I woke up on Saturday morning to tweeted videos of boys from a Catholic school taunting and mocking elderly indigenous people. If you somehow haven't seen this yet, you can find at least one article about it here. The school and the boys are being raked through the coals on social media. The whole event and the seemingly endless stream of videos that have been surfacing has spurred a bunch of debates in a very short period, several of which have been fascinating and sometimes disturbing to follow.
This isn't a political post. It could be--there are plenty of articles being published now about the incident--articles that try to digest the politics associated with the thing that happened. That's fine and well, but while I've watched with horrified curiosity for a dozen different reasons, one of the sub-debates happening has made me think about a topic I've wanted to broach on Stranger for some time: religion. You know. That other thing about which no one has strong opinions.
Whenever religious people are involved in some publicized despicable act, a conversation about religion and whether it's good or bad or something in between often surfaces. I'm usually curious to hear these debates, largely because for a long time I was quite religious.
Growing up Mormon, I was used to spending three or more hours at church every Sunday. Church events took up portions of my weeknights, too. For all four years of high school, one of my daily school classes was a religion class held just at the edge of the public school's property. The home I grew up in had religious pictures hanging in every single room, bathrooms not excluded. As a child I just sort of assumed that this was probably the case with every house in America. I was used to this. The religion wasn't a thing we did; it was a lifestyle, infiltrating every aspect of everything we knew.
More than ten percent of my income was given to the church, without question. When I was 19, I left home to live in Ukraine for two years as a Mormon missionary, where I worked from sunrise to well past sunset every day, only talking to my family twice a year for a brief phone call. I was beat up multiple times on the streets of Ukraine and on three separate occasions I literally thought I might die in that country. Despite that, I never considered calling it quits. I remember seeing a picture of my mom after I had been gone for about 20 months and thinking that her face looked unrecognizable to me in a way I still can't explain. By that point, my family seemed like they belonged to a different lifetime in some alternate universe. A lot of that is probably because at that age, those two years accounted for a tenth of my life and 100% of adulthood, so it seemed a lot longer than two years does to me now.
The mission thing wasn't unique where I grew up. There was never any question in my community that I and most of my friends would do this thing that seems kind of nuts when I think about it now. (I use that word not disparagingly. I'm super happy that I lived in Ukraine for two years and have zero regrets about it. But that doesn't make the fact any less nuts.)
After Ukraine, I spent the next six years attending a Mormon university to get undergrad and law degrees. A substantial amount of my daily life was devoted to my religion, again, without question.
All of this is to say that I was very religious for very many years. Most of my family is very religious, as are a good portion of my close friends and colleagues. I am surrounded by religion in my work and social life and social media life and neighborhood and literally everything that I do.
With the background I've described, and the total immersion of religious life I still experience on some level just because of where I live and who I associate with, you can maybe imagine what a strange thing it was a few years ago to become not religious.
After spending so much time in the closet and trying desperately to stay there, convinced that eventually my passion for the religion would help me figure out a way to make that all work, I finally had to start facing some harsh realities. I've written about that experience generally, but the tl;dr is that I felt it necessary to accept, just on the basis of basic emotional survival, that the religion was not something that could keep being a part of my life in the same way it always was. For my own peace and happiness and sanity, I had to move on.
I am thoroughly convinced that anyone who has not been in that position has no idea how gut-wrenching it is. From time to time, I've heard people suggest that losing one's religion or stepping away is taking the easy way out. I totally resent that. The easy way for me would have been to just keep doing what I was doing, miserable and unfulfilled and feeling truly dishonest with myself, but at least staying the familiar course. It took substantially more courage to come out and try to determine what it meant to be a good person in a paradigm that was totally foreign to me.
So yes, I stepped back, and possibly understanding the word "faith" really for the first time, I started making some choices for myself that completely changed my life and purpose.
When I began forging that new path, I made a decision not to do it with any bitterness or guile or disrespect. I couldn't imagine how any of those things would be productive. If the purpose of making a new life for myself was to find peace, I certainly wouldn't be doing that well through anger.
Truthfully, that has not always been easy. If you think there is never a reason to be angry at religion or religious people, you should come be a gay man in Utah for one day. Also, if you do, you better pencil me in for brunch.
Even if that has been challenging at times, for the most part, I've been able to maintain a nuanced perspective about the whole thing that isn't bitter, and because of that, I've been able to move on without making the whole thing any kind of obsession. I'm really grateful for that.
Through all of this, I've come to believe that religion doesn't have the market cornered on good or bad people. If I made a list of the best and worst people I know, half of the people on each list would be religious. I suspect that that may be true for most of you, too.
I remember hearing a quote popular in Mormondom long ago about how a church isn't a place where perfect people gather to behave perfectly, but rather where imperfect people go to become better. I get the sentiment, but I do think the latter part is overly simplistic.
People sometimes say that they found God and it changed them. Maybe that's true--I wouldn't want to discount that if that's your experience, but if I'm being honest, I really don't believe that religion changes a person. I believe that all it does is magnify the kind of person they already are. In that way, religion helps some people do better and others do worse.
Racists use their religion to justify hate and apathy, sometimes by strapping themselves to fiery sermons and notions of a vengeful God. Selfless folks use their religion as a vehicle to serve and as a tool to practice humility. I've thought from time to time that I wished we could take religion away from the people in the first category and give it to the latter.
A religion has a responsibility to speak out when it is being used to stoke hate, and when it doesn't do that well, it doesn't deserve to be well.
I believe all of this, because I've seen it. I've seen it in my community and sometimes in my own extended family. I saw it within myself on some level, too. Looking back, I know that I used my religion as an outlet for the best and worst parts of myself. I hope it was mostly for the former, but I'll let the people who knew me then be my judge on that.
All of this is to plead, as someone who was once quite religious and is now quite not, please take a moment and truly ask yourself if you are using religion to do better or worse. (I think some form of the question should be considered by the nonreligious as well as the church-goers, by the way.)
Ask yourself, sincerely, if you are using your religion to make the world a kinder place. Ask yourself if your religion motivates you to love others rather than see them as inferior or different. Consider whether your religion is making it easier for you to forgive and empathize, rather than begrudge and judge. Ponder whether your religious participation compels you to be more honest with other people, or does it give you an avenue to take advantage of them.
Do yourself a favor and think about this. And if you feel like your religion might be making you do worse, do yourself an even bigger favor and make some changes.
Your religion won't do that for you.
|Ukraine, circa 2004.|
~It Just Gets Stranger