8/18/2011 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Race ~
I think about my childhood a lot these days, now that I'm getting older. I remember a lot of happy times before I got all wrapped up in worldly ideas. My family was good to me, cared for me and taught me to appreciate the many good things life has to offer.
When I got older and ventured out on my own I was unprepared for a lot of the difficulties I faced. I wanted to get married and have my own children, do good work and continue to enjoy life. I was always willing to do as much as I could to make other people happy, had a good work ethic and looked forward to many things that seemed to me to be perfectly within reach.
I tried to pursue the "American dream" the way it was presented to me by my friends, by teachers, by television; but I have found that a great deal of what I had been taught about life was contrary to reality as I understood it. I assumed there was something wrong with me since I didn't seem to be as secure as the people around me. I couldn't conceive of the idea that other people were just as insecure as I am, worried about their lives, worried about their mortality, frequently disillusioned and often plagued by disappointments in spite of very good intentions as well as their own best efforts. I would look around, see all the things that people were doing in order to create a sense of "normalcy" and assume that they knew precisely what they were doing, that everything they did was with good reason, that wise and time honored traditions upheld everything in society for a host of good reasons.
I used to look at religious groups and admire the fact that they seemed to have such a strong sense of community and dedication to high moral principles. When they tried to teach me about religion, however, and when I made my own investigations, read their books, attended their services and so forth, though, I could not find the connection between their beliefs and their behaviors. Virtually all of what they tried to impress upon me about the Bible, Jesus, God and the churches made no sense to me at all. I didn't rebel against their teachings, was merely profoundly confused. I blamed myself for being unable to find the "logic" that they understood which was supposed to tie their beliefs together with principles like charity and self-sacrifice. I believed in the principles and still do.
I continued in my pursuit of the "good life", marriage and family, honest work and so forth; but one thing after another collapsed. I gave as much as I could to my first marriage--more than I should have, I believe. I fell into financial ruin more than once. I became estranged from my children. I missed my family, but, like so many people I know, felt obliged to "make it on my own." I wound up in psychiatric care several times, was perscribed a series of different medications, developed problems with my health, went through a phase where I drank heavily and wound up seeking help from doctors, therapists and groups like AA.
Eventually I turned to religion as the only solution I could concieve of to all of the problems I was dealing with, since none of my best efforts to adapt to the world around me were doing any good. When I began to move in this direction and talk to other people there were, of course, many, many people in the recovery movement and in organized religious groups who highly encouraged me and promised with great fervor that I was making the right choices, that I was finally on the correct path, that I would be happier and more fulfilled than I ever had been, even in my childhood, and more than I could possibly imagine. There were so many people eager to persuade me that religion was the right choice that, once again, I assumed that if many, many people agreed about it that they could not be wrong, misguided or dishonest about it, and that if I continued to have personal problems it could only be because of my own inability to grasp what everyone else understood and correctly apply it.
Eventually I became a Christian. I was motivated partly by faith, partly by fear. At first I was very happy. I felt as though I had finally made a connection to other human beings based on love, mutual acceptance and understanding. I looked forward to all of the mystical experiences, revelations, miracles that were undoubtably going to occur in my life. I worried less about mortality, about the concepts of success and failure, financial insecurity, about having to devote my time to the pursuit of any kind of knowledge other than what was required in order to convey my new found beliefs, ceased worrying so much about the human condition in terms of our impact on the world around us and more in terms of our spiritual condition as individuals. Life seemed more simple for a while, though I continued to have many of the same problems, or worse, with regard to my security, finances, relationships and so forth, though not for lack of trying, as I always had, to do my best. At least I was able to find a way to escape the anxiety by assuring myself that it was all happening for a good reason, that somehow, on a grand scale, it was all for the best.
As time went on, however, my anxiety returned. I began to feel more and more restless and concerned that I was once again the only fellow on Earth who didn't have a good bead on things since none of what was promised seemed to be coming to pass. I was in a constant state of tension, worrying about offending a God I could not seem to stop fearing and a devil who also seemed to have the upper hand, to be constantly there to undermine my best efforts to be humble, faithful, charitable, and who seemed to be causing disaster in every corner of the world where violence and hypocrisy seemed to reign.
During this time I took the idea of self-sacrifice to such extremes that very often my peers tried to convince me I was taking the concept too literally. I was giving in actuality more of my meager income to several churches, to charities, to needy people than I could reasonably afford. I actually gave my money and possessions away to the extent that I had to panhandle more than once when stranded. I gave nearly all of my time to volunteer activities. I brought people home with me and shared everything I had. My family and friends were often concerned about me and worried that I was taking terrible risks. No amount of good deeds, however, nor personal risk seemed adequate to me though. I was simply trying to follow the literal teachings, as I understood them, of Jesus; and they seemed to be rather obvious: give away everything and trust God.
My confusion grew deeper and deeper over the fact that no one at all seemed to support this concept. My family, of course, were alarmed that I was not taking good enough care of myself. My secular friends, who believed as much in the idea of charity as any religious people I knew, were eager to assure me that I was a decent human being, that I didn't need to go to such extremes. Religious people were even more baffling since on the one hand they agreed that I was going to unnecessary extremes, and on the other admonished me for being too "prideful" and attempting to "earn my salvation" rather than simply admitting I was a sinner, that only an unquestioning belief in a series of stories about Jesus' immaculate conception, power to perform miracles and resurrection could ever bring me redemption and peace and encouraged me as much as everyone else to stop being so charitable.
I couldn't stop. I couldn't imagine a "compromise" between total self-sacrifice, the very definition of love, supposedly the very core of Chrisianity, and self indulgence. How was I supposed to set some boundary there and just go back to the good old "American way?" How was I supposed to ever feel good about just making and spending money, ignoring the needs of other people, especially since I had spent so much time and effort dealing with people who had such serious problems first hand? How was I to just put that out of mind and not feel like a total hypocrite?
Eventually I became more and more estranged from my religious peers who were so friendly at the outset but grew more and more critical of me the more familiar they became with me. The more I spoke from my heart, the more I endeavored to be as honest and open as I could be, the more I admitted my shortcomings--the more I applied everything I was being taught--the more estranged I seemed to become from the entire group. I didn't seem to be able to speak the same language anymore. In one sense, I seemed to know what I should say and do in order to be accepted by my religious peers, but on the other I couldn't help but try to be honest. I seemed to offend other religious people at every turn.
I remember attending purity meetings as well as bible studies many times each week. The purity meetings were baffling to me. The idea was to talk about sex problems and learn about chastity (a very confusing concept since it is supposed to be a condition of absence of lust, but not necessarily celibacy). Men and women met in seperate groups to discuss their problems and seek solutions from the Bible and other religious books. I found, however, that none of the other men in my group could even admit that they masturbated, would talk about electronics, work and all sorts of subjects which had nothing to do with sex in any way. I took the leader of the group aside and expressed my confusion about this. I told him that I was perfectly willing to talk openly about all of my sexual experiences, no matter how emberassing, because I believed that, though many of my experiences were sordid and "sinful", they were completely common. He agreed and encouraged me to speak openly; but, since even he thoroughly avoided talking in any detail about his experiences and concerns I didn't feel secure enough to share my own. I wasn't afraid to be honest, but was afraid of being ostracized further. I just couldn't bear to sit there and have these men pretend they could not completely relate to my telling the truth because they were not as secure about themselves as I had become due to thorough and honest self-examination and confession of every detail of my history prior to attending the group.
Finally, if there is anything I can't stand for very long it's being afraid all of the time. There comes a point for me where I would be willing to suffer the worst kind of pain in order to shed the torment of always being afraid and uncertain. I simply could not stand the state I was in, worrying about "salvation", worrying about all of the crazy contradictions--especially the idea that I should follow the teachings of Jesus, do what he said to do and be completely charitable, but at the same time stop being so charitable because it was vanity. I couldn't win, couldn't do the right thing, think the right thing, believe the right thing, since at every turn the rules kept changing.
I got sick of being afraid. I got tired of being the "only one" who didn't "get it." I could no longer continue to blame myself for a lot of really bad treatment on the part of others who always seemed to be convinced they were right about everything, were quick to criticize, who seemed to be getting away with everything contrary to what they were telling me to do without appearing to be as conflicted, self-conscious and self-negating as I was. Finally, I grew willing to challenge even God himself to put an end to the misery.
That's when I began to thoroughly question everything I had been exposed to in great detail but never analyzed. I started listening more objectively. I reread the Bible again, cover to cover, and allowed for at least the possibility that it was fallible. I set aside my fear of "offending" God in this fashion and really searched myself for honest answers about what I believed.
I listened to sermons where priests and pastors paraphrased things in terms that made no literal sense at all. They described things that everyone arround me seemed to regard as common sense but that, to my ears, were completely nonsensical. When I reread the Bible and paid attention more deeply to the things that really troubled me I found that they also made no literal sense. There are passages, particularly in the New Testament, for example, that I simply can not believe, due to the extreme variation in the style of narrative, are supposed to have been written by the same hand during the same time frame. For example, anyone who reads Acts and doesn't have serious reservations about whether this was written anywhere near the same era during which the other chapters were supposed to have been written or that it contains any believable "historical" accuracy must be working very hard to suspend their disbelief.
To make a long story short, I'm glad I went through these troubling times and became thoroughly apostate. I have come to realize that I have on the one hand misunderstood a great deal about life and people since I could not comprehend that everyone else is just as confused about the times we live in as I am but afraid to admit it (lest they too become ostracized for being completely honest), that a whole host of the problems we face are of our own making, are arbitary and contary to living in harmony with our environment and each other, that a lot of our very "best" ideas are harming ourselves, each other and the planet we live on, and on the other hand have been seeking an escape from the human condition by various means ever since I ventured away from my family and struck out on my own.
I am not afraid to be different anymore. I'm not afraid to follow whatever path in life makes the most sense to me. I'm not afraid to be myself. I'm not afraid of being misunderstood. I'm not afraid of dying--and, especially, even if there is a God, I don't believe that means I am so important, nor that any of my experiences (though I treasure my fondest memories, especially of loved ones and friends and all of the one of a kind and irreplaceable experiences I have had) are so important, that when I die I must somehow become immmortal and my selfhood preserved for all eternity. When I die I may cease to exist and never experience the perfect bliss that Christians promise I would have in their imaginary Heaven, but on the other hand I will also certainly know no pain, no loss, no fear, no worry, no regret, no loneliness, no sorrow. I welcome oblivion. Also, if by chance whatever matter and energy that has been a part of me becomes a part of some other living creature of any kind somewhere in the universe that has its own consciousness and life to live, no matter how inhuman the creature happens to be or where it lives in the wide universe, though near eternity should pass in the meantime, it will be only an instant between one life and the next.
My life, my loves, my experiences are important to me. I cherish all of the good things I have experienced and look forward to more; but when I am gone I will be simply irrelevant, along with everything I have ever felt or thought or known. Life is for the living. Death is the end of life. I don't need religion to escape from this inevitability anymore because I no longer find it horrifying to completely face and accept it.
I have found, finally, the freedom I have been unable to find for so long in my adult life from a great deal of uncertainty which has prevented me from making choices I can live with no matter the outcome and forgive myself for the fact that life most often does not go according to plan. I don't have to pretend that I have any idea what is best for anyone other than myself. I don't have to hide the truth about myself from other people, nor have to apologize for myself at ever turn. I don't have to believe anything at all just because billions of people swear by it. I can believe that billions of people can be thoroughly wrong about a great many things, especially since we are all here for but a very short time, too short to find all the answers to every question in life. Finally, I don't much care about "beliefs" in general since they are definitely not facts, are by definition not facts and have absolutely no power to change things in any way all by themselves, only inhabit the mind. Frankly, I heard the word "believe" so often as a Christian that I am thoroughly sick of it and strenuously avoid using it anymore myself.
I am still afraid of all sorts of other things, like being left out in the cold by other people if I don't conform to popular beliefs and behaviors that I can not accept for myself. I wish I could be myself and honest at all times and expect to be welcomed by many people much of the time, but understand that in this life I will have at best a handful of people in whom I can fully confide, that they will come and go and sometimes disappear forever. I wish I could share everything I have with anyone who needs some portion and expect the same; but I know I can not expect the same and will go hungry if I try. These are things I can not change and must accept. If I were God I would certainly change all of that. If the Christians were right about the God they believe in I expect God would have changed all of that already as well. There is no reason whatsoever that the God they describe would lack the power to change everything; and there is simply no logic to support the ridiculous notion that "He" wouldn't do so if "He" was the all powerful, infinite, perfect, infallible, omnipresent and omniscient creator of all things "He" also permeates, as well as the embodiment of love.
All of the mental gymnastics in the world can not equate Christian beliefs with reason or sanity. It makes me sad that so many generations of people have been victimized by this insanity, that the people who fall under the sway of Christian institutions for generation after generation exist to serve those institutions rather than the other way around. I find it so sad that people are in such full flight from reality that they are willing to martyr themselves in order to perpetuate these institutions and even expand their influence to include people in places around the world where Christianity has been mercifully absent. It is worse than an opiate. It is a plague on humanity.
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