Friday, February 08, 2008

Few Are the Choices We Make - part 1

I remember the day the nail went in the coffin of my Christian beliefs. I was sitting in a history class with one of the most boring teachers in our high school and there was excited talk amongst the students about that date being the day that the world was supposed to end according to one prognosticator or another. Back in the 70's in rural neighborhoods, it seemed like everyone was a great fan of predicting the end of the world. My grandmother liked to talk about it more and more as she aged, and all the parents who were frightened by the infiltration of heavy metal music into youth culture that they burned records were sure this was a sign that Satan was about to take over. As an unsophisticated kid who grew up indoctrinated in a particular belief system, such talk really scared me.

On this particular day, my class was supposed to be reading silently and one of the students decided to say something to the teacher about this end of the world prediction. This particular teacher was all business most of the time. He never shared his personal life or joked or showed any sign of being anything but a date-writing, history-talking drone. I recall how odd his response was because he showed more emotion than I'd ever seen before or after. With great earnestness and conviction, he said that we'd know it wasn't the end of the world if we had read the bible as the signs of the apocalypse had not unfolded as had been foretold.

Besides being very surprised by the way in which this teacher showed he was a human being in his response, I also felt relieved. End of the world talk genuinely scared me when I was in my early to mid teens. Though my memory may be hazy on this point, I believe I was 14 or 15 at the time of this experience. This experience set off a thought process which concluded with my considering that people who grew up elsewhere and didn't have experience with the bible would have no idea about such theories or signs regarding the end of the world. How was it that we were so blessed with knowledge that would "save" us while they were damned because of random factors?

This thought pretty much severed whatever tenuous hold Christian doctrine and dogma had on me. I don't wish to be misunderstood in what I'm saying though. I have no problems with Christianity or Christians. I believe all spiritual philosophies from Paganism to Christianity to Atheism have good points and bad points and I'm not about knocking any of them. However, I understood at that point with great clarity that who you are, what you like and dislike and what you believe is shaped far more by where you are born and how you are raised than by the conscious choices you make.

I'm sure that a lot of folks will take issue with that final statement because we have a strong desire to believe we make the lives we live through our choices. While that is true to some extent, the breadth and composition of the palette of choices we're offered is shaped by factors beyond our control. For instance, if you grow up in a culture which is dominated by one particular faith and you grow up only educated in the principles of that faith the chances that you'll adopt another one which is practiced only by people on the other side of the planet is pretty slim. There are some options that you simply aren't going to be presented with or even find through active searches. And let's say you do find some of those options. Their roots may be so esoteric that you can't understand or relate to them sufficiently to embrace them.

(To be continued in part 2)


Chris said...

I hope you don't take me off the blogroll for sounding crazy but..

When I was 13 years old I had a life changing event that was a kinda poltergeist type of thing. It went on for several minutes and I now know that after we die there is something else.

I do not follow any particular religion. I did not see happiness it was quite the opposite. I don't know if there is a heaven but there is probably a hell.

Just thought I'd say that.

Shari said...

Being crazy doesn't get you kicked out. Being a jerk gets you the boot. ;-) Actually, being a jerk just gets your comment booted by my own personal comment sheriff (my husband moderates comments for me). I don't remove people from the blog roll once they're on.

Your experience was very interesting. I have a very open mind about such things and am neither quick to dismiss nor validate them. I think such things are highly personal and not for others to judge. I've never had such an experience though I have known others who have.

I don't follow a religion either, but I do have some extremely complex philosophical notions about the nature of existence (which continue to change slowly through time). Personally, I don't believe what happens after we die is either heaven or hell but rather something which is not meant to be pejorative or rewarding (though I believe we each experience it subjectively and it can be perceived that way by many individuals). I also do not believe we face oblivion though I believe it is an option should we wish it so.

Many thanks for your comment as it provoked some interesting thoughts for me!

tornados28 said...

Religion is always a touchy subject. It is good to have intelligent discussions on topics such as this. But that is usually difficult since when it comes to religion, many people become unreasonable to here other points of view.

I like what you said. It is to bad that there are so many people out there that are so posessed that they will say things like "if you don't believe in Jesus or are not christian but believe in something else such as Buddha, then you will burn in hell.

Shari said...

tornados28: It is extremely hard to have emotionally reasonable talks about religion. I guess that's understandable because it's such an important issue. It's also really not a topic which is "rational" because belief systems are independent of logic or "proof".

I don't mind if people think I'm going to hell because I don't believe the "right" thing. I don't know that they're wrong, actually. I also don't know that they're right.

Their beliefs don't bother me even if I don't agree with them. It's only when people want to force any particular philosophy on others that it becomes a problem, but that "force" applies to all strident arguers who deride other philosophies, not any particular belief system.

Many thanks for your comment!

Lana said...

The more blogs I read, the more I notice that a lot of expats are become agnostic or atheist(sp?) I wonder why is that?

Interesting. It's also interesting that people will believe evil before good. That fascinates me. 'I'll believe evil spirits exist and hell, but not heaven'. That' is interesting. Why believe JUST evil and not good? That thought pattern is interesting.

It's almost impossible not to believe in nothing at all. A lot of 'freethinkers' (speaking in general, not directed at anybody, so please, don't take offense) claim not to follow 'organized religion' (a term that's overused, IMO) and think 'free'. No such thing. You believe something. And contrary to popular belief, every religion is 'organized', not just Christianity. Every religion has a set of rules/guidelines, do's and don'ts, etc. That's organization, it's not just all willy-nilly. All religions are started with a specific thought/goal in mind and is built on that goal(s) from beginning to end, whatever that is. It's organized. Just because it ain't Christianity doesn't make it any less 'organized'.

I'll stop rambling now. :)

Shari said...

Lana: I am not an atheist, though I guess I am technically agnostic by the definition give below:

"a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience." (from

I clarify myself using that meaning because a lot of self-proclaimed agnostics are actually wishy-washy atheists. I'm in no way an atheist.

I agree with you that all beliefs, even no belief, are spiritual philosophies. However, I think you're confusing "organized religion" with having a firm (or "organized") set of beliefs. "Organized religion" means that that religion has structural and material representations with which to present its viewpoints. That is, there are places of worship, holy texts, and generally some sort of official representatives (priests, pastors, etc.). Many belief systems have none of these types of organizations, though they do possess set notions about spirituality. So, I believe you're lumping "organized religion" and "set philosophies" together when they are separate things in the vernacular use of "organized religion".

I have no rules or written set of beliefs that I follow. I don't read any particular book, attend a church or give money to anyone. No one preaches or speaks to or for me but me and my beliefs develop through time. There's nothing about what I think which can be categorized as "organized". It wouldn't even have a name if the vague, catch-all, barely adequate term "agnostic" didn't allow me to be crammed into some hazy definition. I'd have to write my own book to convey what I think is the case.

Many thanks for your interesting comment!

Joseph said...

I think that was a remarkable realisation for someone so young, especially considering the dogma surrounding you.

It's taken me 30 years to get to that point!

Emsk said...

Wow! Religion - a particular favourite topic of mine. I am an atheist, but I do find religion fascinating and how it links in with human psychology. I think that debate is a great and necessary thing.

I think that trap we often fall into is that criticising religion is often seen to be a big no-no - but surely it's more a case that of criticising things that others believe rather than are gospel truth, no pun intended.

Having said that I do think we have to tread very carefully. Religion is so much tied up with identity and where we come from, that to be dismissive can be incredibly insenstive.

Certainly I can see that your roots are with you often for life. My father says "once a Catholic". He describes himself as a "practising ex-Catholic", yet so many of his ways hark back to his London Irish beginnings.

This is great, Shari, because I was thinking of posting up a humorous story I wrote on the End of the World is Nigh theme. If I can find a copy of it saved on a disc somewhere I will definitely do that.

Shari said...

Joseph: I think that we carry a certain level of awareness with us. I think we find the path we're meant to and the timing is not really important. Early or late, or never. It's all as it needs to be to accomplish whatever needs to be achieved in this round. ;-)

Emsk: I think we should question and consider religion and all issues spiritually for ourselves. We get to decide for ourselves and others should respect that and no one should be attacking someone else's beliefs as an intellectual exercise. Actions which harm others in the name of religious beliefs should be criticized and questioned, but beliefs are no one's business but the person who holds them. That goes for all beliefs, including atheism.

I strictly separate actions and beliefs in this regard. One is none of my business as it is personal and private. The other affects society and myself. If someone wants to crown their cat the lord god of their basement and offer him sacrificial saucers of milk, more power to them. I'm not going to question that as long as they're not pinching my milk.

Thanks to both of you for the comments!

lina said...

a lot of my friends used the term "free thinker" as they do not believe / follow any particular religion. But interesting to note that some of the older Chinese people converted to Christianity not because they want to go to heaven, but the funeral cost for christians are way cheaper than a buddhist. Just sharing that info with you guys.

gaijinalways said...

Interesting that you wouldn't be concerned unless someone was doing something that directly affected you (i.e. pinching your milk). The problem might be that this person may be affecting others, in a bad or goood way, and that may certainly affect you.

There used to be another forum I posted on, but I found the attitudes of the members to be appalling. Not only were they rude, but they found it hard to beleive that everyone else didn't share their loose moral code.

One time a member said that he didn't want to judge others. Unforunately, whether we are aware of it or not and whether they are clearly stated or not, we all have value systems, and if someone's values are too much at odds with our own, we're not likely to go seeking that person as a friend.

What did I find appalling on this forum? The members had no clue as to why I might find one of the member's attitudes to be at best, odd. Suffice it to say, this person seemed to think that people couldn't disagree with him because 'he had talked' to people involved in historical events. of course he (nor his friends) never considered that these people may have lied or left out parts of the stories (even though most people seem to know this, since they rely on a multitude of sources for their information, rater ten thinking that something happened in their own country, and no one outside knows what happened).

Well, since that forum relies on people having the same attitude, which means accepting the opinions of the friends who started the groups' opinions regardless of how unsupported or unsubstantiated their statements may be, I found that to be a bit confining and overly rigid. Laugable that these same people think they're liberal.

Finally, I find the people very rude. Now I suppose in some ways I am adopting your attitude, as these people are not harming me in a sense, though I think they are harming others by the false information they give out (or simply supporting the right of their friends to make outrageous statements). And that in a sense may be doing a far greater harm than anything else we might do. But since it's more of an ethical situtation, there's not a lot one can do, beyond calling others' attention to such sites ad warning them about it.

Don't worry, your introspective blog is not one of those places in cyberspace that I'm talking about. But certainly, we have to think about why we do the things that we do. On that note, let me add that relgion is not the only touchy subject, history and our percerception of it, also falls into that category.

badmoodmike said...

Two of my absolute favorite subjects to talk about are religion and politics.


I consider myself a Christian, I believe in God and Jesus. But unlike many of my ilk, I don't go to church. This is a personal decision due to the number of churches that I have been to that have collapsed due to a variety of reasons. I have to wonder if I was bad luck!

I used to go to a great small church in Springfield, Ohio. The people were loving and helpful. The youth group (you can see how long ago this was...I'm 32) would get together every couple of weeks and have a good time. However, the pastor decided it was time to build a new church, a great big church building out in the country and to start building his empire.

So the church was built. Then more people came, which was good. Then the pastor decided that his co-pastor should be his wife...this got a lot of people bent out of shape. Then some of the new people started mysteriously replacing long-standing members in various positions. Things got weird, people started backstabbing and gossiping, so my family left.

We've been in and out of other churches for the same reasons, they are great for a time, then strange things start happening.

The thing is that you don't actually have to go to church...just believe. That's all. The events that I witnessed did not affect my faith in God, but my faith in man-made religious organizations.

My personal belief is that generally all religions are the same...they worship the same God or Gods...they just appear as different manifestations.

And who's to say that the big bang wasn't God playing with firecrackers? :)

gaijinalways said...

Very true, the larger essence of a religion is not held in the building. I always have personally preferred a natural cathedral.

As to topics we might talk about, how people address them decides more if it's a discussion or a debate than the actual subject matter. People debate things as mundane as whether a cat or a dog is a better pet. I think it really depends on the individual and his situation (growing up I had both).

Shari said...

gaijinalways: I tend to make a lot of separations which other folks might not when it comes to belief systems. For instance, I separate values from belief. To me, values are reflected in actions and how you treat others (and yourself). Belief structures have more to do with the specific stories, rituals, and habits of a religion. For instance, Christians believe in Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, etc. These are things which aren't my business to question their belief in. However, when people have values which harm others, that's a different issue as they often act on them in ways that harm me through their influence on others or directly.

It's possible to have a strong attachment to a belief system but show values which appear to be in opposition to that system and this happens quite a lot and is one reason I separate belief systems from values. Honestly, I think that values and belief systems rarely coincide in any way. Too many people profess belief in a religion and constantly violate the guidelines and rules its philosophy endorses. However, it's not my business to take apart the logic of the stories and systems that underlie a religion.

That being said, I think we all have equal access to influence others with our words. I think it's impossible to stop the sharing of values which we don't embrace among like-minded folks. And I always believe that most folks are always preaching to the choir on some level and those who listen to the bad values of others on some level already embrace them. It's pointless to try and dissuade such people from their values. People hear what they want to and do what they want to and aren't receptive to other ideas until they are good and ready. To me, it's not worth the energy or the frustration dealing with them.

Particularly in this day and age, anyone can find what they want if they are open to new ideas. If they're not, you're just going to end up fighting them and it only serves to mire one in negative energy and thoughts.

Mike: I think you make a good point about how you can't tar a faith with the behaviors of its adherents. However, what is a faith if its followers don't actually follow its principles? Do principles exist independent of those who employ them?

It's sort of a "tree falling in the woods" type of question. I don't think there's an answer.

Thanks to both of your for the interesting comments.