I must be a heathen. I’m sure that’s what my neighbors say, behind my back. I have committed the cardinal sin. I live in a state where not attending church arouses suspicions of, say, communism, or bodies buried in the back yard, or satanism, or worse, possibly believing in equality for all members of society. Actually, going to church is not good enough. It has to be a Southern Baptist church. There is literally one Jewish family in my “city” of roughly 70,000. I’m not really sure why they would want to stay here.
We were unacceptable weirdos when we first moved to the south. My parents were, until they retired, both university professors, which put them on the edge of society, to say the least. Mom was a practicing Catholic when she was younger, but she and my dad really weren’t going to church by the time I was old enough to remember. She said they went to Catholic church where I was born in LA (Los Angeles, NOT Lower Alabama, as our locals might believe), because the churches were cool and funky and had guitar music and actually seemed to be run by educated people. Mom said they tried to go to church when they moved down here, but that the clergy all seemed poorly educated, judgmental and inflexible. I am reasonably sure she is right. But where I grew up, even being Catholic was considered weird. There were a handful of Catholic families in my WSB (White Southern Baptist) school, and even they were viewed with some narrow-eyed suspicion.
I really only remember going to church when Mom’s relatives were in town, plus maybe Easter and Christmas Eve. Holiday Catholics. Catholic Lite – one third less guilt. The Catholic ritual made me nervous as I was never taught it, and all the crossing, dipping, genuflecting and eating of suspect germy crackers and drinking of stale grape juice made me nervous. I never knew when to stand or when to sit, so I just popped up and down like a cork and tried to copy the people around me. The rosary blew my mind. I felt anxious in church; it was a game whose rules were never explained to me. I never took communion, because I was never confirmed. Actually, I don’t believe I was even baptised. So I guess I am going to hell. But why do I find it so hard to believe that a merciful God would damn someone to hell for failing to practice a ritual that is only one of a million rituals performed by many, many religions and their variants? How could He allow there to be only one correct religion, and the rest of the people on the planet not be in on the joke? And why the hell do we always refer to God as male? I personally doubt that our Higher Power has any gender at all. Blasphemy! Gasp!
In the deep South, being Baptist isn’t even sufficient. Each church is deeply suspicious of the others: the Church of Christ, The First Bible Church, Pentecostals, Church of God, the footwashers, the revivalists, the snake handlers. They all believe that they are the one true church, and that everyone else is confused at best and damned at worst. Catholics are pedophiles, Episcopals are too wild, Methodists too wishy-washy. The Unitarians are considered atheist whack jobs. The word agnostic is neither known nor used, nor acceptable. You either is or you ain’t. And if you ain’t, then you don’t belong.
My husband and I actually tried to choose a church when we moved to our new town, both because we wanted to fit in, and have a social network, and practice religion, and because we planned to have a child whom we wanted to have educated in religion, because educated persons should interest themselves in religion. It is both a form of history, literature and art, and a good way to understand human behavior. When we first moved to my town, we had some discussion about what church we might choose. My husband was raised Southern Baptist, and was even baptised twice, once even on purpose, but he did not desire to attend Baptist church. His experience had been one of ignorance and intolerance. I wasn’t particularly into the idea of Catholic church, because of all the ritual, and also because as a human being and a physician who takes care of women (and other human beings), I believe the widespread oversight of pedophile priests who were shuffled from parish to parish is inconscionable, and the prohibition of contraception is just diabolically and willfully ignorant, given the overpopulation of the planet and the plight of the poor families and women with too many children to care for or feed. That rule was made in a day when many children died, many women died in childbirth, and many children were needed to run a self-sufficient village or farm. To maintain that law now is obscene and ridiculous. It is maintained for only one true purpose: to maintain power for the Catholic church by producing the maximum possible number of Catholics. I was also extremely pissed at the Vatican’s anti-endorsement of condoms for gay men – since they would not serve as contraception, surely the merciful thing for a church to do would be to recommend condom use to protect these men. But no. Basically their stance seems to be that gays are immoral and the more that get sick and die the better. Makes me enraged. So no Catholic church. (I will add as an aside that I think the new Pope is awesomesauce!)
We did actually attend a Baptist church for a bit, mainly because everyone that worked in my office seemed to go there. We never felt welcomed and it was a megachurch. Also, their literature suggested that those who did not accept their specific teaching and who were not “saved” by participating in immersion baptism would never be truly welcomed as members of the church.
We attended an Episcopal church as a compromise, and despite personally meeting with their priest to express interest, our attendance was greeted with complete indifference, all this despite the fact that it was a fairly small congregation. We tried, but…
We agreed that we would really like to attend Unitarian church, but the nearest one was in a bigger city about 30 minutes away. We agreed that we were unlikely to attend with any regularity, particularly due to the fact that my job requires me to remain within 20 minutes of the hospital when on call.
For some weird reason in a redneck southern town, we had Mormons. I actually looked into them, and met with a couple members of their congregation, but had real trouble with the suggestion that Christ migrated over to Utah, and rescued the settlers from a plague of grasshoppers with magic seagulls (although in retrospect, this claim is no more wild than any of those put forth by most other major religions).
Long story short, we gave up on church. My daughter actually attended a Catholic school for K-3 and K-4, mainly because it was one of the few full day nursery schools available in town, and I was pleased that she got some religious instruction, and they were very kind to her. But we don’t go to church. Since I was never raised to have church as a part of my life, I don’t feel the lack. You don’t feel emptiness where there is no hole.
My feelings on world religions are summed up by a brilliant parallel drawn by my father. He likens the relations of humans and their various religions to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. There were three blind men who encountered an elephant. One felt the ear and pronounced that this was a banana plant. One felt a leg and proclaimed the object to be a tree. One felt the trunk and was sure this was a snake. They began arguing and fell to blows about which of them was correct. Their perceptions were adequate based on the information available to them, but their conclusion that their view was the only correct answer was ignorant and narrow-sighted, and they failed to perceive the truth: that all their impressions formed just a part of the whole. In other words, all world religions are legitimate, each just describes a different part of the elephant, and humans, in their narrow and elitist manner, haughtily assume that their perceptions are the only true perceptions, and their piece of the puzzle is the only piece.
As a physician and a scientist, I also deeply resent the assertion of organized religion (looking at YOU, creationists) that science is ungodly and detracts from religious belief. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Bible is at odds with our fossil record. Who says a day in God’s life is a day on earth? It almost certainly is not; believing that God’s day is an earth day is tantamount to believing that the sun must orbit around the earth. A day for God could be eons and eons for us. Also, why is evolution supposed to contradict the existence of a higher power? I would think any divine being worth their salt would create evolution, because, like a self-winding watch, a system was created that didn’t have to have a constant babysitter – evolution modifies the ecosystem without God having to hover – after all, He has other planets to watch, doesn’t He?
I must also say that I have more deeply felt a belief in God when studying science than at any other time. If these anti-science folks ever took a look in a microscope, they would understand the mindblowing, beautiful amazing things that are just out of our sight. Did these cells, with their powerhouses, and nuclei, and diverse functions really just happen at random? I don’t think so. I majored in biochemistry – all those lock and key enzymes and tiny machines at the molecular level – stunning. Mindblowing. Accidental? Hard to think it could be. Ever looked at an SEM of a bacteriophage? Seen how it works? Sometimes tears of awe come in to my eyes when I study these things. And for a gynecologist, there is the knowledge that there are millions of things that may come together wrong during the growth of an embryo, but yet, most babies are born perfect. Statistically, how could that be?
Bacteriophage: this was no random accident.
I admit, my religious beliefs are more than a little unorthodox. I believe that at their foundations, all world religions have relevance, and if you look at their tenets, their laws are typically custom designed for the region of the world where they arose. Pork is verboten in religions that sprang up in hot regions where uncooked pork could kill you quickly. Washing rituals are different in regions in areas where water is more or less scarce. And most, when interpreted by nonzealots, are gentle and well-meaning at heart. Yes, even Islam.
I understand that people need organized religion to provide societal laws, norms, cohesion, and a belief that it isn’t over when it’s over – it hurts to think that the beauty that goes on in your mind and soul just comes to a stop and rots when the body stops. Where does it go? No one knows, but man clings to religion because they don’t want life to be for nothing. My daughter asks me, so many times, why we are born if we are just going to die. There are so many answers to that question, so many of them meaningful and hopeful, but she is only nine. So hard to explain. So hard to understand.
I am going to say something shocking. So shocking that I hope than none of my neighbors stumble onto this blog. I don’t think that I am a Christian. Did Christ exist? I really, really hope so, because he was an amazing man. Did he deserve to start a religion? If he lived the way they say he did, he really does. Was he a prophet? Maybe. Who am I to deny one of the parts of the elephant? It is not for me to decide. Did God create a son in the image of man and send him down to save us? I don’t really believe so – in the grand scheme of things, human beings are just not that important. Sorry. But I still can’t believe that a caring God would damn someone to hell for asking questions. The truth does not fear questions. Gandhi was an amazing man. Perhaps one day there will be a religion based on him. That would be cool. Martin Luther King Jr. was an amazing man. Why do white southerners hate him so much? Is it sheer bigotry, or maybe a fear that the man was, well, maybe Christlike? Flawed, but so strong and so full of belief. The Dalai Lama is amazing. Another great, great man. Mohammad too. Why would we resent and distrust the possibility that there could be more than one holy man? Why should the existence of one amazing person be threatened by the existence of another? We need all the amazing humans we can find.
Over years, I have given a lot of thought to my religious beliefs. They are a work in progress. I distrust organized religion, because more evil has been perpetrated in its name than in any other concept. Wars break out constantly over wealth, and power and greed, and the need for food and water, but the worst horrors have been perpetrated in the name of organized religion. How could you pervert a belief in a loving, caring deity into an attack on other humans so intolerant, so cruel and so vile?
I am a Pantheist. I believe that God is in and of everything. God is the existence of life itself. God is all energy, and all matter, and all ebb and flow and every molecule in the universe. I believe that the law of conservation of energy is all the answer to an afterlife we need. When our bodies die, our energy must continue to exist in some form, because it is conserved. I believe that we have the honor of having our atoms and molecules and energy flow back into the universe, because these things are all part and parcel of God. God does not have a gender. God was not, and should not, be created in man’s image. Physicists tell us that we all contain the atoms of ancient stars. Isn’t that enough?
*This post was originally written about a year ago. I was too afraid to post it, for fear the neighbors would find my blog and ride me on a rail, tarred and feathered, out of town, or throw me in a lake and burn me as a witch when I failed to drown. I now say fuck them.
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