Image by HORIZON via FlickrBeliefs, personal truths and comprehending the world around us is a life long journey. Where we start may not have any relation to where we finish, and as long as we live the journey continues. I think there are signaling events that trigger decisions which are in turn influenced by countless factors. Am I allowed go where my thoughts lead me? Can I say what I really think? What will those important to me think? Will I be accepted? Am I the only one? How will this effect everything else? Where will this lead to?
I think that, while there are common journeys and similar roads, each of us ultimately walks our own path, one that is solely ours, responding to information, influences, thoughts and inner promptings unique to ourselves. While my journey began in childhood, it was in high school that I began to, as adolescents do, think for myself.
By the time I was in high school life at home was chaotic and deteriorating. Feeling God’s love was a comfort and refuge to me. Although I attended a Catholic high school I’d had enough exposure to other religions to easily cross denominational boundaries. I never thought of God or Truth as limited to any particular church. I listened every Friday and Sat night to Billy Graham’s Hour of Decision and would watch his Crusades on TV. I read his book, World Aflame, and found a purpose and vibrant belief system. Kathryn Kuhlman and Oral Roberts proved God’s miraculous healing power. Robert Schuller manifested His optimism and love.
Looking back, of course World Aflame would appeal to me because MY world was aflame. His urgency and alarm resonated with my own. I was confused, searching and longed for something to depend on. I know now that this longing is a normal part of the human psyche. I felt sorry for those who didn’t have this Relationship and assumed their lives were miserable. Convinced the end of times was imminent because of man’s rebellion against God, I thought about, read, prayed and shared Christ’s message throughout my teens (“Excuse me, are you a Christian?”).
It was as a freshman in high school that I first read the Bible all the way through and was struck by the bloodthirsty and unnecessary brutality of Yahweh and His followers, especially David, who'd been a heroic figure for me. What I read didn’t jive with the loving and merciful God I’d come to know. Nor did the accounts of Jesus match what I’d been taught about Him. So I did what devout people do with such cognitive dissonance–I buried it in rationalizations, excuses, reframing and avoidance.
As I grew older I began to see the hypocrisy, manipulation, fraud and lies. I learned the true history of Catholicism and read Lives of The Saints (many of whom got that title for torturing Protestants). I read Martin Luther’s Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches was a handbook leading to the torture and execution of thousands of innocent women and girls, some as young as three years old). I began looking beyond the limits of Catholic and Protestant churches and, after reading Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography Of A Yogi, started attending SRF (Self Realization Fellowship). During this period I had a religious experience which was to influence and deepen my faith in God for years to come. In my late twenties I joined NSA (Nichiren Shoshu Sokagakkai), the last religious group I would be affiliated with.
Listening to news stories of suffering and cruelty always bothered me. In my youth I trusted God would someday explain all this to me. I was told Yahweh of the Old Testament was merely going along with the corrupt morality of ancient times, suffering was all our fault due to original sin, animal suffering doesn't count because they don't have souls, God doesn’t interfere with our free will and anyway, mere humans can’t possibly presume to know the mind of God (shh---there’s a special secret plan...). I would remind myself that, in the end, all suffering innocents go to Heaven for eternity and forget the pain of what happened to them on earth. Perhaps this was God’s way of testing our faith. As the years rolled by and my comprehension of the magnitude of sorrow and pain in this world matured these excuses and rationalizations were increasingly unsatisfying. How could God, with whom I had a loving relationship and who protected me, allow such terrible things to happen to untold millions of innocent people and animals? The more aware I became the harder it was to reconcile the suffering with my faith. I continued to question ministers about this and the answers were always predictable and inadequate.
Viet Nam, always festering in the back of my mind, was gaining public scrutiny as revelations about what was really going on eroded the propaganda. I was a new mother listening to the radio one day as a veteran was sharing his experience in the war. Intrigued by his story, I wasn’t prepared to hear the description of what one side did to the small child of a village leader in order to terrorize the villagers. Caught off guard and with no time to pull out the usual defenses, the culmination of what I’d pushed away hit me and there was nowhere to run. I literally panicked. That day was the beginning of the end of my “relationship” with a personal god. In her humorous CD, Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney tells the story of her de-conversion. For her, as with me and so many others, it started with the Bible and ended with The Problem Of Evil. And like her and others, it took work, was absolutely worth it and I’m now even able to look back on my journey with some amusement.
The beginning of my de-conversion was not about doubting the existence of God. It began when He became irrelevant. What kind of deity allows, out of impotence or apathy, innocents to needlessly suffer? There is no excuse. Such a god is unworthy of affection or loyalty. Nor could I expect this deity to protect me and my child from the evils that he allowed to befall others more virtuous than myself. Like letting go of a cherished baby blanket, a hopeless romance or finally leaving home for good, one gets to this point only when one is ready. One has “God” as long as one needs a god. I know many never reach this conclusion. I did and it’s as simple as that.
Letting go of a personal god is a gradual process and not easy. It took ten years to actually break away from a lifetime of Christian conditioning –the idea of sin, redemption, guilt, judgment, atonement, faith, salvation, unworthiness and grace was deeply ingrained. During this period I continued to think of myself as spiritual. I prayed to an impersonal Universe–that amorphous life force which operates on spiritual principals like karma and energy, love and correct thinking. I quit requesting personal favors, only asking help for others or for assistance in helping them. Decades passed and I continued to struggle for answers. On some level I still held out hope for some understanding of why there was so much unnecessary suffering in the world. It eventually came down to this: Universe/God/whatever: we need to talk--DIRECTLY. Not through antiquated scriptures (which are inaccurate, absurd and flawed), inspiration/feelings (which we self generate as needed), not through another middle man-- minister, priest, evangelist, preacher, guru, pastor, avatar, prophet, book, music or religion (been there done that!). Eventually it dawned on me that I had been asking the wrong question all along. Asking “why” assumes a metaphysical reason that only makes sense in a spiritual context. The question of suffering, along with beliefs about my “relationship” with God, were based on assumptions flowing from the world view I was taught that claimed to be objective knowledge about reality. Growing up inculcated with the same propaganda from every source conditioned me to accept what I was taught as truth. Another word for this is brainwashing. Fantasies and delusions are internal, subjective experiences. Reality requires objective evidence. While I may sincerely believe I have a deep and meaningful relationship with a fairy on my shoulder or with Zeus, whom I know created, loves and guides me, I cannot produce objective evidence to verify this. Over time I realized gods are created by humans and not the other way around.
Four unexpected things happened after I released my beliefs about the supernatural. First, I began to see and hear more objectively. Watching reruns of Graham, Roberts, Schuller et al now is like watching a circus act. Their logic is fallacious, their stories (and healings) are contrived and they are masters at cherry picking. Which means they deceive. They pretend. They lie. Today the religious texts and air ways continue to spread this world view claiming it objective information about reality. It still interests me but now as education and entertainment. Currently my favorite religious TV personality is the charming psychopath, Joel (God wants you to be rich) Osteen, and my favorite religious radio personality is the delightfully delusional curmudgeon, Harold (Satan has taken over the churches) Camping. In the trance of religion you see things through a veil that blocks out and protects you from information not fitting the paradigm. This is why religious folk are eager to influence others (reinforcing their own faith) but defend against information and viewpoints unsupportive of their beliefs and why they get defensive and utilize distortion and projection when discussing faith with the faithless.
Second, I gradually felt a burden lift off of me. The conundrum of suffering versus a Just and Loving God dissipated and eventually a feeling of freedom and relief took its place. Far from feeling disconnected in having given up the god my life had revolved around, I now feel more connected to the planet and to all of life on it. Suffering still bothers me, as it probably always will, and I do what I can to alleviate it, but that lifelong struggle with The Problem of Evil is gone. I never knew just how much energy I spent praying, thinking about and trying to reconcile the god I’d “known” with the mounting evidence around me.
Third, I gained a new sense of wonder and appreciation for my life and the natural universe. There’s no theological paradigm against the background of which I must live my life. The idea of coming from this amazing earth and returning to it when I die to complete the cycle and in turn generate future life is a source of solace for me. Rather than being put on a temporal, holideck-like earth to be tempted, measured, tested, repentant, judged and ultimately rewarded or punished, I am home. In the world and of the world, I live in the universe and the universe lives in me. And yes, that is enough.
Fourth, and most recently, I’ve come to see the actual damage religion causes. While all can agree that in the past religion has been responsible for persecution, wars, intolerance, torture, irrational taboos, the impoverishment of the poor, social control by tyrants and the obstruction of scientific advancement, this continues today. The medieval moral crusades against stem cell research, birth control, gay rights, the teaching of evolution and stifling of reason and objectivity are a bane in a free and progressive society. The extremes of these crusades--bombing abortion clinics, assassinating doctors and harassment and killings of gay people, Islamic terrorism, zealots who strive to hasten the apocalypse, have at their core a righteousness forged in religious conviction. Through the veil of religion people can imagine their concerns are moral when in fact they are not. One effect of this is the separation of morality from suffering. Take that symbol of Christian love and charity, Mother Teresa. While stashing billions of dollars in banks worldwide, she allowed people in her facilities to die without needed medicine and care. Rather than a friend of the poor, she was a friend of poverty. She even claimed that suffering was a gift from God. To ensure a steady stream of supplicants she vigorously opposed allowing impoverished women access to birth control, the first step in empowering women and alleviating poverty. Another example is the Catholic church’s fight against the distribution of condoms in Africa and Latin America to stem the spread of AIDS. Warning that condoms have holes in them and spread AIDS, while promoting abstinence as the only prevention, it is responsible for hastening the rapid spread of the virus in these regions. Despite research showing abstinence-only as a prevention method has failed, the church continues it’s deception, more concerned over people’s sexual practices (morality) than the people themselves (suffering). The same emphases on abstinence-only continues in many of our public schools resulting in our having the highest teen birth rate and one of the highest STD rates among teens in the industrialized world. Despite the American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, National Association of School Psychologists, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, Society for Adolescent Medicine and American College Health Association all concluding that sexual behavior after puberty is a given and comprehensive sex education is vital to prevent pregnancy and STDs, religion based opposition continues. Again, morality over suffering.
This fourth realization takes the matter of religion, for me, from the personal to the public arena and is why I have decided to write about it. But, religious people protest, those are the extremes. Don’t blame us moderates for those few fanatics who cross the line! The trouble is the line is blurry and keeps changing in response to the power available to whatever religion constitutes the majority. For example, in most of America, the choice to use birth control or not, to be religious or not or to hold hands in public or not is considered a matter of personal choice. Yet in some predominantly Catholic countries people are not allowed the personal choice of birth control. In some predominantly Islamic countries people are not allowed the personal choice of religion. In Mormon controlled Utah, same sex people passing by the temple are not allowed the choice of holding hands. Unchecked, religion will exercise whatever power it can to exert control over the unwilling. Historically, the sheer array of different religions within these United States, along with the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, has kept this tendency within limits, but these limits have been under assault by the nondenominational-ism that has been sweeping our country over the past few decades. This phenomenon wedded to politics and the coordinated efforts of the religiously driven to undermine and misrepresent U S traditions, history and science has manifested itself in what I will call “religion creep” into our institutions, government and personal lives.
The fear of annihilation is universal to all creatures and necessary for survival. It makes sense that we humans, uniquely aware of the finality of death, should long for eternal life. Emancipated from or abandoned by parents, the longing to be taken care of, loved unconditionally and protected by an omnipotent parent is universal. But there is a price for this security. In times of hardship the gods are angry and must be appeased. Animals, children and adults are sacrificed and thus the cycle begins. Neolithic to modern, the dynamics are the same.
We are not sinners. There is no judgment, eternal reward or punishment to frighten us; no supernatural commandments to rule us; no miracles or guardian angel to protect us; no Satan to blame; no redeemer to save us from sins of our ancestors; no ancestral curse to keep us shameful and guilty and no god to appease and make excuses for.