Live and let live: Religion, atheism, and being caught in-between

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Religion has been a part of human life in some form or another for at least 4,000 years. It has provided support for communities, given people a common cause to group around, and been a source of charity and service.

Yet, for those who do not belong to a religion or believe in a God, it has often been a source of pain and suffering. And certainly there have been a number of atrocities committed in the name of God.

The discord between these two groups, I think, doesn’t just stem from a fundamental communication problem, but a fundamental difference in the way both are wired.

A brain hardwired for God

Even 4,000 years later, it’s true that religion continues to be beneficial to humanity. Charity, social support during times of crisis, and a sense of purpose are just a few of the ways religion enriches the lives of many today. There are even indications that humans are hardwired for religion.

So it’s understandable when religious people get angry when Atheists attack their convictions with statements like “Your church isn’t true” or “God is a lie” and retreat into their trenches, often destroying all hope for fruitful and progressive discussion.

But make no mistake, there are certainly things that need to be discussed. While people should be able to believe what they want I firmly believe they must square those beliefs with facts. And the fact of the matter is that religion has also contributed to some truly gut-wrenching things in our modern day: rape culture, suicides and homelessness (especially among gay youth), mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and more.

The ways that religious denominations contribute to these and other pressing issues deserve criticism and discussion. And religious people need to understand that criticisms are not a personal attack, or even necessarily an attack on their church.

I’d be happy to see religion flourish more, but I want to see it happen while lessening the damage and hurt it unintentionally contributes to for both faithful and non-faithful people.

But while some of the problem is communication, the other problem is simply how differently we are wired — which never appears to be taken into account on either side.

While religious people may be hardwired for faith, non-believers are just as likely to be hardwired differently. Just as the idea that someone who attends church is an unintelligent sheep is grossly inaccurate, the idea that someone who doesn’t want to go to church is evil or amoral is flat-out wrong and can be incredibly damaging.

In religion, but not of religion

When I was young, church taught me about the golden rule, being thy brother’s keeper, turning the other cheek and judging not lest ye be judged. I feel that I learned some of my most cherished ideas about humanity and life from church.

But even when I was young, I felt oddly out of place in church settings. The older I got the more my anxiety in church settings grew. I felt constantly on guard — that I could not be myself. I was constantly wearing a mask and it was suffocating me. I began to drift away from the church. My family, many of my peers, and my church leaders were understandably upset by this development. After all, my very soul was at stake.

Church leaders handed me responsibility after responsibility, trying to give me a sense of purpose and place within the church. Unfortunately, these responsibilities only compounded the stress I already felt from church and, truthfully, pushed me farther away.

The more I stressed out, the more I found myself thinking, “Is this what God would really want from me? Isn’t church supposed to be a place of serenity and happiness rather than protocol, stress and anguish?”

My parents tried to prod me to attend services. When gentle pokes didn’t work, I was given ultimatums. When those just pushed me away further, they tried gifts and niceties.

The disapproval about my drifting from friends and family was palpable and created a vicious cycle. I could not be at peace in church — and it appeared I could not be at peace outside of church either. The stress of the paradox furthered the anxiety, depression, guilt and anger issues I had been experiencing in church for years. I had already been self-mutilating throughout the latter half of my high school years as a form of self-medication. Shortly after high school I turned to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Up until this point I had tried to maintain some sort of church presence, even if it was a limited one, partly to placate my family and partly because I felt it was what I was supposed to do. However, I soon realized I could not live a double-life. I finally made it clear that I didn’t want or plan to continue attending church.

Immediately, there was an incredible weight lifted from my shoulders. I didn’t feel like I had to hide myself anymore. It was like finally breathing after spending 19+ years suffocating.

Technically, it was a great first step toward sobriety and a healthy life.

However, I still felt a lot of guilt over who I was because of my upbringing. It would be several more years before I’d begin to heal the remaining emotional scars with therapy and finally stop using alcohol and drugs, becoming truly okay with the person I am.

Live and let live

I know my family and friends always wanted what was best for me. The things they did came from a place of love, but ultimately also of ignorance about who I was. They were so worried about my soul that they didn’t understand the way they were damaging me.

I often wonder how differently my life would have been if I had been nurtured to be myself, simply be a good person, and make the most of whatever it is I do believe in. Would I have ever turned to drugs or alcohol? Would I be further along in my career?

Religion can be an incredible force for good and, I believe, even necessary for some people. But just as it may be hardwired into some people, I think there are others who are simply not wired for religion. I hope someday people on both sides will understand to “live and let live” and embrace those who live differently and have found their own way to truth, happiness and health.

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