"Religion is a solace to many and it is even conceivable that some religion, somewhere, is Ultimate Truth." -Valentine Michael Smith, Stranger In A Strange Land
Religion, and the leaps of faith required to adhere to a particular belief system, is something that has fascinated me for years now. I was born to an extremely religious family and my earliest memories involve prayer, hymns, the family bible, and Sunday school.
I was baptized in the Assembly of God church that my dad helped build as a teenager, and attended that church for the first 10 or so years of my life. For the next seven or so years, I bounced around from church to church, all of which were heavily steeped in fundamentalist, Penecostal traditions: Sunday was the Sabbath; no dancing or alcohol; women had to wear dresses and were not allowed to cut their hair; men were the heads of the households and thus superior to women; animals do not go to Heaven; we are God's ultimate creation. Things like faith healing, speaking in tongues, baptism by the holy spirit, literal interpretation of God's holy word, and the threat of eternal damnation for those who didn't accept God's infinite love loomed large in my childhood.
I was a bright young lad and I remember questioning things. Things like, "Where did Cain & Abel's wives come from?" and "Why does this stuff from the Old Testament no longer apply?" and "Why is it okay for David to kill Goliath even though God said, 'Thou shalt not kill'?"
Each time I dared question or seek to gain some insight to these puzzling quandaries, I was given some runaround answer designed to confuse and stall me while they mixed up more pious pabulum to shove down my throat.
At 17, I discovered marijuana, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, and the scourge of all scourges, sex. I began questioning things I had been taught. I began seeing the hypocrisy inherent in such fundamentalist viewpoints. I began looking for other answers, other opinions, other world views, and other interpretations of God. This is a great big universe, I reasoned, and my little insignificant sect of Christianity couldn't be the only one that held the key to salvation, spiritual insight and the meaning of life, could it?
Over the next several years, I attempted to read anything I could about religion. Everything from Native American shamanistic traditions to Japanese ancestor worship to Satanism. I studied Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism for a couple years, but grew tired of that sect's Amwayesque emphasis on recruiting and its underlying "prosperity gospel" tendencies.
I considered a conversion to Judaism, but I could not fully convince myself that God was still there. That tends to be a problem in cases where not only one's faith hinges on the belief and acceptance of one God, but where that God is the main character in the great cosmic play.
I delved into Wicca at the insistence of an ex-girlfriend and grew to like its themes of communion with nature, the god/goddess dichotomy, and their famous Rede, An it harm none, do what ye will. I couldn't buy into it completely, however, because I couldn't swallow the hocus pocus aspects of their belief system (the magick traditions, animism, et. al.).
For years afterward, I tended toward pantheism, the belief that god is everywhere and, by logic, we are ourselves god. God is not anthropomorphic and is not interventionist. He/she/it is simply Nature or the Universe or a Force that keeps all the chaos in order. I liked that idea and for many years identified as that privately (though publicly I would admit to being an agnostic, since it was much easier than trying to explain what "pantheism" is).
In time, I became more skeptical of anything that could not be proven scientifically. I valued logic, the scientific method, and observable phenomenon that could be explained through rigid testing and sound collection and analysis of data. As I became more of a skeptic, I began to identify as an atheist. God no longer existed until proof to the contrary could be provided.
Then came September 15, 2009 when my wife of 9 years died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. Aside from the obvious tailspin it sent me into, it caused me to begin questioning my strongly-held beliefs. She, too, subscribed to no particular religion or spiritual practice. In the absence of religion and faith in our lives, I didn't want to believe that this was all there is. I wanted to believe that my wife was still here, or somewhere. I wanted to believe that it's possible for there to be an afterlife without accepting the existence of a Supreme Being. Most of all, I didn't want my Christian guilt creeping back in trying to convince me that she is now in Hell, simply because she had not been "saved".
All of this got me thinking. Where does the Universal Truth - if any - lie? What are the secrets to life, death, and perhaps afterlife? If there is a God, what does He/She/It want us to believe? Why do we all view the same God so differently? Why are there so many differing belief systems and, more importantly, what do these myriad belief systems have in common?
I decided to go searching for answers to these and many other questions. The best way to do that is not to read, or debate, or to stand outside the chapel while the choir sings inside. The best way is to live it, experience it, to grok it.
So for the next year, I will attend a different religious service each week to try to learn and understand all I can about what we as humans have in common when it comes to how we view our spiritual sides and our beliefs in higher powers. One week, one carefully chosen, and well-researched denomination, be it Catholic, Scientology, Jehovah's Witness, Sunni Muslim, etc. Each Wednesday or Thursday, I will post the chosen service and location I will be attending along with a brief history and overview of that sect or denomination. The following Monday, I will post a recap of my experience, what was taught, and my overall impressions of the congregants, the clergy and the place of worship.
Whenever possible, I will attend with someone who is either a member of that particular religion, or someone who has sufficient knowledge of its particular rituals and core beliefs. I will avoid revealing myself to the clergy or other members of the congregation, in order to not influence teachings, answers to my questions, or the way I am treated when interacting.
At the end of the year, I will try to come to some conclusion about what I've learned. What are the differences? What are the similarities? Can there ever be any overlap in spiritual beliefs? What can one religion, denomination, or sect learn by listening to and embracing the teaching of others? Most importantly, was there compelling enough evidence for "God" to sway this skeptical atheist?
This is not intended as a political blog so I will only mention the following as a way to tie all of this together. It could be argued that every war was fought, not for a flag, but for a deity. Perhaps by answering some of my aforementioned questions, I can find out if all that fighting has been in vain because all these millennia, we have been fighting in the name of the very same person, entity, or cosmic consciousness.
Or maybe we have been fighting over nothing at all. Wouldn't we feel silly then?
- Grokking God
- Baptized as Assembly of God, raised in a strict Penecostal tradition by a very religious family, left God behind at 17 after questioning beliefs and realizing all the hypocrisy inherent in any dogmatic paradigm. Studied Buddhism, Judaism, Satanism, and Wicca before declaring myself a pantheist, and then ultimately, an atheist. The death of my wife on Sep. 15, 2009 has cause me to rethink and challenge many of my beliefs. This blog is a reflection of and a reaction to those challenges.