I am one of (I think) few people who can look at where my life is and who I am as a person and be satisfied. Hell, even happy most of the time. In a culture where we are constantly bombarded with images and ideas that serve to undermine our self-confidence and constantly question our self-worth (which, according to advertisers, can only be enhanced by buying whatever product they are selling at that moment), I know how tough it can be to feel good about who you are. Right now I am working competently at a job where I make a positive impact, living in a city where I have lots of leisure activities and great friends to do those activities with, and have realistic prospects for growth in the not-too-distant future. I do not profit from the misery of others, and have regular opportunities to give back. I don’t have any major moral quandaries or vices that I have to keep hidden from the world or my family. All in all, I don’t really have anything substantive to complain about.
It was not always this way, to be sure. Like most people, my teenage years were a miserable and clumsy affair*. I used to be known as a joke killer – people would be laughing and having a good time, I’d try to join in, everyone would stop laughing. I spent virtually my entire teen years completely undateable for reasons that I could never quite figure out. I had very few friends before the age of 17/18. I would always somehow find the exact wrong thing to say (a fact that gives me a wry sense of satisfaction whenever anyone praises my speaking or writing skills). I am reminded of a party I was at where a guy I didn’t care for was having a conversation with a girl I was quite smitten with. He was relating to her that he didn’t have many friends. In an effort to be nice, she said “I’ll be your friend!” I, visited by a bout of assholery, blurted out “yeah, if you pay her!”
Conversation at the party stopped. Shocked and hurt, the girl looked at me. I quickly realized that in addition to being a petty douche, I had implied that she was some kind of prostitute. Not one of my finest moments, I will readily admit.
I’ve definitely come a long way since then. I still say dumb things, but I am at least aware that they’re dumb before I say them, and nobody’s feelings get seriously hurt. Sometimes though, I will be strolling along my merry way, and a memory like this from my past will float across my conscious mind, completely knocking me on my ass. I will feel so ashamed of the things I’ve said – a feeling that is palpable and stays with me. There’s nothing in particular that will bring one of these episodes on, I’ll just get totally blindsided by what an asshat I was, or how foolish I looked. It’s not a pleasant experience.
From time to time I have a similar experience when I consider people’s religious beliefs. While I am obviously aware that people believe ridiculous superstitions and allow their actions to be guided by them, on rare occasions I will be struck by a deep realization that this is not simply a fun thing to argue about on the internet. Somewhere in the world right now there is a young woman married to a grotesque old man that she doesn’t love, who honestly believes that her fate is justified by the will of her deity. Somewhere else, a young gay man contemplates suicide because he honestly believes that the way he feels is an abomination in the eyes of his creator. Somewhere else, a world leader with access to a massive arsenal of weapons makes his decisions guided by his interpretation of an ancient book. Somewhere else, a mother instructs her children that their neighbours deserve to die because they worship the wrong gods.
These are things that happen every day. They’re so wildly surreal that my brain doesn’t seem to connect them to reality, treating them as abstractions much the same way it copes with the physical laws of the universe – things that are true, but not viscerally so. Occasionally their deeper semantic truth pokes through for a moment and completely throws me for a loop, but most of the time they just putter away in the background.
I can only surmise that this comes from the fact that I am surrounded, for the most part, by people for whom faith is either a non-issue, or who agree with my position on it. I don’t really get into religious debates often, and even when I do I don’t really connect with the fact that this person actually thinks this is true. It’s operating from a position of priviliege, wherein I can’t even start to see what colour the sky is on their planet, because their entire way of belief is foreign to me. Even when I was a believer, I wasn’t so completely god-swarmed that my faith meaningfully coloured my day-to-day reality. I have never believed in the way that someone who is willing to strap a bomb to her/his chest and detonate it in a crowded market believes. That kind of blind faith is beyond me.
Reading over that last passage, it makes it sound as though believers have something I don’t, and that I wish at some level that I had. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any belief, religious or not, that completely blinds you to possibility and forces you to rewrite or ignore facts is dangerous, and I want no part of it. If someone could present me with compelling evidence of the validity of palm-reading, or the existence of ghosts, or the efficacy of rolfing, I’d certainly entertain it, and would be forced to revise my understanding of the world. I see that kind of flexibility as a strength, and the kind of rigidity needed to maintain a belief that runs contrary to the evidence (or forces you to torture the evidence into position) as a weakness.
That being said, until I can see religious faith in the way that those who believe do, I will be horribly handicapped in my understanding of how to disabuse them of their delusions. Of course, that’s not my job, so I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it.
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*I am definitely aware of the fact that some people have legitimate problems during their teen years. I am not trying to say either directly or by implication that I suffered in a way that is comparable to people who were bullied or ostracized or any of the really damaging things that can happen to you during adolescence.