When I was around ten, my mother made the mistake of watching Helter Skelter, the movie about Charles Manson and his “family” of killers, with me in the room. I’m sure I was supposed to be doing something else, but you know what they say about kids: they’re sponges, so I soaked it up.
For months afterward, I imagined that Charles Manson was under my bed at night and that the only way to keep from being butchered right there in my Strawberry Shortcake footy pajamas was to lie completely still on my back like a board and try very hard not to breathe. And also to hold a sharpened pencil while I tried to fall asleep. You know, just in case the board thing didn’t work.
I think about this brief phase in my life when the question of religion comes up—whether we need it, which religion is best, which dogmas are totally evil, why some religious topics are off limits for ridicule or jest, how faith seeps into the very core of our identity, why we’re so attached to it….
Because Manson held great power over a lot of people, very much the way religion does, he was able to commit great atrocities. Of course the similarities between Manson and Christ or Buddha or Mohammed end there, but it’s this power which people are willing to give up to something that may or may not exist that I’m most interested in understanding and questioning.
Both of my parents were raised Jehovah’s Witnesses. You may be familiar with this lovely group of people who go door-to-door preaching and handing out The Watchtower and Awake! magazines, who don’t celebrate holidays or get blood transfusions or salute the flag, who “disfellowship” their members if they don’t follow “The Truth” closely enough. My father was called in to talk to the elders once for growing a beard. Men, at the time, were to keep themselves well groomed, and my pops was sporting a look that was more hippie than Leave It to Beaver.
Not too long after that, my father decided to leave the Witnesses for good, a choice that contributed to the demise of his marriage to my mother, who was still devout. Even though the Witnesses had discouraged her desire to go to college and confused every instinct in her body about who she was and what she wanted for her life, she stayed faithful for years after my father left. Part of this, I’m convinced, was for her mother, my sweet Nana who would sit my little five-year-old self down and teach me Bible stories. She would have been terribly disappointed and afraid for my mother’s soul if she left the Witnesses since those who weren’t good followers would die forever, never to be resurrected when Armageddon came. This eternal death is their idea of Hell because they don’t believe in the fire and brimstone version.
When my mother finally did cut ties with the Witnesses, I was small, but old enough to remember the first Christmas we ever celebrated—my brother, Tim, and I pressing our eyes up to the crack in our mother’s bedroom door as she wrapped presents past our bedtime. (We never really believed in Santa. That story wasn’t told to us early enough to stick.)
By this time, my mother had moved far enough away from her Jehovah’s Witness roots to feel like she could form her own beliefs, go to college even. But she was forever influenced and scarred by her upbringing. During our most recent visit, she retold the story about how some of her grade school teachers ridiculed her in front of the class and made her stand out in the hall while they said the Pledge of Allegiance and saluted the flag, practicing their own religion: patriotism.
I was born into these existential crises: whether to go to church, be baptized, read The Bible. Whether to put faith in someone, something I could never see or touch, who would never really be there when I needed a hug or a friend. As a teenager, I was plagued by these questions (pun intended), to the point that I even accompanied my best junior high friend, Melanie, to her summer Bible camp where we sang songs mildly reminiscent of the worst pop/country music I’d ever heard, played scripture-related games, and roomed with other aspiring Christians.
I remember one day having a deep conversation with Melanie about why she was a believer. Even scientists don’t know everything, she said. They don’t know where life started or why we exist. I held onto this fact for years, through a half-hearted baptism and a very brief marriage to a man who took me to church every Sunday. But in the end, I just couldn’t stomach the willful ignorance I witnessed in the Christians around me; I couldn’t fend off questions that lurked in the back of my mind about the essential nature of the universe that church never even feigned to answer.
I share this backstory to point out that my experiences with and impressions of religion are fairly individual and negative; although lots of people I know have had similar experiences. I’m not objective about this topic since in my very core I quite loathe religion, but I am fond of the notion of God, even though I don’t really believe in that either. I understand that for some, religion provides an easy-to-follow moral compass, a community, a frame from which to understand the world. I understand that the universe is vast and lonely and the idea of this—this life, this place, this time—being all there is, is more than a little disappointing.
But beyond that, I have trouble understanding why we need religion when it becomes an excuse for murder or subjugation or hate. How do any of our holy books give us permission for this or this or this? And can’t we find communion with each other without ancient mythologies as our guide?
There may be at least three reasons we crave religion. One: we don’t believe we can be responsible for ourselves and the world and the problems that swirl around us. We don’t have faith enough in humanity’s powers of reason and capacities for love. Some don’t completely trust science because, like us, it’s limited in knowledge and scope; it’s ever-changing, and while the scientific method and empirical evidence are beautiful and powerful and insightful, they don’t explain everything or promise to save us from the grave.
Two: fear. We’re afraid of our mortality. We’re afraid of losing tradition, culture, and respect from our tribe. We’re afraid of our own fallibility and inability to evolve past it. We long for something better.
Which leads to three: we’re faced with so many unexplained holes that religion, the notion of an omniscient, benevolent force that made us and has a plan for us, fills the void so nicely. And it fills that void with hope.
Have you ever heard the story of Curt Richter’s rats? In the late 1950s Richter and his team wanted to see how long rats would swim in a glass cylinder before giving up and drowning. Pretty sick experiment, but the findings are fascinating. The control rats who swam untouched by researchers drowned pretty fast, within minutes. But in the other group, Dr. Richter saved half the rats, and the other half who saw this act of salvation swam for three days before finally losing hope that the gracious hand of “God” would rescue them. (Turns out rats are empathetic little creatures, making this scenario that much more terrible.)
Lots of folks on the interwebs like to tell this story as evidence of our need for God, superman of mystery who swoops in and carries us when we’re too downtrodden to proceed. This surprises me, though maybe it shouldn’t since some will latch onto any evidence in support of a higher power. However, the story of Dr. Richter’s rats means something else to me. We are sentient like other animals, and with that comes this thing, this mental mechanism, that buoys us up when all seems lost. We call this thing, this swelling of chest and hyper focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, we call it hope. But it’s really just a chemical reaction in the brain, a dose of serotonin. And this magic of chemistry helps us choose life over death in many excruciating situations. Evolution kept it and helped us survive.
The fact is that we’re just a bunch of primates with a very limited perspective of the universe trying to stay afloat. While I put my faith in science, in the known world of facts, others rely on a faith in the unknown, the possibility of more, and even though I can’t swallow it, there’s something kind of beautiful about religion when it’s not encouraging us to hurt each other. Research even shows that prayer and meditation reshapes the brain and can actually change our reality. So maybe there’s a power in religion that is founded in science.
Ultimately, we have to be patient with each other, scientists and theologians, common believers and skeptics. We have to be kind and willing to consider our neighbors’ points of view. We have to understand that the desire for God, the blind trust in religion, may be the very thing that makes us human, an aspect of ourselves that cannot be rent out like a cancer, a part of our very genetic makeup. And if this is so, how delightful! What a survival mechanism! Like the rats who were drowned and saved and drowned again, we need to be picked up out of our despair and destruction by something bigger and wiser than ourselves.
When I was in college, a pair of Jehovah’s Witness women, mother and daughter, came knocking on my little studio apartment door. I told them I used to be one of them and let them in to chat. For a few weeks, they came back around for visits and to share their “literature.” I’d offer my table and a snack while they told me “the good news.” The last time they came by, I remember trying to explain why I couldn’t go back to them. I remember picking up a pillow with a bear embroidered on one side and plain blue cloth on the other. I showed them the blue side and asked them to describe the pillow.
“It’s blue,” they chimed together.
“Right. But also, wrong,” I said, turning the pillow around. “Because on the other side the pillow isn’t just blue.”
I thought I was so clever using my own version of the “blind men and an elephant” story. I thought, I got ’em! I win! But then I noticed that they did look a little defeated, and I wondered what the hell I was doing trying to shatter their paradigm. I realize now that the story of the blind men who each only feels part of the great elephant and can’t know the whole thing can apply just as much to science or emotion or the space/time continuum as it can to religion. We can only conceive of so much, and then we’re blind.