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This I believe

Some people have used up a great deal of energy and bandwidth bloviating about what I believe when it comes to religion and faith. Even if they did actually know me as a human being, the truth would be too inconvenient for them.

This is just a free-form essay, written as matters come to mind.

My mother was Episcopalian and I was baptized and confirmed as one as well. We weren’t regular church goers after I was confirmed, and there weren’t a lot of discussions about God and faith, at least I don’t recall any of significance. From K-6 I attended Catholic school. What I noticed, even as a kid, was that there’s not a heck of a lot of difference between Episcopalian and Catholic rituals. I was always fascinated by the rituals even if I didn’t understand them. I always wondered why I didn’t get to go to confession.

When I was in first grade, it was the early days of post-Vatican II, and the nuns at my school didn’t wear habits. Some even wore skirts just above the knee! One of my teachers, Sister Judith, actually left the order to get married. I recall not completely understanding what they were talking about when they said she was leaving. I was upset, wondering why she had to stop being a nun to get married, and worse, stop teaching us. Corporal punishment was also still alive and well in the late 1960s, and though I didn’t get on the bad side of the more strident nuns, I witnessed a lot of grabbing and even pulling of a student out of the classroom by the ear on more than one occasion.  One teacher had a paddle for those extra special occasions.

I spent 7th grade in public school. I don’t remember attending church during that time.

In 8th grade I had moved to NYC and went to a Lutheran school for one forgettable year. I can’t say it left much of an impression on me. When I went to Stuyvesant High School (a public school in NYC), I was exposed to people of many different faiths and cultures. Many people talk about high school as a horrible experience, but it was the best time of my life, learning from my Jewish friends about their faith, which was clearly a different experience from my own. In fact, talking about how observant or non-observant some of my friends were — cultural Jews versus religious ones, was a topic of discussion. I was sensitized enough to mini-freak out in my mind last year when one of my best friends from NYC came to visit and her husband, who was Jewish (and clearly non-observant), piled on the pork barbecue when we went out to dinner.

But getting back to my personal beliefs, I fall into the category of spiritual but not religious. When my mother passed away suddenly several years ago (it will be 10 years ago this May), her desire on record was not to have a religious service, she simply wanted to have her ashes cast in New York. While she held a strong belief in a power greater than all of us, she was disillusioned by the pettiness of organized religion, and held particular contempt for the “death merchant industry,’ so her send-off was her statement of the simplicity of her brand of faith.

Returning home, driving around in the daze of grief in the immediate aftermath, I often looked up at the clouds, thinking in childlike fashion, I wonder where she is…is she in heaven…is she simply gone? Does this death, while meaningful to me on so many levels, mean no more in the grand scheme of things than stepping on an ant on the sidewalk — just another life snuffed out, life goes on? The thoughts were fleeting at times; sometimes I obsessed about it, sometimes I simply cried and thought about nothing more than the immediacy of losing a parent. You feel orphaned, no matter the age you are when you experience the loss of a parent you are close to, and it’s a time for your brain to race through those memories, those feelings of childhood and dependency on that loved one, and the overwhelming sadness of never being able to talk to or see them again. For those who have grown up in a faith of some kind, no matter how observant you are, it is a time of reconciling religious teachings with reality as well…

— how can God take this person from me?
— if these things happen for a reason, what is the reason?
— how can God allow natural disasters to take thousands of innocent, even believing lives?
— how can God allow earthly misery and suffering for some, and wealth and pleasure for others?

I’m not saying anything here that many others haven’t written or thought about, certainly more eloquently than I have. These are feelings common to many of us who experience a loss of this magnitude. I can still feel the pull of organized religion, its ceremony and sense of community when I attend services (for occasions of others — weddings, funerals, etc.) and can appreciate what faith can do for others in times of need and as a means to share joy and give thanks.

In the end, I am on the agnostic side of the fence, though I’m not precisely sure of which variant, it depends on the day, the events at hand.

Like many of you, I have seen the dark side of a fixed religious belief, exhibited by some people who follow their spiritual leaders without question, take the Bible or sacred text of choice literally and fail to engage in any critical thinking about tomes translated and shaped by humans of their time. Along with poetry, parable, and spiritual inspiration, there are also social mores and political realities of the day threaded in there, for better or worse. Does there mean there is nothing of value in the Good Book? No — there is much that people can find inspiration from in those texts that helps them draw strength and purpose in their lives.

More after the jump.But make no mistake — and history bears it out time and again — humans of faith can be misguided, as can we all. They are stubbornly certain that their spiritual way is the only way, resulting in the earthly realities of war, persecution, demonization, oppression, murder and maiming in the name of whatever holy person, deity or scripture they believe in. Seeds of all-too-human pathology in some religious leaders can grow into toxic weed, strangling their moral center, leading to behaviors that bear no resemblance to anything that represents the very values and beliefs they profess to defend as absolute truths. And there will be those who blindly follow, support and foment the distorted, immoral views of those deeply flawed individuals — they refuse to open their eyes and see.

The questions raised are many. How, for instance, can anyone realistically explain how men representing authority, faith, power and God could knowingly allow children to be repeatedly molested and physically and emotionally abused and still find support within the walls of their hierarchy? How can people of faith justify bombings and terrorist acts in the name of deities and spiritual leaders? How can we reconcile the acts of those following religious doctrine that prevents advocacy of proven means to curtail the spread of fatal or serious communicable diseases affecting thousands, even millions of people?

Many who sympathize with those who commit these atrocities (but do not act themselves) find scripture to support those views, or absolve those who commit heinous crimes or falls from moral grace by pinning the blame on demons, Satan or whatever manifestation of evil they believe in that largely removes personal responsibility from the perpetrators or sinners. If that cannot be achieved, or forgiveness cannot be rendered, then the concept of retribution or even death for those who threaten or violate to upset the apple cart of that particular organized religion may be the prescribed option in one’s faith. This occurs around the world with unfortunate consistency.

Moral failings are seen in people of faith, as well as in people of no faith at all. We are human.

But make no mistake — and history bears it out time and again — humans can be inspired by faith to give to the greater good, something we are all capable of. There are also countless stories of people of faith with selfless dedication to the eradication of poverty, disease, bigotry and discrimination. Spiritual leaders are capable of motivating their flocks to bring relief to those in peril, and to work for social justice where it is absent.

Moral greatness can be seen in people of faith, as well as in people of no faith at all. We are human.

For example, there are “Christians” out there who profess to live by the Bible, but who engage in less-than-Christ-like behavior. The political games of the professional political “Christian” set are responsible for a level of intolerance in our society that is not surprising. Those who beat the bible hardest are also the least capable of being able to live in a world of differing opinions, different kinds of family, or different faiths (or lack thereof). Their answer to “difference” is to work to intimidate and destroy it or attempt to legislate “difference” away lest its existence challenge their religious worldview or threaten social controls they have put into place out of fear, misunderstanding and desire to retain power.

How else can you explain segments of the faith community that justified segregation and anti-miscegenation laws unless you factor in the effect of existing political and social conditions of the time on those people? The bible clearly hasn’t been rewritten since such discrimination was deemed both illegal and immoral by society, but somehow the biblical interpretation that the races shall not mix has fallen away from teachings in most pulpits. [I’d like to say all pulpits, but we sadly know that’s not true.]

We see it happening again with the treatment by LGBT people by some elements of the faith community. These  believers are again citing their personal faith as a reason to deny civil rights to others, a sad replay of biblical recitations and justifications translating into intimidation, violence, intolerance and legislation to prevent changes to their worldview.

Witness the treatment of atheists, for instance. (CNN):

JEAN RICE, ATHEIST: We’re regularly told that we’re going to hell, that we’re sending our children to hell.

GALLAGHER (on camera): These are people saying this to your face?

J. RICE: Yes.


M. RICE: To our face.

…GALLAGHER (voice-over): Jean and Mike both grew up in Christian families, attended church and Bible school, and both say that, at an early age, they questioned the idea of a higher power.

J. RICE: I was 9 or 10. And, one day, for the first time, I realized that everyone else believed all these stories. I just didn’t realize what they meant, that — that there’s actually, supposedly, something out there.

GALLAGHER: The price of coming out publicly as atheists can be high. In the last town they lived in, Jean Rice says, soon after confiding her atheism to a friend, her landlord told the family they would have to move.

J. RICE: Within a few days of my telling her that — that we are atheists, she — I — I started hearing from other people: Oh, are you atheists?

And it — it was quite shocking. And, within a few weeks, my landlord — our landlord gave us notice.

GALLAGHER: The Rices say they can’t prove that religious discrimination was the reason they were asked to leave, but they found the timing suspicious.

(on camera): How has this affected your kids?

J. RICE: They have had to learn to keep their mouths shut.

M. RICE: Our daughter had no one to play with for a long time.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): In the U.S., the number of atheists is estimated between 1 and 3 percent of the overall population. That’s at least three million people.

A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that atheists are the least trusted minority group in the United States, and are less accepted than other marginalized groups, including Muslims and homosexuals

Non-religious/non-practicing people and agnostics aren’t the ones harassing the Rices. Neither are progressive religious people, who may disagree with them, but ascribe to a belief of live and let live. The people who cannot accept  the rights (or even the existence) of non-believers are the very same faces of intolerance who show up in the pulpit on Sundays or sidle up to the White House and the Hill lobbying to push their narrow view of “Christianity” on to the rest of society. These are the same people attempting to deny civil rights to a portion of the population because of their personal faith.

It appears that there will always be a struggle between the religious and the secular elements of any society, but the sorriest part of all of this is that the same fundamental battles over what role religion should play beyond personal faith in one’s home and family continue. The clashes are fought time and again, with little or no self-reflection by those with fixed beliefs — people unwilling to view a diverse society as a strength, not a weakness.

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From an ad campaign by Faith In America, which is “dedicated to the emancipation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from bigotry disguised as religious truth.”

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding