I found it odd last week when people asked me if I had any plans for easter. Not if I had any plans for the long weekend, which is what they’d usually ask when a 3-day was coming up, but for “easter”. It’s weird; it’s been so long since I thought of any holiday as being religious, even in a minor way, that it strikes me funny when a friend or relative does. Then, reading a lot of blogs and seeing the religious ceremonies and holiday parades on TV, it reminded me just how little a part religion plays in my life.
Growing up, my family was very much a part of the United Church, and my wife was raised Catholic (as are most children of Newfoundland & Cape Breton families). My father came from a church-going family (a painting dedicated to the memory of his step-mother sits right above his regular Sunday pew), and my mother’s family was very active in the local church — her father sang in the choir, and her mother played the piano. Both my parents are (or have been) church elders and my mother has lead the choir for many years. More recently she has chosen (or elected…I’m not sure how this works) to represent her regional presbytery, which I believe is quite an accomplishment for someone with no formal theological training and no university degree. She approaches this responsiblity as she does any other volunteer or elected position (and, for her, there are many): she devotes all her energy to it.
I say all this to demonstrate that I was not raised an atheist, or even agnostic. I attended sunday school every day until I was a teen. I sang in a church choir. A few times I even played the drums during church services (don’t ask). As a kid I collected the money from the collection plates and helped my mother count the donations. I watched while our little church wrestled with the great debate of its time, whether to allow homosexuals to be ordained (this took place some 17 years ago, which I believe made the United Church particularly progressive…especially since the decision was “yes”), and saw that decision tear the congregation apart. That debate, raging in the tiny and insular world of our little church, tucked into a miniature community (the congregation was in the neighbourhood of 80 people, if memory serves) was my first inkling that a church might be a patriarchal ruling body rather than a supportive and inclusive organizing function.
In actual fact, my first clue had come a few years earlier; I just hadn’t realized the significance at the time. See, my brothers and a few of their friends — they were 5 or 6 years older than I — played Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, this meant that I tried to play too. I wasn’t much good, being too young to really get into it, but I understood it well enough. So, around the time that I was ten, when the sunday school lesson included a lecture about the evils of playing D&D — an allegation I’d heard before and knew was stupid — something clicked: “Not everything I hear in church is necessarily true. I need to question some of what I’m hearing.”
Anyway, following the gay minister schism in 1988 I realized that I was agnostic; I found it strange that we were worshipping something someone had never seen, and believing a story so riddled with inconsistencies. It is to my parents’ great credit (as are a great many other things) that I was able to make this decision of my own free will. Many parents would have punished their child for declaring such a thing, but mine allowed me to believe what I thought right; they did their best to make sure I saw both sides. My father, who studied horticulture at university, is a scientific man by nature; he’s been successful with his crops not by reading an almanac or trusting his aches and pains to predict rain, but by measuring soil chemistry and analyzing crop trends and embracing technology (within limits; this is a man believes the sole purpose of a computer is JezzBall). So as much as he insisted we go to church, and as traditional a man as he is, I never truly believed that he was devout in any way. I think that his sense of tradition wrestled with his skepticism.
I considered myself agnostic until the summer of 1996 when my oldest brother called me on it, in some tiny dessert ship in Ottawa next to a fortune teller (again…don’t ask). He made me realize that I was calling myself agnostic simply because it still seemed vaguely dangerous to declare myself an atheist, but in fact I had no belief whatsoever in God or a higher power. From then on I’ve called it what it is: atheism. And I’ve never felt better. For me, moral issues take on only two facets: legal and humanitarian. Religion, and by extension tradition, figure into it very little if at all. Condoms, for example; how much disease is spread throughout Africa and the world because the Catholic church calls the use of condoms a sin? Why? Because centuries of tradition and papal scholars say so. Strip away that argument and the moral imperative becomes shamefully clear. Of course, other issues such as abortion or stem cell research are more complicated, but strip away enough preconceived notions, tradition and paternalistic rules and the humane solution become very obvious.
I do not suggest that the church is entirely evil; taking again the example of my parents’ church, much progress has been made. In their church hangs a picture of the equality rainbow and an AIDS ribbon, and a flyer urging Paul Martin not to participate in the missile defense fiasco. Female ministers are allowed, regardless of sexual orientation. And the United Church of Canada in general seems fairly committed to world affairs, addressing issues such as AIDS, same-sex marriage, Darfur and the global economy on their website. That said, I think this church is the exception and not the rule. Most organized religions are nowhere no so progressive; many allow (and even provoke) unthinkable acts of gender & sexual discrimination, greed, corruption and abuse. Underlying all this is the problem with all churches: their primary function is to delude. Granted, they may include as part of their mandate to help in some manner (though most harm more than they help), but at the heart of it all their purpose is to convince us of a lie: that there is an all-powerful being who we must serve with everything we have or suffer eternally. However, they (the church) are the representatives of this supreme being, ergo we become their servants. Were any other corporation doing this, they would be charged with fraud, extortion or both.
I honestly couldn’t care less what anyone believes. If you want to believe that the world was created by a giant dust bunny that smells of amaretto and sings show tunes, knock yourself out. But it is when you try to impose a rule — not a rule of society or of human decency, but a rule set out by a book written and rewritten over hundreds of years by corrupt power brokers and distributed by whole organizations of the same — that discriminates, or excludes, or oppresses people in a way that society and morality, exclusive of religion, have found abhorrent, that you find yourself in the situation that churches and religions find themselves in today: they are a joke. It’s an in-joke, apparently since many don’t seem to be in on it. But believe me, for those of you who still spout dogma and recite scripture in lieu of reasoning and evaluating for yourself, you’re the butt of it.
Happy chocolate day, everybody.