Liz’s Religious Experience

Talk about getting controversial.  I’m gonna do it.  I’m laying it all out there…well, most of it anyway.  I feel like this post ought to come with a disclaimer, so here it is:  DISCLAIMER:  The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone.  Please read with an open mind.  I in no way am writing this post to try to change anybody’s opinion or belief systems, and I ask you the same courtesy.  I am merely attempting to explain my own beliefs and how I have come to them.  I have deep respect for a person’s right to believe and worship (or not worship) in any manner they feel comfortable with, so long as it harms no one else in the process.
I feel like writing this post because I’ve heard many comments from friends and people I know that I feel are misconceptions about people who identify as agnostic, and, particularly, atheist.  I’ve heard that these people are lost; these people are sinners; these people are going to hell; and that this philosophy is devoid of hope and….yes, faith.

Have you heard comedienne Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God?”  If you’re up for it, I highly recommend it.  She does a great job articulating her beliefs and I find myself agreeing with a lot, though, not all, of what she says.  It’s humorous and personal and extremely brave.  (I will embed the first part of the 13-part video I found on Youtube at the bottom of the page).

I will begin at the beginning of my story, and my origin is quite literally my mom.  I will preface by saying that my mom is a free spirit.  She went to the College of Life.  She has explored many, many different religions in her lifetime, searching for God…for that religious experience I think we’ve all looked for at some time in our lives.  Well, I happened to be born at the time that my mother was exploring the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I am not going into that now, believe me, that is a website all unto its own.  (And here is one Jehovah’s Witness Recovery)

So here I was growing up in a religion that is very exclusive in nature.  I felt completely alienated from my peers.  The word “worldly” was an adjective used to describe bad people who sinned.  Being “worldly” was quite frankly the worst thing you could be called.  Ironic, considering my current life.  As a JW, even to question the existence of God or the tenants of the Church (I still have a hard time referring to JW’s as a “church”) silently in your mind was a sin that God could hear–and it counted against you.  I grew up thinking for sure that God hated me, which is a waste because I was a pretty great kid.

Eventually my family did leave the JW for a variety of reasons.  If you are interested, I am happy to share with you more details in a private message.  Feel free to email me.  It took me several years before I felt completely comfortable in my new free skin.  In fact, we didn’t celebrate holidays or birthdays for another five years after leaving the church, the beliefs were so ingrained in us.  But eventually we did.  I became a person who celebrated holidays, but did not go to church.  I considered myself a Christian at the time, but had no community.  Eventually my mom joined the Catholic church and about a year or two later I followed in her footsteps.  I mainly admit that I was drawn to the Catholic prayers, the symbols, the saints, and the sense of community.  To this day Catholicism has a special place in my heart.

I enjoyed their process of conversion.  RCIA was fun and intellectual for me, a place to talk and question and share experiences.  I have to admit, though, that subconsciously I think the Catholic church was my church of choice because I grew up in a very small Irish Catholic community.  Most of my friends in elementary school were Catholic.  I watched them go to Catechism every Wednesday.  To a young girl in a small town (think population 600), my world was the Jehovah’s Witnesses and everybody else, and the “everybody else” I was exposed to those first few years were Catholics.  I was curious.  I wanted to belong to that group.  I practiced Catholicism for about a year, trying to separate my worship from my very strong viewpoints that directly contradict Catholic doctrine, trying to rationalize the differences.  Eventually, I stopped going.  RCIA was over, I was moving around a lot studying one semester in Chicago and one semester in Paris, I was nervous to go to a new church on my own, and I just couldn’t rationalize any longer.  I support gay marriage and gay people.  I believe women are equal to men.  I believe in family planning and birth spacing.  Just to name a few.  And to get right down to the heart of the matter, I cannot justify that there is one right religion–not when so many other religions exist and most belief systems are dependent on what part of the world you are born.  This is a huge predicament, not just to continue calling myself Catholic, but to call myself Christian.  So I stopped going to church, stopped praying, and called myself an agnostic without much thought to it.

My senior year of college, I had some good, deep conversations with a few friends that got me thinking more seriously about my beliefs.  Around the same time, the Des Moines Area of Transportation got some heat because they had allowed a local group, Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, to put up an ad on one of their buses.  The ad was simple.  It read:  “Don’t believe in God?  You are not alone,” and had a link to their website.  Some people were outraged.  One woman refused to drive the bus, a few people refused to ride it, etc.  DART reacted by taking down the ad.  This turned out to be premature.  A lot of people, myself included, inundated the Des Moines Register, DART, and the Governor (who made a negative comment regarding the ad supporting the decision to remove it) with emails and letters insisting that the ad go back up.  It was not offensive and was a matter of free speech.  In the end most people supported the ad, or at least the right for the group to buy ad space, which included Christian and other religious groups.  The ad went back up.

Initially, I got involved because I felt that removing the ad was a clear violation of freedom of speech.  But while I was campaigning I, as Julia Sweeney calls it, “put on the atheist-glasses” and looked around–just a quick glance, ready to tear the glasses off and go back to my believing ways if my world started to fall apart.  What surprised me the most, however, was how beautiful the world was with those glasses on.  The world didn’t seem scary or lacking meaning.  If anything, the mere fact of our existence, without a creator or plan felt more magical to me.  I mean think about the odds of a speck of dust turning into a planet of many, spaced in just the right distance from a star to create life, and that life slowly evolving to create me, with my personality, my quirks, my ability love, laugh, and feel pain!  It’s astronomical!  I was in love.  I was at peace.  I had that religious experience I had been looking for when I was a little girl reading Bible stories, a young woman beginning to celebrate her birthday for the first time, a college student sitting in a class aptly titled “The Meaning of Life.”

At that point, I went all gung-ho atheist.  I joined Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, I went to the Midwest Freethinkers convention in Nebraska with my then boyfriend where I was a hit.  The members loved hearing my unique experience as a former Jehovah’s Witness.  I enjoyed myself.  But I couldn’t help but notice something.

The members gave talks about how closed-minded “those Christians” were.  There were a lot of jokes that were honestly quite disrespectful and offensive.  I merrily laughed at a few and self-consciously looked down through others.  I think this was just part of separating ourselves from who we used to be.  To make fun of our old beliefs in order to make peace with our new beliefs.  Changing paradigms like this is extremely challenging, scary, and takes time to truly accept.  But now I look back and clearly see that I was not being as open minded as I thought I was.

For a couple years I wore my atheist glasses with pride, staying caught up with PZ Myer’s blog (one that I still enjoy).  But more recently I have gone back to identifying as agnostic.  Why?  Because I cannot say that there is or isn’t a god, or God, or a creator, or energy, or force, or great love, or what have you.  There very well could be.  And He might be fire and brimstone.  I may die and face my maker and be sent to hell for eternity.  Believe it or not, I’ve made peace with that.  I will not convert to a religion simply to cower to that “What if you’re wrong?” argument.  If that’s how it is, then I accept it.  I would not really want to live in heaven for an eternity in that reality anyway.  I’m sorry, but I’m just being honest.  It is also quite possible that the Hindus have it right, or the Muslims, or the Jews, or the Shinto; or it may be a more rounded, generalized theism; one where there is a god who goes by many names and as long as you lived your life the best you possibly could, you’re fine–or there might be nothing.  I might just die; my body going back into the soil, replenishing and feeding the earth and small organisms, returning the energy that I consumed while living.  And I think that that is truly beautiful.  The fact is, I don’t know.  And I’m okay with that.

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