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Interloping as introspection

By Ryan ~

At 28, I sometimes wonder why it took so long for me to renounce my faith. Why did the obvious objections to theism in general and Christianity in particular not occur to me sooner? How was it that I managed to remain so unreflective for so long? Was I stupid, or just stubborn?

On the other hand, when I recall my earliest memories of attending church when I was 4 or 5, it occurs to me that I might never have left the Christian fold—might never have defected from the “family of God.” All the ingredients necessary for life-long loyalty were there: a ready-made pool of like-minded people to share life with; an open, accepting atmosphere where candid expressions of joy and sadness were allowed for and even encouraged, and where real love was frequently expressed; a quasi-serviceable moral code; charming, intelligent lay leaders who made the Christian life seem not only functional but formidable; the promise of food and fellowship with extended family after the morning service concluded. Having completed a music degree, I can see that my musical talents and interests were fostered there: I can still remember the unalloyed pleasure of belting out We’re Marching Onward to Zion as best I could, relishing the way my particular voice was quickly lost in that roiling soundscape of three- and four-part harmony. At five, I met my first love interest in church; at six, I learned to tie my shoes there, one foot propped up on the fittingly sanguine upholstery of the pews. I had a lot tied up in the church. Eventually I learned that life is fragile, and that people die, and then the incentives to keep believing became supernatural as well as sublunary.

Now, I attended a fundamentalist church in West Virginia, where every sermon and Sunday school lesson was invariably based on the King James Bible. We read from it and memorized it and discussed it. It was bread and milk and meat for us; it was a rock and a shield and a sword. And I’m pretty sure I once used one as a skate board. Given this emphasis on the Word, I’ve always imagined that my love of reading must have taken root in church. If that’s the case, then my Sunday school teachers were unknowingly slipping me the key of intellectual freedom, even as they chained me hand and foot with religious orthodoxy. Because that’s what ultimately did the trick for me: the writings of non-believers. (Reading and rereading the accounts of misanthropy and bigotry in the Bible and other religious writings didn’t hurt, either. Thank you, Heinrich Kramer! Your writings didn’t have quite the effect you desired.)

Of course, worldviews can’t be supplanted overnight, especially not when they’re paying the kind of emotional dividends Christianity was paying me. And initially I wasn’t seeking defection. When I was 12 or 13, I remember really enjoying the writings of Christopher Pike. As I remember it, Pike was something of a spiritual synesthete. This was especially true of his writings for a more mature audience, books like Sati and The Listeners. He would combine biblical narratives and themes with elements of Eastern religions. And that was just subversive enough to get me thinking about what my church taught. Just think—there were other systems of religious belief completely different from my own! I remember that thought made me very uncomfortable. What did it say of my belief—the true belief—that it was one among many? How could so many people be wrong? And what did it say of God that he allowed that many people to persist in their paganism when the stakes were so high? Initially, I tried to shy away from these questions. But my insistence that I read whatever I pleased made intellectual confrontations like these ineludible.

I’m going to do a bit of fast forwarding for you. A lot of fast forwarding, actually. Ages 15 to 24 or 25 were years of vacillation between stalwart, all-for-Jesus fundamentalism and painful brushes with agnosticism. One week I was enjoying a peace that passes understanding, and the next I was feeling something like existential and epistemological despair. My father died. My grandmother died. I found solace and succor in the church. I was invited to preach a sermon at our church; I did pretty well, and considered going into the ministry. Fortunately, my pre-frontal lobes prevailed and I pursued music instead.

When I was 25, I started doing something very strange: When not at my home church, I began attending the services of certain Baptist sub-denominations—homecomings and tent revivals and dinners on the ground. The worship practices of these churches were different—and more uninhibited—than those of my own denomination. I recorded many of these services on an MP3 player; I transcribed lachrymose "testimonies" of believers; I journaled about what I was seeing and hearing. If you had asked me at the time why the hell I was doing that, I probably would have chalked it up a recent fascination with the writings of Howard Dorgan; I would have mumbled something about finding religious practices anthropologically curious. And while that was true, it wasn’t the reason I was interloping among other believers. The truth is that I didn’t exactly know why I was doing it at the time. I know why now: it was an admittedly eccentric way of obliquely observing my own beliefs. By observing others whose beliefs weren't too far removed from my own, I could reach conclusions about my own beliefs, and I could do so without staring my intellectual self in the mirror (incisive self-reflection, I had learned, can be a very scary thing).

But over time, the more I observed others in their worship patterns, the more untenable their belief system (and, consequently, my own) came to seem. Observing the beliefs and worship practices of a denomination other than my own allowed me to view religion objectively, and I was consequently freer and more frank in my appraisal, and less likely to sweep criticisms under the rug. Eventually I found that the same justified criticisms could be made of my own beliefs and attitudes and prejudices and worship practices. And there came a point where, even if I didn’t want to give up the pursuit of illusory metaphysical provisions (resurrection, reunion with deceased loved ones, etc.), I was essentially made to. Once you’ve seen that Santa is actually a fat, balding man in his underwear busying himself in your living room on Christmas Eve (and wearing your dad’s old New York Jets T-shirt, no less), you can’t exactly go back to thinking of Saint Nick as that jolly old fellow with the reindeer and the sack of goodies and the sweet tooth. Even self-deception has its limits.

I’ll end with this thought: I still attend several churches, and I probably always will. Not in the pursuit of an afterlife or for the simple human comforts that a church can afford. I’ve abjured faith, and I’m actually beginning to enjoy the ambiguities and uncertainties of a life lived without the moral and epistemic certitudes imposed by fundamentalism. I go to church because I still find religious belief fascinating—still find it anthropologically curious. At least, I think that’s the reason.