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Losing My Religion

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?

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16 Comments

  1. Joe
    I really don’t have any real advice or answers for you. I don’t think any one would judge you for putting yourself out there though. If they do, so what. I was raised catholic and the minute I could stop going I did and I never looked back. Your story is an interesting one, but don’t think you are alone I have heard this from a lot of people in the navy. They just wanted to get away from it all. You did and you prospered. You have a great family, a good life, and a unique ability to sniff out the behavior of assholes.. As far as I can tell you are kicking ass, and I hope you never change

  2. Ned's Blog says:

    I’ve always been a believer in God, or a higher power. Too many things have happened in my life just when they were needed most, along with too many amazing coincidences, for me NOT to believe. However, the organized religion, and the “My God can beat your God,” parts have always left me sour. I understand the need for most people to be part of a large group to achieve a feeling of acceptance, it’s just not necessary for me. God and I understand each other, and He/She gets my humor. That’s all the acceptance I need.

  3. athenahm says:

    I was raised an Episcopal, and have been a very happy, fulfilled Atheist ever since about 9 years ago. I am personally proud of you for going your own way, whatever that way may be.

    • Joe Smith says:

      Thank you Athena! Can I ask why you switched? If you’d rather not go into that, it’s ok. I was just wondering.

      • athenahm says:

        I just realized that I never really believed any of that shit. I had never really thought critically about what an Atheist was, and why someone would think that way. When I did look at it objectively, I realized that I was one. I had been saying that organized religion was a crock for some time, but was not ready to let go of the idea of a hand that guides us, but it really just makes more sense that we are all lucky, lucky bits of stardust that happened to be fortunate enough to gain consciousness, you know? I like being the only one responsible for me. Plus, it clears my conscience about all that salty language I use.

  4. Miss Z says:

    Hey Joe,

    I’m kind of in a similar situation in my life. I was born and raised a Catholic and I just feel so utterly let down by the church. They let paedophile priests continue preaching, they teach us that to communicate with any spirit other than God is a mortal sin, and they won’t even let a woman become a high ranking official within their own church. (Like they think men are better than women!) I’m not one to let hatred enter my heart, but I’m close to it when I think of them. So I don’t consider myself a member of the church and I don’t believe in the bible anymore, but I still believe in God. I just intend to worship him in my own way and discover him for myself.

    Everyone’s journey is different, Joe. Your journey is different to mine and mine to yours. I don’t judge you for your beliefs and, in fact, admire you for being so open about them. Kudos! 🙂

    • Joe Smith says:

      Thanks! Oddly my wife is Catholic, and so is everyone else in her family. I think that may be part of what pushed me to write this. I disagree with the Catholic notion of denying communion to people who are not Catholic. I feel like if you are there, you should be allowed to participate. I’m pretty sure that at the last supper, Christ wasn’t checking membership cards for church affiliation before offering bread and wine. It just seems that now that I have such an outside view of things, it all feels like smoke and mirrors anyway.

  5. tinkadele says:

    Just don’t allow your negativity from the way that people in this world handle the following of faith affect your opinion on the existence of God. This is one instance where I can’t be entirely logical in my response.

  6. Oddly enough, I learned that I didn’t believe in organized religion from inside a church.. that level is judgement that I saw distributed in two winston salem churches (baptist), two different ones no less, is a level that no one should suffer. Organized religion just isn’t for me. Although, it wasn’t as simple as just deciding, it took several experiences to scare me off.

  7. I’ve actually always agreed with your view about ‘fear of death’ being the strongest motivator to follow a religion or believe in a higher being. I have another theory that it’s the single best way to control people and prevent anarchy. It’s brilliant really.

  8. Christin Blevins says:

    I’m just envious that you got to me Mr. King, I’d die for a meet & greet with that man.

  9. First, you are not alone. In terms of religious demographics, nearly 20% of Americans identify as being non-religious or not following a particular faith. I’m sure you can get real numbers somewhere, I’m just paraphrasing Bill Maher from Religulous and that’s five years old.

    Second, lame as it is, a Marilyn Manson quote: “I never really hated the one true God, but the god of all the people I hated”- Disposable Teens. I think that kinda sums up the initial cracks in my faith. From there it became just sticking to what I felt were the guideposts of Christianity and living that life.

    Then Joel came along: my son who at 40 weeks was inexplicably stillborn. This was like a ton of dynamite set off randomly at the base of the mountain of my life. There were chain reactions I never saw coming: every weak spot in the mountain was stressed and exposed and, ultimately, changed. It actually just the other day dawned on me that in that experience all my ideas about religion crashed into one another: “divine plan”, honoring marriage, honoring family, religion as a coping tool; the list goes on. It was all in conflict in my situation; it didn’t work.

    The “rules” of religion just don’t make sense to me, but I can’t shake that feeling that there is something more to life. I also have no problem admitting that feeling is in part from fear that there is nothing more. Anyway, you’re not alone, Joe, and maybe that’s the real answer.

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