earthbelow: (mood: sad/blah)
[personal profile] earthbelow



Sometimes I wonder if I could be an atheist. I don't know, because there is a part of me that just can't give up on the idea of God, on the idea of there being a higher power, a higher something. And there is a part of me that still fears hell.

I think people get the wrong idea about Southerners and our various brands of Christianity. You don't actually have to yell from the pulpit about fire and brimstone to scare someone about the idea of hell. In fact, speaking very calmly can still do the trick.

Or, one of those Hell Houses the Baptist churches like to put on at Halloween to scare people about various sins (abortion, homosexuality, sin, etc) is enough to do it. I went through one of those when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I hated it. I cried a lot, and worse yet? My youth pastor was the one who took our entire group up to the Baptist church to go through it, to go through the rooms that were darkened and heated to uncomfortableness with space heaters, rooms that had scary Satan laughs being played over speakers. Rooms where they told you what happened to sinners who didn't repent (or more accurately, who didn't repent and live as the Baptists say you ought to live).

At the end of the night they sat us down in a nicely lit room, gave us snacks, and had us write down our experiences of the Hell House and how it taught us about God. They even had nice little cards for us to write it down on.

I felt like a prisoner who had been tortured into giving a false confession. I wrote what I knew they wanted to hear, that I had been afraid, that I would always believe in Jesus and never do wrong, and try to live a life where I obeyed God and feared him. It was a bitter thing to do.

But oddly enough, I didn't fear God that night. If anything, God was the only thing I still trusted. I left feeling afraid of my church, my youth pastor. I felt feeling betrayed and angry. I hated him a little after that. I still hate him a little for that. I hate him for being a manipulative bastard who would do that, for knowing that it would work not because it was a good teaching tool, but because the youth in his care were impressionable. Because we loved him, because we were vulnerable, because we trusted him in things and we wanted his approval.

Because we were kids, and low hanging fruit for a man who may have believe he was genuinely doing a good thing. I think he believed he was helping us. I don't believe it was intentional torture, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a form of torture.

Especially for me. It hit all the things that I most get triggered by in a most basic way. Darkness. Too-hot, too-stuffy spaces. Noises in the dark I can't identify. Ask Andrew, even to this day if I hear some creak or crack or ping of the radiator at night in our apartment, it scares the shit out of me and he has to get up, turn on a light, and give me the all-clear. Every lizard brain phobia I had was a big red button that they didn't quit pushing that night until we were out of that house.

I think that might have been my first panic attack, actually. I remember wanting to pass out, wishing I would. I remember shaking so hard. I remember digging my nails into the person in front of me because (they had us put our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us and walk in a line) I was like a cat being thrown into water, clawing at whatever solid surface was there.

My youth pastor was behind me. I remember he patted my back and I wish he would stop touching me, I felt like my skin was crawling.

You can't torture people into God's arms, but you can torment until they run as far away as they can get. Sometimes I wonder if it's so much that atheist are convinced that there really isn't God as they are that the ways in which people say they are connecting to God is a big fat lie, a delusion, and more over, hurtful to others. I wonder if some atheists are really just angry agnostics who are furious about the means that some churches have used to shape their followers and the rhetoric they have handed out, and the way these churches have reached into secular life and tried to acquire secular powers and privileges for themselves. The privilege to have their beliefs favored above others in public spheres, in our legal codes, in our holidays, even in the schools.

The thing is? I've always had my doubts about the faith of people around me, especially in church. I lived in a culture where it was common for people to say, "God spoke to me" or "God put this in my heart" or things like that.

I used to want that experience. I would write letters to God, pray, read the Bible, do everything to be good. I tried so hard, because I wanted it so bad. I would go on mission trips and I would think that if I just worked hard enough at whatever task we were assigned to, that God would reward me by coming down and speaking to me.

I didn't even care what God would say. Anything. A simple, "Hey there, Megan, this is God" would have sufficed for me. Anything.

I would lay in bed or kneel at the communion rail and pray (but not too long, because if you stayed too long at the rail, then you had some big, big sin and people would know about it and wonder what you'd done wrong. But if you stayed for a minute or two, then that was okay. You just had regular sins, apparently), and I'd hold my breath, and I'd make myself as still as possible. Because that's how the verse went, right? Listen for the still, small voice.

So I'd quiet myself down and I'd go still and I listen, listen, listen for anything. And all I'd ever hear is my heart drumming in my ears. I tried and tried and tried, but nothing. Nothing at all. I never heard a word.

I got angry, too. I would refuse to swallow the communion cracker (ever try holding one of those things in your mouth through a whole church service then trying to find somewhere to spit out the Body of Christ. I do not recommend it on a physical or spiritual level). It bothered me a long time in my life that God never seemed to talk to me when He was a frickin' Chatty Cathy with everyone else. He was always talking to them, putting things in their heart, leading them, guiding them like a Boy Scout leading an old lady across the street. People would pray for God's guidance and say they'd received.

It took me a long time to realize two things.

I don't really experience God, or what I feel as spiritual feelings, through vocal things. I experience it most through music. I think this is why I cannot totally abandon the idea that there is a God, because sometimes when I am listening to music I touch something, there is some tiny spark that tells me there is something bigger, greater. I swear I can feel parts of my brain light up that don't ever become active any time else. I swear I can.

But I realized, and I'm not sure I realized it all at once but in pieces, that God probably was not talking to any of those people, either. That they weren't connected in a way I wasn't, but that they were better at convincing themselves they were.

I hate to say it like that. Many of the people I went to church with were genuinely good people. People who had a lot of generosity, caring, courage, and love in them. People who cared for me, who were good to me. And I don't think they were all involved in some big conspiracy to defraud me or anyone else. I think many of them had gone through the same experience I had, even.

I just think a lot of them either gave into self-deception because there was a constant kind of pressure there to do that, or maybe when something that was really just their own thought, their own idea came up, they decided that must be God. It was better than facing the possibility that God wouldn't speak to them.

The thing about God is that I like having one. I like the idea that there is a higher order, that there is some being up there who created us, or at least created the universe that eventually came to spawn us. While I don't subscribe to intelligent design as a theory, because I know it is scientifically disproven as much as anything can be and I think it is an insult to both religion and science, I do subscribe to the idea that we cannot (as of yet) know if the Big Bang was just some cosmic happenstance, or the explosive act of a Creator.

More than that I like the idea that the universe has a purpose, that the stars and the moons and planets and space dust and comets and atoms and particles and light all have the role to play - and that we have ours.

But more than that, it comforts me to know that while there is an order, I do not have to know what it is. At least not in it's entirety. I don't have to understand the vastness of the universe in order to be a part of it. I can marvel and live my life as best I know how and trust that it all means something.

The thing is, I don't mind people saying that they believe God has a plan, or that God has a purpose even in the suffering we experience.

But I distrust and outright dislike anyone who claims that they know with any certainty what the plan and purpose is. Who posture as though their thoughts about God are any more than an unproven hypothesis. I think it is the humility to know that your beliefs must never be static, certain, solid - that they must always be in question, that will keep you close to God, if such a thing is possible, if there are degrees of distance from God.

As the narrator on the show about climate change I was just watching said, "Nothing in the cosmos is safe from change." Not even beliefs should be immune to change.

There are going to be things in this life that we cannot explain, things we cannot understand, things we cannot stand. I try not to begrudge people their own personal theories. Whether that theory be complex and mystical or simply that there is no God. Both have the same odds of being true, and both may be true at the same time as contradictory as it sounds.

For me, it is the not knowing that is comforting. Because it means I am free to construct my own answer.

Sometimes I wonder if God had other planets, other universes, other humans that He created once, and He did all the things we wish He would do, like showing himself often and intervening when we wanted it, and being an obvious force. And maybe the people in that universe bitched non-stop about wanting God to go away, about wanting to be left alone to develop on their own, about wanting freedom and uncertainty.

I know this may not be comforting to some. Because obviously, there's a lot of suffering in the world and if there is a God, then He's kind of a douche for creating the world, knowing how many people would go through hell on Earth because of it. Even if he didn't directly cause slavery, genocide, disease, hatred - He, being omnipotent and omniscient, would know that even the act of setting the universe in motion would lead to that suffering. He would know that the very act of allowing us to exist would mean that some of us would just be tortured until we died. That there would be child abuse, wars, holocausts.

But the thing is? If God's responsible, then so are we. Because I've never yet seen an evil so great that it had to come from divine hands because people were not capable of it. But never have I seen love or compassion or good deeds so great that God must have done them because people were not also capable of that.

I see people ask why there is suffering. Why is there war, why is there starvation, disease, hatred. And I can't answer how it first came about. I think there is some fundamental aggression, some parts of our brains that make these things happen, that turn off our empathy and compassion so that we can do hideous things. I think sometimes attributing things to God is a way of us being arrogant, of not being so humble as to realize what our natures real are, the way we evolved, and the way our brains work that causes us to do things we know aren't good. I think sometimes not exploring ourselves and how to work around our own tendencies is the cause of a lot of the world's darkness.

But the big answer is, in short: nobody really knows. I don't know. I have theories. I have ideas. I freely admit how wrong headed they may be. I don't expect any one to think I'm anything but a lunatic. And that's okay. Maybe I am.

I don't know why there is evil and suffering. I do know how it can stop.

People stop starving when we feed them, when we give them the ability to grow, raise, and produce food for themselves, when we teach them. People stop suffering when we help them and teach them. Hatred goes away when we push for tolerance. Evil loses strength when it is confronted.

I don't know why God created the world the way it is, I don't know why he set up this system and knew that some of us would be chewed up and spit up by it. I like to think that God has a special place for those who suffer worst, for those that get forgotten. I like to think that if God's plan for something great to happen entails that some of us should suffer more than others, that some of us should sacrifice more than others, that they get something for it.

For some reason I think of the Challenger astronauts who died in the attempt to advance all mankind on our quest to touch the stars. They sacrifice everything they had for it. And some part of me likes to believe that God knew they would die, and had something very nice waiting for them on the other side for it.

What I do know is that when someone remembers them, they are not forgotten. And as for the astronauts, I know that being even more diligent with human life in the quest for an exploration was a result of that incident. It doesn't justify their deaths, doesn't ease the unbearable pain of their families. It doesn't make it right or good or better that they died.

Like I said, there's so much I simply do not know and can never know.

I know that God does not spare us pain or death while we are here in the world, but I also know that what God does not do, people can. People can quite readily save each other's lives, stop each other's pain. We can hand out the comfort and relief that God, for whatever reason, does not.

I think that is worth focusing on most, when things get bad. That gives me comfort. And in the absence of knowledge, I will settle for comfort.

Date: 21 Jun 2009 16:24 (UTC)
br0ken_dolly: (Default)
From: [personal profile] br0ken_dolly
i didn't know about those "hell houses." it was disturbing to read on so many levels. but i think the biggest one is that it sounds like it really was designed to prey on people and their fears (dark, claustrophobic, etc) to torment them into submission. the whole idea of taunting someone into believing bothers me so much.

i'm not sure if you're a big podcast listener, but you might enjoy Point of Inquiry. this subject comes up a fair amount, in interviews with lots of different people. regardless of what people believe, this is an interesting subject (when discussed in a rational way, i mean).

but the Hell House thing really takes the cake. it makes me cringe. a lot.

Date: 21 Jun 2009 19:45 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thousandpages.livejournal.com
Well, "Hell Houses" may be a uniquely Southern perversion, I'm not sure. I do know they were very common where I came from and every Halloween, several churches would set them up and invite all and sundry to come there instead of taking their kids trick-or-treating, because they said those were pagan things and related, somehow, to the devil. Because paganism = DEBIL WORSHIP in their minds. There was this sort of movement that I can remember a kid, especially among the more evangelical and conservative churches, to weed out anything that they thought might be "pagan" or not purely Christian in holidays and events. At Christmas there was some anti-Santa murmuring same about the bunny at Easter.

The only good thing I can report is that while they managed to get a few of the devout, or those who were forced to go by parents and church leaders (as I was), most people laughed and went right on dressing up and asking for candy from strangers and toilet papering people's houses on Halloween Night. :) Sorry, but when religion bumps up against a good excuse to get drunk, dress us, and eat candy? Religion almost always loses. We might be conservative nutjobs, but us Southerners are very food oriented and neither God nor man shall stop us from the eating and disseminating of candy, casseroles, and other baked goods.

Thanks for the suggestion about the podcast. I'll seek that out. It sounds like a something that I'd enjoy. I'm always sort of searching for anything that discusses God and religion and faith and spirituality in a way that is more open and rational.

I love your post!

Date: 21 Jun 2009 17:38 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mind-feild.livejournal.com
It sounds like you have "walked 2 miles in my shoes"!

My mother was a Sunday School teacher at a Church of God church, anytime the doors were open, we were there; (even sometimes when they weren't; we also cleaned the church :)! This was the third church we went to, the other 2 gave her a reality check on how churches work. The first one burnt down after years of her going there before I arrive in this world and a few after I arrived. One of there things was that they kept a book of who was "saved" in THERE congregation; your not in "the book", your going to "guess where"?. Hmmm, church burned, book burned,BIG "Oop's"

No, I'm not making light of her life, she is one of the three most important people to me I have ever known, God rest her soul.

In many different ways, she taught me, (and in ways she never knew she did), about what God, or the "Creator" as I prefer to call what others call God, really was to me. She was but one person (teacher) of many who have filled in the image of the "God of my heart", a phrase borrowed from the Rosicrucian Order A.M.O.R.C.. Do I have any better connection to the creator than anyone else, none what so ever! Life is one connection per person, directly connected to the creator.

It's kinda like the computer in front of you, and the internet is the creator. You can turn it on if you are so inclined, or not. It does not change who or what you or the creator are. If you so choose to connect, it is still your choice if you use it to learn and improve your life with the connection or just move the mouse around the screen for fun.

No matter what you choose to do in this life, you are a creation of and part of the creator you will rejoin after this body stops breathing. You have been and always will be one with the creator. This life is but an illusion designed for our benefit. A classroom of sorts. Your body is just a "vehicle" of sorts to do the things you need to do here. A vehicle for the service of the soul.


The churches are but one place and one set of "teachers" that you encounter along the way. You can now look back at your experiences there at your leisure and measure the lessons you learned, AND taught while you were there. You can look at them thru angry eye's and say "Why" this or that happened, or you can look "thru the eye's of the creator" and see what was actually the "gifts" that were exchanged while there.

Such "gifts" might be; Understanding what love is or is not, compassion in various form, what guilt is and can do to people, the power of persuasion, genuine love as compared to phony- on the surface love, and on and on and on.

I hope this helps some; it was not meant to be a sermon, but one of the topics I love to talk about,:)!

Have a nice day!

A post (after) comment on my post...:)

Date: 21 Jun 2009 18:12 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mind-feild.livejournal.com
Keep on questioning everything, it is a good thing to do, for it is how we learn and grow. You sound like you have a good head on your shoulders and are a good person :)

Have a good day!

Date: 21 Jun 2009 21:22 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] denoue-moi.livejournal.com
For me it doesn't matter if there's a god.

Scenario #1: God exists. K. I still have to talk to the apartment people tomorrow and tell them I don't have the money for rent. I also have to singlehandedly move myself out of there with no money into a house that doesn't have air conditioning.

Scenario #2: God doesn't exist. Still got to deal with the apt people and so on.

I suppose it would be nice if there is a pleasant afterlife, but I don't think there is.

Date: 22 Jun 2009 00:31 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] latimer84.livejournal.com
The idea of a "hell house" bothers me almost more than I can put into words. My housemates and I got into a bit of an argument my senior year at college after we watched a documentary on them, with some coming down on the side of "they think they're doing the right thing" and me saying that with the availability of the internet in America, there's no excuse for that kind of ignorance anymore.

I'm an atheist, but I can't imagine that a just god would put up with that kind of BS in her/his/its name.

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