Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Losing my Religion

Holidays are a time to gather family to eat a fine meal, connect, and create lasting memories. Religious holidays are often the reason for formal family gatherings, filled with time honored traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. Some of my most vivid childhood memories took place at my Grandmother’s or parent’s dining room table during these holiday celebrations and I attempt every year to bring that magic to my own home when hosting. The one holiday we consistently host every year, not splitting between Minnesota and New York is Easter; my obligation to travel home for Easter ended during college. We love entertaining and hosting family and friends for Easter brunch but the irony of this being “our holiday” doesn’t escape me. Easter is, even with the advent of the bunny, a very religious holiday and I don’t believe in the reason for this season.

For several of my formative years I was dragged kicking and screaming to a “megachurch” with so many members it required large movie screens so the back row wouldn’t miss the three hours of worship. Followers prayed out loud, threw their hands up to God, and supported the preacher and his brood of children through weekly offerings. I would not be surprised if snake appearances and people fainting in the aisles actually happened, but they kept that stuff away from Sunday school area. Even in my youth I was clever enough to see through the smoke and mirrors of this cult. The “leaders” used unhealthy tactics to keep people coming and giving week after week; making the congregation feel guilty about their thoughts, uneasy with their bodies, disempowering their ability to learn, think, feel and believe in themselves. This wasn’t faith, it was a money making business, and the business plan included preying on people who had no faith in themselves and making everyone feel terrible so they needed “healing.” In bible school we learned to love our neighbors but hate non-believers and gays. We learned that we were all beautiful in the eyes of God, but men were more important in his eyes. Upon declaring I didn’t want children, I was told there was something wrong with me and I needed healing because women were put on earth to make more disciples. Needless to say this experience left me very cynical about organized religion and more then a little battered by their belittling, sexist teachings. Through the years I returned to the denomination I was baptized under, Lutheranism, but often attend not for the word of God but for the music; where else can you get a good performance for a tax-deductible donation?

This disdain, fear, and suspicion of organized religion led me to look at the world of religion from a magnifying lens. Studying political science after attending a cult-like church only deepened my cynicism of organized religion, examining social conservatism’s heavy reliance on the relationships between politicians and religious leaders. Those seeking power throughout history often used religion to achieve political objectives. Church services became a strong campaign medium, promoting candidates and causes through the exploitation of faith. “What Would Jesus Do” morphed into “Who Would Jesus Vote For” and congregations nationwide faced the ultimate peer pressure from their church to conform politically. “Followers” learned that that voting differently then their church leadership was an act against God. A few church leaders were so vocal from the pulpit about their political standings they were charged with violating the terms of their church tax-exempt status.

Separation of church and state is a nice idea in theory, but governments rely heavily on religious organizations to teach and enforce a code of morals and ethics. Even the most secular societies recognize religious holidays, encourage worship attendance, promote religious donations through tax-deductions, and support faith based volunteerism; religion is a tool used to maintain a happy, healthy, and reliable population. Religion teaches lessons like “thou shalt not kill,” “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and “forgive those who sin against you” but it is society as a whole, therefore government entities, who benefits from basic moral lessons. Religion is used as a means of enforcing order, law, and control in chaotic societies. Throughout time government, rulers, dictators, and other leaders recognized the power of religious faith; often people who would rebel against political leadership would blindly follow their religious leaders. Naturally many politicians and preachers recognized the benefits of combining forces; politicians get more votes and a better behaved populace, churches get tax breaks, attendance laws, and greater recognition.

There are plenty of churches and teachers that are true to God’s word, uninfluenced by political agenda, but my struggle with organized religion includes the historic interpretations and writings. I don’t know whether the Bible, or any other books like the Torah, Qur’an, or The Book of Mormon, is truly “holy.” Did messages get lost in translation, misinterpreted in a “game” of scripture telephone? Are holy scriptures more a reflection of the writers’ beliefs than divine message? Have we taken fictional literature and declared them God’s word? Were the messages in any or all these holy books manipulated to serve the political and social needs and beliefs of the very humans writing the verses? Our cultural rules of “polite conversation” and “don’t discuss religion and politics” make it nearly impossible to engage in any intelligent conversation on these difficult questions; it’s much easier and less volatile to discuss celebrity gossip.

People can say I’ve lost my faith or that I am a heathen but I’m not alone. According to recent data nearly 25% of American Christians and 60% of American Jews question the existence of God. 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation think salvation can be found in a variety of religions and not just the one they practice. Churches are closing in record numbers and many churches face decreased attendance and an aging population. Many churches now close on Christmas, unable to draw in people who are too busy opening up their Santa presents. Practicing Catholics and Evangelicals are often at odds with church teachings on birth control, abortion, women’s rights, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex. Muslims and Jews often eat bacon, forbidden by both religions. More and more people pick-and-choose what they believe in; practicing the parts of religion they like and leaving the rest on the table. I just happen to be on a very strict diet when it comes to organized religion.

This week I celebrate Easter even if that makes me a hypocrite for questioning whether I believe Jesus was the son of God or his ascension into heaven. I consider myself a spiritual person despite my skepticism of recognized world religions. I do believe in a higher being and she is not too happy with how we humans have distorted and manipulated her teachings or planet. I believe in not one but many higher spirits that would be more pissed at how we rape our soil, overpopulate our land, pollute our water, torture our creatures, discriminate, and hate than eating meat on Fridays during lent. This Easter Sunday I celebrate the changing of the seasons and pray to the gods above that our earth continues to provide the bounty on my family table. I applaud the Lutheran Church and the University of Minnesota's Eco-Palms program; ensuring leaves used for Palm Sunday, for a growing number of churches, were harvested in an environmentally sensitive manner by workers getting paid a fair price. I am thankful to those churches that promote acceptance and togetherness, organize their communities, promote volunteerism, and deliver services for the greater good. I thank the heavens above for providing me with the strength, will, intelligence, and determination to succeed in my “chosen” profession. I give thanks for the family and friends who provide me love, support, guidance and remind me of what is important in life. Most of all I celebrate living in a country where I can question its religious and political leaders without fear of persecution or crucifixion.

Summary from my “Facebook 25
23. I am not religious. I celebrate religious holidays because of tradition and family togetherness, not because of the true meaning of the day. Christmas for me is a celebration of winter. Easter is a celebration of spring. I (occasionally) attend church because it is a place to listen to cheap, beautiful live music. If there is a higher being then I think there is more than one required to do all the work required of higher beings. I guess this technically makes me a neo-pagan for those who must put me in a neat little religious box.


LousyCook said...

I was going to ask "what's with the photo of the Orthodox Church?" but it's hard to tell from the photo if there might be an organ or something back there, which would be atypical of Orthodoxy, so I suppose it's possible that it's a Uniate church.

Explosive Bombchelle said...

Very perceptive Lousy Cook! The only time I go to church with a camera is for weddings and this was taken during an Orthodox wedding I attended last year.

LousyCook said...

Ah, that explains it. I was puzzled b/c it didn't look like a stock photo, but I couldn't figure why you'd have been in an Orthodox Church (and I knew it wasn't from Kira's wedding).

Anonymous said...

Wow sounds like some weird church you attended. I'm glad I didn't go to the same one as you