Monday, June 23, 2008

My Religion Story, Part II

So in part one, I ended my story by telling you about how wonderful my life was after my first retreat. I bet you can already guess where I’m going with this: It didn’t last.

The end of retreat was the beginning of an ever-deepening involvement in the rather twisted world of my youth group. Our young, charismatic, and oh-so-concerned about the state of our souls youth minister was a master of indoctrination. The loving-God-who-changed-lives-and-cared-for-us-part was over and now it was time to get us addicted to a more potent kind of Catholic Guilt than we had previously been accustomed to. We were coming to “Life Nights” (the group was called LifeTeen) on the evils of Abortion, Suicide, Sex… etc, in which the horrors of these things were described in graphic detail (in the case of abortion, an hour long slide show of actual graphics was involved), and worse, we were claiming to enjoy them.

During this period I voluntarily went to church multiple times per week and even was taken once by my youth minister and a friend’s mother to stand outside abortion clinics to help harass people walking in. I’m still intensely ashamed of that, both because it was horrible and because I never even felt that what I was doing was right, but I let myself get sucked in anyways. Thankfully, my mother was horrified at this and prevented it from happening again.

Between the fact that retreat highs don’t last, the crazy guilt, and the questions that, try as I might, I could not banish from my mind, I started to get very, very uncomfortable with this whole religion thing. But I was trapped. This had become a such a big part of my life–I was Catholic and this was my home, my community. And it was so horrible to be ungrateful or doubting when God had fixed my life… so I doubled my efforts. I read my bible every night, cherry picking the inspirational bits to post in my room and give to my friends, and started praying the rosary. I went to extra sessions of Eucharistic adoration, trying to replicate the intensity of emotion in that first experience. These were acts of desperation, because I felt that if I lost faith, I would lose my new happy life.

Stressful events at home and at school accompanied my period of doubt, and one thing led to another… just a few months after the retreat another round of depression hit me, hard. I still wasn’t calling it that, though somewhere in the back of my mind, the word occurred to me. I told myself that I was weak, that I needed another retreat to get back to my faith and make me strong again. I literally counted down the days.

At my second retreat, absolutely nothing happened. I prayed constantly, I was brutal to myself in confession, but there was absolutely no relief. Nothing. Sunday afternoon as we boarded the bus to go back, I felt like being a five-year-old and refusing to leave. I wasn’t finished yet, I needed more time—I knew no way to dig myself out of this mess but to have God save me.

But I boarded the bus and spent the ride home mulling over God’s obvious rejection of me. If God wasn’t willing to help me, than I must be a complete failure, right? But after a second retreat like that one, I stopped feeling quite so guilty and started getting pissed. I was being the perfect little Catholic, and all I was asking was for God to let me be happy. I didn’t want money or good grades or any other form of help, I just wanted to want to get up in the morning.

As I got angrier, I started taking a step back from my circle at church, and I saw things that horrified me.

Our youth minister Meghan played favorites, and her captivating charm was so addictive that those who fell out of her favor (never for any reason other than the fact that someone else was more interesting) were often absolutely destroyed by it. Our group involved at least as much Meghan worship as God worship, and Meghan was very human and very manipulative, sometimes even cruel.

But beyond Meghan, I saw people with real problems in their lives being told that giving it up to God was all that they needed to fix things, when what they needed desperately was someone to get them real help. I saw people who had genuine questions being told to just wait, and they would get through their “dry spell” of faith.

I wish I could say that as soon as I saw all of this, I turned around and walked away. In reality it took me another two years to extricate myself completely from that world, even with a move to a boarding school to pull me away from my home parish. First I went to a new, less harsh Catholic church, then moved into non-denominational Christian wishy-washy-ness, trying to convince myself that it was manipulative behavior and dogma that bothered me. Every step away was full of guilt and there were things that went against church doctrine that I couldn't say or do long after I had decided that logically and morally they were okay, simply because the guilt was imbedded so deep that I would get intensely anxious when considering breaking one of the big rules. (To be fair, I was and to some degree still am a very anxious person, and irrational guilt is something I struggle with even outside of the religious sphere--religion just intensified this tendency.)

But my old objections to the very basic principles of my religion–why is Faith considered a virtue, why do we venerate unnecessary sacrifice, how do we know that we are right about any of this, and how can you base your life on something you can’t prove–grew stronger, and I eventually stopped attending religious services of any kind.

I was functionally an atheist for more than half of my senior year of high school, but the word bothered me. I had never understood how someone could define themselves by something they didn’t believe in, and I was uncomfortable completely destroying part of my identity, even though by this time it was my least favorite part. So I didn’t bother thinking about it, operating under the assumption that God might be there, but it really didn’t matter very much.

But soon after I got to college I made a new friend and when he asked me what my religious beliefs were, I honestly couldn’t tell him. This bothered me, and for the next few months I read about different religions and about the big scary word: Atheism. At first, this was tremendously difficult. Throwing away the remaining traces of my guilt was painful. But I realized that being an atheist made more sense to me than anything else, and I tried the word on for size. In doing this, I finally gave myself permission to stop trying to believe. I was incredibly relieved.

For the first time in my life what I claimed to believe in actually made sense to me, and though it was new, it never felt strange. I felt (and I still feel) that this is what I’ve been trying to believe my whole life–it feels natural for me.

The only people who don’t know about my lack of religion are my family members. My younger brother once said in anger that he didn’t believe in God. He later took it back, but at the time my mother shoved him against the wall and yelled at him for hours. Everyone’s least favorite uncle is the only other atheist in my family, and we all shake our heads at his kids being raised without religion. My grandmother would be genuinely heartbroken if she found out that I had “lost my way.” My family tends to make the common assumption most atheists actually believe in god, they just aren’t strong enough to keep faith through dry spells, or they’re angry about an experience they had with the church.

And I am angry. I’m very angry that at a very difficult point in my life the people that I mistakenly turned to for help were shoving church propaganda down my throat and showing me slide shows of dead babies. I’m angry about the fact that me and several of my friends wasted much of high school struggling to cut ourselves away from an emotionally abusive group of people and a culture that encouraged people to hate themselves, think they were unworthy sinners, and then beg for forgiveness. I am very angry that I let myself be manipulated into believing that my depression was punishment for lack of faith, and angry that I let my religious issues keep me from getting real help for so long. I am angry about many destructive effects of religious belief that are much, much bigger than my own experience. I am angry about enough things to fill an entire post.

But that’s not why I’m an atheist.

I’m an atheist because it makes sense to me.

I’m an atheist because I’m a scientist, because I love the ability to attempt to understand the world without viewing it through the distorted lenses of 2000+ year old doctrine. Religion can teach us a lot about the human mind and human history, but is at best incomplete and at worst damaging in its attempts to construct a guide to morality.

I’m an atheist because I don’t believe that theistic religions arise in almost every culture because of some nonsense about a “god-shaped-hole” in everybody’s heart. I believe religions arise from quirks of the human mind, a desire to make sense of the world, and a fear of death.

I am an atheist because it is much better to take responsibility for your own life and morals than to look forever towards an empty sky.

This all makes me happy, and I am completely comfortable with my beliefs, something I was never able to say before.

I hope that someday I can explain to my family, or at least my siblings, what I believe, but my family is complicated and I’d settle for an acceptance of the fact that I do not want to attend or get married in a Catholic church. But aside from that small snag, my religion story is over.

And that makes me very, very happy.


Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

I experienced some of the same things in my youth, but the most similar experience is the frustration at God not answering me and with me it took a long time to realize that there is a very good reason for this.

"Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Gee, I wish he'd go away."

It isn't God that needs to go away, it's the yearning for something that doesn't exist, something we can never hope to achieve: communion.

Faithinate said...

Some of my churchgoing experiences were similar...I remember the retreat high, that's for sure. And I remember being miserable, and begging god for anything, any help or sign, so that I wouldn't have to be so lost and alone. Isn't that what they told us again and again? That when you find Jesus, He fills you up and you're never alone again?

And same here...that's not why I'm an atheist. It just stopped making sense.

I got the link for this blog from The Carnival of the Godless about 20 minutes after I read my husband's new post The Abuse of Humans (to be published Monday morning), which dovetails amazingly with your story.

Cambria said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. You are a very talented writer.