Trying to Make Religion Work

So tomorrow night (Friday the 23rd), I will be appearing at FTBconscience 3, a free online video conference hosted by the FreeThought Blogs network. I’m on the Asexual Spectrum Atheists panel along with Siggy, Cerberus, and Sciatrix. The panel will be at 9 p.m. Central. There are a lot of other really cool panels, so check out the schedule!

Back in October, the Carnival of Aces was about Religion or Atheism and Asexuality. I had meant to make a post for it, but unfortunately during that time my life got crazy complicated, including some significant time where I didn’t even have access to the Internet, and it didn’t really let up until the beginning of this year. Since I’ll be spending a lot of time talking about religion and asexuality on the panel though, I’m just going to be focusing on my background with religion and why it didn’t work for me in this post.

Please be warned: this post will discuss religious abuse, domestic violence, and minimizing/policing the way I talk about it. Very brief mentions of sexual violence. Serious criticisms of religion, especially Christianity, are below the cut. If you’re sensitive about that, don’t read on.


Violent Christianity

I was raised in a (Wisconsin Synod) Lutheran household “run” by a serious fundamentalist who never actually read the Bible or comprehended it when he did. My father frequently parroted passages at me in order to demand that I give him the “authority” he thought he deserved—which is to say that he literally wanted me to cower like a kicked dog and immediately do anything that he shouted at me. I’m not joking. My father communicated that very directly. He was overtly, physically violent as well as emotionally abusive, but not sexually violent (as far as I’m aware; certainly never towards me), although some of the things that he said to me made the (unfortunately correct) assumption that I would experience sexual violence. I’ve discussed that elsewhere; I won’t get into it here.

So I have a little bit of an “allergy” towards religion, especially towards Christianity and to a lesser extent, the similar teachings of those religions related to it. I resent many things about religion (though not all religions are equally bad), and they’re not just limited to fundamentalist versions of it. There were many people around me who were not nearly as extreme in their views as my father, and even among the most liberal religious people, I found that religious teachings were used as a coercive tool in the service of excusing and minimizing domestic violence. If I dared to talk about it, to even hint at criticism aimed at religion, people would immediately try to shut me up. It was always, “Hey, not all of us are like that.” Or not all of them are like that, if it comes from other atheists. As if I was ever saying that they were. As if making that excuse doesn’t shut down the conversation. As if it’s not a way of policing the way that I talk about my abuse.

I’m not going around trying to convert everyone that I see to atheism. In fact, I rarely talk about it. It’s just not worth it for me to get involved in conversations like that, because I know that they’re unwelcome, and I’m likely to just hear some triggering canned response in return. I’m not even really out to my family about being atheist, other than the few family members who are also atheist (all part of my generation, and younger than me), because they don’t care. They know I’m not Christian, so it doesn’t make any difference whether I’m atheist, Buddhist, Wiccan, or whatever. They’ll still passive-aggressively send me Bibles, which I’m sometimes tempted to go through and highlight the really offensive passages. But that would make the abuse worse, so I don’t do that.

I only come out as atheist to a select group of people—usually those who are seriously questioning religion themselves. Frequently, they end up identifying as atheist later on. I suppose you could view that as a “conversion,” but really, it’s a conclusion that people should only come to on their own. I give them things to think about, and they make up their own minds. It’s worth noting that my partner, whom I’ve been with for over six years now, is NOT atheist and frequently finds atheist talk irritatingly abrasive. Rather than trying to convert her, I encourage her to explore religion fully and come to her own conclusions. I don’t expect her to ever become atheist, and I genuinely enjoy hearing her perspective on things, even if she’s not so fond of sharing it with me because I ask too many questions she doesn’t want to answer. When she does share, I like the conversation. She doesn’t participate in any mainstream religions, so there’s no conflict there.

I think that there are inherently negative aspects of belief systems that encourage unquestioning acceptance that should definitely be opposed. Nothing should be beyond criticism, especially not when aspects of it glorify genocide, rape, and slavery. There are real passages in my father’s holy book which allow him to justify his abusiveness. Those parts of the Bible which preach love and compassion were only quoted in my family when someone wanted to encourage me to continue to tolerate my father’s abuse, and guilt me for attempting to set boundaries.

It is impossible to have any kind of healthy Christian faith without cherry-picking which parts of the Bible to follow, and which to ignore. And that’s not to say that Christians are bad people—many of them I do get along with, especially when religion doesn’t come up. Of course many Christians don’t accept that the Bible is the literal, exact, perfect word of their god. Most do reject at least the most horrific parts as remnants of the history of a mostly unenlightened people, and realize that there are translation errors. But even setting aside those particular issues, the Bible is just like any other literary work in that there are many different ways to interpret it. It is left up to each reader to decide:

Which parts are literal, and which parts are strange metaphors?

Metaphorical Alternatives

When I was young, I thought all of it was supposed to be a metaphor. I didn’t see my parents’ religion as any different from Santa Clause and Easter Bunny (neither of which I was encouraged to literally believe in), or (later on) the myths of other cultures, like say, that of Persephone. It was just a collection of stories to me… that they apparently really, really liked. I didn’t really see the appeal of such morbid stories about plagues and death. I was more into ponies and friendship. Eventually, with growing horror, I realized that these were things that I was supposed to take as literal truth.

When I went through classes for my confirmation, I actually read the Bible (unlike, I suspect, my classmates). I couldn’t reconcile the supposed “goodness” of the Christian god my parents seemed to believe in with the things he had supposedly done, and the actions my father would say that he sanctioned. So I looked for alternative narratives. Ironically, even though my reason for rejecting their religion was a moral one, my mother questioned whether I had any morals because of it. Her idea of morality was so tied to the will of a divine authority that she couldn’t understand that I wouldlike her, since she is feminist enough to reject many parts of the Bible—determine my own sense of what’s really right and wrong.

When I was 13, I had a friend whose parents apparently dabbled in New Age spiritual practices, although I can’t say whether or not they considered paganism to be their religion. When I was invited to sleepovers at this friend’s house, usually with two or three other girls in attendance, sometimes we would play with rune stones or light some candles and do some ritual chanting. Before my friendship with this group of girls decayed into bullying, I borrowed a book on paganism from her. It was largely unintelligible to me, because it relied on having the context of a particular world view which, having been totally sheltered from everything outside of Christianity, I lacked. But there was something in it worth investigating, so I took to the Internet to find out more about Wicca.

There, I met all manner of eccentric people, including some Otaku-kin with multiple personalities, psychic vampires, and therianthropes. That’s a deep well of out-there that I’m not going to get into, but let’s just say that I still really wasn’t getting it about religion being mostly about a set of real beliefs about the world. I thought they were pretending. It seemed kind of fun.

And I liked the idea of a gothic, nature-based, polytheistic religion with special focus on the moon and a reverence for cats, who for long stretches of my childhood were my only friends. Incorporating whatever deities you like from any culture, mixing and matching as each story called to you, was a nice change from the strict, hyper-authoritarian and paternalistic way I was raised. I didn’t know about magick, but if it really was real, then it would have allowed me to feel empowered within a situation in which I had no power at all. I didn’t literally believe in any of it, although I tried to make it work. The nice thing about it was that you could sort of experiment and personally discover whether it worked or not for yourself, although I realize now that that kind of thing is really powered by cognitive biases.

So I spent most of my teenage years calling myself Wiccan, and then later Buddhist-leaning ecclectic Pagan, and really trying to make it work.

Ritual, Meditation, and the Universe

The best thing I learned from trying to be a witch was how to meditate.

The second best thing was how to read Tarot cards.

Meditation is pretty well recognized even in the scientific community as a beneficial practice, so I don’t think it needs much explanation. Tarot is something that skeptics typically have much less interest in and lots of hostility towards. Personally, I still use it as a way to brainstorm ideas (I’m a writer) and get psychological insight into myself and my intuitions about any given situation. It isn’t a predictive tool in the sense that there is meaningful randomness that is somehow ordered by “fate” or some sort of invisible energy connecting everything or whatever, and it definitely doesn’t tell you what to do. But drawing some random cards and making up a story about how they relate to your life can help you to gain genuine insight about a situation. Whatever meanings you attribute to the cards aren’t things they inherently say; they’re meanings that you create and imbue them with, using common cultural symbols and metaphors. Just like you do in the rest of your life.

Besides all that, a lot of card sets are just beautiful, so I really enjoy flipping through them.

I could never quite get into Wiccan rituals, though. I never had a coven or anything like that; I only met other pagans in person after I started getting to the point where it all just felt too silly. There are definitely aspects of paganism that tend to feel very unwelcoming to an asexual person, especially the idea of sacred sexuality. I’m rather glad I didn’t have anyone pushing me into doing skyclad rituals. Those ideas, plus the growing sense that for me it was more of a live-action RPG than anything else, eventually led me to start identifying (around age 19-20) as pantheist instead.

For those not familiar, pantheism is the idea that everything, the entire Universe, is divine. Everything is one as part of a god that is neither personal nor anthropomorphic, though it may be some sort of sentient being to which we are like cells or bacteria. God is basically a sort of universal spirit, which is an idea that I’ve seen a lot of people (both religious and atheist) get very confused by and annoyed at before (I’m reminded of this post, although that’s slightly different). It makes perfect sense to me.

Why? Because of meditation.

If you practice meditation long enough, you eventually get this sort of sense that your “self” disappears, and that you’re one with everything. It’s very peaceful and powerful, and it’s really easy to see it as experiencing the divine. Certain drugs can also induce this feeling.

But ultimately… what does thinking of the universe in this way actually do for a person? How is the worship of everything as an indiscriminate and impersonal, unconscious… existence actually helpful? How is it really all that different from atheism?

I asked myself those questions after meeting an openly atheist person for the first time, and I couldn’t come up with anything satisfactory. So while I still practice meditation, I no longer identify as religious in any way. There’s just no need for it.

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3 thoughts on “Trying to Make Religion Work

  1. I second the thanks–reading about other people’s experiences with transitioning out of religion is meaningful to me because I’m on my own journey out of Christianity. I currently don’t know where I stand except “not a Christian anymore” and not likely to get involved in any religion again, but I’m embracing the uncertainty after all the black-and-white thinking that Christianity pushed on me.

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  2. Pingback: In case you missed it: FTBcon 3 Ace panel | Prismatic Entanglements

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