Into the Jungle, Part I: Baby Steps

This is a series I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. I started this blog, in large part, because I wanted an outlet for all of the random thoughts in my head, many of which concern the religion I grew up with and the problems I now see in it. What I haven’t done yet, however, is tell my story. It’s not like everyone who leaves religion does so for the same reasons, after all, and I think knowing my background and how I got here provides a lot of helpful context for the things I’m saying now.

Just to be clear, this series is not intended to be persuasive. I’m not preaching, and I’m not defending my position. That doesn’t mean I don’t welcome comments or discussion (I absolutely do!), or that I won’t take a more argumentative approach at other times. It’s just that my purpose in this particular series is not to convince anyone of anything. It’s not meant to be anything more than a narrative.

I remember the first time I really doubted the existence of God. I was about five years old, and I was sitting in church. At that age, I was allowed to bring coloring books and crayons to keep myself occupied during the sermon, but I knew I was supposed to bow my head and close my eyes during the prayers. A prayer had just started, and I had dutifully stopped coloring and adopted an appropriately reverential pose.

I cracked one eye open and looked around. I’m not really sure what, if anything, I expected; I was just curious as to what was happening around me. For all I knew, it could have been something interesting. The rest of the congregation had their heads bowed. Mom had her eyes open and was looking at me, probably to make sure I was behaving. I closed my eyes again, keeping my head down, and I wondered.

Did the grown-ups really believe all this? I mean, it seemed a little far-fetched. I already had a sneaking suspicion that Santa Clause was really just Dad pretending, and I had to wonder if this might be similar. It didn’t seem real. It’s not like I would have even known about God if they hadn’t told me; I’d never seen him, heard him, or experienced him in anyway. Sure, there was a book about him, but a lot of things in books were made up. No one I knew thought that Peter Rabbit or Green Eggs and Ham were true stories. If God was real, how did they know?

The prayer ended, and the preacher started talking. I picked up my crayons and tried to sort this out as I colored.

I first tried to imagine what the grown-ups would get out of pretending this was real. I knew Dad played tricks on me sometimes (nothing cruel or anything; just run-of-the-mill practical jokes), and I wondered if this was something like that. It seemed way too elaborate, though. If they were going to say, “Ha ha, gotcha, God isn’t real,” it seemed like that would have happened already, and they probably wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble to make it seem real. So it probably wasn’t a joke.

Then I wondered if maybe someone had tricked them, and they just didn’t realize it. That didn’t seem likely either, though. For one thing, who would trick that many people and not tell them? I couldn’t think of a good reason to do that. For another, how could anyone fool all of them? Some of these grown-ups were really smart, after all. Surely no one could get all of them to believe this if it wasn’t real.

The idea of God still seemed far-fetched, but I just couldn’t come up with anything that made more sense. I supposed it all probably was real, then, and I just didn’t get it. Maybe I’d understand when I was older. That was something they told me a lot, after all, and they understood a lot of things that I didn’t. I hated the idea that I might be falling for a trick, but at least if I was they’d tell me eventually. At least, I hoped so. And I hoped it would be soon, because this had gone on long enough already.

It would still be a couple of decades before I actually left religious belief behind, and my faith would grow much stronger before it ultimately fell apart. As I think back on that morning, though, I can’t help but be a little bit proud of my five-year-old self. The little girl I was my have fallen for a couple of logical fallacies, and she certainly was seeing only a microcosm of religion and the world in general, but at least five-year-old me was making an effort at skepticism. She was certainly trying harder to make sense out of the world around her than the thirteen-year-old version, who let herself become too blinded by fear to continue the inquiry. That’s the version of me you’ll meet in Part II.

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