Total Drek

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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Of Canvas and Crayons...

I've been thinking a lot lately about faith and god. Partially this is because of my recent response to Ms. Star Jones over her prejudiced and ignorant statements about people of my faith. Partially this is because of the prominent place religion has in the current administration, as admirably described by Ron Suskind. Partially this is just because religion has been a big part of my life.

Okay, seriously, stop laughing. I know, I know, you're sitting there saying, "What?! Drek, you're an atheist, how can religion have been a big part of your life?!" Well, the answer is simple: I grew up in a deeply religious country (indeed, religion scholars will tell you that American religiosity is substantially higher than that found in most other developed nations). Moreover, I was raised by Christian parents in the Southeastern U.S., a region often known as the "Bible Belt."

Despite my current atheism, I must confess that this upbringing has affected me in a number of ways. In terms of the trivial, I rank dress codes in terms of being more or less casual than "church dress." See, for Southerners there is a very specific dress code for church attendance. A young male is expected to wear slacks, an undershirt, a button-up shirt, a tie, and a jacket. Shoes are permitted to be loafers. Upon marrying, however, or just aging to a certain point, a male is expected to upgrade to an entire suit- preferrably of the grey or black variety, and start wearing stiff leather shoes. I'm not as versed on the female side of the code, not being female, but it seems to predominantly call for frills on the dresses of young girls, ribbons in the hair of older girls, and relatively formal long and primary-colored dresses for adult women. Hats are strongly encouraged. More liberal congregations may permit their women to wear pants, but that's fairly hit-or-miss, and often scandalous.

In a less trivial sense elements of my Christian upbringing are responsible for my current rejection of religious faith. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I attribute my atheism entirely to the stupidity I encountered in my youth, I do after all have a positive belief in atheism rather than simply negative beliefs about god and religion, but it didn't hurt. Still, it is one of those atheism-encouraging experiences from my youth that provides an illustration for the point of today's post.

When I was but a wee Drek I went to Sunday School as all good protestant boys do. My sunday school was located in the local Methodist church (my family is Presbyterian, but when you live in fucking-nowhere, Florida, you have to make-do) and was intended both as religious education and as a place for parents to dump their kids for a half-day or so. I suspect that the "dump" aspect of the service was a significant part of my parents' motivation- I have pretty much been a stubborn little bastard from birth. Hell, I was a stubborn little bastard before birth, too. My mother had to be induced in order to get me the hell out, but I digress...

Anyway, I spent a substantial amount of time at sunday school and found it to be a rather curious experience. I seemed to always be getting into trouble for something or other, but I remember never understanding why. Mostly I seemed to be disliked for asking too many questions about what we were being taught. What can I say? I made the cardinal mistake of assuming that a doctrine claiming access to an all-powerful superbeing would make logical sense. But, again, I digress...

Many of my questions, however, were not about faith but were, instead, about fairly practical issues. It was one such issue that became a defining moment for my relationship not with god, in whom I still believed for years after this, but with those who claim to serve god. One day we young tykes were given small sheets of coarse canvas. The canvas was looped at the top, so that a dowel rod could be inserted turning the canvas into a wall-hanging. On the canvas had been stiched the outline of the word "Jesus" in block letters. Our task was to color in the word to show our devotion to the supposed savior of mankind. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there's no test of faith like coloring a swatch of fabric. During the Roman persecution of Christians, "canvas coloring" was even more dreaded than a date with the lions. But that isn't the point. This sounds like a good little activity for kids, right? Well, there was a catch. There's always a catch...

The catch was that there weren't enough crayons, not by a longshot. So, instead of coloring with crayons, or even with markers, some of us were given... wait for it... colored pencils. Have you ever tried to use pencils on canvas? It doesn't work very well. In retrospect, it was about as easy as that earthworm dissection we had to do in middle school with plastic knives (apparently it was deemed too dangeorus to give us scalpels). As you might guess, dissecting anything with a plastic knife is an exercise in both futility, and the mashing of internal organs through blunt force trauma.

Now, I've always been a problem-solver and a fan of practicality, so this situation struck me as being fairly absurd, but not insoluble. I raised my hand and attempted to gain the attention of one of the sunday school teachers. Attract her attention I did- she asked me in annoyance why I wasn't coloring. I tried to explain that the pencils weren't working, but she interrupted me with terse instructions to color. I asked if I could share crayons with a neighbor and was told that we weren't allowed to talk. I suggested that it might be possible for us to share crayons without speaking, and was told "no." Then I went with the idea that I could wait for someone to finish and then borrow their crayons. I was again told, "no." Then she finished by telling me that, "I don't want to see you doing anything but coloring until there's color inside every one of those letters."

It's a shame that my parents weren't there to see that, because they would doubtless have emitted simultaneous groans of anticipation. I was angry. Very angry. But, I didn't throw a fit, I just calmly complied with my teacher's demand. I carefully, painfully, managed to put a different colored line through the dead center of each letter. Then I stopped and put my head down. Just to clarify, I drew each letter inside the block outlines, leaving the majority of the space blank. When my teacher returned to ask why I was disobeying, I calmly informed her that each letter indeed had color inside it, and so I had complied with her request. (Obviously I didn't put it in such high-fallutin language) She basically threw up her hands, said "whatever" and stormed off.

Now, all of this happened before I was in fourth grade. Some of you may doubt that it happened this way, but I remember quite clearly- probably because my parents had this particular canvas monstrosity on display in our laundry room for a number of years. (I can't really explain why they would display what seemed like a completely half-assed effort. My best two explanations are that they thought it would remind me of the need to be humble, which didn't work exactly the way they intended, or they thought I was vaguely retarded and needed encouragement.) Seeing it daily kept the memory fresh.

So, why do I bring this up now? Simply because I think it illustrates the two types of religious faith that seem to pervade the United States. The first type of faith is illustrated by the above incident and takes one thing as its primary motivation: fear.

Many, many people seem to access their faith, and god, through fear of doing something wrong. These are the people that constantly search for wisdom in the bible, who obsessively pursue scripture, who seek to erradicate those who believe differently from them, and who determinedly avoid perspectives other than their own. These people see their salvation as stemming from an unthinking, unwavering devotion to the authoritative structure of the church and their religion. Questioning and divergence are unacceptable because they are afraid that by questioning, or doing something not explicitly condoned by religion, that they will offend god and damn themselves. These poor people are like the child who has been beaten repeatedly: their every action, their every thought, is bent to avoid the wrath of a powerful other. They live to assauge their own fear of making a mistake. They are locked into a prison of their faith, and feel constantly insecure because their own moral worth is dependent on adhering to a set of boundaries that are marked in invisible ink. It is, then, no surprise that my questions about coloring on canvas were slapped down- I was doing the thing that is not permitted above all others. I was suggesting we do something a different way. Yes, I was asking about crayons and canvas, but habits are habits, and for some questions are always bad.

The second type of faith is quite different because it is motivated not by fear, but by somthing else: trust.

It does seem possible to approach god, and faith, without fear, but instead with trust. Trust that the hypothetical almighty is a loving being who did not make the world as some sort of wretched trap for the unwary. Trust that we are meant to explore, and discover, and learn about our world as babies explore and discover their own. Trust that god is like a loving parent who watches our successes with joy, our failures with tolerance, and is proud of us for growing into our potential. For people who reach their faith, and their god, through trust it is not necessary to reject others or eliminate other ways of thinking. The world is made richer for its variety. Tolerance, acceptance, and understanding are the ways of the world. It is not necessary to fear god when one can trust that being to know us and to understand us. It seems to me that these are the people who understand that god, if he exists, means for us to come to know him through learning and growing as people. These are the people who do not think that god demands we reject the majority of his creation in order to know him.

Fear and trust are the twin poles of modern American religion. Those who follow god (whom I tend to label "godists" because I think the term "god-fearing" just emphasizes what is worst in religion) are faced with a choice: they may worship through fear, forever seeking to reject that which might tempt them into damnation, or they may worship through trust, accepting and embracing the challenge of life, secure in the knowledge that a truly infinite, truly compassionate being will judge them fairly and honestly.

I am an atheist, and so cannot tell the godists where to go. We all must find our own way of knowing the world. For me, godist faiths are destructive and wrong, but that is only for me. For others, they may be empowering in a way that atheism could never be. Such is the way of the world, and I am comfortable with that. Yet, despite my atheism, I think I can ask you this: what do you prefer? A life of fear and uncertainty, or a life of trust and confidence?

Even an atheist knows the answer to that.

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