Today I would like to talk more narratively and less analytically. I’d like to share a piece of my story and demonstrate how it shaped who I am today. As the observance of Lent begins tomorrow, Feb. 13, I would like to go back to a time when I was earnestly seeking a religion to adopt – a time when external pressures, rather than internal navigation, shaped my beliefs.
For most of my younger years, religion provided a sense of community and belonging rather than any sort of spiritual fulfillment. My parents raised me in the Church of Christ Science (a nomenclature possessive of such hilarity that it is only exceeded by its treachery), where I soon discovered that I resided in the boondocks of mainstream Christianity. Indeed, my school-yard friends were occasionally fond of teasing me for not being a “real Christian.”
I maintained the faith barely into my double-digit years, when I finally succumbed to the prospect of joining the ranks of my normal Christian friends: those who didn’t say things like, “There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter.” When they encountered illness and injury, they didn’t attempt to “know the truth”; they went to the doctor immediately. (I was fortunate to have moderate Christian Science parents and received necessary medical attention. I am grateful that they have since completely shucked the absurdity of the Christian Science doctrine.) Ironically, I was seeking a group of people who I considered “more faithful” – I too began viewing Christian Science as a phony faith.
Willing to let me explore outside of the religion, my parents allowed and even facilitated for me to attend different services. I sampled Catholic, non-demoninational, Baptist, Mormon, and Lutheran services (marvel at the diversity!), and found a home with the Lutherans. The primary reason for my choice? The music, of course. Weary with the monotonous hymnals of Christian Science, I devoured the contemporary music of the Lutheran church. The drums, the bass, the guitar! That stuffy old organ finally gave way to something that resembled the music to which I listened on my own time.
Of course, I figured my parents would deem such reasoning illegitimate, so I created additional justifications. I connected with the message of the sermon. The creed of the church aligned with my beliefs. Hell, this church was God’s choice for me!
I did genuinely enjoy the youth atmosphere in the church. My introduction to the church came by way of a friend who already attended, and with him I enrolled in the church’s confirmation program. I immediately attached myself to the vibrant pastor (a man whom I still respect), and was eager to ingrain myself in the faith – to finally become a real Christian! I participated in all the extracurricular activities and for awhile truly enjoyed becoming a stronger Lutheran.
When the season of Lent arrived, I assumed that Lutherans sacrificed something as did the Catholics. After all, they were all part of the “in” faiths, those that I deemed normal. Surely their practices were pretty similar as well. So, when pizza was the meal for a youth night, I was nothing but proud to announce to the youth pastor that I had given up pizza for lent.
How quickly my “beliefs” changed when I discovered that Lent did not involve such sacrifice in the Lutheran religion. If Lutherans did not demand that I forfeit an earthly pleasure for the season, then of course God didn’t make any such demands either. I grabbed a slice of pizza.
Richard Dawkins describes one of the objectives of his book The God Delusion near the beginning: he hopes that we stop describing children as having faith but rather being the offspring of faithful parents. His point is pertinent: many children, dare I say most, who subscribe to a religion do so only because they have been indoctrinated into said faith. Even the young, curious religious explorer like me isn’t capable of evaluating such choices. That is not to say that all young believers are insincere – simply that understanding the implications and foundations of faith requires critical thinking beyond the capacity of nearly all children.
The act of engaging in Lent is likely the least of the worries we should have for the children indoctrinated into the Christian faith. The unthinking child is to be protected, nurtured and taught to think critically – it is simply too often that religious leaders instead elect to exploit the fresh minds of their youngest followers.