This is the first in a series of posts about my growth in learning to challenge conventions, explore the world of religion, science, spirituality, philosophy, and more. In these posts, I am candid about my experiences and thoughts on these topics. I hope it generates conversation in a productive and civil way, not in a divisive way. I consider my role as a writer to be somebody capable of broaching heavy topics in a gentle way. I hope I’ve done so here. The following parts will be posted over the next few days. Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here.
I grew up in Indiana, West Virginia, Alabama, and Kentucky – not exactly havens for a varying array of viewpoints. The plurality of people in these states are white, middle-class, right-leaning, and Christian, which is a pretty accurate summary of American history. Going to college in Kansas (also not a very diverse place as a whole, but colleges aren’t nearly as representative of the states in which colleges reside) was a good opportunity for me to be exposed to a world different from which I was familiar.
Prior to college, I had viewpoints and perspectives that had never been challenged. I don’t think it is that uncommon of an experience for most kids, but I think, once challenged, how we respond is widely varying. Some people double down, sticking with the paradigm they know and half-heartedly believe, thus becoming sterner in their belief system. Others recognize their experiences are different from others, meaning we come to our beliefs in different ways, and therefore, meaning that other people could have come to a different belief system under a more apt set of circumstances. Not to say that one response is better than another, but being close-minded and refusing to hear others’ views out is likely the worse response because it closes us off to discussion, alienates others that genuinely want to have a conversation, and prevents us from growing.
My barely entrenched views were challenged in the first few months of college on a couple of occasions. The first was over the course of a couple of months in my very first semester. I identified as a Catholic and believed firmly in God and God’s plan (shout-out Drake). At the time, I kind of accepted or maybe just sort of ignored some of what I perceived as downfalls in Catholic and organized Christianity doctrine (I supported gay rights as far I can remember and was super uneasy at the thought of people that believed in different religions or not being “good enough” as defined by the church were going to Hell).
I had just finished a biology lab and was getting lunch with my lab-mates in the student center when we were approached by a cheery dude probably in his junior or senior year (he looked so old to me! It’s weird to think that I’m now older than he was). He asked if we had a moment to chat, and once we said yes, proceeded to ask us about our religious beliefs. We all spoke about what we believed at the time; I identified as Catholic and he wasn’t very familiar with Catholic beliefs which shocked me. One of my lab-mates, unbeknownst to me in the moments prior, was Hindu. This cheery fella had clearly never spoken in-depth with somebody that practiced Hinduism, as he was inquiring about the student’s beliefs from what appeared to be a very ignorant lens (not that that’s an entirely bad thing in a vacuum considering I was ignorant of Hindu beliefs myself; also an interesting thing happened in my view, as a bystander, as the Christian dude subconsciously realized that Christianity and Hinduism share more similarities than differences). It was then made evident in the next moments that this guy’s objective was to proselytize (or convert, but I think the connotation of proselytize is more appropriate here) us. In fairness, my lab-mate was kind, compassion, and elegant in the description of his beliefs and the Christian guy was kind in response. The next thing that happened was that he asked us if we, including my Hindu friend, would be interested in coming to a Bible study. My Hindu friend said he’d be interested in learning more about Christianity, but that he’d get back to him (I don’t know if he ever did). I said yes since, at the time, my belief in being a good human was predicated on being a “good Christian” and being a good Christian meant knowing the Bible. I had only participated in a couple of Bible studies in high school and attended church sporadically.
I was young, open-minded, and impressionable, so I attended the Bible study. The first Bible study was enlightening, but not in the positive way I expected. I remember getting into a conversation at Bible study with this man about judging others, one of the tenets of Christianity being that Christians shouldn’t judge others. I said that I believe we shouldn’t, and that it wasn’t Christians’ place to make any sort of grand evaluations of others. He disagreed, and in what I still to this day consider some impressive logical gymnastics, said that Jesus in fact does expect you to judge others, and even more, he not only calls on Christians to judge, but to also (I’m paraphrasing here) essentially course-correct them. I was disheartened and a little frightened. In my mind, I felt that his impulse to recruit me to a Bible study was to groom me to align with his views and to pass those beliefs further. I don’t remember if I challenged him in that moment, but I know that I felt grossly deceived and frustrated that somebody felt so compelled to believe he was unequivocally correct. It made me wonder if his ultimate goal was to convert (why I used the term proselytize above) my Hindu friend, something I consider to be a wrongful act, and one that shows a lack of respect towards another person’s dignity. The problem for me then was that since I considered him an authoritative figure on the Bible and therefore a “good Christian,” I left with my mind in disarray.
My mind was shocked. It occurred to me that in his mind it was likely that people he didn’t “reach” or people who subscribed to different belief systems than he were condemned to an eternity in Hell after life on earth. (To be clear, I don’t know if he ever fully believed that but the logical inconsistencies of this type of belief system became clearer to me that day.)
After that Bible study, I was lost for some time. In the months before, I became close friends with a group of people that had very different political and religious beliefs than I, some of which were very liberal and identified as atheist or at least agnostic. In my prior life experience, I had never been close with anybody that identified as either of those things (Kentucky, remember). Not that I expected otherwise, but these guys seemed…similar to me.
Based on most Christian doctrine, one of the most unforgivable sins is the blatant acknowledgment of disbelief in God or Jesus, meaning my new pals who, by all accounts were good guys, were destined for hell. I was conflicted; How is this possible? How are Catholic priests that “have been saved” yet molested young boys within a step of redemption, but these other guys that have solid moral foundations coupled with a disbelief in God somehow further from it? Maybe, according to some Christian doctrine, they’re both one step away from achieving Heaven-hood in their life after death. But that seems so unfair and illogical. According to most religious teachings and moral codes, it is possible to be redeemed, but it’s logical that the path to redemption should be dependent on the actions committed that would require such redemption.
When writing it all out like this, I’d suppose the vast majority of people, no matter their religiosity or lack thereof, would not be so quick to condemn somebody else to eternal damnation. After all, where we are born is the greatest determinant of what religion we will subscribe to. It was in those couple of months that I came to one of the most profound lessons of life: If your views have never been challenged from internal introspection or external dialogue, it is entirely possible to be indoctrinated into a belief system that would crumble upon even the slightest recognition of apparent fallacies. In other words, if we don’t critically think about things we think we confidently believe in, we aren’t living consciously, or what I consider the core part of being human.
From that day forward, I refused to accept the world for the way it is – a phrase I now dearly despise.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here..