As a child, we didn't really discuss religion. In fact, I cannot recall a single instance in which we talked about it. The only time I was exposed to religion was when I would stay over at my cousins house for a weekend and go to church with their family. Well, that and going to mass on Christmas. It was always boring and uninteresting to me. I remember liking the parts where there was music and being excited to try and read the passages in which the whole congregation would speak together. I never understood, contemplated, or even listened to what was actually being said there. In fact, I didn't understand a lot, stuff like communion and baptisms confused me.
I do, though, vaguely remember having personal and private contemplation about God as a young child. It was often when I would spend time outside by myself, walking around our large backyard. This contemplation undoubtedly was related to a closeness I was feeling with nature then. I can remember one such instance with great clarity. It was a cool spring day, the sky was blue-gray probably a warning of a spring shower. Everything seemed so vibrant, particularly the green grass and the light which, despite the clouds, surrounded me and seemed to illuminate everything. I don't know why I can remember this particular instance, but then I was sure that God had something to do with it. I felt safe and happy and I knew that God was taking care of me or I was at least unable to formulate a different answer to these feelings.
I know this because I can remember these years better. I started getting friends and that was all that really seemed to matter. Religion and God went away. I would have probably said I was a Christian because that's what my family, particularly the more religious family members, would associate themselves as. Most of the time, though, I didn't think about it, and I can't recall my friends ever being particularly religious either. I can remember, though, there was just one Jewish boy in my fifth grade class. I don't remember the context, but I remember him telling the class about his traditions during the holiday seasons. It interested me, but I still didn't think much about it.
In middle school, life kind of changed. After sixth grade my best friend since second grade moved away whilst simultaneously my parents divorced. It wasn't easy, but I was lucky enough to have found friends during seventh grade in a class that I felt comfortable and passionate about. It was a speech and drama class that I had chosen over choir because I was interested in acting at the time. One of these friends lived close to the apartment where my mom had moved, so I even had someone to ride the bus home with while I was staying with her (this friend also happens to be my roommate now about ten years later). Although, choir is what had become my passion later on and most friendships I made at this time didn't last through high school, I am incredibly grateful that I had taken that class to find a place where I was comfortable and where there were people with similar interests and personalities.
One such person I found in this class was Muslim. She was probably the one I felt closest to at that time. Mostly it didn't make a difference, but when Ramadan came along we asked why she didn't eat lunch and I asked questions, hoping that I wouldn't offend her. As I can remember, she answered all of my questions willingly and openly.
I can remember wanting to make all my friends small, personalized stockings for the holidays with gifts and I planned on making one for her, even though she was Muslim, and she asked me not to. I remember being surprised that she didn't want a gift from me. I think I was so surprised because Christmas didn't have a religious meaning to me. Going to mass and talking about the birth of Jesus had been a part of it, but to me Christmas was about piling into my Grandparents' van and looking at Christmas lights, no matter how bored my brothers and I got. It was about the three of us getting up before our parents Christmas morning and impatiently waiting outside their door in our small house, trying not to peak in the living room and spoil the excitement of all entering as a family. It was going to my Grandparents house and seeing all of my cousins, drinking my Grandfathers eggnog, and eating all the goodies that my Grandmother made for us. It was acting like a kid at the kid table during dinner, while all the grown-ups crowded around the table in the dining room. It was playing games, playing in the snow, being together. Christmas always has been and always will be about spending time with the people who are most important to me. So, when one of my best friends told me she didn't want a Christmas gift because of her religious beliefs it surprised me. But, I became curious and religion began to become something I thought about more.
I can't remember when, but somewhere in the 7th-9th grade years, one of my brothers joined a youth group at a church and it sort of became the "cool thing" to do. I can remember expressing an interest and going once with my friends to a different youth group. I can also remember not feeling comfortable in church, all I wanted was to spend more time with my friends, it didn't matter where it was. My aunts found out about this one way or another and bought my brother and I Bibles for Teens, which, admittedly, I didn't do much reading from. I only went the once to the youth group with my friends, because I knew that I wasn't going there to be at church and I would have rather been at home or at a friends house doing normal teenage things than being, quite literally, preached to, even if all my friends were being preached to as well. I was a good kid, too. I didn't get in trouble, I got decent grades, I was cautious and careful, and I didn't feel as though I needed any external guidance in my life. My friends and family were good to me, I was good to myself, and I didn't see how anything could really make my life any better or make me a better person.
From eighth grade and all through high school, I was in choir. It consumed my life. This was where I felt as if I was part of something larger, where I got my release, and was how I coped with particularly stressful moments in my life. During my sophomore year of high school, there were two such events. First, there was a boy that I knew from other friends, we often went in a large group to the bowling alley to have a good time. Rather unexpectedly this boy died of illness. I wasn't particularly close to him, but I can remember being confused, shocked, and deeply saddened by this event. Secondly, this was also the year that my father committed suicide.
I can remember talking with my dad, shortly before he died, about religion. He expressed to me his interest and curiosity in this phenomenon. He read books on comparative religion and tried to answer his questions that most of us have had at some point about religion and faith. In turn, I found myself curious and wanted to answer these questions, particularly after the two deaths that I experienced at age fifteen.
As I mentioned, I found comfort in choir, it was easy and therapeutic to focus on the music and to sing. It seemed like a haven where anyone was welcome. There was something incredibly and beautifully moving to me that thirty or so people having completely different lives, from different cliques, people who wouldn't have ever otherwise even spoke to one another would come together and make this gorgeous music (and we were GOOD!) and each voice was important to creating it. However, I was surrounded by different denominations in this small yet close knit community. I had friends who were Catholic, Baptist, and some who took to a "spiritual" faith that was closely influenced by Buddhism. Even the music we sang focused on different cultures and faiths. So, just having come out of life-changing experiences and with the curiosity mustered within me, I began to try looking for answers.
I began talking to some of my choir friends about their beliefs. They were already easier to talk to because of an unspoken bond that you have when you share a passion and open your vulnerable self to them everyday without thinking much about it. I was invited by a friend whose family had finally just found a church they liked to join her.
I was originally interested because I could be a part of their church choir as well and I could stay and listen to the sermon. There was no doubt that I felt welcomed with open arms, however, during the sermons I found myself terrified. This being a very traditional Southern Baptist church, the pastor and congregation were very passionate. They were not allowed to go to the movies, they were not allowed to listen to certain kinds of music, heck, the women weren't even allowed to wear pants! For a while, I forced it, I went more than once a week to church and practically all day on Sunday. I, for some reason I still don't understand, wanted to believe it. I started wearing skirts to church, but otherwise, I lived my life as I normally would. Then, the pastor became incredibly overbearing on me. After some coaxing, I agreed to be saved. However, they were constantly telling me that I NEEDED to be baptized and, to be frank, I wasn't yet comfortable with it. I started going less. I can remember the moment I decided that I wasn't going back. It was around Halloween and I went to my friend's house who had introduced me to the church and we planned on going to a haunted house. But, we were going with the pastor's family. My friend and her mother quickly changed into their modest, conservative skirts and I was stuck in my jeans. I was mortified, terribly embarrassed, particularly by the way the pastor looked at me. He concealed it quite well and it was only an initial glance, and he didn't say anything, I just felt uncomfortable. We went through the haunted house without anything else happening, but I didn't understand what the difference was. Why did it make me a good person to wear skirts and dresses but a bad person to wear pants? Later on, this friend would make comments about how women shouldn't be in positions of power because of views from the Bible. I began thinking about how it only changed my life while I was at church. I can remember even at one point forcing myself to deny evolution. I began to notice more and more the ridiculousness of it all and how all of the people I loved, my family, still lived the same. I finally was honest with myself and decided that I didn't want to be in a Heaven where my family and friends didn't exist. How perfect would that be? Beyond that, I wasn't even happy going to this church.
This was beyond a reasonable doubt my worst religious experience and detrimental to any positivity I held about religion. But...no questions had been answered and I was still curious.
I spoke with my spiritual friends. This was a much more positive idea to me, particularly because it was peaceful and very personal. But, for me, part of the downfall was that it was so personal. I couldn't really share any experiences with anyone because everyone had different views, there was no construct to it, and that made it difficult for me. But, this was sort of how I identified myself through the end of my high school career.
My senior year in high school I took a humanities class in which there was a section about comparative religion, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It talked about the five main religions in the world that you hear about the most the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism). I particularly enjoyed this class because of my curiosity and my growing interest in travel and other cultures. I'd always had friends with different beliefs and they'd always been open and accepting of me (to which I attribute my genuine curiosity), so I always did my best to be open and accepting of others.
I graduated from high school and moved an hour or so South from my hometown to Eastern Michigan University. I lived in the dorm with a friend I had known for a long time whom I met in middle school choir and was in choir with me throughout high school (she had even been in the Humanities class with me). At the time, she was Catholic, though she shifted her beliefs during that first year. We often had discussions about religion and I would often ask her about her own faith. We took a comparative religion class together during my second semester after I'd given up on my music major and was looking for something new that I would be interested in. This class, as well as other classes I found myself interested in, continued to generate conversations between us which would often make us start asking questions that cannot be answered and were more complex than the category of religion.
It was easy to pick and choose characteristics of each religion we studied that I liked and thought that everyone should live by. They were the simple, easy ones that most people take from religion. Pure and simple just be a good person. But, I knew that I and everyone else don't REALLY need a book or a faith to tell them that's the right way to live your life. I began to realize that there is a purpose to religion, but that religion has strayed far from its original purpose and all the external factors irritated and disinterested me from attaching myself to one.
The fall semester of my sophomore year in college I took my first anthropology course and it was exactly what I wanted. I felt as if I was finally getting some answers. Anthropology is, in my opinion, the most useful and important discipline there is and is what I'm currently getting a degree in.
Anthropology is the study of people and why they do and think the things they do with an emphasis on culture. Really, it's all about culture. Everything is. Culture is a human invention and our mechanism for survival. And religion is a part of culture. In a world much simpler than ours, religion was invented to explain things that were at the time unexplainable. Things like weather, life and death, emotion. Religion also became a coping mechanism. In time of need, whether it be a disaster or loss of a loved one, people need something to latch on to, some form of ceremony and ritual to keep themselves going.
In a modern world, we now have the intellectual capabilities and technology to begin to answer some questions that were asked when these beliefs, that are still accepted all over the world, were first acquired. However, something that I think draws me in to subjects such as religion, anthropology, astronomy, sociology, art, philosophy and so many other disciplines is that it is impossible to know. I have fallen head-over-heels in love with knowledge and learning as much as I can about everything so I can do my best to make the most probable judgments about what I think in my personal faith.
In a way, anthropology is probably the main reason I'm writing this, because it has taught me to analyze my experiences and as many other experiences as I can. I realize that I'm fortunate that my parents did not force any ideological beliefs on me and I was able to experience and find my own way. I was able to look at every religion I could find in a book, in the people I met, on the television, going to services, and decide for myself. I believe that this journey of sorts has also led me to be a peaceful, open, and accepting person who wants to learn all there is to know rather than subscribe to one set of beliefs because it was all I ever knew.
This one single college general education class was a life changing experience for me. I began to formulate what I really do believe in based on all the knowledge I had accumulated so far and I realized that what I believe is really simple. It's something that was introduced to me at an early age, particularly in a Disney movie about a lion cub who runs away from home and grows up with a warthog and meerkat (yes, I think you know the one). The circle of life. Many people think this is a somewhat crude and pessimistic way of viewing things, but I honestly think that this natural way is beautiful. The lions eat the antelope, then the lions die and become food for the grass, then the antelope eats the grass. Never ending recycling and an importance and purpose for everything that exists without any guidance from external powers or a big man with a beard leering over you, watching your every move, and scaring you into living a certain away. The entire universe works like this. Stars explode and make heavier elements that form planets and new stars, and eventually that material will be released back into the universe and reused. Someday, our sun will expand past the orbit of the Earth, and all of the elements will be released back in space. I can't think of anything better than the material that makes me up right now will one day be floating somewhere off in the universe, maybe part of some star or just drifting endlessly through the cosmos.
I know that sounds horribly romantic and maybe sappy, maybe even strange or hippie-esque, but even if I've lost most of my readers at this point, this idea appeals to me more than any religion that has ever been introduced to me before.
However, even though I had sorted out what I think on the religion front by the end of my sophomore year of college, my experience with religion has been FAR from over.
I've taken more courses concerning religion and mythology and I'm still as interested as ever in it. However, more often than not I feel incredibly negative about religion. Again, I am open and accepting and believe everyone has a right to practice their own religious beliefs, but religion, organized religion mostly, causes most of the problems in the world rather than fixing them as was originally intended. The amount of hypocrisy and greed, the idea that a person's faith can have more sway in politics than the issues that should be focused on, and the sheer amount of religion that is allowed to run an entire society disgusts and irritates me beyond belief. To me, organized religion is a problem and unless people begin to actually live the lives that they say they do by affiliating with a faith and being peaceful, loving, and charitable, then I truly believe that the biggest problems plaguing the world will not be resolved. However, this also goes hand-in-hand with another huge problem: poor education. There is no excuse that the majority of citizens in the United States don't believe in evolution. THERE ARE MORE PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE THAT ELVIS IS STILL ALIVE THAN BELIEVE IN EVOLUTION.
This is a problem. Science is not a belief, religion, or lifestyle choice. Science is based on fact and religion is based on belief, there is no reason a belief should be held to a higher accountability than a scientifically viable fact. I'm not saying it's impossible to be intelligent and religious, but denying fact based on a religious belief isn't acceptable. Religion and science can and do co-exist if you open yourself to it.
Like I said, part of the beauty of it all is that nobody knows. No one can tell you that God doesn't exist, but no one can tell you that He does either. Instead of arguing about it, I wish that we could just enjoy this journey together and educate one another as best as possible. Even though I've ironed out what I believe, I'm still learning and trying to understand everything I can about culture, religion, the natural world, and the universe.
I'm willing to have a discussion with anyone about this and I enjoy it, but I'm not looking to change your views, so please don't try to change mine. Please leave any questions or comments you may have, I'm open to answering most questions on my views and opinions.