Wondering What to Believe (Part 3)

Posted on October 4, 2012

“I knew I was finished with religion.”

Well, not quite. Actually, not even close. I went through a period of resentment and anger toward my early education, feelings that dissipated over time, day by day, as I drifted into my twenties. But when necessary or convenient, it was always easy to blame the Catholic Church for the guilt that shadowed me everywhere, and for the lingering uncertainty: What if they were right? What if it was all true, and I was sliding blindly toward some eternal punishment? The nuns had, more than once, smacked me in the back of the head, rapped me on the knuckles with a yardstick, or made me stand alone in the dark coat closet in the back of the room. When I was in the first grade, the teacher whipped a wooden pointer across the back of my legs because I had come to school wearing the wrong color socks. It seemed to be a form of socially-sanctioned sadism. But maybe they were just trying to save me from serving an infinite sentence in the fires of Hell. Small price to pay when you look at it that way.

Not that I did. I looked at it all with growing skepticism, then near-total doubt. But near-total is not the same as total. It was impossible to be sure. The little Catholic boy hidden away deep inside was still afraid, terrified that his soul, by now, was riddled with sin. I imagined it to look like the surface of the Moon, covered with craters and debris, unprotected, dreading the illumination and exposure that would come with Judgment Day. One minor but significant infraction on the soul was like a ketchup stain on a white shirt: everything hinged on the imperfection. It was either immaculate or nothing.

Meanwhile, questions popped around me like bubbles escaping an uncorked bottle. Did school and scripture create this personality? Or was I simply born with certain traits that caused me to absorb those teachings into my cells, allowing them to infect my thoughts and behavior, while my classmates were able to escape unscathed? Did the notion of Original Sin – the idea that we all inherited the consequences of one bad decision by Adam and Eve – forever color my view of the world? It did no good to think, “I would have listened to you, God.” Besides, wouldn’t he have already known that? Somehow I was responsible for that first defiance, a piece of fruit eaten in a garden thousands of years ago. From there, it was a simple step to assume that no matter what happened, I must have done something wrong.

Then I began to read. I found books by authors who dared to pose big, courageous questions. I had asked questions, too, but they were dumb ones, like “When Jesus was in school, did God help him with his homework?” These writers proposed theories that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, was probably not crucified, and may not have even existed! They examined different parts of the Christian faith, citing contradictions and false claims, venturing beyond the expression of doubt to declare dogma inaccurate, or flat-out untrue. Later, I found books about religion in general, some written by believers trying to explain their faith, others by scientists attempting to prove that God wasn’t real.

The more I looked, the more books I found. Words began working their way back into my vocabulary. Words like pagan, which had been expunged from my mind as thoroughly as so many of the heathens themselves had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Pagans, I’d been taught, honored many gods – including rocks, trees, and animals – or no god at all. They were lost and lifeless people, as pale and ponderous as the massive stones they moved and carved. What it came down to, I had thought, was that they rejected Jesus Christ and pretty much got what was coming to them. One premise for that view was the instruction, delivered bluntly and without elaboration, that monotheism — the belief in one God — was inherently superior to polytheism.

To the impartial observer, though, the world seems better explained by a large group of creators, rather than a single, superior Designer. Many of life’s maddening frustrations appear to be the work of a committee of middle managers, some of whom may have missed an important meeting or misunderstood a critical memo. Mosquitoes would be a good example. Cancer would be another.

Pagan is also a generic term, referring to anyone who doesn’t adhere to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. In that sense, it’s the world’s oldest belief system, by far. It describes a person who stares in awe at the heavens, worships nature, loves knowledge, and is easily lost in mystery, and in puzzles that cannot be solved by the human mind. Divinity is found, not in one invisible being, but in nearly everything that is beautiful and good, and that somehow promotes life. This approach had been deemed inferior and implausible, and in my youngest years I accepted its rejection.

Meanwhile, my friends and I looked to a sky that was filled with saints. Thousands of them. We prayed to certain martyrs and miracle-workers to help us with specific problems. Almost every activity you can imagine has a patron saint in charge of it. You pray to Saint Zita when you need help finding your keys. If you have a bad toothache, ask Saint Appolonia to ease your suffering. Saint Stephen is the patron saint of bricklayers. Dominic of Silos watches over pregnant women and prisoners, and offers protection against insects and mad dogs.

For a long time, I swallowed it all. For a longer time, I rejected it all as superstitious nonsense. When the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door, I unleashed a torrent of argument against them. Confronted with aggressively-preachy Protestants, I referred them to passages in their own Bible that advocated slavery and instructed parents to kill their disobedient children. I had gone to my corner and was constantly waiting for the bell to start the next round in a fight I was sure would never end.

And then, I calmed down. I took a tiny step back and saw that everyone was fumbling in the dark. Throughout history, we’ve wondered about the remote past and the distant future. How did we get here? How did everything get here? What are we supposed to do? Where do we find happiness, and how do we deal with those neighbors who are bugging the life out of us? What is death, and does it lead anywhere?

Religion is our invention. It’s a way of trying to understand the incomprehensible, of sifting through the chaos and finding a few fragments of order and hope. There are hundreds of belief systems, present in every nation and culture on Earth. They try to address the big issues, and they’re all wrong. And the more specific their sacred doctrine, the more wrong they’re likely to be. Realizing this, I became an agnostic, because I needed a way to accept my own ignorance and inability to fathom what was going on. This admission, I also realize, opens me up to those who think they have the answers. As we trade opinions and discuss our faith, or lack of it, I feel the same quiet sympathy for them that I suspect they feel for me. We are both, after all, fumbling around in the dark, each sure we’re the ones holding the candle.

(Your prayers have been answered: Part 4 will be the last.)