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Walking Away from Faith, Part II [Oct. 20th, 2011|01:21 pm]
Okay, lunchtime and time to finish Pt 2. But first – and here’s the inherent flaw in the magical thinking that leads you to believe that you’ll be able to get things done in a reasonable amount of time – just to make clear where I’m going with this.

As a child, you think that adults, church, school, the police, whatever, have got it together and are looking out for your best interests. As you mature, you begin to realize that not all the people in that group ARE doing the best they can. There are weak people, corrupt people, liars and thieves in any organization. And sometimes that becomes institutionalized. And if you’re a lazy thinker, or not very smart, or easily brainwashed, you do one of two things – you either DENY it or you let it corrupt your viewpoint of the entire group/structure, so that you view ANYONE and ANYTHING associated with that group as weak, corrupt, etc. Anyone with a modicum of common sense and intelligence eventually parses out that there are good people and bad people and good people who sometimes behave badly and bad people who are capable of good and that you cannot/should not allow the actions of the bad completely negate the actions of the good. That some corruption doesn’t mean the institution doesn’t have good in it. That even a corrupt institution doesn’t negate the overarching concept it serves. So, a bad cop doesn’t mean you fear all police and a corrupt police department doesn’t mean you reject the whole purpose of police. Ditto with religion.

So, when I list moments of what I felt were hypocrisy or corruption or just bad sportsmanship within institutions of faith, understand that these weren’t moments that turned me away from faith. They WERE events that made me question the institutions and idea of faith. But plenty of people do that and wind up with a stronger faith because of it. I don’t ridicule the idea of faith. But if you’ve never doubted, never questioned, never resolved those questions and instead just DENIED, just accepted without a second of pondering…yeah, well.

This is also a personal journey, as I think it needs to be. We are herd/pack animals and it’s hard to ensure you arrive at the place YOU need to be if you’re moving with a group. It’s always a touchy relationship between atheists and deists, and ists of other stripes. Atheism, like Religion, holds a wide spectrum of people and Atheism has its “You MUST believe as I do, for it is the RIGHT way” faction, just like any religion. Be easy, I’m not attacking your faith or your beliefs. I may challenge them…but I don’t actually CARE what you believe. This IS all about me.

So, anyway – there I am in high school, having put religion in the “hey, I’ve got horses to ride, comfortable clothes to wear, an entire Sunday to enjoy and I’m not mucking it up by going to church” and Church, frankly, wasn’t seeming to carry a lot of God/Faith with it anyway for me. And then some friends encouraged me to join the community theater group for teenagers. Run by…the minister from “my” church. So, in addition to traditional plays, I wound up spending more time in church than I had in a long time, because, hey, a stage is a stage, even if it means playing Mary Magdalene and making Borscht Belt-style jokes about camels and needles.

But more importantly, I spent a lot of time with our minister, in a very casual and supportive environment. Our minister was a very smart and well-educated man – probably the first time I really had genuine respect for a man of the cloth. His sermons put most people to sleep – but I actually enjoyed them, because instead of some story illustrating how we should all be better people this week – it was history and politics and geography. Plus, when directing the theatre group, there was swearing and mild off-color comments and fart jokes and sarcasm and all of the things that win a teenager’s mind. And he wasn’t a young, let’s bond with the kids kind of a guy – older, stark white hair, serious Yankee-Capt. Ahab mutton chops – which made him seem all that much more sincere. And he inspired me to take the next steps on my journey.

I’m going to drop the “counting steps” conceit. I have to keep checking back to see where I was, and I’m not sure I can guarantee their integrity.

My Director/Minister started it, and then I wound up doing a project on the Gnostic Gospels, and really got really into the politics and repercussions of how the Bible got to be the Bible and the repression of women’s role in the whole thing resonated with a teenager who was fighting her high school for access to the weight training equipment, which at that time, lived in the boy’s locker room. So, I thought, okay, maybe there’s something here. Maybe the churches I went to just didn’t engage me the way I need to be engaged for Faith to take root.

So – time to start God-shopping. I was taking Bible as Literature as an elective in high school and throwing myself into T.S. Eliot’s works – a solid refuge for a teenage punk rocker who careened between Ramones lyrics and Frazer’s The Golden Bough. So, off I went, accompanying friends wherever they went – Synagogue, Unitarian, Baptist, Orthodox, Buddhist.

Sigh. To me, it was still all getting dressed up and wasting a Sunday morning. So I hit the other big books, Book of Mormon, Koran… Wait, what, gold plates? Women are WHAT? I’m supposed to…no. The more I read – the more contradictions, the more gaps, and loopholes. Okay, I thought, there’s no way I can take this seriously. People struggling to find answers, trying to explain things, that’s what this is all about. Divinely inspired? Okay, maybe. But clearly some of the authors were getting it wrong. And some of them must have been DRUNK at the time. (Here's where you might need to back away -- if you believe that the Bible, or any Holy Book, is the literal word of God and it all literally true -- we probably need to make a pact to never EVER discuss religion, because I can never respect THAT. That's just dumb.)

So, the more I read, the more I learned -- and while I'm taking Bible as Literature, I'm also taking electives in genetics, zoology, botany and doing an honors project that traced the mythology of the Fisher King through pagan and Christian traditions, and another extra credit bio project that involved comparative embryology -- the easier it became for the cloak of agnosticism to settle in around my shoulders.

It wasn't until college that I gave religion one last try. The Fisher King project had exposed me to a lot of the pagan traditions and that lead to reading Adler's Drawing Down the Moon and I thought, okay, Wicca, that taps something in my psyche. Besides, running through the woods, painted in woad, chased by some guy with antlers...what's not to love? So I tried. But here's the thing: my need for ritual is obviously broken. Or missing. Or something. Because...bored, bored, feeling vaguely silly, bored, bored, bored, thank goodness THAT'S over. It brings me closer to...nothing. Here's where I learned that I LOVE traditions. What I feel deeply is respect for tradition. I treasure that connection to what's come before, our shared history. The interweaving, the patterns that consciously or not, we all share. But it has nothing to do with God, or a god, or anything more than just grooving on the millennia of human brains coming to terms with existence. I borrow traditions from anywhere and mash them up in a combination that gives a nod to all sorts of history. Easter has to have lamb, and breaking bread with friends, and red wine, and a table decorated with herbs. (The coconut cake? That's just me looking for an excuse to make my coconut cake.) I take the German tradition of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve, drag it back to the Solstice. Unless of course, I'm busy with something else on the Solstice, in which case I shoot for something close. Again, because for me, it's the thought that counts, the respect. The harvest won't fail because I had a lot going on.

I'd landed on Agnostic Pagan as the closest way to express where my head was, in regard to religion. The pagan explaining my connection to the natural world, the cyclical nature of everything. The agnostic, not ruling out that there was some greater spirit/being/thing underlying it all.

But midde age brought about a lot change in my life - and kick started a lot of self-examination. No phoenix rising from the ashes drama, but definitely a need for less bullexpletive in my life. So, really, it was time for the "agnostic" to go. Because in all of the mental rock overturning that went on in my head, it was clear, I couldn't shake free a shred of Belief. The whole fuzzy, muzzy Spirit/Gaia, however I'd try to explain it, (the fuzzy/muzzy being my lack of definition in my own mind, not a slam, there) I realized, was just a cop out. A way to blend and not ruffle the feathers of the believers around me.

Here's what snapped me out of it: I would often meet with local greyhound owners to walk our dogs together, and one day, one of the women said "I feel so sorry for atheists. Their lives must be so empty, without anything to believe in." And while she wasn't trying to be insulting, I realized that I WAS insulted. And I snapped "Don't worry about us, we have full lives and believe in plenty of things. Just none of those things are a made up magical being called God." Oh, hey, look who fell out of the atheist closet. And I apologized for slamming her belief, because I'm NOT a believer in "eye for an eye". My credo runs more along the lines of "Well, SOMEONE needs to be an adult here." And I thought, well, okay then. No more bullexpletive.

But still, it was mostly just in my head. There didn't seem any purpose in upsetting people -- family, friends. It just wasn't that important to take a stand. Which sounds silly, still. Take a stand on NOT believing in something. To MY brain it was like feeling the need to proclaim you don't believe in Unicorns. It's just enough that you don't, right?

Until a dear friend said one evening, in the middle of a conversation that had vaguely wandered onto the topic of church and I'm not sure how we got there (yes, there was alcohol involved, fine) and she said something along the lines of atheists being selfish and not contributing to their community the way that churchgoers did. And I said "I'm an atheist, are you saying I don't contribute to the community?" Which was again, far more belligerent sounding than I meant. This stuff is hard to talk about, without sounding either belligerent or defensive, which is why I don't LIKE to.

But she had a point. Not that atheists are selfish and don't contribute -- but it's almost always individually, or as part of a large effort. We're invisible. And easy for people to make assumptions. Let's face it, if you truly believe that the only thing that makes people do good is fear of going to hell, or because their God told them to be kind and good...it's an easy assumption that without Faith, without an Almighty waiting to tap our knuckles with some metaphorical ruler, well, without that, atheists are selfish and amoral.

So. It's time to stand up. I pay my taxes, I contribute both money and time to bettering my community and my world. I obey the law, I help my neighbors, I'm kind to animals, I leave things in better shape than I find them, I try to be the best human I can. And I'm an atheist.

[User Picture]From: sestree
2011-10-20 05:48 pm (UTC)
I believe people are either inherently good or inherently selfish regardless of their personal belief choice or choice of non-belief.

Nature, nurture, brain chemicals, whatever. Threat of damnation and hellfire certainly didn't help Ted Bundy stop killing people ... and the removal of that threat doesn't mean you will start killing people.

oooo goodie - rationalization. Don't blame me - blame my science teacher. A devout Catholic with a degree in zoology and a profound belief in evolution.
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[User Picture]From: furrball
2011-10-20 06:11 pm (UTC)
You and Jason could go places with this conversation. :)

I'm a "I'm not sure, and I don't care"ist. Which actually is different, in my mind, than being one of the flavours of agnostic. It's really more like atheist-without-the-self-confidence. There might be something. I've thought of several reasonable ideas of what that something might be. I don't know if I believe any of them. And there just as well might be nothing. But I absolutely, positively believe that no matter which way it goes, religion is not needed to give purpose, to make people nice, to turn people into contributors... and in no way shape or form should it touch politics and/or lawmaking. People may pray for my soul all they want, to any deity they wish, as long as they keep their religion out of the way of me making a better life for myself and my children. So there.
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[User Picture]From: terribleturnip
2011-10-20 07:56 pm (UTC)
I welcome the chance! But I lived a long time where you are. And it's a good place to be, I think. I just started rubbing brains with people who were taking a stand -- mostly out of fear of those who think that all of our societal ills could be solved if only we all prayed in school and...well, you know. I will fight both for the freedom to believe and the freedom to not believe. We seem to be losing sight of that freedom. That's what pushed me to take a label, which I normally abhor.
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[User Picture]From: quislet
2011-10-20 06:13 pm (UTC)
You know, you remind me that someone once said, "when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." I forget who that was...
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[User Picture]From: furrball
2011-10-21 05:08 am (UTC)
Do you really forget? Because this could go either into "wow, crazy yet apropos coincidence" or "ah, sarcasm".
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[User Picture]From: bittibuddha
2011-10-20 07:05 pm (UTC)
The morning I realized I had stopped visualizing (and conversing with) a Deity (any Deity), I still washed the dishes and went to work.

I still love people.
In the end, I think that's even better than the idea of God.

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[User Picture]From: terribleturnip
2011-10-20 07:57 pm (UTC)
Yes. Yes, it is.
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