My Religious Journey
I’ve always had a bit of a tense relationship with religion. I guess through all the ups and downs, it seems to me a vital human question: does God exist and should we view the world through a religious lens?
At this point in my life, my answer is a strong no on whether we should view the world through a religious framework and an agnostic position towards the notion of God existing. This to me seems like the only reasonable position. However, I qualify this statement by saying “at this point in my life” because I fully admit that given the many stops I’ve had along the journey so far, I have no idea where I’ll end up before I pass on to whatever is on the other side.
As a child, my parents sent me to a private Lutheran school because Trenton public schools were notoriously terrible. I know it costed them a fortune. But I think at the time, they thought it was the right thing to do. The most alarming memory I have of being in a religious elementary school is that literally 0% of the curriculum was spent on science. I think outside of teaching us basic mathematics, I knew essentially nothing about the scientific world of inquiry before entering 6th grade at a public school. I never learned the scientific method. It seems to me, looking back on it, incredibly troubling to present only one lens through which to view the world.
Our school days were filled with Bible classes. I learned mostly about the New Testament, the teaching of Jesus and his disciples, and a sanitized black and white view of morality. We lived in a sinful world and our job as humans was to avoid sin as much as possible. I found myself drawn to the ideas because my peers were engaged and because it was such a large part of my day to day existence. As a child, I wanted to do the right thing and this was what I was being taught was the right thing. My parents were mostly non religious at the time. They occasionally humored me by taking me to some joint school/church sponsored events, and additionally, as part of school, we attended a church service once a week. Teachers engrained in me from an early age the idea of original sin — no one was innocent and we must all try our best on a day to day level to be as pure as possible. Children were not innocent, because we all collectively shared this burden from the day we were born. I never experienced Catholic guilt, just the Lutheran lite version.
We moved to a rural are when I was 13 and I entered public school for the first time. Religion mostly fell by the wayside. I was no longer interested, my parents weren’t particularly inclined to go to church and life moved on. Around the time I was 18, for some reason, my family began going to a local church in our small rural town and my parents began really getting into Christianity. My family had been in a serious car accident earlier that year and frankly, it was a small miracle no one had died. I think they wanted to find a way to show their thanks to the universe for sparing us more a more tragic experience. As a family, we all began attending church together. I appreciated the cohesive family feel of it, but otherwise felt kind of miserable going every Sunday. But I did find something of value in the fact that it made us a little more tight knit as a family.
There was one experience that I had in my late teens, under the influence of marijuana edibles, that was pretty eye opening on an existential level.
I was sitting down for awhile before the pot had begun to kick in. The ceiling above me slowly went from white to green, and then to orange. I began to really feel the effects of the weed. About an hour into the process, I stood up to get a glass of water. As I went to the kitchen, in my mind’s eye(I don’t know how else to elaborate this- I knew it wasn’t real life, but it felt real experientially, the same feeling you feel if you were to meditate and have a vision), a man with a gun stood beside me.
“Do you want to die?” he asked me.
“No, of course not,” I responded.
“If you can let go of your preconceived notion of what death is, you will realize the experience itself is not what you think. You can approach this unafraid,” he told me.
I thought quietly for a few moments. I oscillated between feelings of intense fear and this innate desire to understand the unknown of death that we all eventually experience. I was able to swallow my fear for a brief second.
“Go ahead,” I told him. “It’s okay, I’m ready.”
With that he put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger. I experienced a brief flash, and found myself back in my body, cognizant. I felt that that brief flash I had experienced the feeling of passing on to some other side. And the other side felt like nothing. It felt like blackness, but the blackness somehow felt primordially comforting.
I’ve thought about this experience many times since. I sometimes wonder whether the actual moment of death will feel anything like this.
A few years later, I had surgery.
As they began to put me under the effects of anesthesia, I had a really bad reaction to the medication and began thrashing around, trying to get off of the operating table. I felt incredible anxiety, as if I was about to die, similar to the drug induced vision I described earlier, but with far more anxiety.
The anesthesiologist injected me with something to calm my nerves and began upping the dose of the anesthesia. Within a few seconds, I felt what I can only describe as my essence leaving my body. I felt my essence float up, out of my psychical being. I felt a brief feeling of euphoria, of all of the weight of the world being lifted, and I felt this “soul” continue to rise out of my body going higher and higher in the room, until I was looking down at my body below, peacefully sleeping as the surgery began. This experience felt as real as any day to day experience. I felt myself float away into a wash of light.
I woke up sometime later, safe and sound, the surgery successful. Of course drugs can alter our perception, but I’ve always had trouble wrapping my head around the actual perception that I was viewing the entire scene from above for a few brief moments. And the lifting sensation was hard to reduce to the actual anesthesia. I’ve had anesthesia a few times since and I’ve never had a repeat of this experience.
Years ago, when researching my genealogy, I learned that my original immigrant Ely ancestor came to America because he was a Quaker seeking religious freedom. He was being persecuted in England and decided to follow his sister and brother in law to a new life on a new continent.
I hadn’t known much about Quakerism before, but I began to look into the history of Quakerism because I was curious to know what it entailed. As I learned about the religion and what the practitioners stood for historically, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Quakerism’s ambitious and ahead-of-the-times social views. Quakers were(and continue to be)anti slavery, pro women’s rights, equality focused, and major advocates for social justice around the world. Pretty much the opposite of what I would see modern day Christianity being. And mind you, this was going back to the 1600s.
Interestingly, my relative that came to America for religious freedom eventually ended up leaving the “Society of Friends” he was part of. Decades later his grandson would become a Quaker preacher, after it seems the family took a break from the religion for awhile. And then in the years following, generations down the line, the family seemed to mostly leave religion altogether.
I guess the thing I struggle with the most these days is that having a child, I wonder what I’ll tell her about religion. I’m not anti religion. But most of what I see and read and hear from most religions in the world seems like absolute bullshit. The three major religions of the world seem utterly lost and merely a justification for power dynamics that are self serving and downright horrible, especially for women.
The only religion, if you can call it that, that I’ve ever found truth in is Buddhism. But ultimately I don’t think that Buddhism really points to a God at all, and if it does point to some divine nature of the universe, that divinity is neutral, not an all knowing, all loving, all powerful God that most are familiar with and most believe in.
I think I’ll probably just explain to my daughter whatever religious journey I’ve been on. And how life is complicated and religion is as well.
I do ultimately believe in something- I just don’t know what I would call it. As I get older, the universe feels more and more deterministic to me, but I mean that in a way that nods to forces greater than ourselves. Modest Mouse has a song, one of my favorites by them, called Never Ending Math Equation, that contains the lyrics:
The universe works on a math equation
that never even ever really ends in the end
Infinity spirals out creation
I guess this kinda sums up what I’m getting at- this infinite spiral of forces greater than ourselves- infinite in nature, but driven by numbers and patterns. Life is less random than we think. And occasionally we get a glimpse of that non randomness.
The picture at the beginning of this article was taken by my wife during our trip to Scotland five years ago. We went to Lothian Chambers, the place we were getting married at later that week, and stumbled upon St. Giles Cathedral across the street.
I remember feeling such a sense of peace and wonder as we entered the cathedral and explored after having stumbled upon it. This ancient monument celebrating something bigger than ourselves felt meaningful. I was in awe. I guess maybe that’s the closest we get to God, whatever God is. I lit a candle to remember those dearly departed and remembered back to a time as a child, when my grandmother took me to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and we lit a candle together to remember those lost and left behind. For the first time in a long time, I thought about the vastness of the universe and how in the end, we’re just a tiny speck.
Everything comes around. Everything repeats. The universe feels infinite- it feels like it’s been here forever and will be here forever, long after we are all gone. Religion can’t possibly contain an idea that big. The best it can do is give a brief nod to it through ceremony and tradition.