I was raised a Lutheran. And by raised, I mean: dropped off at my grandparents’ home on Saturday mornings, and left there through Sunday afternoon, which meant going to church with my grandparents Sunday mornings. Now this wasn’t a bad thing, by any means. Spending the weekends with warm, loving people and away from a raging alcoholic mother was the best thing for me, and though I didn’t come to understand religious matters for many years, I enjoyed attending Sunday services with them. To this day, I can close my eyes and be transported; a kid standing next to my grandmother, holding her impossibly soft hand and listening to her sing the hymns. My grandfather was always decked out in a suit, including his Sunday hat. I especially loved when it was “our” turn to be in charge of refreshments, which meant my grandmother and I left a few minutes early to turn on the coffee machine and serve cookies she’d made the day before. Our pastor was great at translating biblical lessons into modern day, relatable parables, so I really did pay attention to the services as I got older. My parents, like many of their contemporaries, rarely attended church themselves—only on the big holidays.
As part of my being farmed out for religious activities I also attended Sunday school, where I was taught to memorize the books of the bible (I can still recite the listing of the Old Testament books and some of the new; so handy!), and participated in story discussions. My curiosity about spirituality grew, but I do believe my biggest youthful heavenly concern was whether my dog would be joining me in the afterlife. I consulted my pastor, who confirmed that if I wanted Pepe there, God would surely let him in. Sunday school transformed into Youth Group, which mostly consisted of hanging out with the older high school kids, smoking pot and conducting impromptu jam sessions (Paranoia Blues); “camping” trips didn’t seem to have anything to do with church, and once involved the high school principal’s son trying to coerce me into having sex with him. But still, I wondered about God and heaven and why my prayers that my mother wouldn’t be home when I got there were never fulfilled.
Leading up through basic training and after ended up in Germany, I went through different periods of searching for spirituality. I always wanted to be a believer, but never felt like one, so I looked high and low for something that would help me comprehend what so many other people seemed to. I waited for that lightbulb to magically make the connection and blink on, but It was more like a secret club whose initiation I just couldn’t pass. One of my fellow soldiers was a chaplain (though not serving as such at the time), and we had many long night-into-morning discussions. I tried several kinds of services of varied faiths, and even attended a couple of German churches where the language was translated through headphones, but the message was still incomprehensible to me. A good friend of mine who’d been going through a divorce and having a hard time met a girl, and she introduced him to her church. Suddenly he was gone to services whenever he had free time, and after several invitations, I agreed to come to the (multiple hour) services. I don’t remember exactly how it went, but there was something like an hour of praising (singing hymns), an hour of sermon, and then an hour of group prayer. As I stood in the pews, listening and watching, I looked at peoples’ faces and saw that they clearly knew and felt something I did not. Even the children had the look of understanding—it was if everyone was in on a joke but me. In the last hour, the pastor called for people who felt like they needed extra prayer, healing or help to come forward. I watched my friend—along with a few other people—walk up front, then he came to be surrounded by many other people, and suddenly they were all yelling and talking in words I couldn’t understand. Nor could I see my friend any longer, and I don’t mind saying that I found it almost frightening. Someone informed me the elders of the church were speaking in tongues, but that didn’t comfort me; I felt worried for my friend. I stayed away from churches for a while after that experience. I have since been with relatives to Catholic churches on certain occasions and the message I walked away with: Lots of ritual, rules and circumstance. I have an uncle who became a pastor (after a screwdriver fell into his eye while performing auto repair), and after several discussions, one night he asked me to take a walk with him. Outside, he explained that I just needed to “accept Jesus as my personal saviour,” and that if I would only kneel by a tree and say those magic words, all would be well. But it felt disingenuous, and I refused. From that night on, he all but shunned me.
As time has gone by, after many years of reading, discussing, researching and feeding my spiritual curiosity, I have come to believe…I don’t believe. It just doesn’t make sense in my brain. I’m not so bold as to deny the possibility of a god or gods existing, but my personal conclusion is that there is no god and this life is the only one we have. It’s not an easy choice to make; walking away from something so many people embrace. When I was pregnant with my first child, for a while I was particularly haunted by the idea that she wouldn’t be baptized. My husband and I had long talks over the loss of that particular feeling of community that comes with attending church or temple; we contemplated finding non-denominational services to fill the void, but it just wasn’t right for us. Ultimately, we decided to give our children some knowledge of world religions and began spending Sunday mornings reading about them together. They are still young, but already we’ve had some interesting conversations. My oldest daughter says she doesn’t believe, because the idea of god isn’t at all logical, and my middle girl believes god is a genie-like being; she talks to and prays to him fairly often—we encourage her to follow her own beliefs. (My youngest doesn’t seem to have an opinion as yet.)
All of this to say…to each his own? Pretty much. It is both interesting and terrifying to me that so many who herald themselves as spiritual leaders choose to wield their “power” against their fellow people, instead of investigating their own faith and holding those tenets close. As we have separated ourselves by country, color and creed, so has each group decided God is on its own side, especially in matters of contests, sports and war. The desire to “spread the word” has been taken out of hand, and headlines have become increasingly troublesome. Last week included multiple stories about a 22 year old El Salvadorian woman, Beatriz, denied an abortion despite the fact that carrying the baby to term was life-threatening. Though she was suffering from lupus and renal failure and the fetus she was carrying had no brain, the Supreme Court turned down Beatriz’s petition to be granted the procedure (A physician later performed a c-section; the fetus lived for five hours, and debate over whether the procedure was legal continues). Though the ban on abortion in El Salvador (among Latin American countries heavily influenced by religion) previously provided for certain exceptions, including when the mother’s life was in danger, the law was changed in 1998 and there are now no exceptions. Abortion is also banned in Chile, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Malta, and if certain religious organizations had their way, so it would be in the United States. While life inside the womb is regarded so preciously, once the child is born, depending upon its circumstances (female, homosexual, transgenders) that same baby could become the target of any number of religious rights reduction programs. And some of the same people who set forth the religious rules and standards to limit what basic human rights others should have choose to prey upon the weak (priests molesting children), and band together to hide their crimes as they continue to persecute others for perceived wrongs. This hypocrisy and misuse of position and power is nothing short of preposterous, and reminds me we are but a stone’s throw away from the sort of things that happen in Margaret Atwood’s most frightening futuristic fiction.
In my spiritual travels, experiences and readings, God’s compassion for others, and humanity loving and caring for each other was always at the core, yet religious beliefs are consistently wielded the opposite way—as a powerful weapon by which to punish, control, or exclude those who do not conform, by people who seem to believe they have the right to decide how others should live their lives. It is difficult to see the representation of a loving deity in varied human interpretations of the rules that affect what some of us can and cannot do with our bodies; limit who we are allowed to love and with whom we can spend our lives or raise our children. My fellow human beings are just that, not gods.
Though I have laid out these thoughts today, I would never want to push my disbelief on anyone else, and it is incomprehensible to me that others continue trying to force their religious ideals onto the rest of the world. And whether or not there is a god or gods, heaven or any sort of afterlife, wouldn’t it be grand if we all lived our lives to the fullest now—with the people we choose to love, the children we choose to have or not have, and the beliefs we each keep in our own hearts and minds?