I am not a religious person. I kind of feel like when I make this declaration I should brace myself for the backlash, as I get into a defensive stance. I think if someone says something along the lines of, “I am not religious,” or “I don’t believe in God,” or “I don’t like church,” there are instant judgments made about that person. It’s like a reflex. For me I may not know exactly what I believe in, but I know that I believe in something.
I was raised Catholic, and I think this rigid upbringing of “not having a choice” and being forced to participate in something I found inherently wrong, as contributing to my aversion of church, religion and all things God-related. Back then, I definitely believed in God, but I did not believe in the church. I prayed at night, not because it was encouraged because I never prayed the way I was “supposed to pray.” At night I would just have a conversation with God. I would tell him about my day, thank him when it moved me to, and ask for something if I was anxious. I didn’t ask for toys or books or material things, it was usually about how to handle something or asking for something not to be as bad as I thought it would be. (And occasionally I asked for someone to like me, not in a romantic way, but because it was someone I admired or looked up to.) It was informal and I didn’t go through all of the prayers that were drilled into my head. I never uttered them unless I was at CCD and had to (religious education for young Catholics).
At this time in my life, I would separate God and the church. Because even as I was praying to God, well into my teens, I was already very much against the church and its literal take on the Bible. When you’re Catholic, you are “confirmed” when you’re in the eighth grade. This is like a second baptism, where you are committing yourself to God and the Catholic faith because you’re an adult now, and can make such decisions. I made my decision to not be confirmed, and was immediately threatened and bullied into it by my God-fearing parents. So, who really has a choice at the age? My dismissal was not something I made out of rebellion or because I hated attending church every Sunday; it was about the things that Catholicism pushed that I could not get on board with. To be fair, these things are the same things I feel passionate about today – things I have never questioned.
But back then, I was vocal about my concerns, even going to talk to a priest about them. Top of the list was the church’s stance on homosexuality and the right to choose. I don’t believe in a vengeful God, or one who condemns someone just because of who they are. He made them that way in the first place. And as a survivor and working with other survivors, I cannot fathom telling a rape victim that she has to keep her baby. And make no mistake, I am still pro-choice for women who aren’t victims of rape or have a medical reason why having a baby would be harmful to them (and I want children more than anything, and cannot biologically have them so this is a very personal thing for me), but when it comes to the church’s stance (and any actual legislation in this country) there is no dividing line. It isn’t, “An abortion is all right, if you were raped.” Can you imagine it, and then just wait for the list of things that must have occurred for it to be a “legitimate rape.” There are other things I disagree with, but these are the two biggies – I am less about the judgment and more about the joy and love that should be associated with God.
Back then, when I still definitively believed in God, I believed he would not turn anyone away who actually embraced him. Nothing was unforgivable and for the things like homosexuality, no apologies or appeals needed to happen. You love God and truly believe in him, and you’re in. End of story. And what is so wrong with that? Today, I am a little more “lived,” (understatement!) and I’m not sure if I believe in God or Heaven or Hell, but I do believe in something more than science that we can already prove. I believe in putting things out in the universe and being a good person, and a lot of the principles that religion preaches. I believe in something after death, even if I’m not entirely sure of what that something is. I believe in miracles (especially having been the recipient of one in 2010, when my kidneys went from transplant list to 100% again and doctors were stumped – literally overnight). But since religion is all about God, the one thing I waver in, I still believe I cannot call myself religious: spiritual, perhaps, but not religious.
And there are many things that seem to be pillars of faith that I hear from religious people over and over again that I know I don’t agree with. I don’t believe that a person is only given what they can handle at one time. Sometimes a person is given too fucking much at one time, and some people receive very little “to handle” while for others it is just pile after pile of shit. And the people receiving all this crap are good people. Where is the balance? I feel like this statement is just an invitation for judgment. If a person feels so terrible that they end their lives, I do not judge them. I am sad, and if it is someone I was close to, perhaps angry and confused – but I don’t blame. I just wish them peace.
I also don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. I understand from a rational standpoint that this may be less about religion and more about coping. Sometimes you just need there to be a “reason,” and that need may not make sense, reason doesn’t make it any easier to bear, but at the same time it makes you feel more secure in trying to deal with it. But I have seen enough in my lifetime, heard of enough, helped people who have been through X, while going through Y myself. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. Sometimes shit just happens. And you deal with it as best you can, but trying to give something a reason can be incredibly insensitive if it is something that someone else is going through.
When I was dying a few people would say, “Remember, this is God’s plan. You’re making better doctors, pushing people to think differently in the medical community. Your death will matter. He always takes the good ones young, you know.” While I never said this to these people, sometimes because I was unable to talk, my only thought on these statements sounded loudly in my head, and if I was capable in my journaling, “Shut the fuck up!” Seriously. How crazy is it to tell someone that their life is nothing more than a plan for someone else, but they’re too insignificant to understand or be let in on said plan. What kind of God do they believe in? And so, I don’t go to church or claim any denomination or religion as my own, because I can usually find something I disagree with in its teachings.
Sometimes I attend church for my mother-in-law, but that is it and even that is seldom. She is very religious and I know it is important to her. I don’t complain to share any of my anti-religion views with her, but she knows that I am “not religious” or not a church-goer. And she never pushes. To be fair if she did, it would probably have the opposite reaction and I would not attend. But instead she invites me, and says she would love for me to come, but only if I want to. In truth I never want to go to church in the way I interpret the statement, but I do want to make the effort for her, and I know how much it means to her, so I do. These are the times when I “try” the hardest with her, simply because of what going to church feels like to me (I have never shared this with her, it would not be productive). For me, when I walk into the church, I feel instantly judged. Like I am put on display for parishioners to point fingers at and whisper, like I am one walking sin. And so I feel the most defensive, the most uncomfortable in a place of worship.
And I know that part of this has to do with my own experiences with the church when I was younger, but I have yet to see any denomination completely take a pro-gay, pro-choice or at least an anti-judgment stance. That seems to be more of a church location by church location variance. And I find this to be incredibly sad. And contrary to what a lot of people believe, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is not taking up these positions in religion. They are a way to claim to be better than judging others, but you’re judging them by acknowledging their “sin” so it really is no better. It’s like with people who “tolerate” gay people, but do not accept them. Does anyone not remember the whole “separate but equal” bullshit of the 1960’s and before?
Still, there are a lot of positive aspects of church and religion, depending on the church and faith. Hope, unconditional love, peace, generosity, and selflessness are ideas that most churches preach, and some even practice. And most churches provide a strong community within the congregation. And community is great. These are things I would like my children to learn about and be a part of, but the judgments and Bible teachings seem like too high of a trade off.
My husband isn’t particularly religious either, though he is much more religious than I am. And I am fairly sure he believes in God, definitively. And I know he believes in Heaven, not so sure about Hell. But knowing that it matters to him, at least a little, makes me want to try and be as “open” as I claim to be. Our friends invited us to their church last December. We know a lot of their friends from their church already and it was nice. By nice, I mean that this church did everything right. It made it clear that is accepting and welcomed everyone, and for the first time I did not feel “judged” when I went into a church, though I still felt uncomfortable. This is the kind of church I could see myself being a part of, and enjoying, but there is all those past experiences that make me hesitant and leery. As though I am waiting for the “Gotcha!”
And of course I should also probably figure out where I stand on the whole God thing. Because believing in God, kind of feels like a prerequisite, something I told my husband when we were on the subject after attending this wonderful church.
ME: I liked it, but I don’t know. I mean can you imagine me telling their minister I don’t even know if I believe in God?
My husband smirked and gave me a knowing look.
ME: If I ever get to that point, we (God and I) would have to have one hell of a conversation.