At first glance my atheist followers may think this post is not for them. But if you are a student of Redefining Love, then you know you have a responsibility to learn to speak the language of those with whom you disagree. So before you stop reading, hear me out. You may be surprised by what I have to say about religion. I’m not exactly a traditionalist.
Nobody wants to talk about religion and faith in a secular conversation. It’s simply not cool. Yet most of us have some sort of faith, or a dogmatic anti-faith that is in itself a faith of sorts; a faith that there is no god that is so deep and passionate and provokes such an emotional response that it transcends way beyond a simple opinion.
So let’s talk about it.
Let’s stop being weanies and have the hard conversation. Because it’s not really that it’s not cool. That’s not really why nobody wants to talk about it. That’s a total cop out. The real reason nobody wants to talk about it is because it’s hard, and it makes us uncomfortable, and it brings up a lot of negative emotions and strong feelings, or it makes us feel like we’re going to have to be in conflict with others, and we don’t like that.
And when I say “us,” I don’t mean a group of happy Christians in Bible study, or a group of prayerful Muslims, or a group of Mormon missionaries, or a group of this-is-all-there-is atheists. I mean US, all of us, the diverse collective, the mixed bag. Those we do not speak of. Those we are friendly with but secretly feel superior to because we GET IT and they don’t.
It’s time to put on your whitie tighties, your big girl panties, whatever it is you wear under your clothes, and get ready for a tough conversation. Because we’re going to talk about IT. Religion. Faith. The Universe. God. Allah. Jehovah. Higher Power. Him. Her. Mother Earth. The Big Fat Nothing. Whatever you call It.
This might sting a bit.
I am personally a Christian. But I, as the author of this website and innovator of Redefining Love, don’t really care what religion you are. I don’t. If you are a Christian and that bothers you, you can send me an email and tell me that I have a platform and I should be using it to spread the Good News. And that’s okay with me. I’ll love you in your efforts. But you won’t change my mind, or my approach.
Because here’s the thing. We all have special gifts. Gifts that were given to us by… dare I say… God… and not everyone is cut out for direct evangelism. If that’s your thing, super duper. You do your thing! By all means. There are loads of testimonies of people whose lives were literally saved by Christians sharing their faith. Addicts and convicts and abusers who found Jesus and became upright citizens and whole human beings. And truly and faithfully I say, “Praise the Lord!”
I know, this BUT hurts the Christians’ hearts and their pride. Mostly their pride. And I’m just going to say it because nobody else will and its time. It’s just time. Sometimes Christians, even well-meaning Christians, come across as self-righteous jerks, and we alienate people, and it’s hurtful and downright mean, and people run fast in the other direction, and where does that leave those people?
And it’s not just Christians. It’s Muslims, and Jews, and Mormons, and Buddhists, and Hindus, and every other organized religion you can think of. And all of a sudden, you have these atheists who might actually want desperately to believe in something but y’all have been such jerks that they can’t find anything to grasp ahold of so they grab onto science and say, “This is my thing!”
And the scientists are kind of just looking around like, “What the?! I thought I was just studying monkeys. Why all the drama?”
So let’s just stop.
Let’s take a step back from our soap boxes and self-righteousness and try for a moment to recognize that each of us is on our own journey through life. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for every problem. There’s just not. What worked for you isn’t going to work for everyone else.
Let’s talk about the Bible. Or the Torah. Or the Qur’an. Which, incidentally, are all based in the Old Testament, in case you didn’t know. Yep. They’re all the same thing. Hmmmm, interesting…
For our purposes, I’ll use the word Bible, and Christian church, but you could replace any other religious reference and this example still works:
Let’s say you have identical twin sisters. They have gone to the same church in the same small Midwestern American town, sat in the same pew their entire lives. They never married. They inherited wealth, and never worked a day in their lives. They volunteer for the same causes around town. Participate in the same sewing circle. They devoutly study from the same version of the Bible together every day. They are now 90 years old.
Yet, if you were to interview them individually about their faith, if you were to ask the same questions, you would find that they do not agree about everything. Somehow, these two people, with identical DNA, with nearly identical experiences, who heard the same sermons, studied the same text, came to different conclusions.
How could this be?
If the Bible has all the answers, if it is all laid out for us, plain as day, if all nuance, all direction is given as a roadmap in this one text, then wouldn’t every person who reads it agree on every point. Wouldn’t it be as simple as reading a phonebook?
(For my millennial readers, a phonebook is a large volume that compiles all of the phone numbers in one area code into one book, in alphabetical order by name. Prior to the internet this was how one obtained someone’s phone number.)
If the Bible is so clear, then why do Christian’s keep studying it? Why are there thousands of Bible studies going on all over the world, as we speak? We keep digging into it, deeper and deeper, seeking understanding. Even the most notable Bible scholars continue to study it, mining it for meaning, looking for answers. Yet so many Christians act as though they already have everything all figured out. Does this not smack of hypocrisy to anyone else?
Please tell me I’m not the only Christian who is more than a little tired of being lumped in with the know-it-alls.
Of course, we don’t all agree on what the Bible says. In fact, we can’t even agree on an accurate translation. If we could, there would be only one. But there are thousands of English translations of the Bible. Case in point, the word “homosexual” is used in some versions of the Bible, but not in others.
My husband was raised Evangelical Christian. I was not. One of the greatest challenges of our marriage has been the struggle to find a church that meets both of our spiritual needs. During the early years of our marriage a well-meaning friend asked, “Why not just go where your friends go? I mean, we all read the same Bible, right?”
I simply smiled in response. I knew her intentions were good. But the answer of course is no, we do not. Not even close.
I do not live with the illusion that I am always right.
I do not pretend to have all the answers. The Bible is my foundation, my guide, my resource, the place I go when I’m lost. I have found that when I don’t know what to do, if I pray, I always, and I do mean always, figure it out.
After all, I’m still here, aren’t I?
Life is just easier when I pray. Life is easier with God. That is my evangelism. That is my message. That is what I tell my kids. Sure, you can do it without God. I tried, for a long time. I kept trying and trying to do things my own way. And I kept screwing it up.
When I gave up control and handed it to God, things instantly got better. And I do mean instantly. Literally overnight. That is my testimony. I can’t explain it. Bam. That’s my miracle. Does that make you atheists uncomfortable? Fine. Call it a coincidence and go about your day. That doesn’t hurt my feelings. I’m willing to accept the possibility that you may be right.
Maybe when I die I’m just dead. But here’s the thing. Believing I’m going to heaven and I’ll see my grandma again, this amazing woman who believed in me when no one else in my family did, that makes me feel good. That keeps me putting one foot in front of the other on days when I don’t really feel like it.
Whatever works, you know? Does my belief in heaven hurt anybody else? So why do you care? That sounds like a personal problem.
I am not a member of a religion to be told what to think.
On the contrary, I study religion to expand my universe, to broaden my heart, soul, and mind, and to maximize my human experience. If you are a member of a religion to be told what to think, you are being intellectually lazy, and you are missing the point.
God didn’t give us free will and opposable thumbs so we could all be the same. We were created to innovate. We were created by a Creator to create! Why be given the ability to question and then sit in a pew and wait for someone else to tell you how to think, how to feel, how to experience the world?
When I read Genesis, for example, I don’t just read it as a child reading a story about God creating the world in seven days. I read it as a woman who has a fully mature, questioning mind; an adult who has studied science and observed nature and knows history.
I know, for example, that the 24-hour day was created by the ancient Egyptians somewhere around 2150 BC, long before the birth of Christ and the drafting of the first Bible. Egyptians based this measure of time on their observations of the stars. Their original measure of days were unequal and varied by seasons. The Babylonians modified this system to make it standard.
The current system of 24-hour days, seven day weeks, 365 days a year developed gradually over a period of thousands of years, and was modified by multiple cultures prior to being adopted worldwide, which did not happen until after the Bible was written.
And so, what, exactly does it mean that the world was created in seven days? Certainly time is relative, and our notion of a day as 24 hours, as an hour consisting of 60 minutes, or a minute consisting of 60 seconds, is all a human conceptualization of an infinite, and ultimately unmeasurable concept.
Therefore, when the Bible says the world was created in seven days, that is simply for our benefit. Because to God, what does it really matter? God doesn’t need to measure time and space. If God wants one day to last 186 million years – which, incidentally, is the length of the Mesozoic Era – He can do that, because you know, He’s God.
If God wants another day to last 2.8 seconds, well, He can do that too. BANG! Let there be light. Then it took another 13.7 billion years to make it through another few days, to get things settled.
I’m not sure why this idea offends people when the clock we use was created by pagans and the Gregorian calendar we rely on to schedule our work meetings, kids’ soccer games, and our Sabbath wasn’t created until 1582, over a millennium and a half after the death of Christ. Logically, it doesn’t make sense to me that the seven days in Genesis was actually seven 24-hour days. It just doesn’t.
It’s okay to ask questions. God gave you an analytical brain. Use it.
But you know what? If you like the fundamentalist idea of the world being created in seven 24-hour days, then by all means, go with that. Because there’s not a single person in this world who doesn’t believe something that doesn’t make logical sense.
Even the most practical scientist on earth has a favorite brand of pen. Why is it her favorite pen? She could explain to you why, and it would make perfect sense to her. But ultimately, it’s just superstition. It’s just because it speaks to her, it makes her feel better. And it’s okay to believe things just because they make us feel better. We don’t have to explain ourselves or justify it to other people. As long as we’re not hurting anyone else, you just go ahead and BE YOU.
Stop worrying about what other people think
You know what else is okay? If people disagree with you. You know how much hate mail I’ll get if people actually stumble upon this post and read it? Oh boy! Who cares? You know what’s worse than people not liking you? Living your whole life and never having a single independent thought for fear of offending someone else.That’s way worse.
Religion does not equal morality
When I got a divorce, I vowed if I was going to mess with a relationship again at all, it would be with someone with some sort of moral grounding. I didn’t care what it was, but he needed a religion.
Can you have a moral foundation without religion? Certainly you can. But I was a little raw at that point. I wasn’t taking any chances.
Don’t get me wrong. I am fully aware – and I do mean fully aware – that religion does not equal morality. I grew up in a house full of religion with very little morality. But I also spent my first marriage in a relationship with someone morally adrift.
And you know what, so was I. I was so ambivalent, after my screwy childhood. I wasn’t afraid of God. I was still a firm believer. But I was deathly afraid of religion. Whose with me? Anyone? Yeah, I’m not alone.
There are so many of us floating around out there. Religion can really do a number on a person. Spiritual abuse is a very real thing, people. Don’t even think for a second that it’s not.
But I also had the maturity at that point in my life to recognize that I wasn’t getting any younger, and I didn’t really feel like rebuilding the wheel. I wanted to know God. I wanted my infant son to know God. And I didn’t want to start from scratch. As appealing as the idea of starting my own religion sounded, I was tired. So I took myself to church.
But this time, it was on my terms. I met God where I was at. I didn’t go trying to please my parents, or my friends, or my extended family, or my ancestors (yeah, the enmeshment runs deep, people). I just went as myself. I just showed up in all my messy Saraness. And it was good.
What I realized is that all the symbols, all the songs, all the hyperbole, all the dogma, all the hype – all the religion of religion only has power when you give it. It really is like anything else.
Be careful to whom and what you give power over your life
When I was in graduate school there was this sweet Japanese grad assistant in my research group who was deeply homesick. She was scouted by what I considered a predatory church for conversion and stalked ruthlessly. We weren’t supposed to give out our office number for personal calls because there was only one phone for four of us, and the line had to be kept open for work calls. Yet this guy called routinely, demanding to speak to her.
She brought him into the office for a tour. He insisted another grad assistant remove her wall calendar with images of gardens of the world, because that particular month showcased a Japanese garden with a Buddha statue. Of course, our colleague refused. Everyone else kind of laughed it off. After all, he was just a “nut job Christian.” But I was concerned. I could see that our friend was getting in over her head.
She went home to Japan over Christmas break. She was so thrilled to get to see her family. She returned refreshed. There was a renewed light in her eyes. She excitedly showed off the jade bracelet her mother gave her as a gift. She never took it off.
A week or so later while we were alone in the office she shyly asked me if I was a Christian. I told her that I was (although I hadn’t practiced for a long time). She nodded and looked down at her bracelet. Without looking up, she asked me if I thought her bracelet was satanic.
I was stunned. “Not at all!” I said.
She looked up at me with tears in her eyes. She said, “Neither do I. But my pastor says it is a satanic symbol, and I must throw it away. My mother saved a lot of money to buy me this. It is very special to me.”
I told her that I thought it was beautiful. I told her that things only have power if we give them power. Bracelets. Calendars. People. I told her she should be careful to whom and what she gives power over her life. I reiterated that I did not think the bracelet was satanic.
That was the last time I saw her. She was a brilliant statistician. She dropped out of school. She did not renew her academic visa and became an illegal immigrant. She disappeared. As far as I know, no one in the department ever saw her again. I tried to talk about it a few times. I asked about her, noted my concerns about her church, but nobody wanted to discuss it.
Maybe if more people had taken her situation seriously, we could have convinced her to break free. Maybe if I’d followed up on her, tried to contact her, sought her out at that church she was going to…
Perhaps if we were all a little less scared of the religion conversation, we could help each other through these hard things. Let’s stop avoiding these tough conversations.
Be careful what you give power over you. Fear is a powerful force. We fear being wrong. We fear being hurt. We fear being alone. Religion can cause all these things, and it can prey on all these fears. It can divide and conquer us. But it can also battle against fear and heal hurt. It all depends on where you assign its power.
Religion is a human construct.
Religion is a man-made method to express faith. But faith. Ah, faith. That is a relationship with God.
I know a lot of people who have been hurt deeply by religion. I know I have. But I know absolutely no one who has been hurt by faith. Seek faith, and seek the faithful. And you will know God.
I believe in the Christian God. I do. But I don’t dismiss others who believe in something else. I refuse to condemn people who disagree with me. If you are a Christian and you want to write me a letter about that, go ahead. I’ll love you through it, but you won’t change my mind. I’m not in the business of condemnation. It’s simply not in my repertoire.
For an atheist, maybe knowing God means knowing the goodness that resides deep inside people, and having faith that that goodness is there, living in all of us. It’s what binds us all together.
And when someone is ugly on the inside, and it comes out as meanness, and cruelty, and evil, it’s because that goodness was damaged, brutalized by so much hard life. And even as we draw our boundaries against the behaviors, we can feel compassion for goodness lost or buried, and we can hope that somewhere, deep down, it’s still in there somewhere.
Call it God, or call it good. The only difference is one little ‘o.’ We can meet there, at that ‘o,’ can’t we? Good God, I think we can.
Published April 2, 2019
Copyright © Redefining Love 2019