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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On Being Devoutly Agnostic

“I wanted all things to seem to make some sense,
So we could all be happy, yes, instead of tense.
And I made up lies, so
they all fit nice,
and I made this sad world
a paradise”

-Kurt Vonnegut


I can't tell you how long I've wanted to write this post but have failed to ever finish it or post it out of fear that I might offend someone I care about.  And even though it's especially risky to talk about this subject during the holidays, it's the time of the year where the subject of religion weighs most heavily on my mind.  And when I think of religion, I'm always reminded of Mister Vonnegut's words, for they embody many things about what I believe - namely that people believe the stories they want to in the world to make their lives seem better.

Having been raised in a Christian household, Christmas was a time for church and worship and carols about Jesus being born.  As an agnostic parent (with leanings toward Hinduism) I now find that the things I grew up with are more difficult to share with my child without having to explain a whole lot of really intense concepts to her.  (Why, oh why do so many of the religious Christmas songs I know have to bring up that Mary was a virgin?  Yeah, virginity is not an egg I'm ready to crack with my 4-year-old.)  In fact, I've realized this year that the only carols I actually know the words to are religious ones - I literally don't know a whole verse of Frosty the Snowman because he was a pagan idol when I was growing up (magical hat, after all!) and wasn't ever allowed to watch the movie about him.

But that's not the point of this blog.  The point of this blog is to talk about freedom of religion and the concept of having respect for others' personal beliefs.

There is one major guiding principle that I have in my life:
There is no one right, universal way to live as a human being.  

I believe that:
There is no one right way to eat.
There is no one right way to have a family.
There is no one right way to run a country.
There is no one right way to read books, nor is there one genre that appeals to everyone.
There is no one right way to find personal, spiritual fulfillment.  (And yes, this concept is one of the main reasons I identify with Hinduism more than any other belief system.)

This is the essence of what it means to be agnostic: I do not subscribe to any one religion, but I see the beauty in the stories told by each of them, and I accept that they may be right for other people.  I firmly believe that everyone should make informed decisions about their beliefs and should seek to find the kinds of spiritual stories that make them feel happy, that give them purpose, and that make them want to be kind, loving people who help the world around them.

What is religion, after all, if not a series of stories that we choose to either believe or disbelieve?  The religion that speaks most to you may be the one you are raised with, it may be the one that your friend introduces you to later in life, or the one you discover on your own during a college course on world religions (as I did).

Sure there are ways to live that are better than others - don't mistake my open-mindedness for ignorance or condoning of murder or bestiality or __X__ other-awful-thing-that-liberals-must-believe-in - and I feel it's pretty clear to 99.9% of the population that believers like the Westboro Baptists are not really happy people inside. But just as it's clear that a diet of only fast food is bad for your body, there are beliefs and actions that people have that can be just as negative for themselves and the world around them. I find that too many people in the world use their religion as an excuse to be mean-hearted, to hold grudges, or to turn other people into "Them" or "Others."  Rather than trying to be compassionate, caring, and forgiving, they hide behind their holy books and use them to associate only with people who share their exact beliefs and to broadcast their hatred for these "others."

It is the actions that people take that speak to me most - you can talk until you're blue in the face about how great Jesus is, but then if you try to tell me that he would deny poor people welfare because they aren't trying hard enough to work for a living I have no choice but to decide that you must not have read the parts of the Bible where Jesus instructed his followers to give the poor the shirts of their backs.  (And, as a side-note: Major kudos to the new Pope, who seems to be the first head of the Catholic church who actually gets what Jesus was all about on that particular subject.)

I have some friends who are extremely wonderful, caring, proud Christians, and I am always so happy to see them working in their communities and teaching their children the principles that make them good people. These people do not seek out religious combat with their non-believer friends (like me), but instead let the world see how strong their faith is by their actions and the way that they treat others.  They let their lights shine brightly without using them to start flame-wars.  And I guarantee you, their influence over my opinions of religion is much greater than anyone screaming at me from a soapbox about how "god" hates homosexuals and that the political unrest in the Middle East is a sign of the end times.

And for me, the thing is: If you are happy with your beliefs and I see it having a positive effect on the way you conduct yourself as a person, then I am happy for you!!  You have found a way to bring meaning to your life and found a belief that makes you feel fulfilled, and to that I say YAY!  CONGRATULATIONS!  GO FORTH AND DO GOOD!  I will never seek to tear down your faith, I will never seek to tell you that you are wrong.  But I find that I am seldom afforded the reciprocal courtesy of their understanding of my beliefs.

If you ask my opinion I will give an honest answer in the most polite way I know how, for my conviction that everyone's religious beliefs are their own means that I do not like to tell Christians why I don't believe as they do because they often see it as an attack on their own beliefs.  (I wouldn't like to tell anyone that, actually, but I've only ever had Christians in my life challenge me on this topic.)  It's incredibly hard for me to say, "I don't believe that basing your life off of one text, written over 1700 years ago, that was translated multiple times and edited repeatedly at the whim of kings and other political leaders throughout the centuries, is logical" without offending the person who does take the Bible literally.  Or to explain that the four "omnis" of the Christian God - omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipresence - are impossible given the presence of evil in this world.  And honestly, I am quite tempted to take those two examples out of this blog so that I do not have to deal with anyone trying to refute these concepts or telling me that "God isn't logical" or things like that to try and convince me to join their belief system.  But I'm leaving them in there because this is my blog and I shouldn't have to feel ashamed for my beliefs.  NO ONE SHOULD.  That is my whole point in writing this.  I should be able to tell my friends or family "Hey, I respect your beliefs and I'd appreciate it if you would respect mine too" and then let that be the end of it.  Which doesn't mean that I expect them not to talk to me about their church activities or their Bible studies - all it means is that I want them to stop trying to convince me that their way is THE way to believe and to accept the fact that I am informed about Christianity and have made the choice not to follow it.
That's it.
That's all I want.

(Just like I'd really, really like my Paleo-diet friends to do, I might add!  Sorry, folks, I tried it and I know my liver is not cut out for that diet. And the next person who tells me "if you just gave up grains and legumes for good you'd feel much better" is going to a good, solid... laugh in the face.)

Instead, sadly, I've lost friends and been cut off from family members because of our differences of religious opinion. One of the people I cared most about in my entire life no longer speaks to me because I was not willing to join his family's new-found fire for Jesus. And even though I've done my best to stay respectful and neutral on the subject of religion, some people are just not able to do the same.

And you know, I get that they care about me and feel that this is the reason they need to "save" me.  Because they genuinely believe that I am going to hell when I die if they don't show me The Right Way.  But their good intentions get lost when every conversation is a sermon that turns into an argument and especially gets lost when they tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about.  Because I do.

I spent years taking religious studies classes because I knew that the beliefs I was raised with were not all there was in the world and I wanted to understand Christianity in a global context, rather than in the context of the small community and church I grew up in. I could write a book about my personal journey to find a faith that resonated with me (and I might, someday, because it's loaded with awesome stories about exorcisms and proving to someone that Satan didn't answer prayers by winning a video game), but I spent a lot of time doing research and making certain that my choices of belief were ones that I felt were most right.  Not everyone needs to do this, but I have always been a curious person who wants to be well-informed about life. (Gee, I wonder why I found a calling in librarianship?)

So when I eventually introduce my child to the spiritual ideas of Christmas, I will tell her about Jesus.  I will tell her about Yule.  I will show her how to spin a Dreidel and tell her about Hanukkah. I will tell her about how people around the year seek to make the darkest day of the year bright by cooking good food, lighting extra lights, and getting together with their families and friends. And if she decides to join a faith, I will be happy for her too, because I know she will have found what is right for her and I don't want her growing up with the same fear that I did: the fear of seeking knowledge and being yourself.  I want her to be free to find what calls out to her, and to learn that no matter what rhetoric she may hear around her, the holidays are about more than one religion's claim to own them.

Aaaaand on that note, after this extremely heavy post, here's my favorite Christmas song ever from my favorite episode of Community.  I hope you enjoy and, with all my heart, Happy Holidays, friends.