I decided to explore the topic of religious belief this week (or rather, my lack thereof). I don’t often discuss this because I think beliefs are personal. Honestly, I have also been concerned about being attacked or judged for my beliefs. However, I don’t like the idea of keeping silent about a topic merely because I am scared to talk about it, so I decided to explore it this week in my blog. I haven’t really thought much about how I came to my current beliefs and I don’t want to lose sight of that.
This topic can be very controversial, so let me preface this by saying my discussion is only meant to apply to my own personal journey and to those who are in a similar place on their journey. I believe that everyone has their own path and although in this blog I probably sound rather antagonistic toward religion, this does not mean that I am judging others that feel differently. I am simply speaking from my own experiences.
I want to start by talking a little bit about my upbringing. I grew up in a non-traditional Christian home. Although we sporadically visited churches of various Christian denominations, we mainly had home church. My dad believes that organized religion is often very corrupt because it is so strongly influenced by the will of men, instead of the will of God. He believes we should all really be looking inward and embarking on our own spiritual journey (he has a blog/website: http://www.theinwardjourney.net/). I have always deeply respected his intelligent and thoughtful approach to spirituality/religion. He treats the views of others with respect and humility. He has spent more time thinking and learning about these issues than anyone I know, and as children he always encouraged us to critically think about religion.
I grew up believing in God, but I didn’t take an active part in my “faith” until middle school. I’m ashamed to admit that I began attending a local Pentecostal church and reading books about God because I had a huge crush on a boy that went to that church. While attending this church, I had my sole “supernatural” experience: someone laid hands on me and I fainted. When I woke up I was laying on the ground, laughing and crying. I have now come to believe that experience was a combination of groupthink and peer pressure. A strong desire to have that experience may have also been a factor. Even so, this is the sole experience that has made me question whether there is a God. It is hard to deny such a powerful experience. Into high school, I continued to attend youth group gatherings on Wednesdays and Saturdays, listen to solely Christian music, and pray regularly. A couple of years ago I read journals from this time and there was a lot of talk about being a “godly woman”, hoping I was pleasing god with my actions, and feeling guilty for any actions that didn’t correspond with what I thought this god wanted. I definitely did not approach spirituality in a thoughtful way; I digested what I was told and religion was almost a hobby for me. It was something to talk about, something that gave me a social circle, and also something that set me apart. I was also kind of obsessed with the whole “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” phenomenon: I didn’t believe in kissing before marriage (until about the age of 16, when I had my first real boyfriend). =) I think my parents were happy about that.
I would like to say that my exploration and beliefs were harmless, but there are several events that shame me to think of them. 1) I “saved” a girl at a Christian camp where I was a counselor. She was 5 years old and had no idea what she was doing. The camp leaders kept a tally and at the end of the week they announced how many souls had been saved. Ugh. 2) Deep down, I actually thought a lot of people I knew were going to “hell” for a time. A friend of mine who is a Hindu said that at this time I tried to convert her multiple times and get her to come to youth group with me, never thinking to ask more about her belief system. It might have been my interactions with her that first inspired me to think more deeply about religion. I remember going to her house and thinking to myself what good people they were and how I just couldn’t believe they were going to “hell” and seeing that they were really much more devoted to their faith than most Christians I had known.
I started questioning my beliefs even more after I met my husband. He was raised Catholic and was moving away from those beliefs when we met. Through our conversations, I asked myself the following questions: Had I ever really actually learned about the history of Christianity or any other religion? Had I ever questioned my beliefs or thought about where they originated?
More questioning, learning, and exploration
I became very fascinated in the topic after this. In college, I took a few religion classes: Christianity, Religions of the World, and Japanese Religions. For the first time I felt like I was learning and critically thinking, rather than just accepting the propaganda spouted by many churches about saving a certain number of people, chanting words that some men decided were important hundreds of years ago, or being prayed over so that you can speak in a language only God can understand. I learned a lot about the history of Christianity, how the Bible was compiled, the many atrocities committed in the name of religion, the invention of Hell as a way to scare the masses into forsaking their old beliefs, the enmeshment of paganism and Christianity, the many similarities in creation stories across religions, and the many similarities across religions in general. At this point in my journey, I wouldn’t say I was an atheist or agnostic. I just became strongly opposed to religion. Basically I was like my dad, only instead of being against organized Christian churches, I opposed organized religion in general. I was (and still am) of the opinion that religions are a man-made invention.
One of my favorite stories at this time was:
Several cotton farmers were whiling away a winter afternoon around the potbellied stove. They soon became entangled in a heated discussion on the merits of their respective religions. The eldest of the farmers had been sitting quietly, just listening, when the group turned to him and demanded, “Who’s right, old Jim? Which one of these religions is the right one?” “Well,” said Jim thoughtfully, “you know there are three ways to get from here to the cotton gin. You can go right over the big hill. That’s shorter but it’s a powerful climb. You can go around the east side of the hill. That’s not too far, but the road is rougher’n tarnation. Or you can go around the west side of the hill, which is the longest way, but the easiest. “But you know,” he said, looking them squarely in the eye, “when you get there, the gin man don’t ask you how you come. He just asks, ‘Man, how good is your cotton?’”
I still like this story even though my beliefs have changed. I like the message that we are all so worried about the particulars of “who is right” that we forget the most important things in life: being kind, being honest, etc. I also still resonate with the idea that if there is some place we go after we die, any God I would want to believe in wouldn’t judge us for what doctrine we followed during our lifetime.
At this time, I also still liked the idea of God, of Heaven, and of a “higher purpose.” I really wanted to believe in something that defies all logic and understanding. Despite all the atrocities committed in the name of religions, all the judgment in the name of religion, and all the dogma and indoctrination (don’t get me started on religion’s part in colonization…), I wanted to believe that all of that was man’s perversion of God. For a long time though, I just didn’t know what to call this system of belief or how to explain this to people…”I don’t believe in religion, but I believe in God.”
My current beliefs: More time passed and I continued to see many examples of how belief in God seemed to do more harm than good – tearing apart families, making people judgmental and hard-hearted, separating people, and creating wars, even within the same religion. Sure, I see that many good people believe in God and some of them aren’t judgmental to others and do kind things in the name of their God. But I would like to believe these people would be kind regardless of whether God exists or not. I would rather believe that others who are good, kind, and honest would be that way regardless of whether religion or God exists. Even if there is a God, it seems like most humans can’t handle it. Instead, so much time is spent on interpreting the meaning of specific details in some holy book, judging or condemning others for their beliefs, trying to convert other people, or proving there is a God. I feel that there are more important things to accomplish. For instance, growing up, my family went to the homeless shelter every year on Christmas and spent the day making breakfast for the homeless and talking with them about their lives. I learned empathy and came to a greater understanding of the world through that experience. I definitely learned more through that experience than I learned through any church service I sat through as a child, where I was told that I should do altruistic things like that to help spread God’s word.
I get so frustrated at those that are Christians accusing atheists of being selfish or lazy, as if Christianity or a belief in God alone makes them a better person,a kinder person, or a person more interested in helping others. If that is true for some, I think that is sad. Doesn’t that mean that they are only committing good acts and being kind out of a fear of what will happen if they don’t do those things? I definitely have not seen evidence of unkindness or lack of interest in the human condition in the atheists I know. If there is some kind of a higher force that by some miracle does actually care about what each of us humans are doing: wouldn’t it be more worried about the way we lived our lives and treated others and less about all the little man-made details, traditions, etc.? But somehow, religion and belief in God almost always seems to end up being about the details and the traditions. So I guess I plan to live my life as if there is no God. And if there is a higher force out there that does care, I guess I believe that is what it would want me to do anyway.
So: I don’t believe in god (atheist), but I also don’t believe the existence of god can be proven or disproven (agnostic). So there you go: I am an agnostic atheist.
Addendum: On Raising Children: Matthew and I have talked a lot about how we want to raise our children. Before we met, Matthew was already questioning his beliefs (as I said earlier, he was part of the reason I started questioning my own beliefs), so luckily, we have fairly similar views. He is simply agnostic and said that he doesn’t know whether or not he believes in god. He does believe that some spiritual force is out there, and he says that he experiences that through music. We share very similar views about religion and raising children, however. When we have children, we know that we want them to be very educated about all of the different religions, so that when the time comes for them to make their choice, they will have more information than we had. I also feel that this will teach them to be open-minded and to have a broader understanding of the world and of religion. I would love to let my kids visit different religious services (not just within Christianity), so that they see how customs and practices differ from religion to religion and often parallel closely with the culture of the place where the religion developed. I want to teach them the history behind how the religions developed. I also believe that one positive thing church does is stress the importance of helping others. However, I don’t believe there is any reason why you can’t teach your children this value outside of church (as my family did with me). So, I would love to continue the tradition of going to the homeless shelter on holidays, or planting flowers or trees in a park, or finding some other way to help the community or humanity on big religious holidays (and throughout the year). I don’t ever want my kids to feel they are “missing out”, so we will find a way to make these days special in other ways. I also believe holidays like Christmas have as much cultural significance as they do religious significance, so as a family, Matthew and I still want our kids to experience having a tree and getting presents (although not too many), but instead of stressing the religious message, we will stress the idea that doing for others selflessly is an important part of life.
When they are old enough to understand, we will definitely share our beliefs with them and explain that just because we feel a certain way, that does not mean they need to share our beliefs. I want to teach them the importance of critical thinking and exploration as a part of their own personal journey. I want my children to understand that we all have our own personal journey and it does not need to parallel ours. I do feel that if we raise them this way and they develop this sort of understanding about religion, it would be fairly implausible for them to suddenly develop a belief in god. But if they do, my goal is to be as open and understanding about it as possible and hold onto the fact that my children are not me. I do believe that some people need religion and if my children are in that camp, I will only hope that I have taught them the virtue and morals they need to be a kind, loving, giving person who does not judge others who are different from them or out of fear. My father has always been wonderful about this and only encourages me to continue listening and learning and to never completely shut myself off to anything. Even though we have very opposite beliefs, we often spend time discussing religion and debating in a friendly manner. I love that we can do this and I respect so much that he is as interested and listening and learning from me as I am in doing the same from him. I strive to be this kind of person in my daily life and I want my children to do the same. I see what closing yourself off to possibility does to people, and I don’t want that for my family.