Sent in by DJ
I was born and raised in a very traditional Irish/Slovak Catholic home in rural New England. I was an altar boy for many years and quite fastidious about my religious studies. I think I've always been curious about religions, and this curiosity began with the first one I was exposed to, as far back as I can recall.
A number of things went on in my life, however, which set me to wondering. Was God real? Did he really hear our prayers? I very methodically considered the idea that God was everywhere and knew everything, the small and the large. At first, this idea seemed awe-inspiring and incomprehensible; but over time it made less sense. I also read the Bible a lot, mostly a hit-and-miss reading of it; I liked the accounts of warfare in the Old Testament, but found most of the rest of it pretty dry stuff. I wondered why people made such a big deal about it. (And I still do!)
By the time I was in high school, I was no longer a Catholic "at heart." All the pomp and circumstance, the ritual and the ceremony, held no meaning for me. What I could understand of Catholic doctrine, made little sense, and the more questions I asked, the more I was given the brush-off. The omnipotence of the Christian God, vis-a-vis his reputed benevolence (also known as "the problem of evil") was insurmountable, so far as I could tell, even after consulting many theodicies (they all had holes).
So I embarked on my college career with no religion in mind whatsoever, and in fact, I had no intention of participating in one. But I did look into religions. This was rather easy to do as I was at one of the largest universities in New England, with many resources available. I visited campus churches and took a course on Philosophy of Religion. About that time, too, I ran into some people who seemed very nice — in fact, incredibly nice! — and I found out they were "Born-Again Christians." I didn't know what this meant, though I had heard this phrase before. I listened to what they had to say and liked it — but in retrospect, what I think I liked most was their company and friendship, not their beliefs.
Having been accepted into "the fold" and having accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, I found myself in the center of a clique of Pentecostalists — mostly Oneness Pentecostalists, to be exact. I attended their church when I could (it was 40 miles from campus), but we had Bible study and prayer circles several times a week. We did speaking in tongues, prophesying, slaying in the spirit, you name it. Other students referred to us as "holy rollers," and while the name was meant as a form of derision, I suppose it was apt. If someone had seen one of our prayer sessions (which I assume must have happened), I doubt they'd ever forget it.
My fellow "Born-Agains" soon figured out that I had a knack for "knowing" things, things I should not have been able to know. In retrospect, I think this was just because I was very observant and analytical; it only appeared that I should not have known things. At any rate, I was told that I had "spiritual gifts" from God, among them, the discernment of spirits (between good and evil). With my friends' encouragement, and the blessing of the pastor of the church, I embarked on a very informal "ministry" as a lay exorcist!
You read that right. A lay exorcist! It wasn't nearly as picturesque as in the movie The Exorcist. Mostly just a lot of babbling in tongues (on everyone's parts!) and yelling at the demons to get out in the name of Jesus. I also did a lot of research on demons and how they got into people's lives, discovering many muddled theories on the subject, some of it bordering on Spiritualism, which my church frowned upon — but I didn't care. As a result I learned quite a bit about the occult.
Over time the apparent ineffectiveness of it, along with the long hours of research, became wearying, and, despite appearances, quite mundane. I wondered what I was even doing, whether it was making any difference, whether or not I should even continue. I was urged on by my fellow believers but they clearly didn't understand what the problem was. This may have been where I began to part company with them.
Another problem was the infighting that went on among the "Born-Agains" on campus. There were different groups (chapters of national organizations) sometimes at odds with one another over approach (how to evangelize) and doctrine, as well. Some of the doctrinal disputes were incredibly petty. I tried to steer a course between factions but that became hard to do. Over the course of a few months, a few of these people became simply impossible to deal with.
As I fell out of my fellowship, I became depressed. That meant, of course, that my studies suffered, and being an engineering student didn't help — the coursework was hard! So at the end of my sophomore year, I changed majors to history. I'd always been interested in medieval history and decided to study it at length. Besides, with my faith weakening, I thought that learning about all those pious medieval saints, might help me.
When I went home for the summer, I began to review things clearly. When I returned to college in the fall, I started studying history seriously. Over the next two years I finally got my degree, and even though my intention behind getting it had been to bolster my faith, it did nothing of the kind. In fact, it totally destroyed any chance that I would ever put my faith in any deity, ever again. Along the way I'd taught myself Greek so that I could read the Bible and (most of) the Church Fathers in the original; but even this didn't help. If anything it made me more jaded. My education in medieval history included a complete review of Church history, from origins to the Reformation and even beyond. I studied all of this, hoping (and even praying) it would enhance my belief — but it didn't.
For a while I was an "agnostic-by-default," meaning I simply didn't think too much about any god at all. Some of my friends, though, were into neopaganism and other New Age beliefs, and for a while, I bought into some of that. I recalled that people had presumed I'd had "spiritual gifts" from God, and now thought of myself as something of a psychic. Bolstering that was — again — the fact that I often appeared to know things I should not have known. Even today, if you ask some of those people, they'd swear to you that I'm psychic. I even got a reputation as a "remote healer" and there are people who were convinced I cured them of things.
What really topped things off, for me, was when I went to a "Psychic Fair" and someone there recognized me as "unusual." She even referred to me as a Wiccan "high priest." This was not the only time a stranger recognized me as special or different, but it was one I couldn't forget. (There's some controversy over whether or not anyone can have a title such as "high priest" or anything like that in Wicca. I was even aware of this at the time. And at no time did I ever consider myself a Wiccan. So I didn't take it that seriously. It just seemed striking at the time.)
This sort of thing restored some of that "special feeling" I'd once had, when I was a lay exorcist, that feeling that the universe had somehow smiled upon me and shown me favors. But at the same time, I also realized that there were "dark forces" in the world. Occasionally I'd see or hear something that made me think I was being watched or pursued. After all, I possessed a great deal of information on the occult, that I'd picked up during my brief career as a lay exorcist. I took to buying talismans of protection at local New Age stores.
Still, it gradually occurred to me that I wasn't really doing anything. I mean, there didn't appear to be anything supernatural about the healings, etc. Things just happened, and they happened in ordinary ways. It was all too clinical. Moreover, all the "dark forces" that were after me ... weren't! No one was working against me, and I had no one to fear, but myself.
A few years ago, then, I came to realize that I'd been fooling myself. I was no psychic. There is no such thing! The only way to heal people is medically. Demons don't exist, and therefore exorcisms are a waste of time. Spirits don't hang around after death, and crystals don't "vibrate" with "energy" that can "rebalance" one's "soul." None of it made the slightest bit of sense, any more ... even though it had once seemed perfectly reasonable. The entire realm of metaphysics collapsed, as I saw it.
This realization came at a time when the average American's belief in such things is actually on the rise. We now have a psychic medium with his own syndicated show, communicating imperceptibly with the deceased spirits of the family and friends of his audience members. We also have documentary shows about psychic detectives, animal psychics, etc. and there are multiple dramatic shows with psychic characters. We have many "mediums" publishing book after book, spewing the worst sort of pablum on people, who apparently are gullible enough to lap it up in droves. I seem to be swimming against the tide.
Anyway ... now you know where I stand. I have been a Catholic, a Pentecostalist, a New Age neopagan, and finally I wound up an Apathetic Agnostic. You could say I've gone many times on the metaphysical merry-go-round. I have learned Catholic doctrine, fundamentalist theology, Spiritualist teachings, occult knowledge, neopagan practices, psychic confluences. I finally got off onto solid ground.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)