This is a difficult post for me. I suspect that I’m going to be viewed and treated differently by many of you after you read this.
I was in Maine once, getting a couple books autographed by Stephen King at a small meet and greet booksigning he arranged. I’d introduced myself, and asked what the secret was to winning over readers. Immediately he told me “Just tell the story how you mean for it to be. Don’t water it down. If your characters swear, let them swear. Yeah, it’s going to piss some of the readers off, but if you try to bullshit people in your writing, they’re going to hate you for it. They’re on their time, reading your stuff. You owe it to all of them to write honestly.” He told me a lot more, but that’s the part that covers what I plan to tell you. It’s not about the characters though, it’s about me. And God.
I grew up in the worst part of the U.S. for an intelligent kid to grow up in – southern West Virginia. For those of you that have never been there yourselves, it’s a nightmare of a place to be. The economic situation there is miserable, the education system is an atrocity, and dental care is damn near non-existent. In short, it was everything that I’m not. Two days after I turned 18, I moved out of state. This was not early enough, however. Before I could manage an escape, I had been forced to attend church for 13 years. Despite all of the other markets crumbling, it would seem that there were plenty of places around to sell you your own personal brand of religion.
Having had God force-fed to me for so long, it was difficult for me to ever consider anything else was even a possibility. God made the Earth, if you worshipped God like a good boy, you got into Heaven. If not, you burned in Hell for eternity. End of story. Well…normally that would be the end.
After moving a couple hundred miles away, I began to realize that the world, and life in general were way bigger than any ill-informed kid like myself could understand. When I started college, I met people from every background imaginable. All of whom would impact my world view, and eventually send me on my way to my “awakening”. I made friends with a guy that helped me get a recurring summer job at a funeral home. Looking back, that job did more to open my eyes to life than anything I’d done up to that point.
It was while I was dealing with the dead people that a couple things became brilliantly clear to me: 1. Death is going to happen, and more often than not, unexpectedly. 2. People have a hell of a hard time letting go of their dead. 3. Religion is often the only thing that makes the entire situation bearable. Sounds like common sense, right? It’s all it took to change my entire view of everything I’d been taught in church.
That death was going to happen was a no-brainer. It’s when you combine the other parts that it gets interesting. It’s generally unexpected, people can’t cope, and religion gives them something to hang onto to help them cope. That started sounding like one hell of a business model to me. If you take something that is incredibly difficult to deal with, and find a way to make it managable, people will buy. Offer them hope of seeing their dead loved ones again when they die, as long as they play by the rules, and the masses will come in droves. All you need to do then, is pass the collection plate.
Rewards are often not enough though, to convince people to do what you want. What do you do then? Simple. You create a consequence. Make it horrible. Make it the worst thing anyone of your time could possibly imagine. Make it being burned all over. Even worse, make it being burned all over for all of eternity. Who in their right mind would rather burn for all of eternity than get to see their dead loved ones, and live in Heaven forever? The kicker- no one can ever dispute that it happens this way, because you have to die in order to find out! It’s brilliant! (Pass the collection plate.)
This truly became my way of thinking. Once I added in that the events in the Bible were oral history for six or seven hundred years before even being written, my ability to go back to seeing religion (organized, anyway) as anything but a magic show was doomed. The more stuff you have to do to worship the way they tell you, the higher the production value and the more you feel like you are getting your money’s worth.
I still believe in something. I guess it’s God. I don’t really know what I believe any more. I know that I won’t be taking part in any organized religion anytime soon though. I know I’m sad that I feel like I won’t ever be able to believe as easily as I once did. I know I wish I could. Anyone have any recommendations, or have any insight that they can share that may help?