It wasn’t until I left religion behind completely that I was able to save myself.
When you a child and are told by literally every adult you know and trust that something is true, you believe it. I believed it. I don’t believe it now. And it often hurts like I lost a member of my family.
I think my father probably believes that he failed my brother and me somehow - that the fact that we both rejected religion outright in our adulthood is his failure as an example. As a point of fact, his own religious awakening came from a personal experience, something he and other people I love and respect count as part of faith – a “you know it when you experience it” kind of thing. I had the opposite conversion. My enlightenment, though, has been a slow one, one where it occasionally dawns on me that religion is complete horseshit and how it crippled me emotionally and intellectually for the first 40 years of my life. My brother feels our parents made the gravest mistake you can make when raising religious children: they taught us to think for ourselves. And when I am able to step outside of it and really, truly leave it behind the clarity rushes on so hard that I literally have to catch my breath.
From as early as I can remember through high school I went to church pretty much every Sunday (and some Wednesdays, Fridays, holidays...you get the idea). After a while you pretty much get the gist of what they’re going to say to you. Honestly, it’s pretty limited subject matter. I mean once you get past “we praise you” and “you saved me even though I’m totally worthless and don’t deserve it” you’ve pretty much run out. I usually entertained myself by reading whatever I could find interesting in the pew bible, most often the book of Revelation, which was by far the most interesting book to me. I was endlessly fascinated by how fucked up the language was, and I sat wondering how I would recognize the anti-christ or would I miss the signs leading to Armageddon. I understood that the imagery itself wasn’t literal. Still, that’s some wicked scary shit. The bible doesn’t really deliver on the fire-and-brimstone porn that drives the modern Christian idea of hell. I guess we can pretty much thank Dante and Milton for most of that, helped in this age by evangelists and such. It’s more interesting, I guess, than talking about helping poor people and loving each other.
Several times over the course of my teenage years I was herded into a sanctuary or a tent with other Christian kids and lectured (usually with a super-sweet video production) on the evils of rock music. I really can’t believe adults talked to kids like that now. Stuff like satanic messages recorded backward, the name of the band KISS meaning “Kids in Satan’s Service”. Showing the demons on heavy metal albums and telling us it will all lead us to hell. Also, John Lennon is evil. Pretty scary stuff for a 13-year-old. And I bought it, because why wouldn’t I? It was all I knew and so I believed it. It amazes me that people, adult people, think this stuff is real enough to drill it into children. It’s so silly and stupid and just so childish. And guess what? I discovered all of that music in my adolescent and adult life, and most of it is awesome. The direct contrast between the words I had heard and the music I experienced was just another brick in the wall.
When I left my parents’ house and got to college, I still attended church a bit, especially since my long-time girlfriend (who had gone to Indiana with me) was quite evangelical, and devotedly so. After a while this stopped working for me, mostly because I hate waking up in the morning. Like, with a fiery passion. Also, the church I attended was roughly familiar for me, with lots of college students and young couples as well as a pretty conservative bent. One particular morning the pastor really got on the college students, how if we were having sex with each other we were defiling ourselves, and more to the point, our partners. And this wasn’t some old guy, this was a pretty young pastor who had seemed fairly cool up until that point. It was a harrowing half hour, especially when I looked over at my girlfriend and saw that her face was ashen. I knew it had really gotten to her, and it had. It was the kind of moment when you just go “oh, shit, I’m going to be dealing with this for the rest of the day”, and I did. Obviously we had been having sex. I was a 20-year-old college sophomore and I had been with my girlfriend since the end of my sophomore year of high school (true story). I loved her. We had a long-term exclusive relationship and we had gone to college together with the intention of staying together (LOL!). At any rate, why was that so fucking wrong? Why do I have to be scolded for doing what comes the most naturally of all with someone I truly care about and am in a committed, exclusive relationship with? That was probably the moment where it started, sitting on a wooden bench outside of my apartment with mascara running down my girlfriend’s face and me thinking “fuck roughly all of this”. And in my heart I believed I was writing a ticket to hell.
See, it’s not like I just stopped believing all of it. I rejected it, but in my heart I believed that I was going to pay dearly for doing so. For me, it was and is a bit like Huckleberry Finn, out on the river with Jim. Everyone Huck had ever known had told him it was a mortal sin to hide a slave, that to help Jim escape his life of bondage was an evil act, and one that would doom him to an eternity in the fiery put of hell. And he believed it. At one point, Huck writes a letter to confess and turn in his friend Jim, as he thought he must. It comes time to send the letter:
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I'll go to hell”—and tore it up.
I cannot read that without feeling my heart squeeze a bit in my chest. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”. When I walked away from what I’d basically always believed it felt just like that.
And so I spent my 20s and 30s wrestling with this, really hurting and feeling lied to. And still believing somewhere inside that I was really still going to hell. Angry about all of it. I would look at devout Christians, most of whom aren’t a whole lot of fun, and with whom I probably wouldn’t hang out, and say “I’m supposed to look forward to eternity with YOU people? No thanks”. I still railed at the unfairness of the idea itself: these people get to have joy and bliss forever and I get to suffer? For what? Am I really that bad? Am I rotten? Am I not worth it? Then, one evening early on in my relationship with Rachel, we were watching TV and something came on about hell. I mentioned that I still sometimes really worried that I would spend an awfully long time there. After a silent beat or so, I realized that she was looking at me. She stared at me for a second and said, “you know that’s not real, right?”. I paused a moment, sighed, and said “I hope not”. She laughed. Then she said, “oh, they got you good, boy. They really got you good”. And suddenly I realized that I was not really afraid so much, like I had been waiting for someone to give me permission to finally put that down.
Anyway, that’s where I am. I can’t pretend that I don’t miss the idea of being safe, that someone out there loves me completely and in the end everything is going to be OK. But that is childish shit. Everything is not going to be OK. But you have a brief moment to experience the world before you’re gone and you should take advantage of it. This is what you’re going to get. And it’s proving to be good enough, especially if you don’t wait for the promised land you won’t even be conscious to miss. I don’t help people because a book told me to. I am not a moral person because I expect a reward for it. There is real purity in that. My mind is not stained by the idea that I and other people are doomed for being born. And I am free.
I got saved by not being saved.