Religious belief has always been a painful subject for me, sometimes quite literally. I like to think that my beliefs are grounded in rationality, but the end of my belief in a present and attentive deity ended abruptly and for entirely emotional reasons.
When I was eleven years old, I was helping my Dad lay down stripes in a parking lot, a fun and profitable side-business that he maintained for many years. We were in downtown
I was standing at the edge of the parking lot when a lost baby bird wandered out into the street. I had taken a couple of steps to retrieve it, when a car flashed by, and there was suddenly only a messy brown splatter where a second before had been an innocent infant life.
At that exact moment I decided that, if there was a God, and he actively made the universe run, the way I had been told he did, he wasn’t a guy I wanted to hang out with. I can still remember how I thought that, if God had a purpose for that brief life and death, I didn’t want to fathom it. Maybe it was to test my belief in an infinitely-powerful and infinitely-loving being. If so, I failed the test.
I already understood that things die. It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen that. But the utter callous meaninglessness of this particular tiny death also killed the Christian God for me, because He was all about meaning. It was an instant conversion to an unpleasant Existentialism.
I mentioned my apostasy to a couple of people at West University Elementary in the following days, and got beaten up a couple of times by small gangs of pre-adolescent boys as a reward.
As I got older, I continued to be surrounded by hard and soft Christianity, and some occasional Judaism. I couldn’t respond to the emotional appeals, and any attempts at logical argument in favor of the existence of an involved God simply fell apart under even the most cursory examination. I did try to follow the reasoning presented to me, because it would be important if there was an underlying purpose to everything.
But the arguments always boiled down, sooner or later to: My religion must be true, even though wrong-headed people interpret the details differently than I do, because our Holy Book says it’s true. And our Holy Book is unquestionably the word of God, so it must be true. Completely circular logic.
So, let’s continue to talk about emotion rather than logic. Many people find comfort in their religious belief. They make what is commonly called the Leap of Faith, and then they get to turn their attention to predicting which football team is going to win the Superbowl this year. It helps them cope with the on-going struggle that inevitably leads to the end of Superbowl predictions.
Me, I just deal with the struggle and the darkness as best I can — which isn’t always graceful or attractive. I can’t and won’t make the Leap of Faith, not because I’m too damn smart (though I am indeed too damn smart), but because it feels cowardly and dishonest. I decline to adopt a deep belief simply in order to be comforted. My universe is an uncaring, unmanageable enormity.
My mother tried to do some religion with me and my sister, briefly. Here’s my memory of it:
We attended only sporadically, for reasons I don’t know. Those were some hard years. I was nine or ten years old. We were in a Baptist church in
In any Christian church, I feel completely creeped out. It’s a pure and consistent emotional response. There’s something very bad-wrong happening in those buildings, that hurts peoples lives and minds. I know lots of churches do good in many ways, but my emotional reaction is that it’s all built on lies, so is not to be trusted.
Oddly, I’ve always felt warm and embraced in Jewish temples. I’m comfortable when surrounded by the old men in the beanies, and smile when the kids are running up and down the aisles in the midst of ceremony. The music is mournful and uplifting. Jews don’t believe in hell. Instead of the faux presence of an oppressive God who demands adoration and punishes for eternity when he doesn’t get the right kind of love in the right amount, I instead feel the weight of hundreds of generations of a people who have, despite the mountains regularly dropped upon their heads, continued to endure as individuals and as a community.
It’s an emotional reaction, not a rational one, and I haven’t been in a temple for many years, so that reaction might be different now that the culture wars have hardened me.
I hang out with a lot of neopagans, as often as possible. As a group, they feel like family to me. They have diverse beliefs, some being traditional Wiccans, with the Gardnerians being jokingly referred to as the pagan equivalent of the Catholic church. The Alexandrian Wiccans are looser and more prone to eclecticism.
I know Asatru, heathens who believe in the old Norse gods. She Who Is Awesome and her fiancé, Jesse, are Asatru, for instance. Much of their belief system centers around courageously doing the honorable thing, regardless of consequences, and taking care of family and tribe. I like this a lot, as it means that they’ve invited Grandpa-me to live in a shed out behind the house and help take care of the kids, in return for which I’ll not have to eat dog food when the Social Security runs out.
Many neopagans have constructed belief systems that make sense to them, and may not have a name for them.
Regardless of diversity, most neopagans that I’ve encountered experience a spiritual connection with the presence and rhythms of the earth and the skies. They celebrate a lot of cyclical events, such as the changes in the seasons, and the stages of life.
They tend to be highly nurturing people, and a significant percentage of the ones I know work in health-care. Most are politically liberal and deviate from a lot of social norms, with all that implies.
They typically like to dress up in colorful costuming, and they like to take off the costumes when the weather’s good, especially while dancing around the bonfire. In a significant departure from most mainstream religions in the western world, most neopagans reject the idea that sexuality and sensuality are sinful things. As a matter of fact, they tend to reject the whole concept of sin. Most have senses of humor that could be politely described as ‘extremely bawdy’.
Generally, their values and behaviors feel strongly resonant with mine, and I’m most relaxed and serene when enfolded by this community. As with many deviant sub-cultures, they’re pretty open and accepting, though there’s no tolerance for emotional or physical violence, and I’ve seen quick rejection of a couple of guys who thought that hanging out with them uninhibited hot pagan babes was mostly a quick way to get laid.
From what I’ve seen, pagan communities are usually matriarchal in nature, and I have a strong positive emotional response to that, too. I guess that means I’m a sexist….
A lot of neopagans are solitary practitioners of their path, not organized in covens. Many take their religion very seriously, and one of the harshest accusations you can make about a neopagan is that they’re ‘fluffy’. There are no ‘Pagan Police’, though, so you can’t get excommunicated for fluffyness.
Spiritual nuances aside, how could I fail to be emotionally attracted to a spectrum of beliefs that shares at least one underlying principle: “Hey, it must be time to celebrate something!”
I’m still not moved to believe in a deity or deities, but, as I’ve written before, I do have this on-going thing happening with trees. In that sense, I’m a solitary practitioner, and I do find comfort there.
Let’s be honest — Nobody has all that much respect for religious beliefs that differ from theirs. We pretend that we do, but we don’t.
The best we can hope for is to be left alone to try to find our own paths, and helped along them when we ask for help.
Evangelism feels really wrong to me. I’ve been evangelized mostly by Christians of various stripes, because that’s who I’ve mostly encountered. I’ve never been evangelized by a single neopagan, incidentally, though most are delighted to explain their beliefs in detail if asked about them.
Aggressive religiosity of any kind makes me want to leave the room. I avert from the arrogance of someone who thinks their little slice of faith is Ultimate Truth. And am especially revulsed by the ones who are willing to stuff it down your throat sideways if need be. I’m horrified by everything I’ve ever read or seen regarding the religious wars being fought around the world today.
I don’t think there is any end to this in sight. I keep wishing we were better as a species. But we aren’t. Religious beliefs draw us together with the relatively small group of others who believe as we do. And, horribly too often, severs us from recognizing the humanity of those who believe differently than we do.
Writing this post has stirred up thoughts and feelings in me that are far from certain or finished. I certainly don’t have any tidy universal answers to anything at all.
My little bit of small-t truth is this: We’re all locked alone inside our heads, which is awful and terrifying. The only thing that makes this endurable is that we can feel. We can feel the pain and joy of others, not only of our lonely selves. We can connect emotionally.
We can comfort each other, and, sometimes, allow others close enough to comfort us. And that’s enough meaning for me.
Perhaps I’ve made my own Leap of Faith, without any logic whatsoever behind it.