I was raised in a casual sort of faith. My mom’s family are all believer’s but they don’t adhere to a certain denomination but my dad’s family are Mormon. In fact, my late Grandfather was a church elder and my Grandma – even though she’s 87 and can’t actually attend anymore – is still active in the church. But growing up, I can only recall a handful of months during my entire childhood that we actually attended a brick and mortar church with any kind of regularity. I was maybe nine or 10 and my grandparents had just relocated here to Missouri from Wisconsin and had asked us to start attending our local LDS church with them so my parents obliged. It didn’t last long, though. My parents were casual believers and sitting through hours of services every Sunday just didn’t fit their faith style.
So fast-forward to my teenage years. I’m a shy, quiet 16-year-old, the oldest of three girls, trying – and mostly failing – to deal with the repercussions of my parents nasty divorce on my own when I happen to meet a slightly older, much more charismatic young man who, inexplicably, takes an interest in shy, bookish me instead of the other hoards of young women who would have gladly taken my place. This young man eventually became my husband and through him I was introduced to a kind of religion that I knew existed but had never experienced myself – Fundamentalist Southern Baptist.
We were married when I was 17 and for 13 years I lived the life of a quiet country wife. The kind who was expected to attend church three times a week, know the Bible – and what it says her place in the world is – keep her husband well fed, satisfied in bed, and provide him with children and a clean house. I was strongly discouraged from having any strong opinions of my own, was not allowed to have friends that weren’t approved by him and was forbidden from socializing with anyone without his approval. I was taught that if you didn’t believe in God, you were going to Hell. If you were gay, you were going to a special part of Hell that was REALLY bad. I was taught that black people (especially black men) have a place and that it wasn’t with white women. For 13 years I got to see what fundamentalism is really all about.
Three years ago, I finally got the nerve to leave my ex husband and the fundamentalists with him. After I left, I had a crisis of faith. I knew that the things that I had been hearing the past decade and a half weren’t what I believed but was I wrong? Was the God I knew really just a lie I told myself? Was God really this hateful, vindictive, selfish God that the Baptists believed in? I found myself questioning everything I knew. Shortly thereafter I met the man who I am now engaged to. We had gone to the same high school so I knew that he was an agnostic and after the awful religious experience I had had his skepticism was like a dash of cold water on a fevered forehead. As our relationship progressed, we began having conversations and debates about religion and I found myself talking to him about my frustrations and discussing with him the questions and doubts I was having and, to my surprise, he sympathized with me and encouraged me to explore my faith from the angle of a skeptic, as he did and to see how my belief changed if I approached it with a rational mind. What came out of that exploration is something so much stronger than what it was before. My whole life I believed because I was told that I should. I held a specific set of ideals because these were the ideals that I was told I should have but once I was free of that, I was able to decide what I believed and what I did not.
And do you know what I came up with? I don’t believe that you have to believe in the Christian God to go to Heaven. In fact, I don’t believe you have to believe in God at all to go to Heaven. I believe that God is going to judge you more on the impact that you had on the world around you and on your fellow man than on what God or gods you worshiped when your time comes. I believe that all human beings, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation are entitled to the same rights as everyone else, including the right to be happy with the person they love. I believe that my job in this life is to serve others, to live my life to make others happy. I believe that the Bible is a group of stories written by men and women just like you and I thousands of years ago as those people were trying to explain a world that they didn’t understand and I believe that the importance that some Christians put on that Bible borders on idol worship. My faith is something that has evolved and something that has become distinctly different from the religion of my childhood and early adulthood. I now believe because I choose to. Believing in God gives me a sense of peace – a sense of purpose. It helps to give me guidance in times of need and solace in times of heartache. When I pray, I do so as if I’m speaking to a friend and the contact soothes me.
Many other people have come to their faith the same way I have; through trial and error, through long years of exploration and many different experiences. And it is my own experience with coming to my faith that makes the next part of this blog post so hard to write. I have lived the last several years of my life trying to use my faith to be as inclusive as I possibly can. To take the hateful, perverted thing that modern Christianity has become and turn it into something better, more loving. Something that more people can understand and embrace. Yet there are those out there that simply refuse to see that some of us are trying to turn it all around.
I know that there are people who have been hurt by religion. I know that there are people in the world who look at religion and see nothing but the bad it has done. You see the war and the death, the hunger and the hate and the blood and the hypocrisy. Believe me, I see all those things too. I cannot go back and change the Crusades, or the Salem Witch Trials. I can’t go back and stop the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center and I can’t bring back the millions of innocent people that have been killed in the name of God since then or in the time between. I’m sure there are people who are going to ask why God himself didn’t stop those atrocities if he’s so almighty and I can’t answer that question. I know that doesn’t satisfy you but maybe it’ll make you feel a little better to know it doesn’t satisfy me either.
Religion has done some horrible things, has contributed some unspeakable atrocities to the history of the world, but there are those of use who are devoting our lives to changing things. There are those of us who want nothing more than to see peace and love reign supreme on this earth. To say that all religion is evil is to invalidate all that we’re trying to accomplish. Can we not put aside our differences and work together for a common good? Can we not recognize that, though our methods might be different, our goals are the same? Extremism and fundamentalism are the problem here, and that is to be found on both sides of the argument.
So, please, stop looking at the world and seeing religion as a whole as the enemy because we’re not all out to see the world burn. Let’s take our strengths – your thirst for knowledge, your rationality and critical thinking skills, our desire for change and contacts in the religious world – and use those to our advantage. Work with us to identify a common goal – a goal of making the world a more peaceful place by stamping out those who promote hate and bigotry and hypocrisy – and let’s see how far we can take this. Let’s stop fighting each other and be the change we want to see in the world.