In a concerted effort to avoid any and all things batshit crazy, I don’t engage in fights on social media, and I rarely read the comment sections of anything.
Occasionally, however, my partner will say, “Did you see that?” Without stopping to think, like driving slowly past a car wreck, I find myself reading a variety of lunacy, including Bullet275’s sentiment that a politician isn’t actually homophobic as long as his anti-gay feelings are based on his religious beliefs. Really? There are so many holes in that logic, it feels like the craft project I crocheted at summer camp when I was twelve, holding string together with beads and feathers. Still, what good is religion if it can’t be used to justify every hateful or disingenuous thought anyone ever has?
I started my voyage through organized worship playing baby Jesus in the Christmas pageant at the church I was raised in, the United Church of Christ (UCC). The congregation was not demonstrative, fairly liberal, and inclusive. They used grape juice for communion instead of wine, and I understood the Bible was to be taken seriously, but not necessarily literally. The building was modern; the sanctuary had colorful banners and huge windows to let the light of God shine on us. Sunday School was predictable, sweet, and very boring.
When I was ten, my best friend was a Baptist, and my mother let me go with her on Sunday mornings. I believe Mom thought God was God, and if I had more fun with the Baptists, it was a way of keeping me interested. The church was old, the sanctuary small and plain, with a podium, plastic flowers, and a huge cross on the wall. The wooden pews snagged my tights and the hymnals smelled as if they’d been stored in someone’s moldy cellar. But the pastor was a crowd pleaser. He had slicked-back dark hair and looked a bit like Elvis. He shouted, he pounded, he cried, he waved his arms as he prayed. “Thank you, Lord, for bringing Jesus to us. Thank you for making him a man. We know you’ve given men the responsibility to take care of the family, to guide and protect the women and children. Thank you, Jesus.”
Somehow, my ten-year old brain found that message appealing, to be loved and protected by someone all-powerful. This pastor and his Jesus were larger than life, and I’m not sure they were completely separate in my head. I was enthralled each week as the minister called on members of the congregation to come to the front and kneel at the altar, opening their hearts to Jesus. After several weeks of shyness rooting me to my seat, I finally responded to the pastor’s entreaty and walked down the aisle to affirm my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior. It was an exciting moment for me; however, it didn’t last.
My new church family was thrilled, and the pastor hugged me, tightly. I don’t think I understood until much later that it was his erect penis rubbing against me, but I unconsciously realized enough that I quickly returned to attending the UCC with my parents. As I entered my teen years, church grew less and less important to me. I discovered smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, and officially let my personal relationship with Jesus go by the wayside when a cute boy stuck his hand down my pants at church camp.
At seventeen, I got pregnant and married the son of a Lutheran minister. We mostly followed the low maintenance religious path, baptizing our son, attending church on major holidays and when we visited our parents. Otherwise, Sunday morning was for sleeping in.
Over the years, I flirted off and on with organized religion. I talked to Jehovah’s Witnesses as they went door to door. I invited Mormons in and had long discussions over coffee and donuts, hoping for spiritual guidance. When I was twenty-four, we moved across the country, and I made new friends.
Marlys was “born again,” and she loved talking about her personal relationship with God. She was bubbly and exuberant. I found her story and her passion compelling. One night while my husband was working, Marlys sat on my overstuffed plaid couch and gently cajoled me until I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart. I didn’t feel manipulated, I was open and ready to commit. For the second time in my life, I became a born again Christian.
My husband was not excited about his wife’s newfound love of God and not at all interested in tailoring his life to meet God’s requirements. I went to an off-brand, protestant church with my new friends, but didn’t ask my husband to go with us.
The church services and Bible studies I attended described a special relationship with the deity. God was very interested in every little thing I did, a clear micromanager, with a long list of requirements. There were the basic ten, of course, but lots of others. God seemed to be constantly concerned with the state of my body and its functions. He worried about the length of my skirts, how much beer I drank, and was especially adamant that I watch nothing overtly sexy on television. Although, God was sometimes loving and helpful, my most vivid memories are comprised of His restrictions causing me untold anxiety.
My new friends and I prayed (religiously) for guidance, and I found it interesting that much of the time, God’s direction seemed to coincide with people’s own desires. Marlys was married, but her husband was not born again and had no desire to be. She fell in love with a man at church, and since this man was saved, God told Marlys it was fine to get divorced and marry the new guy. She deserved the love of a godly man. At the time, I was happy for Marlys and Ron and went to their wedding. In retrospect, it seems most members of the congregation used God to justify whatever they were planning to do anyway.
Using religion to rationalize wants and needs hasn’t changed much since I was twenty-four (or since the world was twenty-four), as indicated by the comment sections on social media. LGBT people are sinners; God says so. Rich people are good; wealth is an indication of God’s blessing. A poor man clearly doesn’t work or pray hard enough and doesn’t deserve any help, God’s or man’s. God doesn’t mind if we lie, as long as our lies glorify Him. Women need to be quiet in church and cede control of their minds and bodies to men, who always know best. God is sad when we say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.
After we moved again and I lost contact with Marlys, I continued to hang onto religion, although much of my fervor waned. I went back to the UCC. I made my oldest son attend confirmation classes. I taught Sunday School. My husband and I divorced, and I started dating which required that I convince myself God was cool with sex outside of holy matrimony. I went to church less and less often, but still thought of myself as mostly Christian.
Until I had a small epiphany. As an employee of a domestic violence program, I was sitting in a workshop, listening to how society supports individual and systemic violence against women, violence against people of color, violence against LGBTQ people, and I realized that organized religion is nothing but magical thinking. Religious faith is not reality, and it’s often used as a tool of oppression. I was raised to believe that the rules of religion are “natural,” the way the world should work, the way God wants things to be. But sitting on a rickety folding chair under flickering fluorescent lights, I suddenly realized, organized religions are man-made. The rules of most religions benefit many people, but none of those people are me or even close to me. The systems are designed to protect the powerful. They’re an artificial construct, and there’s nothing “natural” about them. From that day forward, I stayed far away from the church.
Leaving the church, I mostly gave up on God as well. The two were interchangeable in my mind, and I resented all the time and effort I put into what appeared to be nothing but a shell game. I knew it was possible that God really did exist and was just distorted by people for their own purposes, but I could no longer bring myself to believe in the bearded man in the sky looking down on earth, concerned about minute details of every life. Although I gave up the traditional notion of God, as years went by, I found myself again spiritually searching and came to believe that the world isn’t necessarily random. Something may very well be out there. I just don’t think it’s what I learned in Sunday School.
When I began working on more social justice campaigns, I joined many wonderful people from faith communities who were following Biblical teachings to love each other, to treat people with respect, to fight hatred and poverty and violence. They helped open my mind to another aspect of the church, and their work eased some of my bitterness. I often imagined that if there really was a God, these were the people He was proudest of. I saw a seventy-eight year old woman get arrested at a sit-in, working to make her church LGBTQ inclusive. I helped an ecumenical group raise money to provide housing for victims of domestic violence. I marched next to a minister rallying against transgender bathroom bills. These religious people did not use God to justify their own hatred and insecurities; they were never cruel or mean-spirited. They sang, they marched, they protested, they fundraised, they listened, and they toiled tirelessly to help others. They worked side-by-side with many of us who identified as atheists, and they never criticized or proselytized. These faithful souls didn’t bring me back into the fold, but they gave me hope and showed me what I believe to be the true face of God: caring without judgment, feeding without reservation, loving without condition.
There are people of faith who wish to heal the world, and they helped me understand the value of religion for some, and the goodness it can bring when the focus is on love and not hate. They help heal the anger and bitterness I feel when I remember my experiences, when I watch devout “Christians” lie, cheat, steal, slander, and attack. They represent the best of humanity, and I thank the universe for them every day, especially when I make the mistake of reading the social media comment sections.
Cover image courtesy of WildInWoods via Flickr