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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What am I doing here?

I was born into a Christian family, albeit a mild one, of Congregational Protestants. My mother was born a Baptist in the Northeast but had become a Congregationalist and remained so for several decades, before joining a Universalist church shortly before her death in 2004. My mother was a descendant of some of the original settlers of New England, who arrived in America in 1630 aboard the Arbella, which was part of the Winthrop Fleet out of England. Unlike our Puritan ancestors, we were not subjected to a strict upbringing, full of Christian hellfire and brimstone. On the contrary, ours was fairly easy-going, and I do not recall much if anything of the Bible, God, Christ or Christianity being incorporated into our daily lives. We went to church every Sunday and on holidays until I was 12, at which age I declared myself sovereign in the matters of religion. I remember telling my mother when I was seven that I would quit church as 12, because I couldn't stand it, and I figured that at that age I would have the ability to begin to determine my own path. I can't speak for my siblings or my father, the latter also now deceased, but it seemed as if my mother was the only person in my family who enjoyed church, other than the Christmas service when we lit white candles and dutifully carried them all the way home, to light other candles there. To my recollection, we all very much liked that ritual, as it was a warm and true family and community event.

One thing about Sunday school sticks out as being pleasant to my youthful mind: The story in Luke about the short man who climbs a tree in order to see Jesus. This story was something that I could relate to, as a small child who was constantly trying to peer over things such as the counter at the bank. Much of the rest of Sunday school and church seemed to be sheer torture, even though the people involved, including the kindly minister, were perfectly lovely and respectable individuals. I also vividly recall one Sunday school class in which we were shown a hideous photo of a small child in Africa trailing behind him across the mud the remains of his baby brother, tied to a ribbon as the boy walked towards a river to toss the baby in. I can't recall who discovered and was displaying the horrid image, if it was the teacher or another child, but it haunted me for many years. I was always a highly sensitive child - so much so that I was known to become physically ill at scenes of violence, especially those perpetrated by humans against each other.

It is precisely this sensitivity that has propelled me to explore the ideologies that most profoundly affect (or infect) the human mind: To wit, religions. I began studying mythology as a small child, after becoming fascinated by the Greek myths. This fascination led me to major in Classics, Greek Civilization, at Franklin & Marshall College, and to travel to Greece four times, including once as a junior with a Lake Forest College exchange program. I had become extremely interested in Greece during a family trip there when I was 14. Subsequent to college, I became a member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, spending almost a year there and traveling to dozens of sites throughout Greece. Although I had contemplated religion in college, I had little interest in it, and I did not attend any church, other than at Christmas on a couple of occasions to sing in the choir with my mother, who was the choir director. The only "religious" thing I remember about college was when I asked a roommate what he thought defined a Christian. He responded, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" I said I guess I did, to which he replied, "Then you're a Christian."

While in Greece, I became revolted by orthodox Christianity, as I travelled from church to church and monastery to monastery all over the country with my fellow students. On the walls of some of the monasteries were ghastly images of "martyrs" being tortured in the most heinous manner, including being boiled in vats, cut into pieces and flayed alive. In fact, it was in these orthodox Christian monasteries that I first became acutely aware of the meaning of the word "flay," a concept that horrified me. Considering my past, I am surprised I didn't vomit at these Bosch-esque scenes, but they did leave a very bad impression of Christianity in my mind. I could not fathom that this vile scenario of human torment was the best that the all-powerful God could come up with. These horrendous images of humans being hideously tortured were what the fervent followers of Christianity were supposed to contemplate and be surrounded by on a daily basis. It was simply atrocious, and the fact was that most of the monks we encountered appeared to be quite demented.

Much of Christianity is based on suffering, whether it's yours or Jesus's. In reality, the faith revolves around Jesus being tortured to death "for our sins." Within Christianity, humans are depicted as born-in-sin pieces of garbage, while God, His Son and the Holy Ghost are glorious and perfect. In Catholicism, there are a few others who deserve honor and reverence, such as the Virgin Mary, Joseph and many saints. Other than that, you are out of luck in trying to garner respect for yourself.

It slowly but surely struck me over a period of some years, which included my "conversion" to born-again Christianity in my mid twenties while I was living in Manhattan, that Christianity was not a very pleasant ideology or experience. There was the constant guilt for just being a human - I got a big dose of this torment during my brief wearing of the born-again hairshirt. During that time, which only lasted a couple of months until I was blasted into a decades-long passionate examination of all religious ideologies and concepts that came my way, I found myself becoming insane from reading the New Testament. Ingersoll was correct when he said, "If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow strictly the teachings of the New, he would be insane." To this day whenever I read the New Testament, I begin to feel ill. I am certain that the book has the same effect on others, as this madness is manifested all around us on a daily basis.

Within Christianity and other monotheistic religions, it is widely believed that it is humankind's purpose to serve and worship God. This purported purpose is what many Christians live their lives for. But, what does such a purpose say about God? Why would God, who is supposedly omnipotent and therefore self-contained, need or want creatures to serve and worship "him?" It seems like a very egotistical act to create such creatures. I found this incredibly egostical God to be repulsive; nor did I care for the inherent sexism within the various modern religions that depict God as a "he." There can be no question that God exclusively as "Father" is a sexist depiction and that women are considered second-class citizens - the Adam and Eve story set that bigotry in motion. In my studies of religion and mythology, I had encountered many cultures that had incorporated a goddess or female aspect of the divine. Such an inclusion is the only sensible one if God is omnipresent, as portrayed in monotheistic religions.

Needless to say, many other aspects, concepts and experiences led me to step outside of Christianity and to critique what I feel is a deleterious ideology that is keeping humanity from realizing its potential. Not the least of these experiences is the constant ad hominem abuse by Christianity's most fervent followers, who essentially represent what can only be termed "Christian terrorism." Instead of refuting sound arguments that challenge their beliefs, which we have seen are illogical and harmful, the fanatics continuously make personal attacks on the individuals who put forth such arguments. This terrorism is no less a derangement than any other mindless persecution, and it needs to be addressed as an illness that has the potential of destroying humankind. With this fact in mind, it is perhaps as an "innoculation" that I am here, both on this blog and planet Earth.


Dr. W. Sumner Davis said...

Certainly, you know better than most that it is impossible to refute such things as God or gods for the simple fact that one cannot disprove them. One excellent example of this mentalizing is the Mormon Church.

We are told that Joseph Smith received some Hieroglyphic tablets from an angel named Maroni (perhaps he is the Italian Angel)? Reticent of Moses, who, like Smith, led his followers through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Joseph Smith went on to claim that Jesus Christ had walked on the American Continent. At a time when there were great divisions in social and economic groups, those needing the reassurances of a "Prophet" a person who had attended seminary; an "expert" Smith was welcomed, albeit a bit dubiously.

The Followers of Smith had the spiritual ammunition to confront the Natives who were seen as little more than the new "Canaanites" who stood in the way of "God's Chosen."
Despite the obvious in that Smith's writing, "The Book of Mormon" borrows heavily from the 1611 edition of the King James Bible and through plagiarism of the Minor Prophets of the Tanakh paints a picture more reminiscent of 1st century Palestine than 18th century America, his message of self fulfilling prophecy did not fall on deaf ears. Many followers have realized that much of Smith's "prophecy" is directly pulled from the KJV and that stories from the minor prophets of the Old Testament and have been "changed" to include the personage of Jesus. Still, despite the obvious concerns, Smith's new religion gave people who led a hard life hope that their toil would be rewarded, if not in this life, in some other life to come.

Now, Modern day Mormon's have to defend Smith's claims using circular arguments based on "History" and "Prophecy."

My problem is that I enjoy talking to Mormons--but they seem to cut me a wide path. Just like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I feel a bit left out. I guess with my education and background I should not be surprised. Still, I feel left out.

Anonymous said...

Acharya, contrary to you experience with the Jesus story I find that it can be uplifting and inspiring. We've obviously had different experiences throughout our lives and this would then predispose us differently on this and many other subjects. There was a time when I rejected all religion as just so much nonsense and I rebelled against any religious thinking for long. Yet we find ourselves in a society that is not ready to let religion as defined and prescribed by their preferred traditions go. I've had numerous discussions and arguments with many people from various religious perspectives and have studied philosophy, sociology, psychology and comparative religion since my early teens informally as well as formally later on up to postgraduate level in religious studies and have finally come to the conclusion that most people are rather robotic when it comes to thinking and feeling. There are many people who are simply incapable of matching their beliefs with our shared, real life experiences, since their real experience incorporates their belief structures to such a degree that it colors their other experiences so much that it validates their views for them. To them it doesn't matter how logical, reasonable or verifiable your more informed view is, they cannot, and probably more importantly, don't want to know anything that contradicts their frozen views. Although I admire your work, and deem it very important in helping those who are capable, to escape the confines of the dogmatic nonsense we find all around us, I am convinced (at this stage in my life anyway) that it would be more fruitful in the long run to concentrate on the humane and morally meaningful aspects already embedded in the mainstream religions and help people inside the traditions to become more socially and ecologically aware and responsible. I cannot really relate directly to dr.w.sumner davis' feeling of being left out since I've never been one who wanted that much to belong, but I do find that I hardly know anybody who shares my view and it gets a tad lonesome sometimes. On any issue there seems to be many people on either the pro or con side and very few who straddle the mean in between. Good luck with your efforts and "keep on thinking free!"