As a child, I enjoyed going to Sunday School at my church. Each week at 2:00 pm, my brother and I would be present at the little auditorium with the other “under 12’s” to socialize with our friends. The message each week was clear: accept Jesus as your personal saviour and you would go to heaven. If you did not, you would certainly go straight to hell and burn for eternity.
At school, we were inundated with the same message. In Jamaica, where I grew up, religion and bible knowledge were taught in schools like any other subject. Almost the entire population adheres to some kind of Christian denomination, whether or not they actually attend church. However, we also have a sizeable Indian population who are practising eastern religions as well.
By the time I turned 20 years old, I had stopped attending church. However, I grew up with the Christian concept, lived it, and believed it. There was no other way.
The very first time someone challenged me on the existence of God, I was about 25 years old. It was a fellow co-worker who asked me if I really believed in “that stuff”. Just having this whole exchange was surreal. Only evil people didn’t believe in God and this guy did not fit into that category.
The second time this happened it was my good friend, D, the son of a prominent national church leader, who said to me that he did not ascribe to the “religious nonsense.” He was an atheist. I was truly shocked at this revelation. I just could not understand how anyone like this could not believe in God. Here was a very nice guy who would give anyone the shirt off his back if they asked him. How could he be on the dark side? In spite of his father’s profession, D was able to outline his views regarding his disdain of religion. He started with the creation story and continued through to the immaculate conception.
As he spoke, I realized how much I had just accepted whatever I was taught while growing up in spite of any logic presented to me. Some believers may say that the devil was working in my mind. I just say I examined myself and my own beliefs in much further detail.
Perhaps I was already looking for an answer to my own questions and needed a little nudge. By Christian standards, I was very wishy-washy. After all, I had already long accepted that the Christian bible was full of errors and mistranslations. There were many passages that I had dismissed as archaic and meaningless in today’s world, demeaning to women, and insulting to my race. There were many people I knew who called themselves “Christians” who led very sordid or deceptive lives. There were also good people in my life who were also Christians who followed the righteous path.
Then there were so many fractious believers in the world who would Christianize you to death, literally. Let’s face it, throughout time, the Christians have not always been the nicest of people. Between King Henry VIII changing his religion so he could divorce his wife and marry another (and go on to behead or divorce four of his six wives), the Inquisition, and the Crusades, there are quite a few examples of instances when terrible acts were carried out in the name of God.
Forgive me if I cannot speak about other religions, as I was not raised in any other faith. Also my point here is not to compare Christianity to any other religion.
It was a confusing time for me because I desperately wanted to believe in the wonderful God as presented to me in Sunday School. But did this God also declare that my gay friends or my non-believing friends would burn in hell fire for eternity no matter how much good they did during their lifetime? And, depending on the church I wanted to attend, I may not actually end up in hell, but go on to purgatory and do time for bad behaviour, before going on to heaven. (That actually sounded good to me!) Or, was the number of people on their way to heaven already predetermined as the Jehovah’s Witnesses say? My in-laws, who are Seventh Day Adventists, believe that all us Sunday-worshipping swine-eaters are going straight to hell anyway.
The idea that everyone in the world who was experiencing unbearable hardships and tragedy should just accept it and know that one day their reward would be in heaven did not sit well with me. Nor did the idea that those of us who were suffering had inherited the sins of our fathers.
Over time, I came to realize that our God was presented as being more and more human. He demanded to be worshipped all the time. He was vengeful and jealous. He gave us free will but we had to choose his way. And what was his way?
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there are over 41,000 Protestant Christian denominations worldwide (www.pewforum.org). Obviously then we do not all believe the same one thing. Yes, we have a general idea of Christianity, but this is what makes some of us swine-eaters and some of us Sabbath-day keepers. Is this really what’s going to determine whether I burn for eternity or sing praises forever in heaven?
The more I thought about it over time, the more agnostic I became. I say “agnostic”, but I’m really just a passive atheist. I don’t believe anymore that there is a God or a Supreme Being, but I don’t really care if any one else believes. Millions of people in the world find solace in religion and that’s okay. The majority of my friends still hold Christian beliefs, but this is not a part of our lives that we discuss. My children don’t attend church and it’s very unlikely that I will take them to one. But if they happen to find religion one day and it works for them, then more power to them.
For myself, I believe one can live all the moral values of society and make a positive difference in people’s lives without swearing to uphold the principles of Christianity. In the end, it’s how you treat your fellow human being that matters. Well, to me, anyway.