“Personally, I don’t have the talent to believe.” – Arthur Miller, The Atheism Tapes
I am a godless heathen. I have not be seduced by any one deity. I have not been programmed for the kind of fanciful thinking that most religions require.
As a mere observer of organized religion, it’s very easy to dismiss them all as lunacy. But this isn’t about the rejection or dismissal of all religions. I don’t begrudge the believers for their beliefs. If your religion motivates you to stick to the moral high road and helps you make sense of this realm, then pray on, brother. This is simply a reflection on my experiences in faith-based matters.
Technically, I was born into the second-most widely ridiculed religion on the planet. My parents were a couple of (supposedly) devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were dragged along when their mothers had been seduced by the promise of impending Armageddon and righteous immortality on Earth. If you’re only familiar with Jehovah’s Witnesses from hilarious stand-up comedy routines or tidy boys leaving copies of the Watchtower on your doorstep, you don’t know the half of it, buddy. Here’s what I know: they convince their members that the outside world is doomed. Witnesses are forbidden from celebrating holidays or birthdays. Forget Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, kids. Witnesses refuse to vote or participate in any act of national patriotism. They are encouraged to limit socializing with non-Witnesses. If they manage to remain morally superior to everyone else, when the current world order has been destroyed, the righteous will achieve physical immortality on this planet, which will morph into a global Garden of Eden.
By divine providence, I was spared from participating in their special brand of crazy. After my mother’s second divorce (not entirely by her choice), she/we were disfellowshipped (shunned!) and did not return. Thereabouts, she lost her faith. You might have a crisis of faith as well if you lost your one true love, were rejected by those who you thought were your friends, unceremoniously excommunicated from church and your own mother treated you like dirt in public settings, all while working a crap job to straddle the poverty line with two children to support. Her sacrifice prevented me from further ridicule. Can you imagine if I’d been a pudgy, bosom-less, bespectacled, hearing-impaired girl and a Jehovah’s Witness?!
So I was raised without faith. Without faith, it’s difficult to accept—and be accepted into—organized religion.
When I was 16, I did attend a few church sessions with my boyfriend at the time. The Southern Baptist services were solemn and without much ceremony, alternating between standing and singing and listening to some guy yammer about the moral issue of the day. The girls in Sunday school were excited that Easter was approaching which meant chocolate (!!!). The pastor took his family to Disney World for spring break amidst the Southern Baptist boycott of the company and its parks. They all seemed quite content to leave me be on the outskirts, rather than embrace a potential new member of Team Jesus.
I don’t discount the social values of organized religion and the routine of attending church. If anything, I might give it too much credit. Organized religion provides community and social activities that one might not get from public school or cable television. Could my social life have been improved by a couple of church-sponsored bowling trips? Perhaps. But I don’t think gutter balls and rented shoes and soda pop with the youth pastor would’ve renewed my faith in a higher power. My bowling score might be a little better, though.
In my thirty years, I have yet to experience a religious awakening. I didn’t have it when my father died. I didn’t when my sister laid in a hospital bed for several weeks with severe blood clots after giving birth. Based on those school assembly lectures from former druggies/ex-cons/crack whores who found Jesus in a dingy motel bathroom, one gets religious when one has hit their lowest point. I obviously haven’t hit my lowest point yet. Or maybe Jesus should find nicer places to hang out. Panera Bread has free wi-fi. The food court at the mall has some questionable characters who could probably use a hug from Jesus.
Since abandoning the Bible Belt for a pair of atheist garters, I haven’t encountered much in the way of religious pressure. Most people tend to be tolerant of other’s religious practices though I’ve learned to not discuss religion with strangers. Telling people I don’t attend church prompts the follow-up question, “Well, what would you be if you did go to church?” They don’t respond favorably when I say, “A unicorn.”
If this were a Hollywood movie, the act of writing this essay would’ve taken me on a spiritual journey and it would end with me having found faith in a lovable deity. This is not a movie and I remain a faithless cynic. Don’t pray for me just yet. I haven’t fared so terribly as a non-believer. Despite what I might feel in my darkest moments, my most basic needs (and a number of frivolous whims) are fulfilled. Aside from a couple of missteps during a turbulent stretch of puberty and a few adult indulgences, my moral GPS and common sense have kept me out of dingy motel bathrooms. Maybe there is some Heavenly reward for living a pious life. Maybe I’m cheating myself out of my own Heavenly reward by not subscribing to a brand of worship. Right now I’m content to celebrate the birthdays of my loved ones, participate in patriotic hoopla for two countries and just enjoy mortality.