Religion hasn’t been a part of my life for many years now. I was raised Catholic, and I was pretty devout – as devout as a kid can be when they are dragged unwillingly to mass every Saturday – into my college years. In fact, as a nubile young freshman at the University of New Mexico, I immediately sought out the Newman Center, and threw myself into the social and extracurricular life of a Catholic student. During those years, I did become devout, attending mass regularly, and I even considered becoming a nun… for about 37 seconds.
As devoted as I felt I was, I realized I didn’t want to give up the chance, slight as it seemed at the time, for marriage. And I didn’t think I could keep to the schedule. Waking up at 4am for prayer? Considering that rising from my bed any hour before 11am was tantamount to blasphemy at the time, I couldn’t fathom waking up every day for the rest of my life before sunrise.
Rather shallow reasons to walk away from a life of devotion to God. But I take it as proof I made the right decision.
In the years after I left UNM (I moved to California), my interest in history deepened, and my free time was increasingly spent on learning more about the ancient world. As a devout Catholic, I had been raised by the Church, and I had been taught that Catholicism sprang forth, fully formed and wholly new, with the birth of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus was a Jew, we adopted some of the older Jewish practices and traditions (outlined to us in the Bible’s Old Testament), but otherwise, Jesus was the Messiah and his three short years of ministry were the very foundation upon which the Christian religion was built.
I did not know how much of Christianity is, in fact, borrowed from older polytheistic religions. For example: many of the feast days in the Catholic Church – revered by the Church as the days upon which these events occurred – are actually older pagan holidays that were adopted by the early Christian church to help convert said pagans. Ask a devout Catholic about December 25 as the birth of Christ, and s/he will emphatically proclaim: “yes! Our Lord and Savior was born on December 25!” In reality, however, December 25 is a date that commonly fell right in the midst of the ancient festivals of Saturnalia and Yule, and therefore, adopted as a feast day by the early church leaders to help convert the Romans and Celts. I can almost picture the conversation:
Church: So, we’re going to convert you to Catholicism because it’s the true religion. That means you have to give up your gods and your festivals.
Romans: Uh, no, because we believe in our gods and we honor our gods with our festivals.
Church: Well, you can still celebrate some of those festivals … we’ll just call them by a different name.
Romans: Huh. So, you’re saying we can still celebrate Saturnalia in December?
Church: Sure. We’ll call it a celebration of the Birth of Christ, but you can still celebrate it. As long as you also call it a celebration of the Birth of Christ.
Romans: Okay. Sounds do-able.
Obviously, very simplified. But that is the general idea. And to make the transition even easier for these early converts, the church adopted many of the traditions associated with the ancient festivals as part of the celebrations for the Christian counterparts. For example, rituals associated with both Saturnalia and Yule, including the use of evergreen in decoration (Yule), the practice of gift-giving (Saturnalia), the making of gingerbread men (Saturnalia), and the celebratory feasts (Yule), were incorporated into the celebration of Christmas as part of the church’s mission to convert as many as it could.
Couple these blatant rip-offs with academic research that has revealed Jesus was probably born sometime in August, and the first cracks in my belief structure have started.
And the more I read, the more I found the history I had been taught as a Catholic was vastly different than the history I was finding in academia. The concept of a Holy Trinity? The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? First used in Ancient Egypt with their holy triads. Although ancient Egyptian deities are vast in their number, they are often grouped together in threes, with a male, female, and offspring counterpart making up the triad. Osiris, Isis, and Horus were one; Ptah, Sekhmet, and Nefertum were another; Amun, Mut, and Khonsu were yet another! The idea of a religious leader dying a violent death and later rising from the dead to save those who followed him? Also in Ancient Egypt and seen in the story of Osiris. This early god was killed by his brother Seth, then resurrected by his sister-wife, Isis, and after defeating Seth (with the help of his son, Horus) took his rightful place as the god of the Underworld.
Then, when I was 21, my father, with whom I am very close and to whom I am very devoted, came to me and told me he was gay. I had known for a long time that something was different about my dad, and about my parents’ relationship. Even as a youngster playing with the neighbor kids on our cul-de-sac, I could tell my parents were off compared to my friends’ parents. My mom and dad never held hands, never showed any sign of affection, and conversely, never argued or fought. They seemed to co-exist, but not to be in tune with each other. I could see my friends’ parents were connected. They looked at each other, talked to each other, engaged with each other. My parents didn’t do that.
Therefore, I knew back then, at 6-years-old, that something was different about my parents, but it wasn’t until high school that I started to put my finger on it. I caught my dad in the LGBT section of Barnes and Noble one day, and I noticed my dad was particularly interested in public gay figures. He constantly remarked, “oh, so-and-so is gay,” when he read about someone in the papers or saw them on the news. After 9/11, he read the biography of Mark Bingham, the gay passenger aboard Flight 93. And around the time I was 20 and 21, his favorite show on TV was Queer as Folk.
Putting all the puzzle pieces together, I was not surprised by my dad’s news that day. I had only once asked myself if my dad was gay – the day I caught him in the LGBT section of Barnes and Noble – but that was mostly because I never wanted to think about my parents as sexual beings with sexual proclivities. Gross. Does anyone ever like to think about their parents’ sex lives? I didn’t think so. So, I had never really voiced to myself that I suspected my dad was gay. But I wasn’t surprised when he actually said the words to me.
Anyway, my dad and I had a long, long, long talk that day, and we have had many long talks in the years since his declaration, about the nature of being gay, and the life that comes with being gay. My dad tried so hard to be straight. He married my mom. He tried to have a normal life, with a wife and children. He went to church and was so devoted to his Catholic religion in the hopes that God would turn him straight. And he knew the Church would condemn him for being gay. So he hid it. And he tried. He tried so hard. He never intended to hurt my mom, or me, or my sister for that matter. He was trying to change who he was to fit in with both social and religious norms. Because while individual Catholics may accept and embrace homosexuals, the Catholic Church does not. It is a sin, don’t you know, for two men to lie together because the only reason for sex is to procreate. It is not a sharing of love, a declaration of love, a coming together of two souls who are devoted to each other. Heck, sex isn’t even a way to burn some calories or just ‘get some’ in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Sex is all about procreation.
And it was then, on that day when my dad told me he was gay, the cracks in my faith, started by the love of history and spreading steadily with every new insight I received, finally shattered my beliefs in Catholicism. I didn’t believe in the Catholic Church anymore. I could not be part of a religion that taught me wonderful, amazing, loving, supportive, kind, good, Christian people were going to burn in hell for all eternity because of their sexual orientation. I refused to believe that God – an all-powerful being who made man in His image – would create homosexuality only to damn it. And I could not see how anyone, anyone who knows what kind of life s/he is choosing would choose to be gay. Why would anyone decide to be gay? They would become the subject of derision, condemnation, anger, hate… does anyone want to live that life? I don’t think so. So, no, I don’t think homosexuality is something that is chosen.
Before I go off on that tangent, however, let me redirect back to the issue at hand. After the day my dad came out, I didn’t set foot inside another Catholic Church, save for one exception: when my grandmother – an extremely devout Catholic who knew the Bible better than God – passed away. I attended her funeral mass. That exception aside, I completely shunted the dogma and doctrine of Catholicism, and as I continued to read about history, and hey, even the occasional current event (I’m not a big follower of contemporary news but I try once in a while), I started to view Catholicism through a different prism.
I started to see Catholicism as little more than a cult. I know, I know. I’m walking a knife’s edge with these words here. I am not saying that Catholicism is a cult, but I started to identify cult-like practices associated with it. Six million people around the globe trailing after and worshipping a man who has been dead for 2,000 years. A man, I was increasingly finding, may not have even existed in the first place! There is so little archaeological evidence for Jesus; so few sources outside of the New Testament that confirm the man lived and died when the Gospels say he did. No records from the Roman Empire, which does confirm the existence of Pontius Pilate and his tenure as governor of Jerusalem, but does not, however, contain any mention of a trial he officiated of a Jewish preacher claiming to be the King of the Jews that resulted in this preacher’s execution; no records from ancient Jerusalem, which does confirm the existence of King Herod, but does not, however, contain any mention of a widespread campaign he initiated to slaughter all male children under the age of 2 when he heard a King of the Jews had been born. No record making any mention of a son of a carpenter from Nazareth who was turning the religious world on its head with his ministry. No records, period. With something this momentous, you would think there would be at least one mention of the guy somewhere.
But the first mention of Jesus in a historic record outside the New Testament is Josephus’ Antiquities, written around 93 – 94 CE (so approximately 60 years after Jesus’ execution), wherein Josephus describes the execution of a Jewish preacher named James, whom he distinguishes as “the brother of Jesus.” Josephus doesn’t mention anything about Jesus himself – his ministry, his trial, his execution, or his resurrection – he only uses Jesus as a cognomen for James. That is the first non-Biblical mention of Jesus, which means, there is absolutely nothing from the early part of the 1st century CE. Nuttin. Zilch. Zero. Nada.
Not very comforting.
At the same time, I started to see the sense in ancient religions. I could understand why the ancients worshipped their gods, and why they all had pantheons of gods associated with natural phenomena. All ancient cultures had gods of the sun, thunder, water, moon, earth… and these gods and goddesses were responsible for their respective phenomena. In Egypt, Ra (or Re) rowed the sun across the sky in his solar boat. In Greece, Apollo carried the sun across the sky in his chariot. Ancients also had deities associated with moments in daily life: gods (and goddesses) of childbirth, love, music, beauty, war, death… These gods and goddesses were beside you during these moments, and helped guide you during these moments. They protected you, comforted you, inspired you.
Of course you could also piss them off.
But again, that made sense. The gods and goddesses of the ancient world were more human than the God of the Abrahamic faiths. They were more relatable. They were more tangible.
And that was it. The deities of the ancient world were more tangible. The gods and goddesses were manifest in the world around the ancients. They saw the sun, the moon, the mountains, the rivers, the ocean, the trees, the plants, and the animals as physical representations of their deities. To the ancients, the gods were not distant beings, living in another dimension, on another plane, far removed from their people. The gods were right there in front of them – in the sun rise, the moon rise, the stars in the night sky, the birds on the river banks, the fish in the ocean, the trees on the mountainside, the clap of thunder in the storm, and the coyote watching from the distance.
I liked that. I liked and respected that spiritual power comes from our own world. I liked that “God” does not have to be some all-powerful being watching over us from some alternate plane, who came forth once… 2,000 years ago in the form of a single human being, who may or may not have even really existed. I liked that spirituality can be seen every day right in front of us.
This might sound like I started to convert to paganism in some form. And I will be honest: I haven’t totally ruled that out. I still believe – and now more than ever as I will outline below – in the spirituality of nature.
But I did hit a swell, as it were, in the journey of my lost faith. For years, I didn’t give it much of a thought. I carried on about my daily life – working, going to school, enjoying my hobbies here and there, reading about the ancient world, struggling with my weight and my propensity to down whole bottles of a wine in a single sitting. Then, about two years ago, I had a moment. It was during the holiday season, my favorite time of year, and I was remembering how beautiful and how peaceful the Catholic midnight mass is. In my high school and college years, I loved going to midnight mass. The church was always so calm, so serene, and so quiet. Beautiful. The lights glimmering at the level of candles, the trees and wreaths and poinsettias placed all around. The music, soft and soothing and spiritual. It was full of magic. And during this moment a few years back, I missed that. I missed it so much I considered attending midnight mass that Christmas just to reclaim the experience.
But I didn’t go. I realized I probably wouldn’t have reclaimed the magic I missed because I would have felt so out-of-place being back in a Catholic Church after I had denounced the religion so wholly in the preceding years. I wasn’t worried that God would strike me down. But I wondered how much of my modern cynicism would cloud my experience. I could just hear myself thinking, oh please, check your facts Father Duhhhh when he talked about the story of Christ’s birth in a manger in Bethlehem on December 25, 0000.
I think all my eye-rolling would have taken away from the lights and trees and music.
So I didn’t go to mass that Christmas, but the moment of missing it prompted new gears churning in my brain. I missed the midnight mass. I missed it with a pang I could almost touch. Why? Sure it was always a beautiful experience, but why did I miss that particular experience? Why not miss a sunset over the ocean? Or a full moon on the water? And those questions naturally brought me around to spirituality. To the idea of having faith in some kind of spirituality. I firmly believe that most people today believe in some form of a spiritual dogma because of the peace and comfort it brings. It is easier to face down the sheer terror of death if you believe that death is not the end. Peace and happiness await you on the other side. It is also possible to cope with the loss of a loved one by believing you will see them again. I know that those who believe so fully in these doctrines will scream and yell in my face: “I believe them because they are truuueeee!!” And that is the nature of faith, is it not? Believing so fully in something? I understand it, and conversely, I can say what I believe, which is that we, as a species, have developed this concept of faith to help us cope with that which we cannot explain, and, therefore, with that which terrifies us.
All peoples, going as far back as the ancients, have done this.
And I realized that is what I missed. I missed the peace and comfort that a deep faith in religious dogma brings. Not believing in the church means accepting that someday I will die, and that will be it. There will be no more me. The people I have loved and lost are gone. I will not see them again because I will cease to be – at least cease to be as I am now. I do think that all life is powered by energy, and that energy does not die (as I learned in science class) but changes form. When we die, our energy will change form. But what form will it take? Is it something we can comprehend as a living human right now? Will a change in our energy mean we retain our consciousness as we have it now?
Science does leave more questions than answers sometimes. Another reason why religion still has such a prominent place in our society; it obviously provides the answers science cannot.
But back to the question at hand. I realized I missed the peace of knowing so fully there is life beyond death, and that people I love will be waiting for me when I get there. But could I go back to believing in it? Could I wash away everything I had learned, and all the questions that ran through my head on my Catholic faith, to regain that comfort?
Put it this way: could I suddenly believe in Santa Claus again even though I questioned how he traveled around the world in one night, how reindeer fly, how he got down the chimney, AND I learned that my parents were the ones who bought all the presents for me anyway?
I missed the comfort of deep religious faith, but there would be no comfort in it now because I didn’t believe in that faith anymore.
So, I was left hanging. I was left wondering. My life continued, and this past March (2014), I took a cruise around Cape Horn. An experience that reaffirmed my belief in the magic of nature and the power of seeing spirituality in the world in front of me. Then this past July (2014), I read a book. It was called Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and it was written by a biblical scholar named Reza Aslan. Finally. A book about the historical Jesus – a look at the archaeological evidence and its correlation to the biblical texts. I had been waiting for this since those days of the first cracks in my Catholic faith.
And it was worth the wait. An excellent book, and one I recommend to anyone at all interested in the historical Jesus, both in its detail and research and in its approach. Aslan does not attempt to answer questions of faith. He does not strive to prove or dis-prove the resurrection or any of the miracles Jesus is said to have performed. His primary focus is to chronicle the evidence of Jesus’ existence, and to contextualize Jesus in the world in which he lived. I mention this here and now because any illuminations I garnered from Aslan’s book were solely my own. He is as balanced in his approach to Jesus as I think it is possible to be. But I am a former Catholic – who has questions about religious faith – and there were elements of Aslan’s book that resonated with me.
Such as the world in which Jesus lived. First century Jerusalem was a time of horrific violence. The Jews were rebelling against Roman occupation – in violent and bloodthirsty ways – and the Romans were retaliating, in equally violent and bloodthirsty ways. At one point, after reading about yet another slaughter of Jewish rebels by Roman soldiers, I thought, sheesh, they are going to run out of people to kill pretty soon! Populations in the ancient world aren’t anything like they are now, after all… Not very profound, I admit. But I like to think the next question I asked myself was: why does it feel like the only way to convey religious truth is through violence? Why do people have to die in gruesome and horrifying ways to spread the word about a peaceful and loving doctrine? A question that was only reemphasized when I read that Jesus was not the pacifist preacher he is portrayed to be in the gospels. He was just as much a fiery and violent zealot as his contemporaries (apparently, there were quite a few Messiahs who cropped up in the 1st century CE), and he rebelled against the Jewish leaders and the Roman government with just as much fervor. It was the gospel writers – trying to distance their new movement from the violence of Judaism, and specifically the Jewish Revolt of 64CE that resulted in the complete destruction of Jerusalem – that painted Jesus as a quiet, introspective, and thoughtful preacher of peace.
The kind-hearted, all-embracing, peaceful man who preached love and acceptance, and whom I was taught to follow and emulate is nothing more than a fantasy.
But even worse? In their attempts to distance Jesus from the violence of a single revolt 2,000 years ago, the gospel writers initiated 2,000+ years of anti-Semitism. There is no historic precedent for the way Pontius Pilate is reported to have officiated Jesus’ trial in the gospels. There is no record that any trials held at Passover included the release of a single prisoner, chosen by the Jewish people (in the case of Jesus’ trial, the prisoner released is the murderer Barabbas). In fact, the Roman government couldn’t be bothered with the Jewish populace. They just cared about keeping control of the land, and the best way to do that was swiftly, cruelly, and with maximum violence. Therefore, in all likelihood, Jesus was arrested and executed without a trial. Just another Messiah trying to stir things up in Jerusalem is how the Romans viewed it. So Jesus was arrested, flogged, and crucified. Done. Just like all the other Messiahs the Romans came across. And if Barabbas actually existed, he would have been arrested, flogged, and crucified too.
These are the same soldiers who slaughtered hundreds of people, including women and children, in a single smack-down of a revolt, after all. Are they really going to bother with something as trivial as a trial? Yeahhh… no.
Returning to my deep and profound question, however, I did wonder why religion has to be associated with such violence. I know there is the fight for the truth – my religion is the right one and all that – but why does every leader of a religious movement seem to be soo… bloodthirsty? I remembered reading The Red Tent a few weeks before I started Zealot, and I thought back on the story of the prophet Jacob, whose two sons – later two of the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel – orchestrated the slaughter of every man, woman, and child in a nearby town because their sister wanted to marry the town’s prince. I thought about Isaac, Jacob’s father, who was nearly “sacrificed” (i.e., murdered) by his own father, Abraham. Cain. Who murdered his brother, Abel. And so on.
And why is the only way to deal with infidels to murder them? Why did the Jewish zealots of the 1st century CE cope with what they viewed as a corrupt temple hierarchy by murdering the high priests? Why did the Crusaders believe the only way to reclaim the Holy Land was to invade, conquer, and pillage?
Why can’t we all just … get along??
I say that last part facetiously, but I do ask: for a doctrine that prides itself on peace, love, acceptance, and harmony, there is an awful lot of violence, upheaval, and murder.
There is also an interesting hypocrisy. Not just in the “we’re all about peace while we slice your head off,” behavior, which is pretty hypocritical when you think about it, but in what constitutes the belief that Jesus is divine. The gospels relay the many miracles he performed: making the blind see and the deaf hear, walking on water, turning water into wine, raising the dead, and on, and on, and on. They are called miracles in the Bible.
They are proof that Jesus is the Son of God.
But what about such acts performed by others? A sorcerer raises a person from the dead, for example. That is not a miracle. It is magic. And by having such a connotation, it is bad. Aslan provides a great example in the Old Testament: Moses, in his attempt to prove that he means business when he says “let my people go,” throws a staff on the ground, and it turns into a live snake. Miracle. The pharaoh, witness to this declared miracle, calls forth his own sorcerer who performs the exact same trick. Magic. What is the difference? Aslan claims it is in the intent of the trick. Moses turns his staff into a snake on behalf of God. That makes it a miracle. The pharaoh’s sorcerer performs it to prove a point. That makes it magic.
Okay, got that, but my question is: if the pharaoh’s sorcerer claimed he was performing his snake staff trick on behalf of God, would it then be a miracle? Since it was the exact same trick Moses performed? Let me try this: there were other Messiahs at the same time as Jesus. Aslan outlines a number of them, by name, in his text (all of whom, by the way, have more archaeological evidence proving their existence than there is proving the existence of Jesus), who all performed miracles as part of their ministry. Later, these men were denounced as false prophets, and their miracles became works of magic.
What makes Jesus any different? Why are his miracles still miracles?
I’m getting close to that knife’s edge again, I know. Jesus’ miracles are still miracles because the followers of Jesus believe in him. And they believe in his miraculous acts. I was just struck by the fact that 1,000 years after Jesus’ death, people were getting burned at the stake for allegedly having the ability to perform the same acts Jesus did… now, if only they had thought to say they were doing it in the service of God. Maybe if the thousands upon thousands of people who lost their lives to such gruesome executions had claimed such, the witch hunts of the second millennium CE would have been instead a surge of religious ecstasy.
Ultimately, though, Aslan’s book reiterated to me why I lost my faith in the Catholic religion to begin with, and it has brought forth questions on whether I could ever subscribe to a monotheistic doctrine. Can I be associated with such violence, and rage, and hate? I know there are the elements of love and peace that come with all the Abrahamic faiths too. Many Christians, Jews, and Muslims are good, kind, thoughtful, peaceful, and loving people, who believe in their faith, and worship according to its doctrine. I’m not denouncing individuals.
I just can’t bring myself to believe in a dogma that is so far removed from my daily life. A deity that has no presence here outside of that which we impose him upon. We say we see God in the sun rise and the waves of the ocean, but what do we actually see? The light, the colors, the shapes. We hear the sounds. We do not see an old bearded guy with a staff and a halo, unless we want to see him there.
And I can’t bring myself to associate with a deity and dogma that somehow imparts to its followers that the only way to convey the message… is through horrific violence. People should not have to die for a message. Sorry. And a message that is full of hypocrisy anyway. A message that says: “I’m right, and you’re wrong. I don’t care if your leader does the exact same things my leader does. My leader is right, and yours is wrong.”
Can’t happen. Not for me.
I can bring myself to revel in the magic of the natural world. I can bring myself to find delight in the bright blossoms of flowers, the fires of sunrises and sunsets, the silvers of moon light, and the peaceful sounds of water flowing, trees waving, and animals sighing. Others may see God in that, but I see the bright colors of the flowers, the fiery colors and patterns of the sunrises and the sunsets, the shimmers of the silvery glow from the moon, and so forth. I see the magic of nature. I don’t think you need a God for that magic. I think it happens all on its own.
That is why, if I were to subscribe to a formal religion, then it would be one of the pagan doctrines. As I mentioned earlier, they make the most sense because they have the most tangible connection to the life we are living right now. You only live once? Yeah, you do, that we know of… for sure. Why wait for the next life to enjoy a faith? A next life that is proven only by religious faith? Why not experience it now?
That has been my quest. Since I went on my trip around Cape Horn and saw the magic of nature right there in the most wild regions of our planet. Find the magic. That is a miracle in and of itself.