One of the advantages of being in my early seventies and not senile or afflicted with anything that affects my brain is that you can look back on all the years you spent and see what we have gained and what we have lost.
And somewhere in the middle of all that are the things that many of us have forgotten.
When I was younger I was a Catholic. I carried around an idea of Jesus, of God The Father, and of the Holy Spirit. I saw the church as a place where you could go and be close to your god, and that closeness would be a comfort if you were upset.
I saw the confessionals as a big old washing machine for your soul, where the forgiveness of God would wash over you and clean your soul, so you could start the job of accumulating sins all over again.
I saw the ritual of the mass as a way to feel part of a larger group that I had things in common with.
And it was a good thing. But in the Catholic Church, they have this thing called the Age Or Reason. This happens when you are 13 or 14 and you receive the sacrament of confirmation, as it was known.
The Age of Reason was aptly named because it was around this time that I started to see through the whole idea of a church. This was stuff I kept mostly to myself because I didn’t have many friends who were thinking about the same things as I was. I knew this because when I brought it up with these people, I didn’t sense any real intellectual curiosity about it. And so over the next year or so I drifted away. I graduated from the Catholic grade school I attended, and so there were no more nuns for teachers and priests who would show up for little talks. There was no more mass to attend. No more alter boy rituals to learn. No more confessions to cleanse my soul. No more prayers before bed.
For a long time, this weighed heavy on my mind. Mainly because that Roman Catholic dogma and my mind were almost one and so it was quite difficult to imagine myself as a true independent thinker.
In actuality, it was my mother who helped me break away from the church and the grip it had on my mind. Because while I was growing further from the church, she was moving in the opposite direction. In retrospect, I believe she was radicalized and became a Catholic fundamentalist. And she was so fervent, over the years, about it that I actually became afraid to expose her to my children.
Where I ended up, because, through all of this, I never really lost my belief in God, was somewhere in between.
Over the years, and after studying philosophy in college, I realized that I was able to actually embrace the notion of an abstract god. And as I grew I came to see that everything this exists around and about us, that is not some man-made construct, is not only the work of God but a part of God itself. After I got comfortable with this belief system, I realized that preaching it in my writing was simply going to meet with a lot of resistance, either from those who formed their beliefs from religion or for those who had no real belief at all. And I was OK with that.
But now I was on the outside looking in at religion and as an outside observer, I started to wonder about what made it so attractive to people, especially in North America, which is primarily Christian.
I identified several reasons.
Faith. People have proven over the centuries that the need to have faith in something larger than one’s self is a good thing.
Fear. Because most religions are based on reward and punishment. Heaven and hell are big incentivizers.
Companionship. There is a substantial social side to religion, which the various churches all cultivate.
Comprehension. Religions tend to make the abstract more concrete and easier for people to get their heads around.
Goodness. Not so much these days, but more while I was growing up in the 50s and 60s people who were basically good tended to be more religious.
Guidance. Religion, apart from the spiritual dogma, provides a framework for good and evil, and this is very helpful in terms of getting people to understand those concepts.
The odd thing is that even with all of those reasons, all of that comfort, all of that companionship, etc, the number of people who identify with religions has been in a steady decline over the last two decades. This decline and movement away from organized religions may very well add strength to the non-religion or spiritualist movement, not unlike the vision of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote this:
If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.
This is not to say those who don’t subscribe to all of this are a lower order of beings. But it’s interesting because even way back then, guys like Thoreau were asking a lot of questions like the ones I asked myself when I reached the Age of Reason and decided that my belief in organized religion was something I had lost.