People often ask me, “Do you believe in God?”
I’ll often respond, “I don’t know.”
To which they will, if they believe, automatically reply, “If you don’t know … then you don’t believe.”
If you don’t know … then you don’t believe …
I grew up Catholic. In fact, going through what I’ll call “The 12 Boxes”, which is shorthand for “everything my mother kept in her house that was either created by, purchased for, or otherwise attributed to me that never made it to my house until the day she moved out of hers”, I was a bit surprised to see how Catholic I grew up.
From Baptism to Confirmation, I went to CCD every Sunday morning – either before or after church. And I wasn’t just AT Sunday School … I was a scripture star. I apparently was able to transcribe bible verses with great ease and draw in painstaking detail the Stations of the Cross.
Church was often the most somnolent 45-120 minutes of the week, depending upon what mass you went to, and despite often spending many minutes before or after church chatting with priests about life and the Buffalo Bills and basically anything NOT god-related and finding most of them to be perfectly regular, amiable folk, something just didn’t stick. Something seemed bizarrely cultish about the whole Tebow thing.
I got to college and stopped the church-going. I began studying philosophy and wrote a rough version of this as my final essay.
In there, I write “I don’t believe in God. Or, more accurately, I’m more likely to believe in Calculus.”
I wanted to believe. But I needed proof. Real, tangible proof.
Someone once told me, “Agnostics are just castrated Atheists”, and – while I guess that fits perfectly in line with “If you don’t know … then you don’t believe …”, it somewhat contradicts it … as Atheists essentially told me, “If you don’t know, then you’re afraid that you believe in something that might be wrong.”
And that’s when it hit me … if the condition of “I don’t know” is true, then depending upon who you asked, I either did not believe, or I was afraid I believed in something that might be wrong. And while those aren’t necessarily opposites, they aren’t the same. The life of an Agnostic is a painful one, rife with guilt, doubt and rumination. Which actually sounds a lot like the life of anyone who grew up in a Catholic household.
About the time I stopped going to Church was around the time I started letting rumination, guilt and doubt run my life instead of the usual Catholic “fear of going to hell” or worse “fear of sitting in the confessional.” It’s been 12 years since my last confession, and I’d rather roll the dice in the afterlife than spill my secrets of the last decade-plus in front of a man behind a wall who may or may not be a deity and may or may not prescribe me a life sentence of Holy Ghosts and Our Fathers.
But those 10 Commandments and 8 Beatitudes are sure glorious, aren’t they? Blessed are the meek and Thou Shalt Not Kill and the like. They seem like great rules and all, but then you wonder if they weren’t just concocted as primitive methods of crowd control by a primitive culture that couldn’t control it’s own restless, uncivilized population, so they invented some spook story about a forgiving omnipotent paternal figure who’s alternately loving and ferocious and also came down to Earth for 30+ years to scare the 1st Millenia A.D. straight till we could dream up of Government and Capitalism and Logic and Science and Sports as newer-age methods of motivating and manipulating the masses.
And then you think of all that and think to yourself “How could God possibly exist?” When we have so many more evolved and organized and factual ways of explaining how we got here and where we’re going, and then that whole “book of truth” thing looks like a bigger and bigger crock of B.S. than it’s writers originally intended.
But … if God doesn’t exist … and it is so clearly true that no such concept of God ever existed … why do so many people around the world believe in one? And why, despite religious differences, is a higher power the common thread that ties them all together?
In the United States alone, some 92% of Americans believe in God or some facsimile thereof. If there’s no god, doesn’t that mean 92% of this country are idiots? Couldn’t they all be wrong? Is that a good thing? Who’s right and who’s wrong?
To find out, I spent two years engaged in a silent case study attempting to attend a service at nearly every House of Worship that would have me. I was able to walk amongst the Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Christians, Buddhists, Hindu, Mormons and Scientologists on their home turf. Play by their rules. Blend in as best I could.
Remarkably, I was often well-received, and although I was occasionally asked to leave because a session was closed to non-matriculated types like myself, and although I didn’t do a whole lot of talking to other congregants, I felt no less awkward at their places than I’ve previously felt at metal shows and country concerts.
In fact, there were very few differences between the various sessions, including some comforting commonalities I found quite revealing about who we are as humans. I will try, and potentially fail, to articulate them here:
1. Light is good. Light brings life. Light is divine.
2. A divine life generates compound divine interest by sharing divinity with others.
3. Chanting helps us reaffirm our principles and brings us motivation and calm.
4. “God has the better message, but the devil has the better tunes” is a lie, since music in all its forms seems to have its origin in some form of divine worship.
5. It took a human with an unusual brand of passion and/or insanity and/or possible divinity to communicate the magnitude and beauty of life to other humans and make the message stick. (Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, L. Ron Hubbard, etc).
5a. All religions extend as far back as time and if that sounds too ludicrous to be believed, then we move the goalposts up and say time hasn’t existed for as long as we think.
6. The colors white, red, gold, black and blue remain somewhat consistent in their religious contexts across the board.
7. The messages are, by design, universal and perfect. The readers are, by design, personal and imperfect.
8. Above all, remain truthful. To yourself and to others.
9. (And this is perhaps most important) … the journey is never complete. Whether attempting to achieve Heaven, Nirvana, Enlightenment or otherwise … there is no end to your soul’s quest. It stretches across time, space, life, the afterlife. It leads us to the great vertical asymptote of divinity that only the gods may touch and cross. This, however, is treated as a master motivational tool rather than as discouragement.
10. The light and the message exist inside each and every one of us. Even Atheist bastard “scientists” claim that there are actually regions of the brain that interact with each other and the outside environment to either produce or simulate “worship.”
11. The numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 12 show up more regularly than others. Well, everywhere but the Lotto, or else I’d be a very rich man.
So, after all that, I suppose you want to know the answer: So … NOW do I believe in God?
I’ll tell you what … as a form of crowd-control, mind-control, and as a rational basis for explaining life and our origins, religion gets a Solid F-minus. The stories drag and bewilder. The plots have holes. Worse yet, extreme belief has been known to cause prejudice, intolerance, ignorance, terrorism and even cold-blooded murder. Those are some unpleasant side-effects.
But there’s something universal and beautiful about God. The concept of God. Actual God. The brilliance and truth of God. God, in whatever form, wants us to connect with each other. Wants us to embrace each other. Wants us to be inclusive and, if someone asks, “Hey, can we play here, too?” For us to tip ’em our cap, flip them the ball and say, “Yeah, that’s cool.” As a social lubricant, it ranks highest. Above fashion, above music, above sports, above film, above food and even above tequila.
God’s message is, quite simply, “You are all equal beings with the power within yourselves to greatly impact the world for good. Be honest, be compassionate and go toward the light. Though you’ll never reach it, you’ll be surprised how far you can go as long as you never stop and share that journey with others.”
And God’s right. From the Pyramids at Giza to the Vatican to Athens to Mecca to Stonehenge and Easter Island (HOW DID THOSE FREAKING STATUES GET THERE?), from the Taj Mahal to the Forbidden City, our human history – from architecture to the arts, from democracy to demographics – is almost entirely framed by God’s message. Listen to “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, or Josh Groban tear through the bridge of “O Holy Night” or a 9-minute orchestral reading of “Canon in D.” (Sorry to roll three-deep on Christian tracks. I also have a soft spot for Hava Nagila.) Try to remain unmoved. Try not to hear the greater message, the one buried beneath in the lyrics.
The music spilled out of someone’s soul because words alone, because sound alone, because tone and melody alone WEREN’T ENOUGH to contain and convey the passion they felt and the messages they heard in their soul. It doesn’t matter who spoke it to them, or whether they they even heard it correctly. They shared it with us and it became as much a part of our human scripture as anything written by the people who organized religious factions in the first place.
And all of that? From the message to the music, from the monuments to the mosques? To the way concepts like Mountains and Fish and Water and Light and Fire carry divine heft simply when capitalized? I believe in that.
So when I go all Sign of the Cross when I need that little extra to excel to new heights, or I read Proverbs, Wisdom and Psalms when I need that little inspiration or swift kick-in-the-ass,. or I pray for health and meditate for calm, or say Ave Maria is the best song I’ve ever heard in my life … I should feel no shame. Why?
Because … it’s all a part of what’s good about God, and it’s all a part of my unique culture I’ve spent years developing, refining and investing my mind and soul in, along with the help of my family, friends, preachers and life experiences. It’s my own personal brand of worship – a brand equal to anyone’s. Yours. Theirs. All of ours. It’s my way of getting closer to the thing upstairs, that light at the end of the unreachable tunnel. And everybody’s got their own. We’re wired that way.
And as far as I can tell, if we all wander through darkness on an endless journey to a light that cannot be created nor destroyed and least of all reached … and it is that journey that’s led all of us individually and collectively to this point in 2012 and all the beautiful combinations of form and function that it’s created for us … well, then I believe in that light. And I believe the journey to it is a just and worthwhile one.
That is all I know. And in my mind, that’s enough to make me believe in God.
“If you don’t know … then you don’t believe.”
“If you don’t know … then you’re afraid what you believe might be wrong.”
These, according to God, are falsehoods. You’ll never know if you really believe or if it’s really out there. The journey is never complete.There is no end to your soul’s quest. It stretches across time, space, life, the afterlife. You’ll never know. Only God will know.
The best the rest of us can do is to believe.
Thirtyist is a series of 30 tales of the 30 people, places, ideas and events that shaped the last 30 years of the life of someone of no particular importance – told in no particular order. To read them all, click on the post tag, “Thirtyist” or on the links below.*
(except in this case, since this is the first in the series)
1. How I Found God