My parents enrolled my sister and I in a parochial school in Las Vegas called Saint Christopher Catholic School. I was a student there from second grade until eighth grade. I remember having Religion as a daily class. Then I recall that on Fridays the teachers would line us up, arms-length apart, and march us from the school, across the parking lot to the church. Learning religion and going to church was just part of my life. I never gave it a second thought. God was all around: omnipresent, keeping watch over our deeds, words and thoughts. After finishing 8th grade, my parents gave my sister and I the choice of continuing a religious education at Gorman High School, the only Catholic high school in Las Vegas at the time. I don’t remember my reaction but I do know one thing: I did not want to go to a Catholic high school. So public school it was.
Our household growing up wasn’t particularly religious, at least that’s how I remember it. My mother, being Filipino, was raised in a very devout Catholic family. My father however, didn’t bring any sort of religious leaning to our family of four.
Once I was no longer affiliated with St. Christopher’s or any other church, I pretty much never went back. For a few years my mother was able to convince us to go to church on the big holidays: Christmas and Easter. But that didn’t last very long as working full-time while going to college and participating in whatever other interests and activities I had at the time really left little to no room for church. And to be completely honest, I had no interest in pursuing a religious lifestyle. I’d had eight years of religion classes and church…that was enough for me.
Fast-forward through young adulthood and my 30s. I was busy with work, college, dating and miscellaneous other things that kept my life occupied enough that I didn’t think about God much. More specifically the existence of God. I just cruised through my life, distracted from religion but in my default mode: God existed.
So when did I begin to question religion and the existence of God? It’s hard to pinpoint. But it might have gotten its roots back when I was a student of fine art at UNLV. For me, the two most important things that I learned from studying art were: 1) critical thinking, self-reflection and honesty were the best ways for me to create meaningful images; 2) find my own answers to whatever questions I may have. I was actively painting and drawing up until my early 30s at which point work began demanding the lion’s share of my time and my desire for making art quickly diminished until at last I created none.
However, it wasn’t until my 40s when I started becoming interested in politics and the news of the world. Up until then, I lived a blind life, really. I always had a job, a place to live, a working car. I only had “first-world problems” and was absorbed enough in living the American life that I didn’t pay much attention to the real hardships other peoples of the world faced. To the best of my recollection, that’s when I started critically thinking about religion as an organization. I started realizing that much of the world’s conflicts are based on different religious ideology. Now, I’m not a student of religions. Nor am I a student of history. So I must also state that my point of view of all the world’s discord was based on what western media provided me, and filtered through my western sensibilities. So to say that I understand all of what’s going on in the world would be ridiculous statement and a huge mistake. But in general terms I was coming to my own conclusions as a result of all the things I was learning about the world.
With regard to religion, I was seeing appalling hypocrisy. I was seeing extreme violence in the name of God. It was becoming clear to me that organized religion was used as a tool to control and/or oppress populations. At that point I deduced that religion was not holy at all, but just a man-made scheme to wield power. After all, the scriptures weren’t written by the hand of God, they were written by men with the claim that they were divinely directed. Am I to believe only because I was told and taught to believe? As a rational adult and a thinking man, I need proof. But there is no proof.
With regard to God, I was asking myself how there could be such widespread hatred, horrifying violence on a grand scale, and inhumane acts perpetrated on entire races of people, yet God never stepped in to wield his ultimate powers of good in order to help the oppressed or to save the lives of the innocent. I started seeing that this is a very hands-off sort of God. His “mysterious ways” and “divine plan” didn’t make sense to me as I saw no evidence of it. Despite making genuine attempts to pray for unambiguous answers, I got only one. And believe it or not, it came to me in a fortune cookie. That’s no joke. And it came just a couple of days after praying. But although it felt like a real answer, it was only that one time. I have not been able to repeat it. Therefore it could have been just coincidence. In science, something can’t be definitively considered proven unless the experiment can be repeated and the same answer achieved. But over the years, there’s been mountains of reasons not to believe in the existence God.
Religion teaches us that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and has endless love and compassion. But I don’t see it that way anymore. He seems narcissistic, closed-minded and not the powerhouse as advertised. I wonder: why does God condemn us as sinners right from the womb? If he loves all of his people, why does he condemn the LGBTQ community? And since the Bible brands this community as sinners, then the hypocritical “Christians” feel they are given full license to hate them, on behalf of God, of course. That’s God’s work they’re doing (please read with all the thick sarcasm intended). Why are religious leaders always telling us to believe, regardless of what the facts reveal? They call it “faith” and they sling that word around like it has magical powers. The religious faithful are staunch in their support of these leaders, in some cases to the point of fanaticism and radicalism.
But I do need to remember that much of the teachings of religion are good. I need to remember that, when a man persecutes or commits violence against his fellow man in the name of his religion, it’s still just a man committing these abominable acts and not religion itself. People are imperfect and may have an unhealthy relationship with religion, misinterpret religion’s purpose, or just have a fucked up belief system.
One of the teachings I can totally get behind is that of “love your fellow man.” But that’s not a lesson invented by God. I believe human beings are hardwired to need each other, to treat each other with compassion and to love one another. I believe that’s an inherent trait of the human animal. I don’t believe that love and compassionate behavior is instilled in us as a result of religious teachings. I believe that those emotions and behaviors are already in us and are strengthened with human interaction, resulting in bonds of family, friendship and respect for others. No religion needed.
This shift in my attitude about faith in God didn’t come overnight. It has been very gradual. It’s the amalgamation of all that I’ve learned and experienced so far. Within the last four months I’ve asked a couple of friends what their view on religion is because I wanted to get some input on how other people think about religion and how they see themselves in relation to it. One was a believer and the other didn’t put much thought into it. I wonder if it’s normal for everyone, especially for those of us who are more advanced in years, to have these thoughts, to take an inventory of our beliefs and to think critically of whether there is a divine power out there. I think there’s a large group of folks who are riding the fence between faith in God and atheism, just like me. Although I feel I have a healthy dose of atheism within me, I find I still have residual religious habits that are still inside me. The biggest example is that, before I drive my car, I routinely say a silent prayer in my head asking for a safe trip. The prayer begins with “Dear God” and ends with “Amen.” That’s definitely a prayer. And I always thank Him upon safe arrival at my destination. The mere fact that I have capitalized “God” and “Him” is another clue that I haven’t fully broken away from my religious background.
But the older I get, the less I can pretend to see the hand of God in the world, if at all.