Saturday, December 13, 2008

Personal History, part 4

See the entire "personal history" series of posts:
  • Part 1 - Who I am now. why I'm an atheist, a skeptic, and a progressive liberal, and why I think that's a good thing.
  • Part 2 - I grew up in a Mormon family and community, but my parents always encouraged critical thinking.
  • Part 3 - As I became a teenager, I began having doubts about religion and the supernatural and began to reconcile that with a scientific viewpoint that increasingly edged out religion.
  • Part 4 - "Agnostic, leaning toward atheism"

Part 4: "Agnostic, leaning towards atheism"
It's been a long while since I've posted an entry in my personal history series... The time has come, intrepid readers, for the next in the series.

In part three, I discussed my reasons for leaving the LDS church at a young age. So, what's a newly godless junior high school kid to do?

The answer: not much different than what I did before. I still had the same friends, I still excelled in school. The main difference is that I did not attend the daily seminary class as most of my peers did. For those not in the know, since Utah is dominated by the Mormon church, most middle and high schools have a not-quite-on-site "seminary" building, where most Mormon kids attend a religious instruction class for one period a day.

It was in fact my non-attendance at seminary that first made me realize how different I was from everyone else. In tenth grade, I'd sit outside my 5th period class, every day after lunch, waiting for it to begin along with a five or so other students. I'd struck up a friendship with one of these kids, until one day he asked me who I had for seminary.

"Oh, I don't have seminary."

"Why not?"

"I'm not Mormon." This was the first time I had ever said those words to anyone. I even felt a little bit like I was lying to him for saying it.

"What are you?"

"I'm agnostic."

"What's that? Does that mean you worship Satan?" These were his exact words. It is burned into my memory.

"No! What that means is that, to me, whether or not God exists is kind of irrelevant. I'm going to live my life the same way either way." I was formulating my personal philosophy, on the fly, for the first time. "As long as I live my life to the fullest and I try to do good if I can or at least do no harm, then I'm happy." I had stolen bits of that from the Dalai Lama, but it accurately reflected how I felt at the time.

"You're weird."

At this time, the teacher came back to unlock the classroom... But it was official: I was an agnostic.

I repeated a version of this little speech or anyone who asked me what religion I was for the next, oh, ten years. Sometimes, the response was thought-provoking, sometimes hostile, sometimes outright hilarious. I didn't understand why those with faith -- regardless of their faith -- found it SO hard to accept that I really, truly could feel this way:
  • Once, at a party, the conversation turned to religion, and it came up that I didn't believe in god. A friend was was shocked to hear that. "What do you hold on to in life?" she asked. I responded that I held on to the people and things that made me happy. "Well, cocaine makes you happy, so you'd hold on to that?"
  • My later-sister-in-law, about a year after I told her I gave her that above speech, asked me "So, have you decided what religion you are yet?" She herself was a Wiccan who would introduce herself to strangers by saying "I worship the goddess Brigid!" After asking if I'd found my faith, she then made a recommendation. "I think you would really get in to the Norse gods." (Yeah: the idea of eternal bloody warfare sure was my idea of heaven.) Wait, what? Even though you worship some modernized version of the Celt gods, you think I would do well with Thor? Don't both of these cosmologies have their own competing take on how the universe functions? They can't both be equally true.
  • At a late night outing to The Belgian Waffle (ah, the finest American cuisine one can find at 4:00 AM), one friend, a born-again Christian, explained how this philosophy doomed me to hell. "Why?" I asked. Wouldn't God care that I strove to be a good person, whatever failings I have? No, she explained, he wouldn't: "I have faith in Jesus Christ! I know that he died for my sins, so works have nothing to do with it! I know that if I were judged for the stuff I do, I'd go to hell, but since I believe in Jesus, I'm saved."
Oh, how perverse! Saying "in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen" gave her a free pass to do whatever she liked, to whomever she liked; while even the most moral, kind, helpful and honest person would be doomed to an eternity of the most horrific torture if he happened to not thank a Mesopotamian sky god for his mac n' cheese? Astoundingly, my friend answered that "YES HE WOULD!" Remember, Hell isn't some place where someone has to go for a couple of years of unpleasant conditions. It's not prison. Hell is a place where you are DOOMED TO BE HORRIFICALLY TORTURED FOR ETERNITY.

Do you have any idea how long eternity is? The Universe that you and I live in is currently estimated to be just shy of 14 billion years old. That's nearly an unimaginable about of time. 13,700,000,000 years. The current life expectancy for an American is about 78 years.
That means the universe has about 175,000,000 American lifespans under its belt... It's really difficult to wrap our minds around even THAT number... Now, think about 13.7 billion years repeated an infinite number of times. That is how long this "merciful god" thinks it is appropriate to unrelentingly torture someone who lives a perfectly moral existence, but declines to worship him.

Loving God my ass.

Telling people you're not religious somehow seemed to encourage them to trot out their most superficial reason for believing... In each case above, their religion was all about making them feel better about themselves. It wasn't -- not REALLY -- about having a deeper understanding of the universe. I don't doubt that many religious people do feel very connected to the universe and strive to understand their place in it, but it certainly wasn't the standard trope of your average religious person when I revealed myself as a nonbeliever.

Now, I know that not every religious person believes things like that, but a disconcerting number of them do. Indeed, it is a major premise of the evangelical movement. And why the disconnect? If the Bible (or any other religious text) is infallible and to be taken literally, then how could so many people have so many different takes? Either unbelievers were damned (Mark 16:16) or they weren't (no Bible verses to back up that perspective).

All the stuff was rolling around in the back of my head. As I said, I called myself agnostic, but if there WAS a god, it surely wasn't the god of the Bible. Maybe it was more of a Deist god... Of course, if you had forced me to choose one way or the other on the god proposition, I would have thought god was unlikely... But it was a hell of a lot easier, socially, to just say I was unconcerned about religion, rather expressing disbelief in what so many others held dear.

From the time I was in middle school up until just maybe five years ago, I continued to call myself agnostic. But I was always fascinated by religion. I read the Gnostic gospels, the Kalevala, the Bible, bits of the Qur'an. My college major was anthropology, in part because it allowed me to study evolutionary theory, and in part because it allowed me to study the history of religion. (One of my professors, Eva Wasilewska, wrote a book called Creation Stories of the Middle East which is very readable and very entertaining).

Every once in a while, I'd update my definition of myself to "atheist," but soon I'd go back to "agnostic." In part 5, I'll talk a bit about how I came to view myself decisively and confidently as an atheist, and my introduction to scientific skepticism.


Elaine said...

It's not "entire," yet! Still looking forward to "Part 5," and any that may follow ... I'll post these to the SHIFT blog too, if you don't mind. Very well-written! Thanks for re-sharing.

GreenishBlue said...

Maybe I WILL write a part 5... and maybe a part 6, as a lot has chnaged in my life since I started writing these. :)