So this is one of my obsessions. To make a piece such as this more personal and then, at least in a sense, more relatable, I would like to do my best to offer a background to both my skepticism and a subsequent lack of faith in the same-old, same-old mythological narratives that entertained me as a child.
So I was born presumptively ‘Jewish.’ This designation itself meant very little to me and my older brother, our father an inconsistently lapsed tribal member, and our mother, to coin a term that others have stated for centuries before me, a “fundamentalist atheist.”
It was my mother who offered absurdity to the fantasies and heroic narratives. Those superhero stories that are constantly interfering with actual life as we live it, it is they who interfere with our broad based and barely grounded reality. Today we visit movie theaters to watch the salvation adventures of the ever-changing (both in name and identity) pop cultural heroes, while the past used to offer us cheap TV dramas and the repetitious scrawls of the adventures of whichever hero you chose as your polytheistic own, swash-buckling narratives and discarded theologies.
I used to read comic books, passionately, my world view inspired by the prejudice against the X-Men, the many failures of Spider-Man, and profound anger against the world as defined by the Incredible Hulk. I wondered at the brutal psychosis of the man dressing himself as a bat and feared the implication that Superman was a nationalistic God. The ideas of both science and ancient myth that provide the framework for both the Marvel and the DC universes forced me to see the final silliness of not just these character’s actions, but also the irresponsibility of the superhero religious people call ‘God.’
I was briefly enrolled in Hebrew school at an early age, more to appease my vaguely religious grandparents than because anyone in my immediate family cared. Even then I found the concept of a single ‘God’ ridiculous. When I was actually still attending the class, (after about two months of early morning Saturday school my father would retrieve me and take me off to baseball games) I would frequently get into trouble. I was even then very interested in researching the back stories that inspired these all powerful myths. I used to ask pointedly sarcastic questions like “how is Samson different from Hercules,” and “My favorite chapter of the bible is when the Flash runs so fast he reverses time!” I got in whatever trouble some frustrated 19-year old could offer, more interested in a college credit than if any of us little heathens learned anything.
I openly quit when I was ten years old. My parents were fine with this. My mother even whispered to me that “all of it is bullshit anyway.” But my grandparents were appalled. My brother, ever the opportunist, was busy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, reciting passages in a foreign language he did not understand. He was doing this for the party and the paycheck and good for him for having the patience to follow through with it.
For myself, I wanted to believe myself righteous in my integrity, refusing to accept what I believed to be one of the ominous influences of even onto the world. I considered all religion to be a form of hypocrisy. I even attempted to articulate this in a rather primitive way, attempting to write my very first piece of fiction, a story about a murderous intergalactic super villain being chased through the cosmos by space police, who gets sucked into a black hole, loses his memory, and winds up becoming a deity-like hero down here on earth. He is, of course, pursued by the space police, who now become the villains of the tale, the people of earth rallying around their savior to fight against good guys who have now become fascists. The theme of the story was about the inconstant inconsistencies of the very ideas of good and evil, and this has to this day remained one of the chief topics I attempt to explore.
Anyway, my grandparents tried to bribe me into returning to religious study, two well-to-do old people who offered a gentle threat that I “wouldn’t get the money” if I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah. I was deeply offended (and I believe that my mother was too, although she had a hard time standing up to her parents). I refused. This purely financial consideration gave me an even deeper insight into the workings and machinations of all organized forms of faith, and I became convinced of the corruption of all belief in God.
When I stated that my mother was a “fundamentalist atheist” I am not merely using a fancy term to make a joke. No, she was an evangelist for her beliefs, in fact forcing me to sit down occasionally and watch programs like The 700 Club with Pat Robertson and several of the other 1980s preparing for the rapture shows, featuring the later scandal corrupted Jimmy Swaggart, and Orel Roberts, and Jimmy and Tammy Faye Baker, among others. And my mother, this deeply anti-religious person, would state confusing things with no irony like “See that man shrieking there? That man is the devil!” Such proclamations led me, once in middle school, to sometimes wander into the pay phone near the gymnasium and call up the 800 prayer line numbers and play various characters seeking help. All they did was ask for money. They wouldn’t even pray with me. It caused me to get increasingly vindictive, sometimes portraying Satanists or a leftover worshipper of Odin. One time I even claimed to be a member of the church of Joseph Stalin. It was all hilarious and remarkably ineffective, the stupid pranks of a thirteen year old kid with nothing better to do with his time.
As I grew older and became increasingly interested in history, the in study of what went before and how this has influenced our world today. Far more than I expected the events came back to different styles of religion. In World War II Adolph Hitler became a messiah to his followers, his new faith growing rather widely beyond the borders of Germany. Joseph Stalin himself was a sort of god, forcing statues of saints and Christ to be torn down and replaced with idols of himself. Chairman Mao, Ronald Reagan, motherfucking Jerry Falwell, all of these people managed to form a cult around themselves, whether by intention or in spite of themselves. People came to see them as sometimes secular messiahs.
This fascination inevitably focused my interest on politics, both contemporary and historical. I came to see every religion as a sort of political movement. After all, consider the times of the foundation’s of organized faiths:
Moses, certainly a messianic figure, led a slave rebellion that transformed the world from polytheism to monotheistic. Jesus Christ’s impact is similar: a slave rebellion transformed into the sacrifice of God. Clever political minds were wise enough to rehearten their desiccated followers by mythologizing their fallen leader to the desperate, superstitious lot of them. “Son of God.” “One day He will return.” It’s like a rough draft for the story of King Arthur.
Then came Muhammad, yet another leader of a slave rebellion. His idea of politics was frankly brilliant. Absolutism. All those against us, as the Christian’s have also attempted to impose are demons out to devour our souls. It is time to fight back. It is the age of never-ending holy war.
We can relate any number of subsequent leaders into the same class, political revolutionaries from the founding of the United States and the overthrow of monarchy in France (as well as all throughout World War I). Certainly the founding of the original Republican Party with Abraham Lincoln at its head, sanctified by religious abolitionists as “under the hand of God” was, in its essence, a holy movement leading to a holy war, but the secular aspects had by then far overtaken the sincerity of religious motives. It became a world of struggling, oppositional politics, the fragmentation that Christianity first imposed upon the Jewish struggle ever expanding, breaking people down into separate faiths within the same faith, from Orthodox to Hassidim to Reformist; from Catholic to Protestant to Baptist and Lutheren to Mormon and Seventh Day Adventists and every other smaller and smaller group seeing a slightly different variation on who will be saved at the end of the world; from Sunni and Shiite to Sufis, and all the internal cults diverging from one another within these separate sects: Muslim Brotherhood (a political movement), Wahhabi, Jama ‘at-i-Islami. The list goes on and on and on, thousands for every religion.
This is what religion finally is, as I see it: competing political ideologies attempting to impose their divergent ways of thinking upon the rest of the world, both within and outside of their familiar understanding of people. Inevitably all beliefs are corrupted by a certain form of blind faith, exhaustion finally overtaking you and a simple acceptance that you can never truly know the answer to existence, or where we are going, or what happens after we die. We will never know enough to share such knowledge with the world. Our desperation for answers can only go so far to allow us yet another new religion, one, this time, that you are the only member of a private and inexplicable church.