Go see Religulous by Bill Maher if you haven’t. Go. I’ll wait here until after you’ve seen it. Seen it? Good. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Today’s topic up for dissection is religion. I know it’s a touchy subject, which is exactly why I’m tackling it today. You see, I was raised Evangelical, so I do know a little something about Christianity from the inside. So, I’m going to start with a personal story, and then I am going to branch out into more general territory.
Once upon a time, there was an island named Formosa. Most of the inhabitants on the island were Buddhists. However, the Dutch people, then the English Presbytarians, then the Canadian Presbytarians sent missionaries to the island. So now, even though the vast majority of Taiwanese are Buddhist, Confucian and/or Taoist, approximately 5% of the population is Christian.
My mother is one of that 5%. She was raised Christian. My dad is one of the 93% that is Buddhist/Confucian/Taoist. He was raised Buddhist. My mother went to church and prayed to God. My father went to his ancestors’ graves and paid homage to them. They met in Tennessee, and my father converted to please my mother. He has never been what I would call a spiritual person, so I suspect it was easier for him to convert than for him to convince my mother to convert.
Fast-forward many years. They moved to Minnesota so my dad could get his Ph.D. in economics. They met other Taiwanese people who also came to the States for educational purpose. Most of them were Christians. They weren’t satisfied with the Chinese Church, so they decided to start a church of their own. It was a branch of the Evangelical Formosan Church, which originates in LA. Our branche was called the Evangelical Formosan Church in the Twin Cites, EFCTC for short.
I went there for all of my childhood. I tried to believe–I really did. I went to Bible school camp, and I would be swept up in the groupthink fervor that always accompanies any kind of camp. I would vow to carry the feeling home with me, but it inevitably faded within a few days. Then, I went back to my doubting self. I tried to talk to God, but He (and it was a He at the time) didn’t bother answering.
When I realized that one day, I wouldn’t exist any more (I was seven), I used to jump out of bed and scream in abject terror. I still do from time to time. It boggles my mind to think that I will go from a sentient, feeling being to–nothing. And so, I looked to the church to soothe that fear. I found out that if I believed in God, I would go to Heaven. Saved! But wait, I can’t believe in God just to go to Heaven–I have to believe in God…just because. If I believe in God just to go to Heaven, then it wasn’t enough.
WTF? If I don’t believe in God, I go to Hell. If I believe in God because I don’t want to go to Hell, I will still go to Hell. However, if I believe in God because…well, just because, then I go to Heaven. That’s seriously stacking the deck against me, now isn’t it?
In addition, I was supposed to believe that God gave a shit about me personally. Well, I could clearly see that wasn’t true. I mean if God cared about each person individually, why did so many people suffer horrific lives? My pastor and others tried to explain that if there wasn’t evil, there wouldn’t be good. If we didn’t have free will, then what was the point? I would counter that we didn’t have free will, not really, because the choice is believe or go to Hell. That’s not really much of a choice, is it? Then, there was the whole if you think it, you’ve done it angle. If me thinking about robbing a bank for a million dollars is the same as me actually doing it, then why not just go rob the bank and beg for mercy after? Kinda like what Wall Street is doing right now, except, they aren’t doing the begging for mercy bit.
In addition, I was told that I couldn’t get to Heaven on good deeds alone. I had to believe. Then why the hell would I do any good deeds at all? Why not just do shitty things all my life and atone at the last minute? I mean, Hitler was Catholic, and Jeffrey Dahmer repented before he was killed in prison. The only danger with this approach is that I would have to make sure to get my atonement in before dying.
Religion never made much sense to me. I struggled with it all through my childhood. I was told to believe in this mythical being in the sky who knew everything I was thinking and who was judging every thought I had and every deed I did. No wonder I feared doing anything wrong! In my mind, there was nothing I could do right when it came to God. He was the stern, forbidding, distant father who judged everything I did with a disapproving eye. No matter how hard I tried (and believe me, I tried), I could not believe in God just because. I could only try to believe in God so I wouldn’t go to hell.
Funny anecdote. Once, when I was a kid, I was having a massive allergy attack. I asked my mom why God invented allergies, and I never got an answer. It didn’t make sense to me then, and it doesn’t make sense to me now. Nothing about Christianity made sense to me–not the stories nor the morals nor the contradictions.
It didn’t help that I felt like an outcast at my church. I was always on the outside of the group of girls because I simply wasn’t interested in the same things. When I was a teenager, I didn’t even know how to begin to pretend to fit in, so I often just stood to the sidelines and watched the action rather than participate. Still, I kept going to church because my mother made me, and I grew to dislike it more with each passing week.
The boiling point happened when we were having Bible study night. Our youth pastor had been wild in his youth (he was American, so naturally, he was wild in his youth), and he was trying to get us to not go down the same path. He told us that we shouldn’t even hold hands on a date because holding hands led to sex. Now, I was a virgin at the time, but even I knew that there were plenty of steps between holding hands and sex.
Side tangent–I really hated the fact that the church taught that sex was dirty and sinful and gross–until you got married. Then, it was mystical and wonderful and sacred. Really. A piece of paper has that much power, does it? It’s because of the no sex before marriage dictum that I became a TV–technical virgin. I did everything BUT have penile penetration into my vagina, and I thought I was still a virgin. It was a matter of inches, really. Just as these days, kids saddleback (have anal or oral sex) in order to ‘save’ their virginity. Or rather, her virginity.
Back to Bible study. Then, one of the girls asked very seriously why there was evil in the world. There were several things the youth pastor could have said. He could have said that there has to be evil to balance the good. He could have said that without evil, we wouldn’t really have a choice or free will. Hell, he could have said that life would be boring without evil in it. He could have said any of those things, but no. He didn’t. Instead, he said, “God works in mysterious ways,” and that did it for me. I continued to give lip service to being a Christian, but I wasn’t.
Then, I attended St. Olaf College, and any attempts at charade quickly faded. Since this is getting to be really long, I will conclude here and pick up tomorrow with the fascinating story of how attending a Lutheran college turned me off Christianity once and for all.