I grew up believing in God and going to church regularly for periods of time but usually just during holidays, at least while I lived with my parents. They were Protestant and we attended a First Baptist church sporadically for a few years. But they preferred a nondenominational pastor and so we switched for a while before falling off altogether after some unknown period of time and a trip to summer camp when I was in sixth grade.
Even outside of attending church, I always believed. I was told to pray and have faith, and I truly knew that God heard me. That he was there, watching over me and that so long as I prayed and believed in him, he would always protect me and help me. This feeling started to fade some when I was around ten years of age.
My neighbor and friend Jennifer had an abusive father. I begged my parents to intervene but they would not, stating that it could end up much worse for Jennifer if they did. So I hid a key under the mat at our back door and told her that if she ever needed to run away at night, she could come to my house and that key would be there for her. It was a weak and feeble offering but it was the best I could do at the time.
Jennifer was and still is a believer. She and I talked about God a great deal when we were young and were just as devoted to him as we were terrified of him. There was no more solemn a thing to say for us than, “I swear to God.” We decided this statement to be the one absolute way to determine whether the other was lying. Because, of course, if you uttered those words upon demand as proof of your claim and it was actually not true, you would go to hell. This memory now connects a lot of dots for me, in hindsight.
As absolute as I was in my faith, I had begun to question whether or not God really gave a shit about us. It was becoming abundantly clear to me through Jennifer’s life that the good guys didn’t actually always win and that the weak were manipulated and enslaved by those who could overpower them. I also didn’t feel the certainty that I did before when I prayed that anyone was there listening. This started me ping-ponging between a strong sense of rebellion and a tormented fear of being damned that would then swing me the other direction into pious behavior.
In my teens, I became deeply religious, attending church three times a week, working at the church bookstore and reading everything in it, living on the church property and teaching youth group. Now it is laughable that they put me in that position I was not qualified in the least. Then again, is anyone? I suppose that is another topic of discussion.
I prefer now to skip over many years and falls from grace to my 29th year. I had moved far from home, my dad was terminally and terribly ill and I was leaving my 20s forever that November. I was growing out of many things that brought me happiness in my youth, and gaining more desire for knowledge of the natural world and philosophy was becoming more sophisticated in my life. The more I learned about science and the origins of scripture, the harder it became to reconcile these things with I was taught in church. I am always reminded of the R.E.M. song “Losing My Religion” when I think of this time. I recall that I read or heard somewhere that it was another way of saying one was going crazy. I understand, perfectly.
Fast-forward ten more years and here I am, one foot in atheism and a toe on the other foot dipped in agnosticism. I can’t say for sure what is out there beyond us but I can say for sure that nobody knows. Even still, just like a recovered addict, I have moments that make me want to believe. Times when I do still pray, just for the comfort. The truth is, even if there is no higher being, the thought of it is just too reassuring not to want to use it, and that is what makes faith so valuable to people. It is an anchor and a source of hope for those who believe. Many of these sects create strong communities of like-minded people whose fellowship with one another has been studied and found to give these people longer, happier lives. It does not matter what god or gods they worship, just that they are bound by some sort of faith. But I cannot be part of it. I cannot pretend to believe in that which I do not. It isn’t even a choice. It just is.
Now I wonder if there is a way to create these benefits outside of religion. How do we create a trusting, happy environment without the illusion that we are somehow shielded from the horrors and injustices by some invisible deity? Is that just something we must have as humans? Do we require such a screen in order to function on a day-to-day basis without despair or depression that seems to be a wide gateway for sickness? What would we have to do to get there outside of religious faith? How could we believe in each other enough to bring those benefits? How, indeed, when we have so many religions dividing us? Such an irony.
Utopia is impossible but so are miracles. What is wrong with believing in one over the other? I will choose to believe in a better world. In better people and old, hateful ways dying out, hopefully sooner than later. Can we imagine what it would feel like to feel safer not because of the shield of an invisible being but because the people around us are kinder, more compassionate and in tune with how very connected we all are? That is my faith. That is what I will work for and even pray for when I feel inclined to believe that I could possibly will something good out into the world telepathically. It’s worth a shot.