FYI I fancy myself a (very amateur) novelist, so I am honestly incapable of brevity… really sorry about the length of this
Soooo, I wasn't raised in a super religious family, more a middle-of-the-line Catholic tradition. Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals, that's about it. Which is weird, actually, because my father is an ex-priest! He maintains to this day that the only reason he left was that he fell in love with my mom (that's another story I should tell someday, it's adorable) and never understood why priests had to take a vow of chastity, but considering his lackadaisical take on faith, I think there's more to it. Not that I'll ever ask.
Anyway, I'm the last of six kids, and all six of us were baptized, confirmed, and sent to all-boys or all-girls Catholic high schools. Not for the religious aspect - I can't even remember my parents ever talking to us about God and Jesus. I had a big children's Bible that I read a lot on my own, but that was about it. Religion just wasn't a big part of my parents' lives; instead they preached to us about science, critical thinking, and following your conscience. They taught that everyone, by virtue of being human, has a conscience, and that is the basis for all morality. So they sent us to Catholic school just for the academics, which, I will definitely admit, were amazing. I loved high school, despite being boy-deprived, and got the best education in the city for it. Not to mention, I finally learned the truth about Catholicism...
See, in junior high I started playing the viola pretty seriously, so I joined my church's music group just to get more practice. Over the next five years I wound up going to church almost every week, and I became fairly religious, albeit only in a personal way; I didn’t subscribe to everything the priests said, and I never cared to “spread the word” (although I felt guilty about that sometimes). I never once believed in hell because, well, if hell existed, then my dad was definitely going there for breaking his priestly vows. Yet my dad was and is the most wonderful, gentle, selfless, kind person I've ever met, and if there's anyone who doesn't deserve an eternity of torture it's him. I decided long ago that any God who sent any person to hell - even Hitler - was a tyrant, and I was willing to go to hell myself just to stand up against him. So instead, I started to get really good at manipulating the religious teachings around me – those of every religion, Islam and Shintoism alike – to fit this quiet, personal, ecumenical faith of mine.
Then I took a class called Theology of the Body. No joke. Basically, we went through the Catholic catechism and debated all the most controversial topics - particularly those surrounding the female body. (What a weird dichotomy, this attempt to mesh biblical misogyny with an all-girls college-prep curriculum. We literally went from this class, where we learned that contraception in any form is inherently evil, to Environmental Science across the hall, where we learned that contraception is the only way to prevent overpopulation and save the planet...) The one that got me the most was gay marriage because, as it happens, my older sister - the only "hero" I've ever had - came out to my family as gay that same month. But whatever, even then I could handle the dissonance, telling myself that people were just misusing the Bible and interpreting it differently, and all that really mattered was that you follow your God-given conscience. I still considered myself a strong Catholic, right up until our teacher - a woman who had "successfully" used Natural Family Planning and ended up with nine children, btw - lectured about how immoral it is to be an "a la carte" Catholic, a fake Catholic who picks the teachings they like and discards the rest: essentially, exactly what I was. Apparently, you must trust completely in the magisterium and the catechism, no matter how starkly your conscience disagrees. She went so far as to illustrate this point with her own struggle to understand the Church's teachings on embryos. (I never wasted my time to look this up, but according to her, the Church says that any frozen in-vitro embryo should be left to die naturally rather than be "unnaturally" implanted into a woman's body. That, despite all the Church's insistence that an embryo is alive, apparently if it is created "unnaturally" in the first place, it would be another sin to unnaturally help them live than to just let them die.) She could not fathom how that teaching was moral, but she expounded how virtuous she was for accepting it as truth anyway. I could not. This was the beginning of the end for me.
Theology of the Body taught me, for the first time, what Catholicism – or any religion, though I wouldn’t admit that for a long time – really means… control of the body. Especially women’s bodies. Catholicism isn’t just faith in the Trinity, inspiration from the lives of Mary and the saints, and wise words from scholars of the Bible. It’s a fucking game based on a strict rulebook written by old, western men who have never even had the influence of women or people of another culture to wisen them. Well, I wasn't going to let someone call me fake for following my conscience, so I just said fuck it, I guess I'm not Catholic.
At the same time, my family went through some shit, and I ended up with severe depression that has followed me ever since. In my depressed, youthful impulsivity, I graduated high school and decided to move 2000 miles across the country to Portland, OR for college, where I thought I would find a liberal non-denominational Christian community I could really feel I belonged in. God was I wrong. Somehow I wound up in this little pocket of conservatism that I didn't even know existed on the west coast, and fell into a group of cultish Evangelicals. Their campus club was called, with no iota of sarcasm, "Campus Crusade for Christ." I once mentioned that maybe an effort to convert modern youths would do well not to evoke war, medieval ignorance, and the slaying of infidels, but they just laughed that off. I mean, these people thought that the Bible was literal (before this I didn’t even know Biblical inerrancy was a thing), that drinking was a sin, that science was a sham, and that distance from Jesus was what caused mental health issues. Of course, I didn’t know all this at first. They were just a bunch of fun, silly kids like me – they did watch modern TV, after all, and make jokes and even cuss sometimes. And besides, I was lonely and seeking adventure, and these were the kids who were going spelunking and hiking every weekend.
Slowly, over time, little things popped up. One: My first ever boyfriend broke up with me because I got drunk on New Year's Eve (he also wrote a silly blog post about not letting your girlfriend use you as a "ladder to Christ" when she's less pious than you, which hurt me a lot at the time). Afterward, when a friend invited me over for what I thought was a shit-on-boys, tub-of-ice-cream, 13-Going-On-30 type of night, she ended up missionizing me. (Which makes sense since she had actually spent eight or so years in Indonesia because her parents were missionaries... So she also had lots of backwards arguments and circular thinking that I just could not penetrate or even recognize at the time.) She told me that he was right to break up with me, that I should never have drunk because it's a sin, and that everything I believed about God was "illogical." That the only morality that exists in the world comes directly from the Bible, so if we didn't have the Bible, everyone would be raping and murdering nonstop. She told me, unblinkingly, that my beloved uncle, who gave me shelter and food for three years rent-free, was going to hell just because he was Muslim. The next day she took me to church, and as I stood for the Eucharist (or whatever those heathens called it), she stopped me and told me I couldn't take it because I wasn't a real Christian.
Two: A bit later, I opened up to all of these friends in a Bible study night and told my religious "testimony." At the time, much of it surrounded my struggles with depression and finding a church community where I felt I fit in. A few days after that, a different friend invited me to Panera for what I thought was a white-girls-giggling-over-Pumpkin-Spice type of lunch. Instead, without wasting a goddamn minute, she asked what I believed about God and regurgitated everything the missionary girl had said. But here's the kicker: this one told me that the reason I have depression is because I don't have a good relationship with Jesus. Not only am I seeking help the wrong way by getting therapy and medicine, but I need help in the first place because I'm not a good enough Christian.
Three: Another girl in our group came out as bisexual, and she had just met the woman of her dreams. One night she opened up to us all about how heartbroken she felt, how lonely and alienated, how unfair it seemed that God would give her true love and not allow her to have it. She wanted to be with this woman so badly, but didn't know what was right or wrong anymore. Well take a guess what everyone else said... "Obviously your feelings are wrong, you know you can't, God will provide, don't stray from the Word, it's a test, that woman was sent by Satan, blah fucking blah." I later took this girl aside and told her to ignore everyone else, because if God is love and what you feel for this woman is love, then it can't possibly be wrong. I don't think she heard me that night, but I certainly heard everyone else.
Soon thereafter we had a camping trip, and everyone went around gushing about how welcome they always feel and how they're so lucky to have found this group where they truly belong. That's when it hit me like a fucking rock, after four whole wasted years: I wasn't one of them. I had never felt welcome because I had never belonged. I was just lonely and desperate and they were just waiting to win my soul. I went home after the camping trip and deleted every one of those fuckers off of Facebook and my phone contacts, and I haven't talked to them since.
For a little while I tried to continue to be spiritual. But it gradually waned. I got a major in psychology and a minor in anthropology, where I learned about the neurological effects/causes of prayer and religious experience in the brain. Also that the neurons in our brains literally build highways, connections directly from one neuron to the next, such that a particular stimulus physically leads to a particular response - unless, over a time of being unused, that highway atrophies. And I think that's how thinking about God and religion works, why you're encouraged to pray every night and why traditions are so effective. It all seemed so mechanical now, so evolved, nothing mystical about it. My "Jesus highway" atrophied when I stopped hanging out with people who constantly talk about Jesus, and soon I stopped getting the same emotional response to prayer or mass or Biblical verses. Then I learned about a cave in France with a pseudo-religious burial of Neanderthals. A fucking family of Neanderthals was buried all facing one direction, all in the same position, with flowers and herbs by their side, suggesting their own belief in an afterlife. Not to mention the (roughly) 44,000 years of prehistoric human culture, and the Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA present in most modern humans. I mean, if all these "prehumans" were human enough to conceive of an afterlife and, in fact, are our greatx1500 grandparents, then at what point did God give us souls? Why us and not them? What makes Homo sapiens more special than Homo neanderthalis? My manipulations weren't working anymore. Finally I was able to look at the Bible as a piece of archaeological literature, at the cultures of the people of the time and the people prior, and understand how it all came together. Eventually I just said fuck it, I guess I'm not religious.
I was comfortable for a long time with religions existing, as long as they didn't bother me personally. I figured if they help some people, good for them. Then I started dating my current boyfriend, a man who never stops analyzing and never accepts a fact at face value. His favorite music group is Bad Religion haha, and he's the first person I've ever talked to who openly admits that religion is a net negative influence on humanity. He slowly chipped at my indifference, encouraged me to question every belief and thought I have, and taught me to pay attention to the emotions that cloud my logic. What a man
About a month ago he and I watched Religulous, with Bill Maher. I had another sudden realization: religions, by nature, are wrong. The very basis of faith is "believing without seeing," which is the opposite of science, the opposite of anything we know to actually be helpful in this life. Religions at their core urge people to forgo critical analysis, to forgo their own conscience, in favor of what someone says. That's the most absurd and tyrannical thing I've ever heard, masquerading successfully as the only morality in the world!! What the fuck?? I felt so stupid, so duped. I started looking up anti-religious arguments for the first time, to hone my thoughts and relieve a little bit of the anger, and voila. Here I am!
I feel eased, mostly. I don't struggle with cognitive dissonance anymore, I don't worry about fitting my beliefs into the teachings of Christianity. I feel free to criticize, and everything makes sense now. I don't feel as lost as many of you, since my worldview hasn't actually changed too much. It's not like I ever thought Genesis was literal, or morality only came from the Bible. I never even believed in hell, just heaven - and that's the only thing that bothers me today. I spent 22 years believing I will get to meet my saintly grandma, being comforted with the idea that I won't really be saying goodbye when my parents inevitably pass (I was a very late "oops" baby, so their impending death has always been on my mind). My own death doesn't scare me in the least; I won't be aware of it. I just hate saying goodbye to others. But I'm coming to terms with death by thinking of life, every individual life, as a beautiful, complete story, one that would only be diminished by a sequel. That helps.
Thanks for reading (if you got this far), and for being such a welcoming community. It's nice to actually belong I'm looking forward to some awesome conversations!
[Side note, if you're interested: I recently did some Facebook stalking and, get this, the dude who broke up with me for drinking... he's now a bartender. The missionary chick is now a neuroscientist. The Panera girl got married and her pastor father gave a sermon at his own daughter's wedding about men being the head of the house and women being obedient to their husbands. And the girl who struggled with loving another woman? She has now been happily married to that woman for two years, and they have two kids. I couldn't make this shit up.]