A few days ago I purchased a beautiful album by Charlie Haden and Hank Jones titled “Come Sunday“. It’s a lovely, laid-back collection of religious hymnals expertly played on the piano and contrabass. A few days before that, I’d purchased a collection titled “Lukk Opp Kirkens Dorer (Throw Open The Church Doors): A Selection Of Norwegian Christian Jazz Psych Funk & Folk 1970-1980“. This was brought to my attention by my friend Aly (whose blog you should read here). More than just an intriguing oddity, this collection is a genuinely groovy, soulful, sometimes bizarre but completely enthralling bunch of tunes. I am not a religious man, but it’s not a problem with either of these albums because one is instrumental and the other is in… uh… Norwegian, I guess?
I told another friend, Sam, about these recent purchases. He immediately raised an eyebrow, the way the odiously arrogant do when they think they have something biting to say.
“Are you going all Christian on me now?”.
“Oh, no, I just really like the songs. You should listen to this, they–“
He interrupted. “You know, because, by buying these records, you’re supporting an institution which stands for th–“
I tuned out. Sam is a nice guy, but the smallest mention of religion sends him into a rage. Before my eyes, he transforms from this mild-mannered, socially awkward system administrator, into an obnoxious, in-your-face militant atheist who can’t handle an opposing viewpoint without exploding into hysterics. More and more, I see people like Sam all over the message boards and comment threads; the Internet has dubbed them “New Atheists”, followers of Dawkins and Hitchens and lovers of reason and logic and science and, apparently, ad hominem attacks. And, though I am very much an ally to their cause in spirit… in reality, I think they go about it the wrong way.
Subversiveness against a dominant paradigm, if it’s a potentially harmful one that encroaches on society’s freedoms and breeds ignorance and hate, is generally a good thing. Confrontation can lead to debate which can lead to action which can lead to change. These are good things. But too often, New Atheists seem spiteful and mean-spirited, taking any sliver of an opportunity to force their views upon anybody who’s there to listen, willingly or otherwise.
I was raised in Roman Catholicism. I had my First Holy Communion at the age of 10. At the time, it was the most exciting thing I’d ever been a part of– a rite of passage that brought all those stories I had heard in church every Sunday to a physical, tangible level. Like most kids, I was always fascinated and excited by the concept of the eternal struggle of Good and Evil, the smiting of the wicked by the hands of the just. Fictionalized portrayals of that dichotomy in movies, TV shows and comic books would capture my imagination in a big way, and it proved to be the main driving force and overarching theme in the few creative works I produced at that age– every story I wrote, every picture I scribbled in my school notebooks, could all be boiled down to Good Guys vs. Bad Guys.
This was also the reason why I was one of those rare kids who didn’t mind going to church every Sunday: I saw the bible readings and the sermons and the ritual itself not as a mind-numbing obligation, but as yet another manifestation of that struggle. And what greater spectacle, what grander battle, than that of God vs. the Devil? The all-knowing giver of life, father to the Earth and all of its wonder, fighting against the Prince of Darkness, master of deception, hate and corruption– who was also, get this, one of his own men, fallen from grace for committing the ultimate act of betrayal and leading a coup against his creator, duking it out in an endless war for the souls of God’s errant children… I mean, fuck! It has all the makings of an exciting summer blockbuster (or, at the very least, a particularly ambitious WWE grudge match). This was church to me. It was an episode of Dragon Ball Z– intense, exciting, sometimes unbearably long and tedious, but ultimately satisfying on that base dramatic level.
I was excited because, by having my First Holy Communion, I was finally becoming an active participant in that epic war. I thought I was finally being given the chance to pick a side. I picked my side, and it was my Father’s side, and my Mother’s side, and Jesus’s side, and the side of everybody and everything that I knew to be righteous and good. For years, I didn’t question it. I was a soldier in God’s army, and I was happy to fulfill my duty as such by giving praise and observing these ten simple rules. And then… something happened.
I went to a Catholic private school, from kindergarten all the way through high-school graduation. This involved the obligatory bible study, religious education, and a class they called “Christian ethics”. This also meant that we were subject to the completely arbitrary and capricious whims of what the school deemed “appropriate behavior” and appearance. As we grew into our teens, we started seeing “guest speakers” on a regular basis. These guest speakers were usually Catholic priests who were paid handsomely to tour all across Latin America giving lectures to impressionable teenagers about the dangers of homosexuality, birth-control, and whatever flavor-of-the-week rock band was popular at the time.
These speakers would sit us down at the school amphitheater and they’d lay out all these names of famous musicians who had encoded subliminal messages into their songs to turn us all into depraved devil-worshippers. They’d talk about all the hidden messages in the media, designed specifically to turn us into sex-starved perverts, or, even worse, homosexuals. We were suddenly bombarded with all these over-the-top ideas about all the evil that surrounded us out there, and how we needed to remain pious and true in the face of all these predators who cared about nothing but corrupting our soul. And they were everywhere. Movies. Books. Television. Music. Trust no one.
I remember being very scared, and then coming to the realization that my school was using these religious teachings as a system of control to keep me in check and obedient, compliant and subservient. All of a sudden, it became very clear to me that I was being squeezed into a mold that I had no interest in fitting into. This brought on a flurry of questions. The very notion that all I had believed in all through childhood could possibly be predicated on a lie… was terrifying. I tried to talk myself out of it, but I knew, deep down, that something was wrong here. That this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. I felt I’d been lied to, and I myself felt like a liar.
Armed with a healthy dose of teenage hubris, I “came out” as a skeptic, much to the dismay of my classmates, teachers and parents. Looking back as someone who’s been the owner of their own life for quite a few years, it seems like a silly and obvious decision to make. But at the time, it was enormous. It was scary. I was prying control away from my would-be oppressors. I was taking charge.
For a while, and I suspect as a kneejerk reaction to teachings that I perceived to have been forced on me, I became an angry atheist. The Internet was a great aid in this. I sought out information on God as he was understood by different cultures through history, all over the world. I tried to understand the human need for a creator. I started developing my own– very basic, very naive– atheistic notions of right and wrong, divorcing them from the Judeo-Christian guilt-trip parables I’d been hearing all my life. I understood God as an easy answer to complicated questions, and engaged in debate with people from school and from my own family. Not surprisingly, I was often outmatched– but I’d go home, do some more studying, and come back the next day for another round of reverse-proselytizing.
For a brief period in my late teens, I became interested in the teachings of Anton LaVey. This is a less-scary way of saying I became a Satanist (funny that the pendulum had swung so far in the opposite direction that I was now actually “siding” with the bad guy). Now, to be clear: LaVeyan Satanism isn’t deistic, which is to say most of its members identify as atheists. This means there’s no actual devil worship going on– instead, it preaches a kind of rampant humanism, the idea that Man should accept and embrace his nature as a creature of the flesh, and indulge in every earthly desire– the figure of “Satan” is used metaphorically, as a symbol of disobedience and non-conformism. It was, of course, the perfect “religion” for a teenage boy. However, I quickly realized it was just as riddled with inconsistencies and silliness as any other organized religion, and I abandoned it (much to my parents’ relief).
And so, for a few years, I existed in this nebulous state of uncertainty– sometimes identifying as an atheist, sometimes falling back into my Catholic upbringing, never quite sure of where I stood on the issue of spirituality. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I started feeling comfortable with the idea of agnosticism– of effectively saying “y’know what, I just don’t know“. Before then, it felt like one of those “easy answers” I was decrying– a copout. A lazy, flippant shrug in response to the biggest question you could ask about our lives in this planet. But more and more, as I started redirecting the effort and energy that I would normally put into trying to crack this impossible riddle, as I started letting go and accepting that I’m very probably never going to reach these answers, I started feeling at peace with myself for the first time in ages.
Perhaps humanity just lacks the fundamental ability to fully understand a God, if there is such a thing. And we’ve been trying for eons, and we’ve failed miserably, and we’ve created hate and resentment and we’ve manipulated and coerced and implemented systems of control and we’ve killed and tortured in the name of our imagined creator. This tells me that maybe we should stop trying, and just live. It tells me that religion is futile and senseless. It tells me that militant atheism is futile and senseless. It tells me that life is a mystery we will most likely never decode (at least not within our earthly lifespan), so I should put my energy on enjoying the time that I have here, without kneeling to Gods that may or may not exist, without adhering to a set of rules laid out in scripture from thousands of years ago. It tells me that doing anything other than focusing on the here and now, on making the most of our time on this Earth, with care and compassion and love for my fellow confused stumble-abouts, is not time well spent.
If we do that, and we exercise a little humility, and we stop yelling at each other about our individual spiritual truths… we just might be a little happier altogether. I guess it is kind of a cop-out, but it’s one I can live with.