As with most people, I was raised on religion. Being raised in southeastern U.S., I can only classify my southern Baptist upbringing as common. The salient detail that has lingered in my memory, long after my disconnection from any semblance of faith, was how motivated I was to avoid eternal damnation. Even at the age of thirteen, I remember struggling to reconcile the apparent need to embrace the methodology of Christian salvation with an inability to understand how this purportedly loving, wise, powerful, brilliant being could simultaneously want me to both suffer in agony eternally, and spend eternity in his shiny palaces- all hinging not upon anything I do or don’t do with my life, but rather, upon a profession of belief in him, as scripture describes. Wouldn’t this magnificent creature have the foresight to realize that belief in the unseen is a testimony to the absurd and unstable, not to the wise and discerning mind? But none of that was relevant; my objective was to ensure my own future safety, so despite my nagging doubts and discontent, I continued professing belief.
This ambiguity plagued me until my early 20’s, though I acknowledge, in retrospect, the gradual shift in my stance which went unobserved in the moment. By the time I’d had my first and only child, both married and divorced his mother, found myself medically invalidated for military service, lost my car and the majority of my belongings, and finally reconnected with my friends and family on the other side of these humbling experiences, I was ready to embrace a variety of positive changes to improve upon myself as a person. I managed to improve my outlook on life, and I changed a lot of the ways I treated and valued the people in my life who had received a cold shoulder (I allowed myself to believe that they weren’t important because I had a wife and child; my life lesson was one in the ignorance of self-isolation). One of the greatest changes in my life, however, was one that, as I said before, took my by surprise in the moment, even if the signs were there. My worldview, my religious perspectives, and my priorities all came into question as I started spending my time on the front and back porches of many valued friends.
The moment itself was, at least internally, a dramatic one for me. I felt like I was having the first non-judgmental, largely objective discussion about the topic of religion in my entire life. Maybe I was. My friend, who I will refer to as Amy, and I had been discussing the typical matters for people in their early 20’s: essentially, Psych 101 debates about people, work, school, the universe and where we fit into it, and of course, religion. I remember Amy broaching the topic and immediately feeling tension: what would this terrifying divine being think of me talking like it potentially doesn’t even exist? I wasn’t superstitious enough to anticipate a lightning strike, but I was still partially convinced that I had an eternal, infernal reckoning in my future if I didn’t say the right thing in this discussion. I think that’s what really terrifies me, even now, is the realization that religion doesn’t just offer you an option, or even attempt to persuade you to subscribe to their faith; they target those with unformed or undecided opinions about one of the greater matters humanity can independently and individually choose (in some places, at least), and they use fear and guilt and anger to stir up the emotions needed to convert the listener. I am not at all suggesting that the individual is free of responsibility either; rather, the choice to target the vulnerable under the guise of a benefactor remains the most alarming sort of con I have ever witnessed.
But I digress. Amy succeeded in breaking down my proverbial wall of fear with a handful of precise and meaningful questions and statements. I admit that I don’t remember the majority of this conversation anymore, but I do remember her asking if I was happier, or if I felt like my life was improved, because of my faith. She asked which was worse: to live a life of fear just in case the man in the sky was displeased by any other choice, or to waste my one and only life on the prospect of what may happen if some book (with many similar books in the world spewing many of the same threats) turns out to be right. Then she said the remark that is responsible, to this day, for my effective conversion:
“Any God that would treat their subjects like that doesn’t deserve my adoration. As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather die and spend eternity in the absence of that God than have him reign over me in any way. If you’re rolling the dice either way, aren’t you better off being happy in the meantime? What if it’s all wrong, and we become nothing again when we die? I couldn’t allow my life to then be nothing as well, it would be like I never existed at all, and my fear of the invisible would have ensured that I was never anything at all.”
I took that home with me, mulling over it for the next several days. In the end, I decided to take her philosophy on as my own, but I still went through a lot of panic, doubt, fear, and sadness: first, over the prospect of what I was embracing, and later, a sense of my final semblance of childhood naivete being discarded for a more sincere, and less judgmental, person.
In the years, Amy and I have drifted apart; aside from the occasional Facebook observation, we hardly speak to one another at all. My own stance has taken on a life of its own, and I have become quite vocal about the damage done to this world by religious organizations and actions. I have not forgotten, though, where that initial push came from, and I will always be grateful to her for the way she guided me from the greatest area of confusion in my life to a place of serene disbelief. I am evidence that, while it isn’t always easy, the ability to listen to a different point of view can often lead to awareness, and truth; these both lead to peace.