by C.L. Pauwels
Why do people believe in god(s)? Rea-sons vary as much as individuals – habit, family custom, a need for security, a hunger for answers in an out-of-control world, sincere devotion to something greater than themselves, or more likely, some combination of all of the above. But gods lead to religion.
Religion has been a constant presence in my life largely because of tradition, for good and not-so-good. I was raised in a church-going family. My grandfather taught adult Sunday school; Grandma attended the Gleaners Bible study. I left for college as a born-again child of the seventies. Two years later, I dropped out of school and married my high-school sweetheart.
During the early days of our marriage, we were immersed in the evangelical movement, rarely questioning anything it taught. Sunday church school followed by morning service followed by evening fellowship led to Monday Bible study for couples, Tuesday study for ladies/men only, Wednesday night choir, Thursday visitations, Friday praise service…we may have had a break on Saturday; I honestly don’t recall. We raised hands and prayed and proselytized with the best of them. But I remember even then a nagging suspicion that something was amiss. How could the loving God they preached be the same one who damned the unconverted? Why did preaching and piety rarely extend beyond the doors of the sanctuary?
As we began to read and study other religions – granted from the evangelical perspective of converting the lost souls who were “ensnared” by them – I found many things that made just as much sense (or as little) as the tenets we embraced. And I grew more uneasy. The final disillusionment came when our pastor, whom we approached in a time of desperate need, lamely offered to pray for us before returning to his sermon prep. I began looking for answers elsewhere, and fortunately, my husband joined me.
That search has led me down many different paths in the past forty years, culminating (thus far) in my undergrad senior project at Antioch University McGregor in 2008, from which this es-say is taken. I’ve studied Bahá’í, Judaism, Shinto, Gnostics, and the Tao. I learned the doctrines of Catholicism and Mormonism against which the fundamentalist evangelicals do battle. I’ve read the Judeo-Christian Bible – with the Apocrypha – and Buddha, the Qur’an and Jung, Lao Tzu and Nietzsche. The myths and legends of the many cultures I have studied all provide the best answers civilizations could come up with at their particular time in history, from the white buffalo woman of Native Americans, to the semen of Ra, to Adam’s rib.
As mankind has progressed in understanding of the workings of nature, these myths often gave way to orbits and gravity and atomic structure. Evolution and natural selection provide wondrous, coherent theories which use our admittedly limited scientific knowledge to show how physical reality came to be as we experience it. Yet quantum mechanics and quantum physics are shaking up those ideas as well, and in another hundred years or another hundred centuries, we may find that our currently accepted “truths” will seem just as quaint as do those of early cultures.
But we can’t have those discussions. Nearly any attempt at religious questioning is taken as insult or blasphemy. Science fiction author Douglas Adams asked in a speech at Cambridge University, while noting debate on any other topic from politics to computer preference is unobjectionable, “We are used to not challenging religious ideas…(because) we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.” This tacit agreement keeps us from ever reaching an amicable solution for our differences and leads to further divisiveness in many areas of life. Mega-churches with exorbitant levels of income are granted non-profit status and avoid paying taxes to help sup-port the communities in which they reside, while also avoiding regulations which protect their employees. Polygamist cults systematically oppress and abuse women and children under the guise of religious freedom. Burqa-clad women are forced into lives of degradation by fanatics who misinterpret the Qur’an for misogynistic purposes. Yet to question even these offensive practices is off limits.
And that concerns me. The ugly, strident discord growing every day between believers and non-believers is splitting society on every level. I have been called unpatriotic, immoral, and worse for not sharing a belief in god as defined by the Christian church. Such narrow-mindedness has been around since Biblical days (and I’m sure long before) when admonitions to love your neighbor were clearly understood to mean those who shared your values and gods, not those evil “others” next door who worshiped in strange ways. Unfortunately, this division seems to be escalating with the always-simmering Mideast crises, and here in the United States where our elected officials are expected to share the narrow ideology of special interest groups rather than representing the people of the nation as a whole, in all our wondrous diversity.
Personally, I do not care what anyone chooses to believe or not to believe about god. My feelings echo two esteemed American presidents, Thomas Jefferson: “Say nothing of my religion. It’s known to my God and myself alone,” and John F. Kennedy: “I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair.” What I do care about are those who feel the need to impose their beliefs on others and on society as a whole in the name of their god who, of course, is better than all the others. Contrary to the absolute-truth claims, religious does not mean moral, ethical, or right; it only means devoted to a specific god, prophet or creed.
In a 1992 commencement address, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said, “There are good people and bad people in every community. No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. We all come from somewhere, and we all wonder where we are going.” I only hope all those good people in communities throughout the world can find a workable solution to our common woes as we move through life together.
We are all seeking something, hence the “Why god?” focus of my study, because that is the direction many people take for all those reasons mentioned earlier. I have not found a Theory of Everything; if anything, I have more questions. Religion may not have provided the answers it promised in my early years, but it has provided the impetus for my search for truth. In my daily life, I try to treat others with respect and compassion, leaving my tiny corner of the world a bit better than it might be. And as long as I continue seeking and learning and growing, I am at peace with my efforts, even without the answers.