhere we lived, I tried to go. When we were in Queens, I lived across the damn street from a huge Catholic church. I went once or twice, but…I never felt a damn thing. I never felt like I fit. What’s worse, I had a sneaking suspicion I didn’t even WANT to fit.
Eventually, my parents caught on to the fact that I was non-practicing, and they were naturally very disappointed and angry. It’s too much to go into right here, but let’s just say there was a lot of anger on both our parts, and then…we just kind of stopped talking about it. It’s a touchy subject. And – despite empty assurances made to the contrary – it’s really not up for any kind of rational discussion.
Of course, I understand why my parents are so upset. I didn’t need to have a baby of my own to understand that. I know that they feel like I’m throwing their religion back in their faces. I spent a long time wishing that I could just MAKE myself believe in the church because then they’d be happy. I want to make them happy. But the fact that I still couldn’t bring myself to go to church despite my overwhelming desire to make them proud of me was telling of just how much I didn’t believe.
It surprised me how much of a damn relief it was, though, to be open about not going to church. I didn’t have to lie and pretend anymore, although we just replaced the lying and pretending with lots of awkwardness about the topic of religion. I spent the next few years exploring how I felt about my religion, other religions, and the concept of religion in general.
You know how sometimes The Way You Really Feel creeps up on you, and waits patiently underneath all the layers of How You Want to Feel until you’re ready to recognize it? Like when you’re in a bad relationship, and one day there’s this nagging little feeling in your heart telling you that this is all wrong and you need OUT, but it’s buried so deep beneath all the other stronger, louder feelings of I CAN MAKE THIS WORK that you just drown it out? Eventually, all those other feelings grow silent, exhausted after months (or years) of trying to disguise the truth, and only then can you finally address what you’ve known on some level all along. Yeah, well, that’s me and this whole agnostic-but-probably-more-like-atheist thing.
Ugh. “Atheist.” I have such an aversion to that word. Growing up KrazySexyKoolKatholic, “atheist” was pretty much the equivalent to “Voldemort.” It was generally understood that atheists were shameful and most definitely bound for the hell in which they did not believe. A high school friend of mine was a self-proclaimed atheist (and a former member of the aforementioned Awesome Presby Youth Group – even co-ed ski trips could not save her!), and I remember my sister telling me she felt sorry for her. I heard that sentiment a lot when it came to atheists: that they’re to be pitied for their sad, Godless lives. And at one time, I agreed.
I’ve coasted along for a number of years on the understanding that I was pretty solidly agnostic. I felt comfortable with that label. Except for the one time I read the quote (and I can’t remember where) that an agnostic is just a person who doesn’t have the balls to be atheist. Hmm. I didn’t like thinking about that. And – following in the grand tradition of things I didn’t like thinking about – not wanting to think about it was a HUGE red flag that meant it was probably true. Damn.
See, I’d arrived at my agnostic diagnosis by doing a lot of thinking. I thought about the Bible. About the derivation of (and the very human need for) religion. About the plain, old not-adding-up-ness (from my perspective, anyway) of most religious theory. And it didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t picking up what religion was laying down. And oh, MAN, did it feel good to finally just come out and own up to that. I felt at peace for the first time in, well, EVER, when it came to spiritual matters. And oh, how I WANTED to feel at peace! So much so that I was ignoring that nagging feeling in the back of my mind. The one that was trying very hard to let me know that I was not quite done thinking yet.
Back in January, when I was stuck at home with Sadie’s mysterious fever disease, I had the chance to watch Showtime’s taping of Julia Sweeney’s stage show “Letting Go of God” (careful with the link, it plays music, GAH), which is all about her journey from devout Catholic to atheist. It’s long, and it can be a little cheesy in that one-woman-show kind of way, but…wow. It pinned down my experience with and my feelings toward religion almost exactly. Granted, Julia Sweeney had a much more positive experience growing up Catholic than I did, but the twists and turns she takes on her way to finally discovering she’s an atheist really resonated with me.
Towards the end of the show, she talks about how the idea of being atheist was really frightening for her to consider. It seemed depressing, this idea that there was no God out there watching over us, looking after us. That after death, we just cease to be. She was terrified to think of seeing the world in these terms, so she came up with a plan: putting on the “no God” glasses for a few minutes at a time – just to see what it looked like! – and taking them off whenever things got too scary. And then, she discovered that looking at the world through the “no God” glasses wasn’t scary. It was oddly comforting. Oddly beautiful. It fit what she had been feeling all those years.
I had never thought of atheism in these terms before. Instead of seeing the absence of God as making things somehow empty and sad, it made them even more amazing. I mean, if some great, big, all-powerful entity didn’t create the universe, isn’t it just that much more amazing that it all came to be on its own? How powerful to think that something as intricate and mind-blowing as my body creating and giving birth to a baby happened not because God designed my body to do so, but because the biology of my body knows how to do so? She also mentioned how, as an atheist, coincidences take on a whole new dimension. Coincidences don’t really exist for the religious; things happen because they were meant to happen, because it was part of God’s plan. But when you take God out of the equation? How incredible! The fact that I wouldn’t have had Sadie if that ONE specific egg and that ONE specific sperm (of millions!) hadn’t met up? Is humbling. And mystifying. And truly, truly amazing.
I also used to think it would be unbearable to see the world as an atheist because of the magnitude of just-plain-unfairness that abounds. If I eschewed the idea of an afterlife, then that means all the huge assholes in the world are just GETTING AWAY WITH IT, with no flames of hellfire at the ready to engulf them. And it also means that there’s no mysterious, Godly reason for all the suffering on Earth. After all, when I found myself asking why such terrible things had to happen to good people, the only answer that seemed right was that God had his reasons, and those reasons were not for us to understand.
But now? That seems like a major fucking cop-out. I mean, does God (a God who creates us out of love) not at least owe us some explanation whenever something horrific happens in this life? Is “Eh, it’s a God thing, you wouldn’t understand” a suitable answer? Well, for me, it’s not. I believe that religious folk would call this outlook “pride,” but sometimes I think that trying to shame someone by calling them prideful is just a way to get them to stop questioning things.
As for the assholes-not-getting-punished thing, I found that when I entertained the idea of no great big Detention Hall in the sky, I found it surprisingly…peaceful. I mean, yes, there are terrible people who will get away with terrible things, and it’s terribly unfair. But what if that’s just the way it is? Nothing we can do about that, can we? And isn’t finding peace in this the same as finding peace in the “we don’t understand God’s reasons for shitty things” rhetoric?
Of course, nothing is black and white, and my atheist-leaning feelings are no exception. Just as I had a nagging feeling that this is the way I’ve really felt all along, I have a similar feeling that there really is more to us than our life here on Earth. I think that living beings are more than just their physical selves. I think that we go on – somehow, in some way – after we die. I just don’t think that the force outside the physical world is necessarily God. Or God as we think of Him, anyway.
Also, I honestly believe that this is simply my truth, not everyone’s. My mostly atheistic viewpoint feels as gut-feeling-right to me as being a Christian or a Muslim might feel as gut-feeling-right to you. I am not interested in converting anyone; I’d just like a more universal recognition that spirituality is an intensely personal issue, and should be treated as such.
I also wish people would see religion as the positive influence it should be in their lives, not an excuse to exclude, shame (or worse, hate) other people. The religious people I respect are the ones who take joy in their beliefs, and who use their religion to enhance their lives and better themselves (this obviously does not pertain to those lovely few who like to BLOW PEOPLE UP as a display of religious celebration). Unfortunately, I know a lot of people who simply go to church out of habit instead as a purposeful, meaningful choice. I saw a lot of this in the Catholic church – the whole “Oh, sure, I’m pro-choice and pro-birth control and I support gay marriage and I think it’s a travesty that they flat-out refuse to ordain female priests, but you knoooooow. I’ve just always been Catholic!” Back when I was struggling with Catholicism, I was told that I was “taking things too seriously” when it came to feeling misaligned with the church. I was encouraged to “stop thinking about it so much” and just “go to church anyway.” Some huh? Internet, I don’t get that shit. It was – theoretically – MY VERY SOUL these people were talking about, and I was being encouraged to phone it in? I had an actual priest tell me I could disagree with almost every tenet of Catholicism and STILL go to church. Why, why would I want to do that? Would I be fooling an all-knowing, all-seeing God? To me, that does nothing but belittle and insult the entire institution. If you can’t be bothered to take your spiritual beliefs to heart, then I just can’t take those beliefs seriously. I mean, if you don’t, then why should I?
I don’t think I’ll ever get my parents to understand or respect my viewpoint, and that’s a tough pill to swallow. And I’m not sure how I’ll broach the topic of religion with Sadie, except to encourage her to explore her options. I don’t think I’ll be able to tell her (as Julia Sweeney told her daughter) that her dead pets and relatives simply cease to be after death (that one’s still a little harsh to lay on a kid, in my opinion), but I want her to know that there isn’t one right or wrong answer when it comes to religion.
I’m fully aware, of course, that things could go all Alex P. Keaton up in here and Sadie will become a born-again enthusiast who spends her time inundating me with Bible verses and blaming me for her Godless childhood, but that’s the chance you take with kids, isn’t it?
And hot damn, it’s worth it.
Entry filed under: Deep Thoughts.