Losing My Religion


I was Catholicized without having first been consulted in the matter at a very young age (not unlike many others), though at least we didn't make a habit of attending Masses; when my family moved to our last home in Paterson, New Jersey, however, we eventually started attending the Baptist church down the street on Union Avenue. My sister and I even spent time there on days other than Sundays and helped to clean the church and its grounds. Yes, I was in the church choir, too. They were nice people, and we enjoyed our time there. We all stopped going after some years, though.

I decided at the tender age of thirteen that I could no longer believe in any sort of spiritual being that watched and had power over us, or that there was an afterlife, in which each of us might be judged for his/her actions in this life. My seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Ernest J. Messina, who turned me on to the Beatles, was also an atheist, and while he may have influenced my decision to some degree, it's hardly his fault I'm a non-believer now. Like most atheists I know and have known, he was not (to my knowledge) actively trying to recruit. Heh.

In high school, I got in the habit of saying "Yes?" whenever someone took the Lord's name in vain. This annoyed a few people, but entertained many; a fellow student noted this habit of responding to "God," and my tendency to wear Ray-Ban Wayfarers (like Don Johnson's in "Miami Vice"), and dubbed me the "Vice God," a nickname that stuck around longer than the show did. I was probably one of the least vice-ridden kids around, which made it all the more amusing. Another student and friend was stunned to learn that I was an atheist, yet I didn't drink, smoke, take any other drugs, or have lots of casual sex. I had to explain to her that morality and temperance are not only for the devout, and that atheists are not by definition immoral or amoral, a lesson that many people still need to learn.

During my year at Glassboro State College, my suitemates Michael Streahle (who was also an atheist) and Don Mennig (who was not) and I engaged in a few debates on religion, until Don decided that he didn't want to talk about it with us anymore. Heh-heh. I have at times been a rather militant atheist, though once I'd reached my mid-20s, my stance had relaxeed considerably. I don't consider atheism to be a belief system itself; to me, it is instead the lack of one. There are certainly 'hard' atheists who actively deny the existence of a deity and therefore actively believe there is no God. I, however, found myself shifting to the 'soft' school, which simply sees no evidence to support belief in a deity and therefore does not believe in one. The difference between believing something is not true and not believing that something is true is perhaps subtle, but it is a difference nonetheless. Think of it as the difference between believing there is definitely no intelligent alien life out there, and not believing every story you've ever heard about 'close encounters' no matter how obviously the person believed it, because there was no scientific proof. In the former case, you've already made up your mind; in the latter, you're being skeptical but (hopefully) open-minded.

I've sometimes chided people for their religious beliefs and rituals, but as long as I wasn't subjected to it, affected by it, or forced to bear witness, it really didn't rouse any emotions in me one way or the other. Religion, or the lack thereof, should be a personal choice, and if it's kept to oneself, then all the better. I have no desire to force atheism, or agnosticism, or anything else on anyone else, and I wish more missionaries would take the same position.

During my late twenties and early thirties, I developed an interest in and a deep respect for the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and political leader of Tibet's government-in-exile. In 2003, I saw him speak twice, in Boston and in New York. I'm not a Buddhist, any more than I am a Christian or a Hindu, but of the major religions, Buddhism probably makes the most sense to me. I also like that the Dalai Lama has said that, if science proves something that contradicts Buddhism, then Buddhism will have to change to accomodate that new fact. He's shown a very keen interest in science, and in Boston he publicly decried faith healing and stated that, if he found someone who could actually do it, he'd have that person look at his knee. Heh-heh... If I were going to put my fate and faith in the hands of a religious leader, he'd be the one. I have to say that Pope Francis I has earned more of my respect than I'd have expected, too.

As for my current feelings on religion, while I'm not the hardline militant atheist I once was, I have still not been convinced by anyone, of any faith, that there are any deities in the universe worthy of my awe and adulation, with the possible exception of the universe itself. Oh, I sometimes gives thanks to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I'm not really a Pastafarian. I prefer to think of myself as an agneist (part agnostic, part atheist) these days. I am skeptical but (hopefully) open-minded. Maybe there is some kind of omnipotent cosmic presence, but I've seen no incontrovertible evidence and am not at all certain... I think it's what we do with our time alive, howe we treat ourselves and each other, that matters. Humans are the origin of good, and of evil... and that is the truth.