Are you religious or something?

I dread being asked this question. The majority of people who have asked me this recently have asked it uncomfortably after making some sort of joke about religious people or religion, only to see that I didn’t exactly find their joke amusing.

The reasons I don’t find jokes made at the expense of the religious community funny are many. I was raised in the Christian church with an education of and appreciation for other religions, especially Judaism. My experience growing up was, for the most part, positive. I had a lot of friends at church, I got to volunteer a lot, and I got to see a lot of people benefit from what was going on. I think this was healthy for me as a child, to learn compassion and kindness, to learn to put others before myself, and, of course, how to make the biggest splash in the lake at kids’ camps.

Jokes against people like the ones I grew up with hurt, because they are made against my family and friends. Don’t mess with my family, ya know?

But the other day, a friend just asked me, “are you religious?”, in sincerity and kindness. I was honestly at a loss for words.  I hadn’t thought about it in a while, and I didn’t know what to say.

Around the same time I moved to Chicago, I stopped going to church regularly. I didn’t know exactly why for a long time, but after some time and reflection, I think I know a couple reasons why.

I realized that I have been living in the “after” life. Not the afterlife many religions debate about, not any sort of heaven (though maybe a hell), just a different life after a traumatic event. The day after I moved into my apartment in Chicago, my roommate sexually assaulted me. This was it, the traumatic event that split my life in two. I had just moved to a new city to start a new life, I only knew one person in a city of over 3 million, I was trying to find a new job, I lived in an apartment with my attacker and another emotionally and mentally exhausting person, and I didn’t know who to talk to. Top that all off with having to have an interview for my current job 12 hours after being raped. I was embarrassed to tell anyone what had happened, and I was honestly terrified. It took me five months to tell anyone.

The “after” life has been filled with many things: fear, hate, depression, anxiety, sadness, but also love, happiness, and a lot of good experiences. One thing it hasn’t been filled with is church.

At first I made the excuse that I just didn’t want to go through the effort of finding a new church and all that entails, and to be honest that was true. Everything felt so difficult at the time, even the good changes. I had just met Jeb and started our life together, I had started my new job, I finally got a new apartment with Erik, and I felt a little more stable, even stable enough to go off my anti-depressant medication. But, it still felt like I couldn’t go to church. I felt like they would know I was “damaged”. Anyone who goes to church may be thinking (we’re all damaged, that’s why we go to church). But, my brain told me it wouldn’t be good, so I steered clear. Obviously there’s no way they would’ve known unless I had told them, but I felt vulnerable.

Since that time, I’ve experienced a lot of healing from the trauma. People have loved on me a lot, and honestly, time helps a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, unable to breathe, having dreamed that I am being attacked again. I still get sick to my stomach when people discount or joke about survivors of assault or abuse.

Another thing that’s made me question my beliefs in God and a religious system is having my dad misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I honestly wanted a miracle, I wanted to pray for him to be ok, I wanted God to step in. But I didn’t know if I was allowed to come back to that party just to ask for a favor. Did I? Yes. Did I believe that it would work? I’m not sure. Was I elated and relieved when we got a for-sure diagnosis that it wasn’t cancer? Absolutely. The rollercoaster of loss is a whole other ball of wax that I’m not really ready to dive into, but it definitely made me question things and wonder if, if I did ask for that favor, did I have to go back and start living that life because I had believed for long enough to ask?

I’m currently reading a book in which the characters are asked to answer an incredibly tough question in order to complete an important task. When answering honestly about if something will work or not, they dive deep and come up with the only answer that gets them through the task: “I don’t know.”

So, when you ask me if I’m religious or not, I’ll answer the only way I can.

I don’t know.

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2 thoughts on “Are you religious or something?

  1. This was so beautiful. Your bravery is inspiring.
    The hardest think to admit sometimes is “I don’t know,” but you nailed it. It’s okay to not know, and it’s okay to not search for the answer sometimes, too. ❤️

  2. Aside from the obviously ticklish problem of the definition of religion, for which you qualify on some accounts and not on others, the problem of “religion” as you lay it out is a social one. I don’t suppose that I’m going to solve the riddle about why we use and misuse that term so frequently. The disdain in the public sphere for religion is often caused by the bad behavior of those who claim to be believers, or make claims on the basis of association with one (broadly defined) religious group or other, that is, the violent Jihadis or the KKKristians. Here’s where I ask why we can’t just get along.

    Well, we can’t get along because we can’t give credence to people we think are our inferiors. This goes both ways. Creating abhumans (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abhuman) out of the “other” goes both ways, to the purest believers and to those entirely without religion. We do this in society and during war, where we make the enemy into something less than we are, less than human, so we can justify any injustice we might wish to perpetrate on them. The arrogance of the new atheist smackdown is as out of place in civil society as the manifest destiny of a Christian who wishes to run the country on “biblical” principles is.

    What is generally approved at any time is perhaps more a matter of chance and fad than reasoned argument and right. But looking at religion/irreligion in this way skews our ability to see the health of therapeutic communities that birth the confidence in us to emerge from the ruin we or others have made of our lives or our society. As William James suggested over a century ago, even those who professed a distaste for “religion” were not above having a whole variety of beliefs similar in kind that were as indefensible on the basis of science and reason as those they criticized. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Will_to_Believe)

    Your problem with critiques of religion lie in this area, and your sensibilities both of faith and reason, lead you to mistrust the smackdown of religion that is familiar in the tone of those who rely on evidence and reason. But that’s true even when the critique offered of “religion” is correct. There’s something suspicious about the creation of an abhuman religionist. We are all humans and have flaws we are blind to.

    Instead of focussing on “church” as salvation in a practical sense, let’s focus on a broader term that includes the best of church, but also the variety of social constructs that provide benefits to the individual, healing from trauma, social structure, etc. So even if you can’t answer the question about whether you are religious or not, you do share the human values that Jesus supported, revealed, pushed and are also supported by the ethical communities that spontaneously spring up in every civilization as a matter of resisting the worst effects of domineering government, workplace, and bad social and political behavior. That is, we select the groups that help us to thrive. For many this is the church, but the church as an historic organization carries all the baggage of bad politics and personal behavior toward our fellow persons. But that baggage or bad behavior is not universally true or excused from within individual ecclesial communities. Some of these groups carry the best of the modern world with the best of the ancients. The trouble is finding one like this.

    I would like to think that our Sunday school class is this sort of community. But its abundant graciousness is matched by its rarity. How do we find a therapeutic community that is near enough and nurturing enough? I’m not sure it will be as easy to find without the intermediate instrument of the church, but there are wonderful groups that have many of the necessary qualities. I like to think that your Cross-Fit box in Springfield had something of this. And your association of friends in Chicago is certainly one where some of these things are available. Many societies who focus on social causes have many of these things. But wherever one reaches out to those more distressed than themselves, there is something of that graciousness. I like to think this is good religion, and moving in this direction cleans the stain of those whose religion is limited to washing their hands of the less fortunate, like many who support the ~republican causes of the modern era. (Don’t get me started!)

    So to make a long story short, it was not Mother Theresa’s religion that was at issue, but her love and care for those less fortunate than she. But you don’t have to be a saint to hold up the causes of those who are oppressed in our society, or to defend those who are less fortunate as you do. Whatever definition religion has for you, it matters only that your life consists of the gracefulness to others you wish to be treated with. For many, the almighty God is sufficient backing to go to the places where the less fortunate need them. Even that faith, however, is not sufficient to ward off all doubt and fear. Freedom from doubt and fear is a lifelong process that can’t be trivialized into a simple creed or allegiance to country, constitution, or holy book.

    Though this is a fairly long-winded reply, and it doesn’t cover but a small part of your comments, I do hope you can detach from accusations of the medical community for giving me a bad diagnosis. Understanding science helps us recognize that they never get it entirely correct, and yet sometimes the mistakes move us closer to the truth. I am deeply sorrowful for the grief you were caused by those remarks by my doctor, and that was my only concern with the diagnosis, but science is just that way. It should not drive you away from science, or religion, or any other human venture to realize that our perception is flawed and not well interpreted.

    I am looking forward to seeing you this weekend.

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