Link to Part I if you missed it. This is part 2 of 3.
Religion is an odd facet of human existence. On the one had it’s fairly obvious that due to the plurality of faiths, beliefs, sects and deities as well as the flagrant failure of ancient scripture to stand up to scientific inquiry that one can dismiss it without a second thought.
But then, as a fellow human, one has to wonder because so many people fervently believe in this stuff. Is it worth a second look after all? Is there some mystery here that I have missed because I wasn’t paying attention?
This is how I rationalized my affair with faith and the oft repeated failures with Helen mirrored the oft repeated failures of her faith throughout history. No matter how bloody, futile and vain I tried to forgive her and to discover the truth. Part of this no doubt relates to hormones, another part to my brain being sapped by inhuman amounts of exercise and still a third to the age old curiosity of homo sapiens sapiens, my clade of birth.
As I began my search for the divine I was already fairly well cut out to do so. My body was at its peak physical condition, my mind was young and elastic and I was at the point in my life where I really questioned if my beliefs were subject to my own decisions or mere byproducts doled out by lineage and circumstance. But first, a primer on my pseudo religious upbringing:
Trace a line one score years ago and you’ll find the curious and bright eyed six year old version of me sitting in Sunday school pondering a conundrum which my own mental faculties had not the mettle to resolve. Lately I had been learning about dinosaurs. When they lived was interesting, how they died out was fascinating.
I knew from lessons previous that Adam and Eve were getting it on in Eden about 10k years previous. I also knew that dinosaurs had been extinct for about 65 million years. The question I could not wrap my tiny feeble neurons around was this: Given these two data points when the HELL did the cavemen come into the picture?
After all they couldn’t very well have come before Adam and Eve since they were definitely people. But then how could they have come about after, given the biblical family trees. It was a toughie and I decided to ask my Sunday school teacher. I’ve always hated to admit defeat, but I have always hated not to know stuff more.
Mrs. Grinder’s reaction was classic. Her cranky face turned to stone, hard and silent. Not only had a 6 year old just asked a real question but it was borderline heresy to boot!
“There's no such thing as cavemen,” said the gargoyle. It was one of those moments when the brain contemplates exploding for a split second and decides to just eject instead.
“Oh,” I said. Ah but then my hamster wheels flew into high gear and now I had a real fucking mystery to contend with. If the cavemen were not real then why did I know about them, how did someone think them up and what purpose could these fictional troglodytes possibly serve?
As I got older I learned one of the sad truths of our world: adults can be dumb as shit and this does not prevent them from becoming teachers, principals or guidance counselors.
Mrs. Grinder made this abundantly clear by alluding once to the space shuttle traveling 6 times the speed of light.
“Speed of sound?” I suggested.
“Oh, it’s one of those. They are pretty close.”
“Umm,” I couldn’t believe it. Everyone with neural rod logic knows that sound crawls and light hauls. She also said that objects could never leave the solar system because we weren’t meant to go anywhere else. Hello, voyager probe!? As a lifelong fan of science fiction this really stuck in my craw.
Another more benign example came a bit later in fifth grade. The teacher was asking people about their weekends and if anyone had seen or done anything cool. My hand shot up like a Saturn 5.
“I got to see this windows demonstration at the mall and they had a huge block of dry ice. On regular glass you could feel how cold it was but the insulated windows felt normal.”
“Umm,” Mrs. Meeter said. “What is dry ice?”
“Oh,” I was taken aback. No matter. I shook it off and said, “It’s frozen CO2”
“Carbon Dioxide,” I said. Duh! Keep in mind a few years before this incident I memorized most of the periodic table just for the hell of it. I was hoping to beat dad at twenty questions by fleshing out my knowledge of obscure material. To my chagrin Xenon is the only animal, vegetable or mineral on planet earth that begins with X. Clever old man, I got him a few times eventually.
(Yes I know that Xenon is a gas and there ARE X-examples but you try foisting something onto an MD with a shitload of random knowledge at ten years and see how you fare.)
Anyway so you can guess I had an intellectual sanctuary at home which made the world that much stranger. My parents are not religious but they didn’t let on until we were much older. Through much deduction my older brother and I determined that they wanted us to learn just how freaking weird christians can be. I might not have believed it had I not seen firsthand.
So we always hated church but we went until I was older. Ironically as I reached the high school level of Sunday school it suddenly became not only tolerable but enjoyable. The teachers were a pair of younger ladies, maybe late 20’s and we mainly talked about life lessons and the social gauntlet that is public high school. It was a lot of fun and largely because god and religion were not invited to the pep rally.
Then the presiding pastor died and church became ugly and cruel again. Luckily inertia drew this out and for a while things did not change significantly. Once they did entropy took its toll swiftly.
The middle and high school classes were combined and our former teachers replaced by the new female pastor. I have nothing against females but clergy of any gender that take a good thing, a tangible asset, and smash it over their knee for an extra avenue of indoctrination can suck lightning through my glowing white urethra.
Suddenly instead of talking about dating, or love, or freewill or anything remotely cerebral we were back to the old
and the answer is almost always Formulaic and uninspired rants replaced anything of benefit.
Oh and they cranked up the guilt for not being evangelical an order of mag.
To make things worse some of the middle school kids were these newbs who came from a staunchly evangelical family that loved the phrase ‘hot for jesus’ more than life itself. So many times during the few classes that my younger brother and I suffered through we had to turn towards each other with That Look in our eyes and knuckles in our mouths.
That Look is the nonverbal equivalent of this:
- Me: I can’t fucking believe I just heard that!
- Him: Duuuuuuuude, I KNOW!!!
So I ended my childhood experience with a long drawn out sigh of relief and the enjoyment of sleeping in on Sundays. This was vital to my mental health since I was spending so much time in the pool.
Before Helen and I became interested in each other I got involved with Young Life. Ah, I know some of you know who these people are. They are evil, pure and simple. However they don’t sport holocaust cloaks and live in fiery castles surrounded by vampiric snipers and hairless cats so they don’t appear evil. Make no mistake they employ tactics that Charlie Manson would recognize in an instant.
The older brother summed this up best so I’ll quote him rather than pass it off as my own epiphany. “When I was in college I was afraid that I might get sucked into some cult. So I started looking for ways to defend myself against indoctrination I realized that the very same methods work on organized religion as well. Because they’re cults.”
So being young and naïve I decided to check out a few meetings. My basis for this was that my morality already synced up with the Christian ideals. What I mean is that I did not drink, smoke, do drugs, pound girls, steal cars or rape/murder anything besides my own muscle fibers. I had just stepped out of my bomb building phase but that’s another tale for another day.
Now despite that I kept a reputation as being something of a pervert because I was still socially awkward and testosterone addled as anyone my age. Couple that with Poor Impulse Control and you get labeled a sexual deviant. Ironically I was a virgin until age 19.
Somehow the rumor that I was a straightedge got to circulating. my younger brother may or may not have played a role in this. Ok he did, that fucker. So I was interested in dispelling that rumor and somehow one of the Young Life leaders convinced me to check out a meeting.
Description of YL meeting: mostly harmless. Bunch of kids get together, sing songs and act like jack asses but in a clean and supervised environment. I’ll admit I had some fun and the people were nice enough but the whole religious aspect never really found purchase. All that changed once Helen debuted as a potential girlfriend and then somehow it became important to me.
But look, I was raised with only token exposure to religion and one of the few arguments that really got to me (regarding going to church/young life) was that I was old enough to check it out for myself and that I should do so. The more about it the more I found myself liking the idea. After all religious kids get to rebel and question their parents so why shouldn’t the atheists have the same angst? Well, in reverse anyways.
There was a time when I found myself singing the praise songs, often tearing up during the emotional bits. I still get a chill or two from “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” What flips out my irony meter is that it was not my relentless swimming, nor the physical and social boons that resulted that lead me to being a cocky asshole. It was jesus, or rather thinking about myself as a disciple and acolyte of him.
For an example of this consider Jake, a boy that went to my school. Jake and I did not get along well in middle school because he was the new kid and the rednecks that used to pick on me all the time started picking on him. I could have been the bigger person and tried to defend a fellow outcast but instead I got in on his misery. I felt like a dick but it was nice not to be the only punching bag around for once.
In high school we would argue about intellectual stuff and I thought of myself confidently invalidating his arguments and attributing them to anger and general snottiness. It’s hard to remember exactly what we argued against but at the time I truly believed myself to be on the side of good and Jake on the side of evil.
Of course looking back I see the error of judgment. A few years out of college I got a chance to hang out with Jake and some of little brother's friends. There were no hard feelings between us and it was nice that we could revisit those days with some perspective. It helped that I realized what a colossal asshole I had been and hopefully my apology was well received.
There I go getting ahead of myself again. Let’s go back to Young Life for a moment.
Think of YL as the precursor to my involvement with Helen. After all YL was just a social club meant to put Christian feet through open doors and secure involvement with the organization and jesus in general. It's like giving kids methadone and hoping they turn to heroin. Helen actually went to church and held theological discussions that I felt unprepared to participate in. She had the spoon and lighter thing nailed, veins collapsed and life already committed to seeking that lift forever. Metaphorically of course.
So for a large chunk of my senior year I went to church with Helen and held an esteemed place with her family during services. It was nice because people wanted to meet me since I was a stray that had been brought into the fold by the pastor’s daughter. Plenty of nice people attended and I found myself lavished with kind words and affection.
Yes it was handed to me on a silver platter and yes I lapped it up like a good little doggy until my ears rang with hymns and my eyes glowed with the ethereal shimmer of heaven. That is, until Legion and Subcon joined forces to get me under control.
Make no mistake that I really wanted to believe and this was motivated not solely by wanting to be with Helen. My biggest struggle in life has always been to line up my morality in such a way that I feel like a good person and not some slipshod bit of hackery polluting the world with my thoughts and actions. I wanted to believe because I thought that faith was a way to ensure my quality as a human. And for a time I felt good about it.
Any illusion takes energy to maintain and before long I found doubt and wonder creeping out of my mind. At one Sunday school meeting, at Helen’s church, there was an interesting question posed to those present.
Teacher: If you had only one wish that you could use to improve yourself what would it be?
Most of the people gave stock answers like “I wish I would always do what god wants me to do” or “I wish I could be a good example for others” so when I replied the place went rapt. I just wanted clarity.
Teacher: What do you mean exactly by ‘clarity?’ Do you mean you could see the future or read minds?
Me: Not exactly. I wish I could see the world with perfect and inerrant clarity. We can know so little about long term effects of our actions and I don’t want some bias or misinformation clouding my judgment. I would wish for the ability to perfectly see the ramifications of all my actions not only as they affect me, but the people around me and around them and so on until they played out everywhere.
Teacher: That’s very interesting. Why exactly do you want this?
Me: Because then I could do the world good without it even knowing that I had done so. Like I could drop a quarter somewhere and know that when a person’s car broke down three days later they could find it and call for help (still no cell phone) Or I could be nice to someone that would chain react out to the greatest number of people. And, strange as it may sound, if I had to do something mean to one person that would make a lot more people happy or better off then I could do it without guilt.
Oooh, silence. I realized half the kids there were giving me That Look. It was a real humdinger and anticipating a monopolized discussion the leader quickly diverted. Helen’s brother had another good idea. He wanted to be able to feed the entire world Lucky Charms. That’s fucking money any way you slice it.
Anyway looking back it was almost laughable. Here was a herd of docile, pleasant enough people with an infant wolf walking amidst them. It was a fine time, full of introspection and semi-toxic chlorine exposure I feel like I learned quite a bit but I suspect I just wasn’t fearful enough for the other religious stuff to take.
See religion has to offer you hope and fear, creating a nice voltage differential to persuade and motivate you. The morals and hope I could dig on, like I said most of my convictions were compatible. Better still where we did not sync up I could be forgiven for just being too nice. See I have never, and will never have a problem with abortion, evolution, gay marriage or pretty much any of the moral outrages ‘suffered’ by the christian majority.
As far as premarital sex is concerned, and this often comes as a surprise, I held onto my moral high ground despite kicking my faith over the horizon. I waited for love, not marriage, because I wanted it to be real and special. That was not a question of morality instilled by any faith, it’s just a social norm and without growing up with the idea drilled into my head I feel like I could better make the choice rather than have sociology make it for me.
Make a note that the girl who took my virginity is now my wife. It's worth mentioning she's not the only one but we broke up for 4 years and I boned a few hoes before we got back together. Circle of life.
At any rate the small differences between me and the church were manageable in daily conversation, even in bible study. There came to be a pair of issues that proved irreconcilable.
The first is Hell. Hell is a really fucking stupid idea and I would be ashamed of any deity who actually backs such a worthless punitive structure. Yeah we’ll punish the wicked with no hope of reform for all eternity. No they can’t possibly be redeemed or changed in all the countless eons to come. That’s stupid. No we’ll have to punish them all forever and ever, with absolutely no hope of respite or succor.
I had a personal beef with this because there is a MULTITUDE of better ways to punish the wicked than to burn them forever. I mean, with eternity to play with why not just focus on fixing the finite number of dead people. No matter who you are or what you have done in life a few years on the spit are enough to open your brain up to new ways of thinking. Ask me if Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot should roast in hell forever. I say no, though an ass raping or two might be in order. It always galled me how casually people could treat the subject of Hell and who is headed there.
Considering that my family would be among the searing damned this proved no easy pill to swallow. Now if I possessed strength, or intellectual prowess or some sort of trait in excess greater than that attributed to a deity it would be pretty easy to argue that it isn’t much of a deity after all. I mean if a single person can out-anything a being that can purportedly create the universe that is suspect. When it’s something fundamental as Mercy, come on.
Now that’s the big philosophical issue that I had a problem with. The second came about after a trip to Lake Saranac towards the end of senior year. This was it, the big Young Life retreat where you get your fingers really dirty in the jesus mud. Everyone’s offered a money back guarantee if it’s not the ‘best week of your life.’
We had gone to Zimbabwe, the family and I, just a few weeks previous so the trip seemed a little tame. Travel always brings out the best in your sense of adventure but just highlights how insular and short sighted American culture can be. I got a big dose of that right after one of the finest adventures yet undertaken.
Now I won’t go into painstaking detail to outline every aspect of the trip itself. Suffice to say it was a week full of bible studies, speeches, talks, games and a lot of other corny teenage crap. I had fun at times, struggled to cope with some burgeoning thoughts and all and all wasn’t sure about anything except that it was definitely not the best week of my life. Helen was not there and only one person bears mentioning even though we barely spoke.
There’s a girl, we’ll call her Mary for ironicality. She’s not atypical for teenage girls. Mary has something of a reputation as a ditz and a party girl. She’s not exactly a slut but she had gone so far beyond my sexual experience that it was hard for me to speak with her without blushing. On the bus ride up to Saranac I remember finding myself hoping that she would find some direction and clarity of her own. Five days later and my outlook on the world had shifted during transport.
It’s night time at Lake Saranac and everyone leaves the bible study to ‘go be alone with god’ for a while. Just ten minutes or so is all it takes. I climb a tree outside the camp area and ponder the evening. It’s hard not to watch the other people around and once a few people notice that I am up in a tree they begin looking for their own trees to climb.
You unoriginal fucks.
I find myself hostile without reason. It’s not that I was so original, I’m sure dozens of kids climbed the very tree I staked out. It was watching just how passively the late comers accepted my being there as a good idea. Rather than come to the conclusion themselves they just saw a guy in a tree and hopped onto that bandwagon.
Something clicked and Legion began to chuckle softly. I climbed into the tree a believer with doubts and climbed down a nascent atheist, afraid to even utter the A word aloud for I still feared the condescension that would follow. There was much cheering when the bell rang and people began to stream back into camp. My feet were lead and my lungs were pushing mercury as we rejoined our individual bible studies.
We talked about our ‘one-on-one’s with the big man’ and I confessed my disbelief. It would be nice if my transformation had been resolute and swift, convulsively comprehensive. But no, I just choked and sobbed through a half-hearted explanation that I don’t and can’t believe some of the things that we talked about. Yes, I cried and wailed in front of 15 other high school boys, many of them younger than me. It was frightfully embarrassing but I would mar something so pure and new with hubris or deceit.
There’s a picture of me from the next day, a self portrait taken with my SLR and a time delay shot. It’s just me sitting on the rocks, wearing my gray State Final swimming shirt and looking out over the lake. Without a doubt it’s the first picture of me after my epiphany. Perhaps it’s not right to call it epiphany for it demanded insight as well as courage to dig myself out of the theological hole that I had made.
On the way back I remember sitting near Mary for a little while. Someone asked her if she had ‘felt’ anything, meaning the ghostly hand of jesus, and she just shook her head. I watched her intently, silently hoping that whatever shortcomings and demons she saw within herself these people would not claim her. As she answered I sighed with relief and noticed she was looking at me intently.
“Something funny over there?” she asked.
“I am just glad that we are going home,” I said. “I have a lot to talk about with my older brother.” I said this, half wishing I could kiss her and confide that I had seen the light and that the shackles of these kooks were forever broken. But I just smiled and let her sink into boredom and introspection.
Helen was waiting for me. I dreaded her reaction nearly the entire trip home.
Thus ends Part II, Part III is on its way shortly.