As a child my first real memories of religion are of 'playing hookie' from church so that we could spend more time with Dad on Sunday. Dad was a salesman and would work long hours during the week; his only solid day off was on Sunday. We had to make a decision to spend a full day with him or go to church and see him for half a day. I'd say it was a good fifty-fifty split on weeks with or without church. We were members of a small cozy church in rural Texas, just south of San Antonio. Our family had been members for many years before I was even a flash in my parents eyes. I was Baptisted there, although I do not remember it. I remember the preacher fondly, his bearded face was always friendly and his eyes seemed to be full of love. I remember he often preached for too long.
Later on, we started to visit other churches. Mom told us that other people worshiped differently than the Methodists and wanted us to see how, despite the differences, they all were the same. At this point I believed strongly in God, although I doubt I had any idea who or what He was. I was told God existed and that he loved us all. I accepted this as fact. He made the world and all of us; he gave Mom her freckles, Dad his limp, and Crissy her birthmarks. I had no reason to ever doubt any of this, and I had only ever heard Him talked about by Olan; I think I knew he was somehow connected with Santa but the link was not important enough to sort out at such an age.
Being South Texas, 'variety' meant different Christian institutions. We visited the local Baptist church, the Lutheran church; churches I can't remember. Later on, through the Boy Scouts, I became quite familiar with a local Catholic church, which was our troop's sponsor. I remember being told that God would only let us into Heaven if we worshiped at this or that church, or in this or that way. The vacation bible school at the Baptist church made God seem like an angry guy who was just looking for any reason he could find to cast us all out; but they also said he loved us and was all forgiving. It was kind of confusing. I have a vivid memory of one lazy summer afternoon (post bible school) sitting in the yard and seeing a strange car roll up the long dirt road to the house. Tom and I ran inside to get Mom. It was a car load of guys from the Baptist church who had decided to come and talk to us about God. Mom greeted them with a 12 gauge and told them to leave; we had plenty of God already. At some point, I am really not sure when, we just stopped going to church. We would still go on special occasions, Easter, Christmas, and the like, but for the most part we never went.
My best friend growing up, I met at school in the first grade. When we met he was Catholic, but he had become a practicing Pagan by middle school; I found it fascinating. I had read about the ancient Greeks and Romans and their paganism but his was different. Honestly I still do not know too much about it, but it opened my eyes to a different version of faith. Through high school I began to take an interest in Buddhism and eastern philosophy. I became of the idea that no church or religion had gotten it 'right'. God existed, he loved us, and he wanted us to all be happy and fruitful. If you wanted into heaven you had to lead a good life, believe in some from of Him, and be a good person. You did not have to attend a church, just feel him in your heart and understand what he wanted of us. I tailored a God to fit my lifestyle.
An important side note. I can recall one point in my life which stands out more than others. Aside from the normal "Please let me pass this test. I'll be a good Christian from now on, I swear!" bargaining with God, a temporary revival of belief which I believe every school child experiences the night before a major test, I only ever asked God for something once. Around the age of twelve or thirteen, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. I don't remember the type or where all she had tumors, but I do recall the night that I realized she was not going to get better. I was laying on my bed looking out the window at the moon. The sky was clear, the moon and stars shone brightly through the crape myrtle which grew against the side of the house, a warm breeze was softly blowing through the open window. At some other point the scene would have been beautiful. I remember silently crying. It was the saddest I had ever been, and would remain that way for many years. Desperate, I asked God-- who was all wise, all loving, and all powerful, to spare her life. She meant the world to me, I had spent a great amount of my childhood with her. I had to that point, and to this day, never known a person to be a loving and kind as she. Surely a wise god would see the value of such a person's continued existence. Surely a god of love would want such a person to remain. Surely a god, who was all powerful, could cure her cancer without effort. I prayed and I bargained. I cried. A few months later she died; all loving, caring, powerful... all lies. I hated God.
Time has a way of healing all wounds. Anger fades, and soon I had reached an uneasy peace with the Lord. He kept to his end of the universe and I kept to mine. High school brought a new world and new things to worry about. My hatred subsided. I think I was Agnostic by that point; isn't agnosticism really just a fancy word for 'confused about the concept of God'? I had lost Faith and my questions pertaining to the universe could be answered by science. I still prayed when I needed something, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. It feels now more like an insurance policy.
In community college, I can recall two major formative moments. The first was in my philosophy class when I HAD to think about God and religion. I came to wonder what God really was, I actually thought about what 'All loving, all caring, all forgiving' meant. I learned how so many cultures had all reached the same conclusion about God in one form or another. A spark reignited in my heart. Where there was now an empty space, I wanted God to return; yet my brain, a strong follower of science and tangible proofs, would not accept Him. Still my heart longed for the peace which the love of God brings. I lied to myself and said I was a believer.
The next moment occurred shortly after September 11th, 2001. I heard on the TV that the Muslim world hated us. Islam was an angry religion full of violence, who had tried to topple our nation; at least that is what the talking heads were telling us. I knew nothing about Islam. They worshiped a rock in Mecca. They prayed often. Ossama Bin Laden was a Muslim. At one time they were the most educated people of the world, keepers of knowledge. They were teachers, doctors, philosophers, and writers. At some point they changed into a largely uneducated people who had lots of oil and fought each other for it. I had a typical American understanding. I decided to do something very unamerican and attempt to form an educated opinion on the subject. I bought a copy of the Holy Qu'ran at Borders. I received many sour looks from people while I sat and read at the barber shop across the street. I'll admit that I never finished reading the Qu'ran; school, work, and life took their toll (I am more American than I gave myself credit for). But I read enough to see that it was not so very different from the Bible (which I also never finished), in fact they shared many stories. If both books shared the same all caring, all loving, all forgiving God than I had nothing to fear of the Muslim world; they were our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Life returned to normal.
Then Tony died.
I received a phone call early in the morning; I was told Tony had died over night. Disbelief. I called around for confirmation. My heart sank. I called back for details. Time stopped, my world collapsed. The pain and shock resulting from the loss of a loved grandparent can be reduced by a number of factors. They have led a long a fruitful life. Often there is sickness leading to the death, allowing time to prepare. Friends who have just turned twenty one and die suddenly on spring brake do not fit this mold. In times of great loss and crisis many people find comfort in God. Atheists do not get this luxury. I decided, subconsciously more than anything, that I wanted/needed God back in my life. I needed answers. I needed Faith that the world would not hurt me every day. I searched for God, but I found there is no return to Eden once the apple is eaten. Once you convince your mind that there is no God you can't go back. I searched for God regardless.
So where am I today? I believe in Man. Man created God to make the world a safe place, to reward us when we do good and punish us when we are bad. To be in control of the things which we are incapable of controlling; to bring order to chaos. The God we created led man to the create civilization, society, and order. As man changed, God followed. Man creates God, God builds Man into his image.
What then is God? God is an idea; God is the name given to all that is good and positive about the universe and life. Love, forgiveness, safety, reason. God is what we all hope is in the hearts of our fellow man. God [love] is why we choose to raise families. God [forgiveness] is why we can move along in life despite our many mistakes. God [reason] allows us to make sense of a chaotic world.
And this is where I differ from many other Atheists. To me Atheism is not a disbelief in God; its a pure belief in humanity. It is another church in rural south Texas. I have learned there is no wrong path to God. I had been searching for God for more than two years following Tony's death and I never realized that he had been with me all along. God is in the hearts and souls of humanity, it is the common goodness that connects us all. We can no more separate God from humanity than we could people from a city.
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