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A Leave of Faith

By Ray ~

I would like to start this out by stating that I am no one special. I am not a PhD, a professional scholar, political figure or motivational speaker of any kind. I am a college drop-out who grew up in Dyker Heights Brooklyn and now raises three children with my wife in Sussex County NJ. I keep a job as a sales manager for a staffing agency in Manhattan and have had absolutely no ambition to stand on any proverbial soap-box in regard to my beliefs. That is until now.

This article is basically my attempt to provoke thought upon any person (theist or non)who reads this. Currently there are thousands of non-theists in America that are afraid to speak out on their beliefs (or non beliefs) in fear of the theistic majority gathering in masses with pitchforks and torches screaming to bring justice to the amoral Heretics in the name of almighty, all-knowing, perfect god.

As I had mentioned, I grew up in Dyker Heights Brooklyn during the 80’s and 90’s. My mother and father separated when I was very young so living with my mother and visiting my father on the weekends was part of my norm and the separation did not have any effect on my upbringing as with some kids whose parents separated further into their childhood and adolescence. My parents still got along and vowed that they would both be heavily involved with my upbringing. This also included my paternal grandmother. My father and his parents came over from Ireland when my father was nine and are the quintessential Irish Catholics, minus the heavy drinking, spousal abuse and cranking out babies like they were cash-crops. My grandmother made my mother and father promise her that I would attend Catholic school. So in keeping with their promise, I was signed up for the next 12 years of my life to attend school with a heavy emphasis on religious study and worship. The nightmares had begun…literally!

Mind you, I was six years old attending first grade and now my teacher is no longer “Mrs. Teacher” but “Sister Celeste”. That was her name and my first exposure to a nun and religion in general. I remember learning basic prayers, blessing myself and learning to keep my mouth shut when in “God’s House”. One particular lesson I remember though, that scared the hell “into” me was done my very first week in this school. We all gathered ‘round the carpet floor for Bible story time. Sister Celeste then went on about Original Sin, Satan, Doomsday, Heaven and Hell. Now these weren’t just stories to us, they were submitted to us as actual events that have happened or that will happen. Imagine now the horror and terror that raged through a six year old child who was basically told that the Boogie Man was real and that if you’re bad, he will bring you to a place of eternal fire, pain and suffering! I was now indoctrinated into religion the same way it has been done for thousands of years…fear! No fucking way was I going to hell! I prayed every day, went to Church on Sunday, (with or without my mother as the Parish was just around the corner) and basically walked on eggshells out of this fear! I wasn’t at all concerned with reward of heaven. To me that was a plus, just don’t burn my soul, please!

This is how it was for years. Living in constant fear of eternal damnation. God forbid I ever missed Church on Sunday, I’d be running to confession in hopes that Jesus would forgive me. I remember one day in fourth grade, my teacher was supposed to assign us the task of making Halloween Posters for the annual neighborhood Halloween art contest. Winners would get to take the day off from school and paint their picture on a storefront window for all to see. I was a decent artist and could draw well at a young age. I loved this time of year! Instead of my teacher telling us to start our Halloween Project, she thought it best to invoke creativity in us by just giving us the task of “Draw a Nightmare”. Draw a nightmare I did. When I would draw, I would block out the rest of the world and just focus on my art. If I would have taken a moment that day to look around the room, I would have seen that the other kids were drawing monsters, werewolves and vampires…Halloween themed drawings. My drawing was a bit different from the rest. I drew a reoccurring nightmare I had always had. It was a very detailed picture of myself lying in a coffin with god and satan on each end, fighting over my soul with a letter box coming from me screaming, “Please God, don’t let him take me!!”.

My drawing was not only passed over for consideration, I was reprimanded for “Mocking” our faith! Imagine that!

It was later in that same year that I began to raise an eyebrow on religion. We had a discussion with another nun in the school, Sister Mary Ferris wheel or something, I don’t recall. It was an open forum where the “Expert” would answer our questions about god and the bible and such. The premise of the conversation was that people who are bad but not THAT bad will go to purgatory when they die and babies who die at birth who were not baptized will go to Limbo, a place of paradise like heaven, only they never get to see the face of god. This, to me, seemed like something completely made up in order to not have to say that according to Dogma, unbaptized people of any age, go to hell or purgatory. I thought it sounded funny to me. It was not long after we talked about other religions of the world such as Judaism and Muslim and other denominations of Christianity. I don’t recall the actual conversation but I remember thinking if these religions think they are right, who is to say we’re wrong? I’m sure they have the same convictions of faith we do as Catholics so maybe we’re the ones going to hell and the Jews are going to be saved! I never wanted to think that people of other religions were doomed, some of my best friends from Summer Camp were Jewish and they were awesome friends! I sure as hell hoped they weren’t going to hell! It basically set the ball rolling toward me becoming Agnostic.

As the years went one, I began to think more and more about Organized Religion. It was my freshman year of High School that everything I thought I knew would be destroyed. My Theology teacher, a PhD named Doctor Russo, really fucked my mind up that year! In one lesson, my outlook on EVERYTHING changed! I had always wondered why the stories in the Bible were full of magical and miraculous occurrences (bad or good) that no longer happened anymore. God did not speak to people anymore; there were no burning bushes or talking serpents or 40 year floods, zombies rising from the dead, etc. We were told that these things happened from the religious experts we grew up with so they had to be true! Although I have never met anyone who had a doctorate in religion, his view HAS to be right! I mean, he’s a fucking DOCTOR! He basically told us that most, if not all the stories in the bible were bullshit! They are symbolic stories meant to teach the lessons of morality that Christians believed were the foundation to living for god. WHAT!? You mean we were not populated by Adam and Eve a mere 6,000 years ago? That explains why the Earth is not overrun by people who have no teeth that only play the banjo. Wait, the earth really is billions of years old and we didn’t ride dinosaurs like Fred Fucking Flintstone? I always thought scientists were just exaggerating. That was the whole thing with me. I was always into science and astronomy but I was terribly confused and conflicted with what I read in science books in conjunction to the bible.

This blew my mind! I felt slightly liberated and the world started to make more sense to me. The less true the bible was, the more I felt better about my life and world I lived in. Wait. That shouldn’t be true! This can’t be right! I thought religion was supposed to make me feel this way about life! Christ, I’m going to hell again!

In my High School, there were two denominations of Christianity that coexisted. Catholic and Greek Orthodox to cater to the vast Greek American communities that resided in Brooklyn. They would have separate religion classes and worship times that were headed by Father Pappas every week. I always thought, “What the fuck is the difference?”. And if Catholics were so Gung Ho about our denomination and how others were wrong, why were we sharing our school with Greek Orthodox Christians? It basically came down to the $5000 a year my school charged for attendance and offering Greek Orthodox studies opened up the customer base for the school. In that aspect, I began to research more on my own about the origins of the Church, the Vatican, and religions in general. To me, it all came down to the same damn thing that drove my school….MONEY! I learned that in the original days of Christianity, families were required to tithe to their Church (many still do today). That is, donate 10% of their worth in order to keep the churches going. They would also charge for Penance! If you wanted god to forgive you, you had to pay! And for the uber rich, they would be sold on “Sin Taxes”. Basically they could sin all they wanted and not have to go to confession, as long as they kicked back to the church a hefty sum. Sounds a lot like the idiots that purchase Carbon Credits in order to not feel guilty about their carbon footprints. I see a pattern! I also digress.

There were just too many contradictions with Organized Religion that just didn’t settle with me. One in particular was the view on homosexuality. I had become acquainted with a few friends that were openly gay (and some who you knew were gay but were too afraid to open about it). These were great friends of mine whom I thought the world of! Now according to my so called religion, these friends of mine were doomed to eternal damnation. It’s a good thing my openly gay friends didn’t attend my school, otherwise they’d have to hear this crap all day, every day by the teachers they knew and trusted. Imagine that one for a moment! So here I have one of the heads of our Campus Ministry substituting for our religion teacher talk about this particular subject. This person was cultured, well groomed, a terrific opera style singer, jolly, slightly flamboyant and had the slightest lisp….HOLY CHRIST THIS MAN IS FLAMING! It was no secret that this gentleman was definitely playing for the other team. Yet, here he is going on about the Church’s view on homosexuality. I had asked him, if god made man in his image, and if homosexuality is something men are born with, then why did god create these so called abominations to begin with? His response was that it was not Homosexuals that would be damned, it were the ones who engaged in homosexual acts that would be damned. So basically, one is to live their life in a lie and completely denounce who you really are. Way to save your own ass there, sparky! Mind you, the Insignia that read above the main entrance to our school read, “The Truth Shall Set You Free”……Bullshit!!

I was on the brink. I couldn’t take anymore lies and contradictions. I felt as if I had been living a lie. Lies that were told to me from the beginning that I was forced to believe without question or I would burn in hell. Free thinking was the devil I was told, swearing was a year in purgatory I was told, masturbation and sex, were evil workings of Satan. Shit, if masturbation was evil and landed pre-adolescents in purgatory, then we were all doomed from the beginning!

It was Ash Wednesday, 1994 that I declared myself officially an Agnostic. It was after mass service that we were all waiting in line to receive our ashes just before lunch time. The bell had rang and I still had quite a long line in front of me before I would get my black mark of faith smudged on my forehead and this was seriously cutting into my lunch time! I looked over at the Greek Orthodox line where they were receiving Anointing Oil, instead of ashes, on their wrists and throat. That line sure was short and almost done. Fuck it! I jumped out of line and got on theirs. I watched as the Orthodox kids held out their wrists and lifted their heads, so I would just emulate them and be on my way. Father Pappas looked at me with a crooked eye and told me I didn’t belong here and to go back to my own line to get my Ashes. Imagine THAT!! This fucking asshole who teaches Orthodox in a Catholic School tells me that I don’t belong!!

I walked out of the gymnasium where we held service and went straight to lunch. I bared no black mark on my head nor did I smell like I had just come back from a Phish Concert. Father Pappas was right, I didn’t belong. But I didn’t belong on either line. If there was a god out there, he either had to get his shit together and set the world straight on how to worship him or we all had it wrong and he just didn’t give a fuck as long as we acknowledged he was our creator. That sounded better to me. I’ll just acknowledge god and worship him my own way!
It wasn’t long after that I started to become more interested in science and politics were no longer something that grownups worried about. I was a man now and with the major strides in technology, information was so easily attainable. I was exposed to new points of view and moments in history and science that I had never been exposed to before. My world was changing around me and I was starting to become more at peace with myself. I started to figure things out for myself more easily. I started to question everything! Not exactly a total cynic (although some would say different who know me) but just enough to ask why or how or where did this summation come from? Ever notice that less and less in this world is explained by a god and more through science and discovery? We know we don’t have to pray or make human sacrifices for the sun to come up tomorrow. We know we don’t have to perform ritualistic rain dances for rain to water our crops. Maybe, there is no god at all?

The human species had already tossed away belief in numerous gods and deities throughout history. The Greek and Roman Gods, Egyptian Gods, Pagan Gods. All debunked and no lightning bolt from Zeus has destroyed us! Who’s to say that god in general doesn’t exist? There is no proof! The bible is a bunch of books and stories written and re-written over and over again over a course of 2000 years. Written by men. Flawed, mortals. I see now that Religion and Politics, historically, are one of the same. A means of control. You can kill a politician and overthrow a monarch because these are just men. But if you have god backing you? Your reign will go on for centuries. Just ask the Pope!

I see now the damage that religion has done to the world for thousands of years. It managed to fuck up the mind of a defenseless six year old from Brooklyn, so imagine what it does to the masses. I used to think that my beliefs are mine and yours are yours and as long as we honor the Constitution, I can exist in my country without any problems. Just like god, this is a fantasy! Non theists are valued as just one step above terrorists. We are considered, godless, amoral soldiers of Satan. Which is laughable because non-theists don’t believe in any deity including Satan. We need to speak up! We need to no longer be afraid of others’ beliefs. Stop going with the flow just because you like to ride waves instead of making them! I’m not talking about a jihad. Only religious nut-case fundamentalists kill in the name of their beliefs. I’m talking about getting our word across to educate people so that people can MAKE UP THEIR OWN DAMN MINDS!

It’s just like I tell my own children. This is what I believe and what I don’t believe. Don’t take my word for it alone, go and find out for yourself. Make your own conclusion. If they take anything away from me it will be to at least question the answers and don’t take everything at face value. Open your minds and come to your own conclusions. This cannot be done if we remain silent.