Friday, April 3, 2015

Post-Religious Awakening

This is the first year that I'm experiencing Good Friday as a post-religious person.  Last year, with a new baby and postpartum anxiety and depression in full swing, I don't remember much one way or another about Lent or Holy Week. This year, I have thought about these days off and on as an outsider.  I've though - hmm, this must be what Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, etc. have always felt about the Easter season while living in a Christian nation.  Namely, I know it's a big deal for many people, but it just isn't relevant to me.  I don't feel good or bad about this.  I certainly don't feel guilty - allelujah!

It would appear that an internalized sense of guilt has kept my leaving religion at bay for many years. There isn't anything new that I recently learned or experienced that would have convinced me to leave my former religious self behind.  Rather, it must have been one tiny last straw that finally let me cross to the other side - guilt-free!

I've been trying to focus on the positive metaphors and morals in the stories and rituals of my cultural Catholicism.  However, with the imagery and wording of Good Friday, it's nearly impossible.  Today is THE day of guilt.  Guilt-offering.  For years I approached this day - and the entire Lenten season - from the perspective of sinful little old me, reminded of all the ways I've fallen short of perfection. What's more, I've been programmed to feel guilty for the government sanctioned execution of an innocent man who walked the Earth 2000 years ago.  I've been told that my daily short-comings contributed to his pain and suffering.  I've been made to feel as though I personally pounded the nails into his wrists and feet.  The thing is, if something is repeated enough times, no matter how ridiculously far-fetched it is, we tend to start to believe it.  Or at the very least leave room for its possibility.

The entire fairy tale of Christianity - and that's how I now see it, as a "fairy tale" - depends on this singular hook in the heart and soul of the faithful: guilt.  Once a person accepts personal responsibility for taking part in Jesus's death, it's just a hop and skip from that to accepting the entire dogma and theology on faith alone.

Faith has been propped up as this incredible virtue among the - well, faithful.  It's called a gift from God, so that those of us who don't buy it can feel left out by not having received this gift from our Creator.  But really, the only thing faith does - faith in the context of religion - is keep us from thinking for ourselves.  We believe what others have experienced, instead of seeking to experience union with God ourselves.

Let me be clear here - I still believe in God.  I am post-religious, not an atheist.  I don't blame atheists for their belief (which is indeed a belief if you say with certainty that something does or does not exist), I just disagree with them based on my subjective experience of the world and my objective observation of nature.  However, my God is no longer a holy Santa Clause.  And I don't say this to be disrespectful; I say this to be truthful.

Before Maya was born (as that seems to be the trigger that allowed me to finally distance myself from the bonds of religion), I believed in a personal God, a God who was like me in that he was a person with feelings, thoughts, opinions, preferences, pet-peeves.  Except that he was also magical in that he had special powers, by virtue of being Creator of all that is.  Therefore, my relationship with this God was almost exactly like a child's relationship with Santa Clause. He knows if I've been good or bad, so I ought to be good for goodness' sake!  And if I am good, he rewards me.  Otherwise, I either don't get what I want, or worse, I get metaphorical coal in my shoes.

My conversations with Santa Clause God were like letters to Santa.  First and foremost, I made sure to be grateful for all the blessings I already possessed.  God forbid that he think I'm ungrateful!  And once that was out of the way, just to make sure I presented myself in a positive light, I'd apologize for my short-comings.  This way, it was as if it made them go away, as if I hadn't done them.  In Catholicism in particular I had a very nifty ritual to convince me that the slate was clean - Confession!

Once I thanked Santa Clause God and apologized for messing up, I was ready to get to the point.  My requests were for myself, others I knew, people I didn't know, and the world at large.  I tried on a few occasions to make it a habit to pray for others, and each time I felt guilty when it occurred to me that there weren't enough hours in a day for me to get to everyone I wanted to cover in prayer.  I felt guilty because I came to believe that if I didn't pray for them, they would not be blessed.

Now I'm able to look at God more logically.  If I believe that God loves us all, then he doesn't wait around for others to request blessings for their fellow humans.  He just goes ahead and blesses them! And when it seems that he isn't blessing someone, especially someone we deem as deserving?  Ah, now we have a problem, and the ever-handy "faith" comes to the rescue.  You just have to have faith that God is working on that situation, that something good will eventually come of it.  And for most situations, I was fine with this.  But there were some situations that I heard about that this explanation just didn't agree with my image of what a loving God was like.  Human trafficking.  Modern-day slavery.  Smuggling of human beings.  I won't even go into the details of what that entails!  But no explanation was good enough to convince me that Santa Clause God was both all-loving and all-powerful.

And finally, an explanation - an alternative view of God - made it reasonable for me to believe in God even in light of all the injustice in the world, without feeling the need to blame God for "letting it happen".

I held on to the personal God idea even after I started to doubt it.  I felt as though I couldn't feel safe in a world without an overseeing father-figure in charge of it all.  I actually remember thinking that maybe I don't believe it anymore, but I'm content with pretending because the alternative is too scary. But fear is not a good reason to do anything.

I came to Deism as a philosophical concept thanks to the internet.  Here was a view of the world that seemed to lay midway between atheism and revealed religions.  Revealed religion refers to any religion that is based around a central founding figure and his (as it usually is a man) claim to a personal revelation from God that is applicable to all people.  So basically, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Based on this claim of revelation, dogma are developed, rituals are established, and a moral code is instated. And people are taught to have faith, follow their authority figures, and don't ask any questions.

I grew up in a revealed religion - Catholicism.  And even though my family are mostly cultural Catholics and seem to pick and choose which Church teachings apply to them, this was the framework in which I was raised.  It was enough to allow me to jump on board the evangelical ship when it came around with such passion and conviction, where people were excited about their beliefs rather than just complacent.  The authentically Christian view of Catholicism eventually spoke to me. I was a believer!

And then, out of nowhere, I wasn't.  And I fought this tooth and nail.  I didn't want to admit - out of guilt - that Christianity no longer spoke to me.  Having spent years on a spiritual journey, I turned to find a spiritual home elsewhere.  But there were always things - seemingly little things even - that turned me off and told me there was not sufficient truth there to warrant a conversion.

On the other hand, I simply knew at the core of my being that GOD EXISTS.  That's why I kept searching.  I thought atheists were throwing away the baby with the bathwater, as it were.  Perhaps agnostics were a bit more reasonable, since they simple stated they didn't know one way or another. But I found agnosticism spiritually unfulfilling.  I am a spiritual being.  I cannot ignore that.  So I searched.

And as I considered religion after religion, time and time again I would subconsciously find the same things standing in my way of full acceptance: dogma and a morality code.  Dogma refers to a set of beliefs.  How can someone tell someone else what to believe?  If a prophet had a certain vision, and that resonated with him (or her), then by all means, good for them!  But why deprive me - why deprive all the faithful masses - of our own experiences of God?  Surely if we are all made in God's image - as I was taught to believe - then we are all equally worthy of communication from God, not just to God.  And the dogmas always seemed to be so convoluted.  People were just not comfortable with not knowing, so theories were put forth, and then those theories were made into dogma.  Instead of saying that this is one way you could look at it, it became the only way.

As for a morality code, I don't propose that in and of itself this is bad.  But again, the devil is in the detail, if you will.  The 10 commandments were already narrowed down to two by Jesus himself, but did his followers accept that?  Nope.  The church has a ready answer for every moral dilemma there is, so that individuals don't have to spend time in personal discernment, to see how God might be leading them.  It can't possibly be the case that something may be right for one person to do but wrong for another.

Around the time that I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression as well as coming to terms with losing my faith, I came across a social movement of sorts that truly resonated with me: minimalism.  For years, I had been trying to simplify and declutter, but slapping the minimalism label on the idea helped me define where I was going with this.  Declutter but why?  Make room for what? And what areas of my life - other than material possessions - were in need of simplification?  If only there was a "minimalist religion", I thought.

And then I found Deism.

Almost everything about Deism resonated with me.  The nature of God was very simple.  He is the Creator of the universe.  Just look at nature for your proof.  Simple and solid proof, to my mind's eye. That's it for dogma.  Apparently different Deists believe different things about God, which worried me at first.  But then I realized that this was because I was still carrying over my ingrained notion of having to delegate my faith to others.  While most Deists seem to believe in a distant God, one who created everything and then went to lunch, some do believe that God still takes an interest in our lives.  The details of how that looks practically speaking are left up to individual Deists.  And so, I found a minimalist dogma: God exists.

It was interesting, but while learning about Deism, I became aware of another reason why I felt the need for so long to hold onto a personal God.  Not only did I think I needed a universal father-figure to hold my hand, but I also wanted the reassurance that I will live forever!  And apparently, I was incapable of separating an eternal life from a personal God. Many Deists don't believe in an afterlife, or they don't think about it the way many revealed religionists do.  But even following the example of Deism in how they conclude that God exists - namely, looking to nature - this leads me to conclude that we do indeed live forever.  Again, the details of what that looks like are not explained.  Minimalism in religion at its best.

For a time, I thought I couldn't consider myself a Deist because I didn't agree with most Deists on God's interactions with us and eternal life.  But it became more and more clear to me that there was no reason to worry.  There isn't a church of Deism that will excommunicate me for believing differently.  There isn't a Deist worth her or his salt who would tell me that my beliefs are wrong.  In other words, if I consider myself a Deist, I'm a Deist.  Who's going to tell me otherwise?

So how does a Deist celebrate Easter?  Well, it depends.  Why would a Deist celebrate the Christian holiday rather than the season of spring which inspires it?  If Easter is supposed to be metaphorically about new life, rebirth, washing away the old and looking forward to the future.... why not forget the metaphors all together and simply look around!

This year's winter was especially taxing on me.  It seems the entire month of February we were covered in snow.  Just when I thought it was finally over, one more major snowfall came at the start of March.  This year was the first time in my life that I was tired of snow and looked with dismay out my window in the morning at the white stuff falling and covering the earth once again.  I was cooped up inside while I longed to be outside.  It was such a chore to put on enough layers - on myself and my toddler, only to spend a few minutes freezing our tooshies. I missed the sun.  No, really, my body missed the sun.  I felt a light yet nagging depression cover my days from lack of sufficient sun exposure.  I was tired of being tired.  I felt dead, in a sense.

I only realized this with the first day of promising warmer times to come.  That day, I smelled the fresh air, I felt the sun on my skin, and I realized I was smiling for no other reason than because I felt alive again! I experienced first-hand a mini-resurrection.

So perhaps the reason I'm not looking forward to Easter this year is that I've already celebrated it, in my own way, in a way that felt more real and personal and meaningful.  He is risen indeed, as am I!