I grew up ascribing to a religion that I didn’t fully understand. At this point, it hardly matters which religion because I think this happens to all of us. We are taught whatever religion or belief system that our parents believe and by the end, I’ll wrap up why I think that is both a good and bad idea.
So, my parents, just like yours, taught me what they believed to be true. I participated in holidays and traditions important to those beliefs, read from a book of those teachings, and followed in the family norms of the believers. I grew up thinking that this was how it was supposed to be and was happy enough to follow this.
But somewhere around middle school, I learned that our belief system wasn’t all that there was out there. Other people believed and acted differently. Throughout high school I would be taught that this was wrong and bad and I needed to save these people from the bad teachings. It seemed good enough in theory but it felt wrong in practice.
Underlying every thought I expressed was a sick feeling in my gut that this wasn’t good. I was made to believe that I was worried so much about their downfall but it wasn’t that. Instead, it was my gut saying that I had no authority to judge what they were taught, what they believed, and what they valued in life.
So I went without religion for quite some time. Maybe if everyone just stopped believing in these religious teachings, we can find harmony in the world. We’ll stop having wars over which god is true or which culture is right. Maybe a world without religion is a good thing. So I set about encouraging people to abandon religion completely. But this was met with the same sickly feeling as trying to convince them to come into my religion. And in a way, I realized I was still trying to get them to believe what I believed, even though I thought I was freeing them from religion altogether. Same thing.
I was confused. What was I doing wrong? With religion, I felt I had to change everyone to my way of thinking. Without religion, I thought I had to free everyone from a forced belief system – and over to my new way of thinking. Where was the problem then.
Now might be a good time to mention that I have spent an unhealthy amount of time contemplating this dilemma when the answer is so freakishly simple.
Think about it this way: when you first enter the world, you are a blank slate. You know nothing. You have two ways of learning things. You can learn from others: what they say, how they act. But you also can go out there and try it all for yourself. You can learn from your mom, “Don’t touch the stove, it’s hot” or you can touch it and discover it for yourself. Either one is a valid way of learning the same message: the stove is hot. You reach the same conclusion.
One though, comes with the pain on your hand, the other one comes with trusting who is telling you the information. In my eyes, these are both a slight cost. Early on in your life, you’re probably more apt to do both. Your mom tells you the stove is hot, you then touch it to find out. This works to do a few things at once. You learn to validate the information of others by testing the theory yourself. The more often you validate the things your mom says, the easier it is to just take her word for it that she does indeed know what she is talking about.
Bringing this parallel to religion, the people who tell you things, have often gone through their own chain of validation. They have learned to trust certain people and have taken what they say as true, or they have tested theories directly. Anyone can do this. So when your parents or people tell you “I know what I’m talking about, I’ve been through this before,” basically, they are saying, “I know what it is to take someone’s word for it and I am extending you the option of taking my word for it so you don’t have to hurt your own hand.”
It’s all in good intentions really. Looking back on my life, I understand this now. My parents were just trying to save my hands. Whether they were going to burn on the stove or in some version of hell, they wanted to protect me. For that, I cannot fault them.
My life has been pretty crazy so far. I’ve stopped trusting people so much and had to burn my hands a few times too many because I really don’t know who to trust or what to believe. I’ve read up on a lot of religions and belief systems and I can’t find one that I fit into. I like messages from each. I like the spirits in every living thing from pagan type beliefs, I like the self empowerment from new age teachings. I love the idea of sacrificing oneself to save others that a lot of the major religions believe. The ideas of reincarnation and nirvana seem to make a lot of sense to me and karma seems pretty plausible. I believe that we aren’t the only ones out there but I think we’ve fallen out of harmony with the universe and the source love. I meditate often to get right with myself because at the end of the day, I am all that I can guarantee to myself. I may use different terms for things than you and others but we all do in the end.
I could ask five people to pick up paper and they could all pick up a different kind of paper. One has a notebook, another a legal pad, someone else picks up card stock, another makes their own paper, and the other has index cards. All technically still paper and yet all represented in different ways. Of course, we’re going to disagree on bigger things than paper. Especially when none of us were there at the beginning of the universe and technology hasn’t created a time machine to go back and check to see if their calculations are in fact the truth. Some ideas sound more plausible than others but does it actually matter?
In the end, the only thing that’s going to matter to us is what we think is important. Whether we think religion is important to us or not is something we have to decide individually for ourselves. In the end, we each have our own lives to lead and no one can change our minds unless we want them changed. Maybe I wanted to walk away from religion five years ago to see what else I could find. Maybe I really was searching for the truth.
Did I find it? I think so. What is it? That’s going to be a different answer often. Today, I’d say my truth is of living in harmony with the earth, doing my best to leave the smallest carbon footprint that I possibly can. Tomorrow, I may find more truth in being a part of a community where we can all be interdependent and connected to each other. And still I might say my root truth or at least the truth of me that pertains to everyone else on the planet, is to let everyone fin find their own truth. If there is anything that I think might be strong enough to want others to learn, it’s respecting everyone’s right to believe as they feel is true.
Sure, in parenting, this might be harder to do. You still need to protect those little hands from the stove. I think it still comes back to the choice. Tell them the stove is hot and let them decide whether they want to believe you or not. If they need to test it for themselves in order to more trust you, then go ahead and let them. You’ve done what you could. But if you fight so hard with them to keep them from ever touching the stove for themselves, you may have saved those little hands but now they might always doubt whether what you say actually has a basis in truth or if now they think you were lying because you wouldn’t let them verify it.
I respect the religions who teach their children the values that they believe and then give them the space to go out into the world and try other things before committing themselves to the religion or whatever.
Whatever you do though, you know how you came to believe what you believe now. Remember your journey, remember your doubts. And then, extend everyone else the freedom to discover what they need to in the ways that they need to hear it. If the stove really is hot, you can bet they’ll learn to stop touching it eventually. But if you discover yourself to be protecting them from a cold stove, that’s not very fair. Remember that the stove does cool off. We can all learn this along side knowing when the stove is hot.