Author Fredrik Backman wrote, “Religion is something between you and other people; it’s full of interpretations and theories and opinions. But faith… that’s just between you and God.”
As of this moment, there exists no scholarly consensus over what constitutes a religion. Wikipedia defines it as a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relate humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements.
Well that’s pretty broad, isn’t it?
I was raised Catholic. I was baptized, had communion, went to reconciliation, confirmation, Sunday mass, religious history, Marianist teachings, Bible readings, you name it. I went from Catholic elementary school to private Catholic high school and rounded it all out with a degree from a private Jesuit liberal arts university.
After some time, I was conditioned to the Catholic doctrine.
Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was weird pretty much the entire time. As an observant kid, my time in church was spent admiring the boredom and absurdity of it all. Senior citizens reciting incantations, a man in robes doing signs with his hands like he’s a third base coach, and teachers scolding me for not kneeling, standing, sitting, or praying at the appropriate times.
When you’re young, the grass is always greener on the other side. You hate the name your parents gave you, the other class has the cooler teacher, and even the sports team you’re supposed to hate has better jerseys than your favorite team. Everything seems unfair when you first learn about the novelty of options.
I’ll never forget the day I found out that anyone could just switch religions.
For the longest time, I thought religion was like your heritage; you were born with it and you were stuck with it. But then I learned about Cassius Clay converting to Islam and George Harrison becoming Hindu. Even Madonna and Tom Cruise could change religions! For better or worse…
As a young boy who considered the grass always to be a bit greener, I thought, “Well, how ’bout that?”
At first, I thought atheism was the answer. Or rather, indifference. Religion all felt so boring to me – listening to the words from big dusty books and speaking in Ye Olde English. Why couldn’t religion be fun? I would always see videos of all-black Baptist churches where everyone is having the time of their lives. I wanted something like that! I wasn’t interested in the stale pageantry of Catholicism; robes, wooden pews, breadsticks, wine, amens, and hallelujahs. If you’re gonna make me comb my hair and wear uncomfortable shoes, at least entertain me!
I distanced myself from the Church as I began to recognize the underlying meaning of the Bible. I understood the value and structure the Catholic Church provided me and my family. It gave me something to believe in. It provided me with a sense of structure and guidelines to live by. It taught me compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude. It helped me cope with difficult life circumstances like death. It allowed me time to rest and be with my family (holidays). And finally, it offered me a sense of belonging to a group with trustworthy social connections and safe social engagement with other Christians (shout out to C.Y.O. basketball).
Once I recognized this, I felt like I had the right to explore religion for myself. I longed for something that could provide me with the same community, moral framework, and faith, but without all the show. You can keep the books and the songs and all the offputting stuff. I wanted something that could give me life and meaning. Something that could make me jump out of bed with a smile and a vigor for what’s possible!
I sound like the lead in a musical about to get his big chance…
In college, I took a class on world religions. We went through the histories of Christianity, Islam, Atheism, Buddism, Hinduism, Judaism, and even Chinese Traditional religions like Taoism and Confuscianism. It was honestly the first time I really opened my eyes to different ways of thinking. I was young. At the end of the day, I still thought, “Well Christianity is obviously the superior one, right?” We’re like the Yankees of religions. I’ll keep my loyalty there where it’s safe.
But as my frustration with Christianity grew, I detached myself from church and other Catholic formalities – except Christmas of course…
I mean, c’mon. Who would give up Christmas? I’m not perfect.
I was burnt out. I wanted to try my hand at some outside ideas. After all, I didn’t choose my religious beliefs. They were given to me by my parents. Passed down from previous generations.
Although I understand the benefit of passing religious traditions on to your kids, I personally thought it was better to decide for myself when I felt appropriate. I wanted to have all the information on the table before I made a decision about how I would practice my faith. I thought atheism was the answer for a little bit, but I was naive. I can’t explain what made me banish my few years of atheism but all I can say is that I matured and inherently understood that we all need to believe in something bigger than ourselves.
As I’ve written about in Five Realizations that Changed My Life, I firmly believe in a Roman/Greek system of soft philosophy; the sort of belief in which virtue is its own reward. Although this isn’t necessarily faith-based or religious, its tenets develop a social model for a stoic person: to strive to be a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage; to be immune from life’s gyrations as you will be superior to the wounds of some of life’s dirty tricks. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “If I do good, I feel good. If I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.”
Then came Buddhism.
I never quite knew what Buddhism was all about, other than the fat man with a smile. But I learned about the teachings of Thich Nhat Han. I read books by Alan Watts, Robert Wright, and Tara Brach. I began meditating daily. I slowly started sprinkling a little Buddhism in my life. Meditation taught me to analyze my thoughts and realize what I was doing at an acute level. It taught me to be nice to myself and others – to not latch onto things. Understanding the credo of the Buddha made me realize that all of my pain and suffering was due to the fact that everything is impermanent. I was grasping and craving at things or running away from things that don’t last anyway. Buddhism filled a gap in my ethos that Catholicism never could.
I’ve never really agreed with many of the doctrines of Catholicism. Although I credit the majority of my morality, discipline, and good manners to the teachings of Catholic school and Catholic values, much of the dogma has gone over my head from a young age. I’ve now since learned that atheism is not quite the box that I’d like to put myself in. IF you’ve been lucky enough to have spiritual or otherwise magical moments in your life, you know that belief in a higher power is somewhat necessary to help explain much of the bewilderment of life. After all, it’s easy not to pray when life is going well.
While Christianity focuses on the duality of a God and a person, I tend to side with the belief of Eastern religions that man and God are one and the same. God is in us. Religion, as Bret Weinstein says, is “Literally false, but metaphorically true.” This means that the cover story is not exactly true (like Jesus converting water into wine), but when people behave as if it were, they prosper.
Humans need faith – even if it isn’t necessarily in something “real.” My maturity came in realizing the “realness” of it doesn’t quite matter. What matters is that it gives us a sense of purpose. Life is confusing. We’re no different than the Aztecs, the Byzantines, or the Mongols. Sure, we’ve made some progress, built some cool things, cured common diseases, and even tamed down the whole murder thing! But when push comes to shove, we all need and have needed, something both mystical and inexplicable to put above ourselves. In fact, it is our attempt to explain the inexplicable that helps steady the ship for humanity. While we may disagree on how we came to be, or the meaning of life, or why evil exists, we all have that in common.
In modern society, it isn’t that faith is going away for good. We’ve just modernized some things. That’s not to say that we have made them better, or smarter, or even up-to-date with today’s societal structures. Instead, we have replaced the common religious vernacular with vocabulary that fits modern ways of thinking:
We have replaced “prayer” with “manifest.”
We have replaced “God” with “Universe.”
We no longer pray to a God or several Gods. We manifest our beliefs into the universe. We send out positive energy and put our bodies in a position to receive that positive energy back. Harness energy, block bad.
Some tenets of traditional religion may be dying a slow death as the world moves faster and faster. But faith… that’s just between you and God. It’s what you feel in your chest when life is going exactly as you imagined it.