Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My History with Religion

Given my beliefs and worldview, it’s inevitable that someone will ask me how I came to them. And yes, atheism is a big part of that, and will undoubtedly pop up quite a bit in future posts. So here’s a bit of my history with religion.

I come from a suburb in northeast Ohio, where my family and peers were by and large of the Christian/Catholic variety. My family was Methodist, and besides of few church attendance spikes here and there, they mainly preferred making C & E (Christmas & Easter) appearances. As a young child, I dutifully memorized the Lord’s Prayer and recited it when my father tucked me in at night. I accepted God the way children accept many truths before they have the capability or motivation to question them. I was Christian in the same way I was an American or a carrier of my father’s last name. I was largely indifferent to my parents’ religion, but what can you expect from a child? I wasn’t asking the sorts of moral and existential questions that Christianity attempts to answer, so it didn’t really serve a purpose to me.

The way that God was presented to me, in church and by my parents, didn’t seem so bad on the surface. The idea of a loving God, watching over me and everyone else, seemed quite pleasant. The stories were entertaining and usually had a good lesson about morality. Heaven seemed . . . nice, though even as child, that was one notion I could never wrap my mind around. I remember trying to understand the concept of the afterlife, more than anything else, and I could never imagine Heaven. Every time I tried to feel that sensation of my spirit moving outside my body and into a kingdom free of pain and suffering, I was faced with frightening darkness, a void. It was the first time I recall trying to understand the things that I normally just accepted as true, and it didn’t go well; it scared me to the bone. Of all the things to try to understand, I picked the afterlife, and after failing to grasp any hopeful glimpse of God’s Heaven, my seven- or eight-year-old brain was left to contemplate mortality for the first time. I stumbled upon something I wasn’t ready for, and I remember crying myself to sleep for many nights as I tried to accept my inevitable non-existence.

It was an episode that stuck out in my mind, but I eventually stopped dwelling on it. I found a way to compartmentalize my strange experience and went on with my prayers and my unquestioned belief in God. At the time, there wasn’t an alternative to belief, so I didn’t even entertain the notion.

To become a confirmed Methodist (at our church, at least), one needs to take Sunday school classes during one’s seventh and eighth grade years, along with participating more in church and youth group activities. My parents must have forgotten this requirement, but they remembered by the time I was about to enter eighth grade, so I was allowed into the program as long as I had very good attendance. I wasn’t ignorant of the Bible by this point, and I can’t say I learned that much during Sunday school, but it was a time when I took religion quite seriously. I wanted to “get” God, and I wanted my prayers to be more than recited words at night.

By the end of that year, I probably had more questions than answers, but it was time for confirmation, and despite my confusion, I wasn’t about to rebel against my parents and community when it came to religion. I wasn’t yet at a point where I doubted the existence of God, yet I didn’t feel the powerful certainty and faith that I thought I should on such an important milestone in my religious maturity. As a residual part of my confirmation, I continued to go to church into my high school years, if only to serve my occasional obligations as an acolyte.

In a nutshell, that’s my blasé, mostly passive background with Christianity. Unlike those who come from more severe fundamentalist religions, I had no particularly bad personal experiences with it, and one could rightly say I was never a “true” Christian to begin with. In some ways, I probably took the study of religion more seriously than my peers, since my forced attendance at the church prompted me to start thinking about religious belief systems, the meaning of life, death, faith, values, consciousness, the supernatural, good versus evil . . . mind you, I wasn’t finding a lot of answers, but it was the start of a journey that would take me in a direction I hadn’t quite anticipated.

Enter high school. Different people, more subjects, expanded ideas, a few classes that promoted critical thinking . . . I remember my high school days as the period when I finally started waking up and taking an active part in my education. Without a lot of fanfare, my epiphany struck while I was reading a 1985 National Geographic series of articles about human evolution. It just made sense, and it was the tipping point that allowed me to seriously evaluate the implication that maybe God’s not in charge after all. Maybe, just possibly, he doesn’t exist at all.

Well, if you were expecting an explosive period of shouting and shaking my fists as I grappled with the idea of God and cursed everyone who wanted me to continue down that path, I’m sorry to disappoint. It wasn’t an easy realization by any means, nor did it go over well with the few religious friends and family who knew. Sure, I had my hot-headed moments of frustration, like many who feel they’ve been blindfolded for a long time and can finally see things clearly, but it wasn’t traumatic, either. I simply realized that Christianity didn’t satisfactorily answer the questions I was asking. I wanted to know about history, culture, biology – how we came to exist – and I felt that religion didn’t encourage the type of rigorous investigation I craved. I was on an honest knowledge quest, and using the tools of rationality and the scientific method made more sense to me. I had no need of religion, so I abandoned my days of banging my head against the wall in favor of something that worked better for me.

So those were the early years of my quest and the beginnings of my, er, atheism, if you will, which has since been refined and continues to mature. There’s so much more to add, but I’ll save those for future posts. ;)

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