Monday, September 3, 2007
About a week before the Labor Day weekend, my wife informed me that we would be attending her mother's church. She said this in the same tone that one might say "I want you to know that I've been screwing the mailman" or any other life-shattering phrase that is usually prefaced by asking someone to sit down.
Going to church is not a life-shattering event for me nor is it entirely pleasant either -- it's like a trip to the dentist for a deep cleaning. Yes, it will be uncomfortable (and there will be a co-pay) but hopefully its all over in an hour or so and you go back to what you were doing (in my case, NOT going to church). But my wife is not stupid, she knows that going to church signals deap-seated and dueling feelings of inadequacy and just-above-a-whisper sense of superiority. As best as I can recall, this all stems from a religion course I took in college (cue the wavy memory lines).
I don't remember having any alternative motives for taking the class other than pure, academic curiosity. I found the idea a book handed down by God an exciting one, even if only from an intellectual view point. However, the teacher (who, in my memory, is played by Cedric the Entertainer with a pronouced lisp) did not exercise the same sense of educational detachment as I did. He was a Baptist minister who wore his collar to class -- a fashion choice that signaled to me that the chapters on Christianity may count a little more toward my final grade than the one on Islam.
On the first day, Rev. Entertainer was taking attendance and was not only asking for everyone's names but their religious affiliations as well (something my parents always told me to mark as Christian as not to call undue attention to myself -- naturally, I didn't listen). As the question wound its way around the room (and 99% of my classmates claiming themselves Christians), I battled with the phrasing of my answer. "Athiest" was too strong a word and not entirely accurate while "Agnostic" had an unpleasent cultish-ring to it. Still, I wanted to have a tidy answer like everyone else without launching into a discussion about my philosoph-loving parents.
Truthfully, I was both proud and ambivalent about my religious stature. At that point, my non-believer status had almost zero impact on my daily life. I still celebrated Christmas and Easter (a lame holiday made even more lame when you don't buy the whole savior bit) but didn't have to wake up early on Sundays. All the fun, none of the existential guilt.
Finally, my turn came I finally spoke the rehearsed words in my head, "I don't practice any religion." I might as well have said "I eat live babies and shit R. Kelly CDs" as Rev. Entertatiner did a cartoonish-double take and stuttered "Well what duth that mean?" (he lisps, remember). So I clarified, "I was raised without any religious affiliation."
I would find the good reverend's reaction repeated on the faces of many others as I grew older. Aside from basic confusion, the underlying tone of his response was of revulsion and pity -- neither of which I appreciated and fortified myself against by announcing my belief system with confidence. It's not a secret or a point of shame. But it's hard to convince a teacher, a classroom or anyone really, that NOT believing is neither the result or poor parenting or conscious rebellion. No one believes that you can just go without and therefore assumes that my lack is orchestrated.
What no one is prepared for is that fact that life is still sweet, still mysterious and good without believing in heaven or hell. The simple truth I have discovered is that, unless you are raised to believe as a child -- when your brain is hardwiring language, sight and beliefs -- it is next to impossible and almost unneccessary to practice any religion. The stories are too wild, the rules too strict for any real conformity. Instead, I believe most people glean the truths they see from it and continue to pay bills, go to Disneyland and buy flat-screen TVs.
But these are not welcomed thoughts, especially not in a Black church where the word of the day is "Jesus" and everyone feels they are two steps from hell despite their good deeds. Nevertheless, I can't help but think them and almost say them out loud everytime I step foot in a church. But more on that in part two.