My father was raised Catholic. Catholicism is why his mother had five children (my favorite story of my paternal grandparents’ marriage: when she went into labor for the fourth time in order to deliver my father – having given birth to three girls previously – and they were wheeling her into the delivery room, my grandfather took her hand and said, “If you have another girl, I’m going to divorce you.” Seriously).
My mother went to a Catholic school, briefly, though I’m under the impression, for some reason, that most of her family was Protestant. Or, perhaps, Presbyterian. Says a lot about my knowledge of the Christian denominations that I honestly can’t remember.
On those weekends when my parents worked or just needed some time to themselves, my grandmother would get us up early on Sunday mornings and meticulously dress my sister and I in proper good-girl attire (I remember being, what, 3 or 4, and standing on top of the toilet lid while my grandmother prepared to dress me. I was holding a towel around myself, and when she brought the clothes up, I let the towel drop, in anticipation of being dressed. She cried out, scandalously, “Modesty! Modesty!” I thought she was very funny. Ah, Catholicism). I remember the church because there were good feelings associated with it. She’d bring coloring books and crayons for us to amuse ourselves with while whoever it was preaching was preaching, and afterwards, my grandmother would talk to lots of people and enjoy herself. It was a social club, so far as I could see, and people seemed very nice to each other.
As far as God goes, I believed in “God” just like I believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. And I don’t say that to be condescending. I actually believed – with all my heart – in the existence of Santa Claus until I was, like, twelve years old – longer than I kept up a belief in God. The existence of Santa Claus, to my mind, was much “realer” than that of God. Santa was everywhere. He was at the mall. They made tons of movies about him. I left cookies and milk for him that were eaten the next day. He left presents. I was convinced that I heard him and his reindeer on the roof on many occasions.
But God? Well, I read my grandmother’s copy of The Children’s Bible from cover to cover. They had some seriously great stories in there. Really awesome. All that war and violence. I loved them. But then God would speak out of the air or decide a battle or something and I was like, “That doesn’t happen to me.” And then people would do things that God said, and I was like, “Wow, that would sure make life easier.”
But God never told me what to do. Jesus wasn’t really much in the discussion, so much as I remembered (most of the Bible stories I read were Old Testament). It was all about God, and God was kind of a mean guy, and he told people to do some really weird, contradictory things in order to prove their loyalty to him, like kill their own kids and have sex with their fathers, and after a while, I started to think he was kind of an asshole.
I remember having a conversation in, like the third grade with my buddy Matt. Matt’s dad was a scientist. He did work with cross-breeding stawberry plants, which took him to places like Peru (he came to school and gave a slide show presentation of his time in Peru, the people, the poverty, the landscape. It made a deep impression. When he showed the slide of him and his guy buddies in some offroad Peruvian location, leaping up in the air behind their Toyota truck [riffing on a popular Toyota truck ad at the time] and said, “This is our version of a Toyota truck commericial,” I was like, “I want to have a life like *that*.”), and he was also deeply, deeply committed to Christianity. Matt’s family were what I would term “real” Christians. They were nice to everybody. They practiced what they preached.
But one day Matt and I talked about the existence of God, which I was actually pretty dubious about by that point. I hadn’t seen any God-like manifestations. I hadn’t been struck down when I was bad. I thought it was more likely Santa would put coal in my stocking if I was bad than God strike me down. Seriously.
And he said, “I asked my dad last night, if God made the world, and Adam and Eve, and all of the animals, then why do we have dinosaur fossils that are older than people?”
“Yea,” I said, “that seems kind of weird.”
“Well,” he said, “my dad said that God did that to sort of test the world before he made people. You know, to make sure everything worked. But the dinosaurs weren’t really what he wanted, so he started over.”
“Isn’t that like saying that God made a mistake?” I said. “If God knew everything, why would he have to run an experiment?”
“Maybe God was a scientist,” Matt said (or something to that effect).
What I love about these memories of my conversations with Matt are watching us (and especially him), trying to come to grips with the contradictions between acknowledged, provable “truth” about the way the world works, and how the world is supposed to work and be according to a set of beliefs. It’s something I’ve watched many of my passionately faithful friends do for years.
One of my Mormon buddies recently met and befriended the first openly gay guy she’d ever encountered (in fact, she’d “met” many more gay men and likely a few lesbians and many, many bisexual women in the high school theater, but this was the first time somebody actually “admitted” and discussed their attractions with her). He was Mormon as well, and hearing her speak about him fascinated me. She had this sort of pained note in her voice, this truly confounded expression on her face.
“I just don’t understand,” she said. “He knows what he does is wrong. He knows it goes against God, it’s wrong. But he’s still that way. I just… I don’t understand.”
And my heart bled for her, and bled for him, and what I wanted to say to her was, “If he could change, don’t you think he would? He knows that being loved and accepted means being attracted to women and not attracted to men. He knows that’s the only way to be, to be loved. If he could change, he would. There’s a generation of women and men growing up hating themselves. A generation of people who’d rather commit the `sin’ of suicide than find an ounce of happiness is the arms of somebody they love and desire. Don’t you think that’s fucked up? Do you think that’s what Jesus [I wasn’t even going to ask about Smith] really wanted? Us hating ourselves and each other?”
Instead, to quell what would become a huge, awful debate, I said, “Well, your ideas and mine are very different about this issue.”
How I came to have an issue with organized faith, and Christianity in particular, was being threatened and pressed to conversion by those I grew up with. The aforementioned Mormon and I have since come to terms: we respect each other’s beliefs (well, I respect hers. I think she still secretly prays for me). But I grew up around a lot of self-righteous warring Christian-based groups of people. There was a huge group of Apostolic Lutherans, who all actually talked and looked alike because many of them married third and fourth cousins, and they shared about ten or twelve last names among them, and in their case, it was such an “in” crowd (literally) that they didn’t really try to convert you so much as they just sort of looked down on you. They had a very comfortable path all set up for themselves. The boys apprenticed to those building companies (dry wall, carpentry – there was an emphasis on going into professions in which you used your hands, in which you built things. Desk jobs were frowned on) run by other men in the religion, and the women all got married between 16 and 20 (20 was considered old-maidish). They were pretty clear they were all going to heaven, and you weren’t. Even if you “converted,” you’d never actually be “one of them.” You could pretend, but I didn’t buy it.
I had another good friend who was a Jehovah’s Witness, who didn’t stand up to salute the flag or celebrate any holidays. She was pretty ambivalent about her religion, so she didn’t try and press it on any of us one way or another. She got a lot of crap about it, so she didn’t say much.
Then there was S., who, when my sister told her I’d shacked up with a boyfriend, apparently got a pale, wide-eyed, “She’s going to hell,” look on her face.
“But, what do you think happens when you die?” she once asked me.
“You just die,” I said. “Like anything else. I’ve seen lots of dead things. I think we die just like them.”
“You don’t believe in a soul?”
“I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t that make you sad?”
“Not really. It just means I have to live really well, cause this is probably all I’m going to get.”
She gave me a very nice poem at one point about a soul cut free from the body who roamed the earth without taste, touch, or smell. It was a beautiful, haunting little poem, and I actually stuck it to my notebook. She was startled, as she’d given me the poem as a sort of joke. In fact, I quite liked it.
So I grew up being told that because I wasn’t a Mormon, a Christian-whatever-denomination-she-was like S, a Jehovah’s Witness, and because I didn’t want to marry my third cousin, I was going to hell. After being told by so many different people about how I was going to hell for not being in their camp, I sort of gave up my comfy “agnostic” answer and decided I didn’t believe in god, I believed in people. And I believed we were the only ones who could change things, look after each other, and make the world better.
I did pray a lot to God when I was younger, sort of like writing letters to Santa (again, I apologize if this analogy pisses people off, but honestly, these two were always very close in my mind). But unlike Santa, God never manifested himself, never gave me anything I wanted, never seemed to make things any easier. I had to stop waiting around for God to do things. When I hear people saying they talk to God, they ask God what to do, what I see them doing is what I do with myself: I talk to myself. I figure out what I want. What my body’s telling me. What feels right.
I was watching an interview with Joseph Campbell about myths and religions, and he said that, what, somewhere, when he asked someone to explain to him why they bowed to one another when they should reserve such reverence for God (a Buddhist monk, maybe?), the person replied that they were, in fact, bowing to the god inside of that person. Bowing one’s head was acknowledging that each person held a piece of God inside of them. It was a reminder that each person should be respected, should be acknowledged.
And that idea worked for me. Instead of running after a God who would put me in Heaven or Hell – who would bring me presents or coal – on the basis of some performance, and being driven by that Fear of God, instead what I should do is just be a good person. Is just be respectful to people. Be good. Be better. Help people.
Because if God is love, God is great, God is power, God is peace, God is destruction, God is good, God is bad, God is right, God is wrong… well, you can find all of those things in people, and in yourself.
What made me increasingly angry with organized religion, with many of the more militant sects of Christianity, was when I actually read the Bible. Not just the Old Testament, but the New Testament. And I realized that all of this “you’re going to hell” hate-speech from all of these self-identified “Christians” was a load of crap. What would Jesus do? Probably not tell me I was a hideous whore condemned to the fires of hell. He’d probably be nice to everybody and tell them to love each other. You know, like he does in the Bible. I had a women’s history teacher who said that Jesus was the first feminist to get his ideas set down in print where we could see them. And she would say that several times, “Jesus was the first feminist.”
And if you look at Jesus as a historical figure, if you look at most of the stuff he’s quoted as saying, it’s really great stuff. It’s “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And that’s to a group of guys who are about to stone a woman to death for adultery.
If Christians are really looking to follow the “teachings” of Christ, they’d be the ones putting out the Spongebog “tolerance” video. They’d be the ones arguing for gay rights. They’d be the first ones on your doorstep saying, “We don’t believe women are property, and they have a divine, god-given right to control their own fertility.”
And yes, I do know a lot of people of the Christian faith who do believe in love, and tolerance, and bringing people together. I think that if everybody was really acting as the “Jesus” in today’s society, things would be a lot better off. We’d hate each other less. We’d work together more. There wouldn’t be blue and red states. Just people. Just people who want to love each other, respect themselves, help each other.
Because that’s what I saw in the New Testament. No, I don’t believe there’s an all-powerful creator out there with a big Sauron Eye fixed on me every time I masturbate, but I believe that for those who do believe, they should practice what they’re reading, and interpret it themseleves instead of flocking around personalities like sheep. If you believe in love and tolerance, if you have faith in people, then you don’t preach hate. You don’t tell over half the people in the country that they’ve been born to act as chattle for the other half.
I do have a faith of my own, and it’s based not on one book, or one experience, but on a whole slew of experiences, of twenty-five years of watching people, of listening to stories, of learning to listen to myself, of trying desperately to understand others.
And I believe people can be gorgeous. I believe they can be loved, and that they show a great capacity for love that is often bruised and twisted by those seeking to play power and dominance games. They’re twisted up by old, narrowly interpreted books and preachers on pulpits who tell them they and their bodies and desires are awful, grotesque, terrible things. I believe people can be good. I believe they want to be loved. I believe not only in tolerance, but acceptance, because I’m adult enough to see that everything that these religions seek to destroy, all these things they hate, are more or less aspects of myself and of the people that I love.
And I do not believe that teaching others to hate themselves, that pitting Christian denominations and Christians vs. non-Christians against each other is a valuable way to spend the very, very short time we each get on this planet.
“Divide and conquer” is the surest battle strategy ever devised. It’s how the US was able to defeat the Native Americans, and why they consigned them to such disparate “homelands.” South Africa did the same thing, and it took 60 years of hard fighting to bring people together – a process which remains ongoing.
If you want to give up power to other people, to a wacko-freakshow on the other side of the ocean, what you’ll do to yourself and the people around you is go to war with them, with yourself. You’ll portion people up into Christians and non-Christians, red states and blue states, pro-choice and anti-choice, pro-human rights and anti-human rights. We’ll call it “faith.” “Values.” We’ll forget all about love, about looking for pieces of God in others. We’ll forget that church is fun and social and faith is a profoundly personal experience, not a public one. That individual “values” and “beliefs” are for individuals, and to force those beliefs on others does a deep disservice to you both, because you have shown them you have no respect for who they are, for their experiences, for their bodies, for their lives. And you’ve assumed a higher place, a place of dominance, ascendence, in relation to that person.
And instead of wanting to be good, to be decent, to love, we just want to be right. Everybody wants to be in the camp that gets to portion out who goes to hell, and who goes to heaven. Who gets gifts, who gets coal.
When I finally let go of my belief in Santa, I realized that all those letters I wrote were letters I wrote to my parents. All those loving gifts I got were given to me by real people, the people in my life who loved me. And when I let go of Santa, and reindeer, and endless bags of presents, what I saw were parents who made Christmas magical sometimes on a shoestring budget, with late-night treks to overcrowded toy stores armed with overspent credit cards, against all odds, through exhaustion, working weekends, endless Christmas-Eve closing shifts.
When I drew back the gauze of presents, of Christmas tree, of reindeer, what was left was my family, the people in my life, this expression of human love.
And that, to me, is more magical, more awe-inspiring, more incredible, than God or Santa could ever be.