Religion is one of those things most of us were taught not to talk about in polite company. It’s too personal. Too controversial. But, given the world we live in today, maybe the time has come to change our thinking in that regard.
It is difficult for me to talk about the subject of religion without addressing my own experience. So here goes.
I went to a Catholic grammar school. My classmates and I memorized prayers, said the rosary, and went to Mass (in Latin) every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation. We recited the Stations of the Cross, depicting specific occurrences of the crucification, from the crowning of thorns to the Resurrection of Jesus to heaven three days after his death. We ate no meat on Fridays, we fasted, gave things up for Lent, attended spiritual Retreats, lit candles, prayed to specific Saints, studied the Catechism every day. We raised money for missions to convert non Catholics so that they would be cleansed through Baptism of the original sins they were born with, qualifying them to spend all eternity in heaven with God and all the saints. One way to become a saint was to be martyred, killed, like Joan of Arc, for defending your faith and refusing to betray your beliefs, thus dying for God.
The Nuns who taught us wore habits which covered their entire bodies and all of their hair and skin except for a portion of their faces and hands. Women could not enter a church unless their heads were covered. We went to Confession on Saturdays where we acknowledged any mortal sins we had committed during the previous week such as a murder, or having had dirty thoughts, or watched a movie banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
We had patron saints. We studied the lives of apostles, read the Bible, blessed ourselves with the sign of the cross and wrote JMJ on our homework submissions. We learned about miracles that had been performed; about cripples that had been cured and blind people that could now see; about the diseased brought back to health. There were Holy Places. Like Lourdes in France; and Fatima where the Blessed Virgin appeared to three children. Shrines were constructed. Cathedrals were built. There was Holy Water. There were Blessings. There were Indulgences. There was Absolution.
I once baptized my best friend, Robert, without his knowledge, so that we could spend eternity together.
We had the rules, the rituals, the unhesitating beliefs, down pat.
We knew, KNEW, that we were the chosen. The children of God. Other religions were not.
Over the centuries wars were fought, millions died, countless innocent people were slaughtered. Children were sacrificed. Witches were burned alive.
All in the name of Faith.
For me it was a slow process, but when Cardinal Spellman spoke out in favor of the Viet Nam War, justifying napalm and blanket bombing massacres, in the name of killing Godless Communists, that was it. I’d finally had it.
I decided that spirituality and a person’s belief in God were entirely different from blind adherence to the authority of church leaders. Including the often divisive articles of faith that were an integral part of my, and all, organized religions. Goodbye to “Goodbye to Us vs. Them.” Hello to “We are all God’s children.” Goodbye to “gobbledegook.” Hello to “The Golden Rule.”
But beliefs are strong. Religious practices are strong. Some people speak in tongues. Holy Rollers roll around on the ground. Preachers scream and holler at tent revivals. Some think its evil to medicate their own sick children. People bang their heads on walls and whip themselves with lashes on pilgrimages as punishment for their evil ways. They wear beanies and miters and pointed hats and golden slippers. They carry staffs and sit on thrones. And meet in secret conclaves to pick leaders announcing their progress to breathless flocks of the faithful by way of colored smoke signals.
What can I say? A billion Christians? A billion Hindus? A billion Muslims? Plus all the assorted Jews and Buddhists? Are they all right?