The Right to Believe, or Not – A Personal History

I’ve been pretty harsh on religions here on this blog. There are reasons why I feel that religions cause more harm than good. A lot of it has to do with my lifelong questioning of how the universe works and our place in it.

I was raised Catholic, and for the first 20 years or so of my life I was what I’d consider a devout Catholic. But, even in my early teens, I would sit in church and listen to the sermons and questions would arise. Things like why Jesus had to die for our sins if God was all powerful and could easily forgive any sins he saw fit. If God was all loving, why did he punish sinners with everlasting torment? After all, he created us in his image, so why create us just to destroy us if he was all loving and all merciful? None of the priest could give me satisfactory answers to any of my questions.

After a while, I began to think that maybe the Catholic Church just didn’t have it right. So I read the bible front to back a couple of times. I read the New Testament, a pocket version of which I carried around with me. I read books about early Christianity to see if they had some secret answers to my questions. They did, but not the kind you might expect.

I learned about how there were dozens if not hundreds of gospels in circulation in the early Christian community. I learned how the Catholic Church decided on which books it felt were authoritative and banned and burned all the rest. I learned about how even the canonical gospels didn’t agree with each other. How could a book which was supposed to be the word of God contradict it’s self?

By this time I was serving in the U.S. Army. I had my religion preference on my dog tags change from Catholic to “Christian”. I had decided that I was a generic Christian who believed in the good things that Jesus preached, like loving your neighbors and your enemies; to judge not lest ye be judged; to forgive the sinner and those who sinned against us.

When I married for the first time, I converted to my wife’s religion of Armenian Orthodox. I didn’t see it as big deal. It wasn’t much different from Catholicism, at least not different enough to really matter, plus since I was a generic Christian, any form of Christianity would do.

I especially liked the Armenian Orthodox services. They were mostly sung by the priest and his assistants in beautiful Gregorian style singing and chanting. And the church itself was overflowing with beautiful artworks on the walls and ceiling.

It was then that my wife and I started teach Sunday school. And this is where my “generic” form of Christianity smacked head on with the Church’s dogma. I found it hard to answer my students’ questions without compromising my own ideas and beliefs. Were Adam and Even real? How many animals were in the ark? These simple questions raised a real dilemma for me. I believed that pretty much all of the biblical stories were allegorical, but I was supposed to teach that they were real. After a year of teaching Sunday school, I decided I had to stop. I just couldn’t in good conscience teach things I didn’t really believe.

Soon after this I had a religious experience. It was the Christmas holiday and at work there was food everywhere in every department. I had a friend there who was Muslim. It happened that Ramadan fell right during the Christian holiday season. I felt bad that my friend was tempted with all this great food and couldn’t eat any of it. I knew about the fasting during Ramadan from when I studied Arabic in the Army, but I didn’t know the details.

I went back to my desk and looked up Ramadan on Google which lead me to a web site that gave an introduction to Islam. While reading a particular passage (the wording of which I can’t remember now). I felt as if a bright light flashed in my eyes and a voice said, “This is the answer”. I was stunned. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I was convinced that it was a message from God telling me to follow Islam. (I later discovered that my so-called religious experience was most likely caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain. I’d been suffering from panic attacks and depression, but didn’t know it. When I finally sought help I was diagnosed with depression, ADD, and panic disorder and prescribed medication, which has made my life livable again. When I asked my psychiatrist about my religious experience, the bright light, the voice in my head, he said that this can happen in people with my condition. So much for religious experiences.)

I read everything I could about Islam and it seemed to answer a lot of the questions that Christianity couldn’t. I eventually converted to Islam.

I noticed how I was discriminated against by some because I was Muslim. Even my wife was leery about it. I clung to my belief in Islam for a few more years. As I tried to be a “good” Muslim, I found myself trying to justify disliking non-Muslims since that’s what the religion teaches. A Muslim isn’t supposed to socialize with non-Muslims. This was just completely against my character. I was brought up to believe that everyone was equal and had the same rights to life and liberty. I became horrified that I had allowed myself to fall into hatred of others just because God supposedly wished it.

It was at this point that I abandoned Islam and all religions. I had come to the conclusion that they all believed that they were the “true” religion; the only way to salvation. They couldn’t all be right, which made me realize that they must all be wrong.

I’d always had a deep love of science, especially physics and held Albert Einstein & Stephen Hawkins as two of my heroes. I had even intended to become an astronomer while I was in high school, but poor math grades ended that dream.

I also had a great fascination with the founding fathers of the United States and had been reading biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. What I got from reading about these great men was their commitment to personal freedom and liberty. I also saw their ambivalence toward religion and why they considered the separation of church and state to be so vital and critical to the founding and the long term success of the United States.

Finally, I was introduced to skepticism by stumbling across Skepchick.org. From there I was lead to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, the JREF, Bad Astronomy the Fledging Skeptic, The Rather Friendly Skeptic, the Redheaded Skeptic, Blag Hag and Pharyngula.

All of the things I read and listened to on these and other sites like them made me realize that I was right to continuously question things, and I understood then, even though I’d been taking in by faith in the past, to my own determent, that I have been a skeptic all my life.

And so now here I find myself, a skeptic, a humanist and an Agnostic. I am happier than I’ve ever been since perhaps when I was in college where every day brought dozens of questions to be explored.

I’ve been asked if I still believe in God. My daughter asked me that the other day. My answer was honest, but allowed room for her to decide for herself what she wants to believe. I told her that I wasn’t sure if God exists, but I can’t rule out that he doesn’t. She seemed satisfied with this. She’s 12 and I’m trying to teach her to think critically and question everything and discover answers for herself.

I don’t believe in foisting my beliefs (or lack of beliefs) on anyone. I think everyone has the right to believe in whatever they like and to worship however they like if they so choose. My only conditions to this freedom to believe (or not to believe) are as follows:

1) Don’t push your beliefs on others. You can discuss them, but don’t try to preach or convert. That is arrogant and a violation of the other person’s rights.

2) Don’t try to legislate morality, especially when that morality is founded on your own personal belief system. Once again, this violates the rights of others to believe as they choose.

3) Don’t discriminate against others who don’t believe as you do. You wouldn’t want to have someone discriminate against you for your beliefs so don’t do it to others.

4) Keep your beliefs out of all public areas. Again, this violates the rights of others.

It all comes down to respect of others and The Golden Rule, but don’t just do onto others as you would have then do unto you, but don’t do unto to others things that you wouldn’t want them to do unto you.

The U.S has been a beacon of freedom because of our tolerance of other’s beliefs outlined in the Bill of Rights. Freedom both of religion and from religion and the right to pursue happiness as long as that pursuit doesn’t infringe on the same rights of others is the greatest way to ensure the happiness of all.

I will continue to support these rights for everyone, everywhere. I will continue to speak out against intolerance, bigotry, and hatred. And I will especially continue to speak out against the insidious lure of religious belief that justifies hatred, condemnation of others and the subjugation of the mind and spirit.

Freedom must be absolute with the only restraint of it being the well being of others. For as long as we use religion, nationalism, patriotism or anything “ism” to deny other’s their (dare I say “God Given?) rights, none of us can truly realize the pursuit of happiness that freedom allows.

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