Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Because I Want To Believe; Or, Why I Am Sometimes Jealous Of People With Faith

Any seriously religious subscribers I have are all going to dive for the "unsubscribe" button after reading this post.

A bit of backstory before I truly begin:

I was raised Catholic. I attended church, and catechism classes every week for pretty much as long as I can remember, up until I was confirmed at age 14. For a time, I assumed everyone else in the world was also Catholic. Then I went to school, and met one of my earliest best friends who was Jewish. We shared our religious traditions with each other (well, as much as you can at age 7, anyway) and I first started to question my belief. I remember going home one day and asking someone, probably my mother, "But if Jewish people believe this, and Catholic people believe this, who is right?" It was a few more years before it dawned on me that not only was everyone else in the world not necessarily Catholic, the concept of religion extended far beyond the ideas of being Christian or Jewish. I was about 10 years old when I first started reading about other religions, and realizing that I no longer believed in my own.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way...

What is religion anyway? It's not the easiest thing to define. What makes a religion a religion? A professor of mine, in teaching my Puerto Rican History class, recently said something during a lecture that struck me. We were discussing a variety of religions, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc. He said that religions that do not have a god are not religions. I very much disagree with his claim. While a god or gods may be a central part of many religious traditions, I do not believe they are a make-or-break factor. I think that religion and philosophy are very closely related, and that many belief systems - Taoism, for example, comes to mind - can be considered both, not just one or the other.

So back to the original question, the definition of religion. My first instinct when writing this entry was to run over to Merriam Webster's site and see what they had to say. Unfortunately, their definition suffers very much from the common problem of defining a word with itself. I turned instead to good old Dictionary.com for a definition I prefer:
"Religion - a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

Okay, so now you have some idea of the concept I'm thinking of when I think "religion". I'm thinking large scale - Eastern religion, Western religion, monotheistic, polytheistic, all that good stuff.

I have been interested in religions pretty much since I realized I didn't believe in mine anymore. I don't know exactly what it was that finally disintegrated my faith, and belief in god. Maybe it was when I found out the truth behind the Bible, and who had written it, and when, and who had revised and edited it over the years. Maybe it was when I found out that people had been waiting for 2000 years for the supposed return of some messiah, and he still wasn't here yet. Maybe it was when every single time I'd pray and talk up to the sky, there was never any answer to be had. All I know is, I got to a point when it dawned on me that, in my eyes, my religion was nothing more than a nifty bedtime story someone made up thousands of years ago to make sense of something that they didn't understand, and to comfort them in times of hardship. When I was about 10, and started reading about other religions, I began to find all sorts of religions, beliefs, and traditions that interested me. From the time I was 10 until the time I was about 15 or 16 I'd guess, I had "converted" probably about a dozen times. I was constantly looking for something, and in every new religion I'd read about, I'd think that I'd found it. From Paganism, to Buddhism, to Wicca, to Judaism, to Hinduism, to Taoism, even back to Catholicism from time to time. I'd think that I'd found some mighty answer. But I never did. I learned many things. I incorporated many new philosophies into my lifestyle. But I could never find any faith.

And finally, many paragraphs later, we reach the conflict that the title implied. For those of you who are wondering why I chose such a title, I promise, I'm getting there. In my religion class, entitled "Religious Ideas In Modern Literature", we are reading a novel called 
Barabbas, by Par Lagerkvist, and as those of you who know your Bible may have guessed, it's about the man who was freed instead of Jesus at the time of the crucifixion. There's no real historical basis for the character, but I found the book to be incredibly moving, and perhaps it is because I could relate so much to Barabbas' character. There is a scene in which Barabbas, who has become a slave in the Roman empire, is brought before a governor with a fellow slave because they have both carved the name "Christos Iesus" on the back of their slave disks, the pendants they wear with the stamp of the state showing that they belong to the state. The governor asks the other slave about the inscription, and he says it is there because he is not a slave to the state, but rather that he belongs to his god. The governor then turns to Barabbas, and asks him if he believes in this same god. Barabbas is silent, and finally replies by saying "I have no god." The governor is confused, and asks why he wears the disk with the name carved in it. Barabbas replies "Because I want to believe."

"Because I want to believe."

I don't consider myself part of any religion right now. This doesn't mean I'm an amoral heathen who is bereft of ethics. It doesn't mean I have no soul, as my mother once told me in the midst of a heated argument on the subject. It doesn't mean that I have no purpose in life, or any lack of motivation to do what is right. I wish sometimes that I could find the comfort of believing in something. I wish I had faith in some higher power, because I see it bring such comfort to so many people. I want to have that security blanket of truly believing that there's some god up there who will make it all turn out right in the end, or some universal energy that will put things in balance. I do everything that I can do to make myself a better person, but at the end of the day, the only thing I can believe in, and the only thing I can truly have faith in is myself, and the power that lies within me. And sometimes, I'm jealous of people who can believe in something more.

Are you a religious person? Do you have faith? Do you believe in god? What god? Why do you believe in whatever god you believe in? If you don't believe in god, why not? Do you wish you did?


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