Sunday, December 26, 2010

An irreligious education

I've been told that I’m going to hell more times than I can remember.

It’s actually been quite a while since someone has reminded me of my fiery destination, but I thought of the common refrain — which I’d heard so many times in my youth — when I visited a church last week to attend David’s holiday choir recital.

In truth, I've only gone to church a handful of times. I was raised by a mom who's a non-practicing Catholic, and a dad — an uncomplicated Scotsman — who sees no reason to believe in a higher power without sufficient proof.

While religion was more or less absent from the Ilgunas household, I was surrounded by religion. The Western New York town I grew up in was a melting pot of Italians, Germans, and Polish, and almost all of my schoolmates were Lutherans and Catholics, with a few Baptists sprinkled in.

The first time I was told that I was going to hell was as a young boy when a couple of Lutheran schoolmates condemned me for how I spent my Sundays. I was confused by their disapproval. I loved my Sundays: I’d sleep in till 11 a.m.; my mom would make me and my brother waffles; and I’d idle the day away watching football or playing hockey. Not once did I think I was missing out on anything.

But when I was in the third grade, my mother — who was second-guessing her carefree approach to my religious education — sent me to a Bible camp for the summer. I remember having a fairly good time, though my bunk’s counselor kept asking me if I wanted to talk about my “bed-wetting” problem after I'd left a pair of wet swimming trunks to dry on the mattress.

Each night there’d be a service, and the pastor would tell us all about heaven and hell. We were given a fairly cartoonish characterization of the afterlife: he said we’d either spend eternity with our loved ones in heaven, or have our asses habitually branded by Satan in hell. He told us that we were going to hell if we didn’t accept Jesus into our hearts.

The pastor gave those of us who hadn’t accepted Jesus the opportunity to do so at the end of each service. The few who could be counted as heathens — myself included — were encouraged to leave their pews and endure the long, lonely walk up the aisle and onto the stage as everyone looked on. I remember thinking that I was probably the only one in the whole church who didn’t have Jesus in his heart. I wanted so much to be on that stage! Though, at the same time, I was terrified of getting up in front of everyone. On the final night of camp, another boy in my bunk — also destined for hell — asked me if I wanted to join him on the stage at our final evening service the next day.

We both nervously got up and walked up the aisle. One of the counselors met us and made us kneel down. Together we recited a passage from the Bible. And that was that. Jesus was in my heart.

I came home fervent and wild-eyed. I prayed each night, read a special "kid's Bible," and warned my unresponsive father about his soul's destiny. But now that I was no longer isolated at Bible camp, I was subjected to a new kind of brainwashing: a constant stream of secular TV and hours of mind-numbing video games. I quickly forgot about Jesus, kicking him out of my heart, locking the door, turning off the lights, and rejoining my father on the couch on Sundays.

I always had friends, but I was a solitary child from a young age, coveting the time I had to myself. Between my solitary nature and my parents' “neglect,” I was able to develop some of my own beliefs in the absence of formal religious guidance. It wasn’t long before I became skeptical about the beliefs my schoolmates had thoughtlessly adopted.

While many look down on parents who don’t provide their children with proper religious training, I couldn’t have asked for a better upbringing. I had no choice but to craft my own morality, which I based not on some dusty set of rules, but on personal observation and reflection.

Still, whenever I openly criticized religion in front of my mother, she’d castigate me and warn me that, because of my beliefs, I’ll never be able to find a “nice Christian girl.” At first, this worried me a great deal. It seemed like all the girls in my high school were religious. What was a non-Christian girl even like? I feared I’d have to one-day settle for some freak with a blue Mohawk, a face full of jingling piercings, and no discernible sexuality. 

But it was just the opposite. I was quiet and sweet-hearted, and it seemed like the only girls I liked and who liked me were the diehard Christians. My first two girlfriends were very religious.

The first — a kind and gentle soul — was known to quote Biblical passages in moments of intimacy to remind herself of her vow of chastity. The second was a hardcore Baptist. I was aware of her zeal before we made our relationship official, and while our differences gave me pause for thought, I figured it would be close-minded of me to not get involved with someone solely because of her religious affiliation.

She carried in her purse a heavy, full-size Bible that affected the way she walked. We were sitting on a bench at Niawanda Park on a sunny spring day, looking over the mighty Niagara River.

“Do you see how wide this river is?” she said. “If the width of this river is eternity, this is how long of it you spend on earth.” She said this while holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart.

“You don’t want to spend eternity in hell, do you?”

I was 19 and smitten despite our differences. We rarely brought up religion — as we knew it was a contentious subject that threatened the relationship — but occasionally she couldn’t help herself. Late one night, we were sitting in my ’87 Dodge Aries in a McDonald’s parking lot drinking chocolate milkshakes. The scene was characteristically American: fast food, a car, a panting male, and a female oblivious to the intensity of her boyfriend’s raging desires.

While I was hoping to move past the first base plate I’d been bolted to for months, she had other things in mind. She began describing Christ’s crucifixion in vivid detail, bursting into tears halfway through. I tried to console her, but she held up her Bible, announcing that me and my earthly pleasures were “obstructing her walk with God.”

“You just don't how it feels to have Jesus inside of you,” she muttered hopelessly. It was true: I didn’t know what it felt like to have a man inside me, and I wanted to keep it that way. But Jesus, from what I knew, was a pretty cool guy, and a human being as good as any to model your life after. But for a country obsessed with Jesus — perhaps the most famous ascetic in history — I found it awfully strange with how many Christians there were, yet so few ascetics. In fact, these Jesus worshippers — with houses full of junk and hellfire on their breaths — seemed awfully un-Jesus-like. The paradox baffled me.

So began a period in which I despised Christianity, and all organized religions, really. Not only was religion restraining my sexual progress at the height of my virility, but it began to look more and more foolish. All this talk of heaven, hell, and some grandfatherly Caucasian in the sky just seemed so ridiculous.

In college, I thought more about religion and had engaging discussions with classmates. Those who still counted themselves as practitioners held far more enlightened beliefs than what I was previously exposed to. They interpreted religious texts figuratively; they respected other people’s beliefs; and they were focused more on the social benefits of a church, and less the superstitions and crazy rituals.

But when you’re surrounded by people like this, it’s easy to forget about how deluded the rest of the world is. You forget that 40% of America believes Jesus will return by 2050 and that 50% believe in angels; you forget that people believe that the world was built for man and man alone.

Religion, I thought, could go to hell.

When I moved to Coldfoot after college, my best friend Josh and I — to entertain ourselves and others — created, what we thought was, the first ever “Debaptism.” Josh and I were both baptized as babies, and we each looked with disdain at the ritual since it was carried out with neither our awareness nor consent. So we figured we could right a wrong with a ridiculous ceremony.

I spent three days planning out the ceremony and writing the script in the style of the King James Bible. I would be the Debaptiser, and Josh was to be the debaptised.

We slipped invitations under everyone’s door, decorated my room with every candle we could find, and played a CD of chanting monks as everyone got comfortable on my two twin beds that served as pews.

The ceremony was held at night, and for that whole day I didn’t let anyone see me so as to create an air of solemnity around the ceremony and mystery around the Debaptizer.

Unbeknownst to the congregation, I was standing alone in a vacant room across the hall, draped underneath a white bed sheet that functioned as a shawl. Much to my surprise, everyone who received an invitation showed up, all wearing the nicest outfits they could put together. I could hear their babble through the paper-thin, wood-paneled walls. I paced across the room, reciting my lines.

In the room where the debaptism was to be held, Josh stood in the center, surrounded by everyone else. He wore a dress shirt and tie, and held a candle (signifying nothing, really) as he awaited his purification.

One of the young women who I delegated as a "holy attendant" came rushing into my cell, warning me that the crowd — of a dozen or so — was beginning to get antsy.

“We need to start this!” she exclaimed. “They’re ready for you.”

“Good,” I said, stoically, staring straight ahead. “Thence I shall wait another five minutes.”

She gave me a confused look, and scurried back to the room to make sure everything was in order. The truth was, I was starting to get nervous. I thought it was ridiculous that I was letting myself get all worked up about an absurd ritual that I had created. But there were a lot of different religious backgrounds represented in our audience — a couple of Catholics, a Mormon, a Muslim, an atheist, as well a new-age mystic — and I certainly didn’t want to offend any of them. But it was no time for second-guessing. I had to go in.

The music and lights were abruptly turned off. I walked in with slow, powerful strides.

The room was dark and candlelit. The audience, I could tell, wasn’t sure whether to take me seriously or laugh. My holy attendant stood behind me and removed one white bed sheet, only to reveal another white bed sheet beneath. Josh was standing in the middle of the room trying to suppress a grin. My face, under my hood, was turned to the ground. Slowly, gravely, I lifted my eyes to meet Josh’s. My attendant, at this point, hit the play button on the CD, changing it to my grandiose Last of the Mohicans soundtrack.

“We gather here today,” I beamed loudly, “to renounce the forced corruption of thy childhood, beginning with thy compulsory participation in a religious sacrament, when thou wert too young to refute. (Gimme a break—I wrote this a long time ago.)

“We shall call this ritual, ‘Debaptism,’ and I welcometh thee, my son, today, here where thou hath chosen to ceremoniously discard, what was so unrighteously forced upon thee.

“From thy womb thou wert anointed in water called holy, forced into a cult superstitious in character, and branded as Christian—all against thy will and knowledge. Theretofore  confined in a fortress of antiquated concepts, captive in a dungeon where enlightenment wert disallowed from coloring thy pallor — thou wert shackled in the blinding darkness of religion.

“Baptized thou wert to walk in clouds that did not exist, told to be one with a god who was not there, and forced to continueth the very traditions that clash with basic tenets of logic, reason and nature.

“However… through education, observation, and reason, thou hath awoken to the realization that the only pearly gates thy deceased form shall pass through are those of a cemetery.

“Today I shall release thou from my lingering burden that thou hath shoulderethed for ages. Thou art here today to celebrateth a new beginning.

“Now… I shall striketh the lord from thee…”

At this point I blew out the candle in Josh’s hands. What followed was a bizarre series of rituals: more candles lit and candles blown out; Josh was forced to go down on all fours; I even slapped him across his face at one point. Finally, I poured some water over his head (that I’d obtained from the bathroom sink) to ceremonially cleanse him of his original baptism.

I told him that he's been “purified,” and, to close the ceremony, I read this Buddhist quote:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

The audience erupted in applause that echoed through the halls. Josh was given gifts, Mormon and Muslim came together, and we all got thoroughly soused on whiskey and Miller High Life. The Debaptism was a stunning success.


As I listened to David and the choir sing, I looked over the audience and felt a twinge of envy. Everyone knows each other in this room, I thought. They show up every week and shake hands. Someone will ask someone else how so and so is doing after their surgery. One family will invite another over for dinner. It reminded me of my distance from my family, and the neighborhood of man that I’ve done without all these years. I looked at some of the pretty girls singing on the stage and fantasized about what it would be like to settle down with one of them and embrace a more conventional version of the simple life.

There are of course many good things about religion: the sense of community it fosters, the sense of charity and compassion it often encourages, or the comfort it gives to the bereaved and those on their death beds. And of course I don’t really think that religion should go to hell. Anyone with a set of beliefs and morals is religious in their own way, even if those beliefs don’t align with those of a major sect.

However, the sort of religion most in our country practice seems destructive. Not only is Christianity wreaking havoc on our planet (there is a stark correlation between religiousness and climate change denial), but it smothers the individual soul. When we blindly accept the dictates of a religion, we are inhibited from living according to our own peculiar natures, from following the choreography of our consciences, and from seeking our own versions of success and happiness.

On a personal level, believing in heaven or hell or in a god or gods is pretty inconsequential. But when a whole society is deluded, the consequences can be huge. Not only does religion encourage conformity, but complacency, too: We trust hypocritical religious leaders and politicians; we place our faith in flagrantly mendacious news outlets; we don't take our president seriously because we think he’s a terrorist. (Do I think religion is the sole factor in the crazy and destructive things our country believes in? No, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn it's the biggest factor.)

This, unfortunately, is how religion works in the real world.

If religion has the tendency to fashion us into conformists and prepare us to be deceived, then heresy encourages individuation and helps us defend ourselves from lies. Heresy, though, can be alienating and unsettling.

Many prefer religion because it provides us with prepackaged principles and a well-worn path. Questions don’t need to be asked, mysteries don’t need to be solved, and as long as we say our prayers, read our Bibles, deny gays equal rights, multiply, spread, and subdue the earth, we get to go to heaven.

But without the path that a religion provides, one must blaze his own. And there is, I feel, no better way to spend one’s youth than doing just that.


Bob L said...

Great article.

You wrote: "But without the path that a religion provides, one must find his own. And there is, I feel, no better way to spend one’s youth than doing just that."

Quite true. We don't find our morality in a vacuum. We develop it from our own ideas to some extent, but these ideas are generally heavily influenced by those around us. If you grow up in a heavily Christian community you are likely to be drawn to a selection of the moral beliefs that you see around you. Or, go the opposite if you are the rebellious sort. I myself am partial to some idealized version of Judeo-Christian moralities, as that is how I grew up, in a mix of religions based around the same. I suppose if I was growing up in a Buddhist area, I would be drawn towards those moralities. Although I don't see much difference in the core moralities. I suppose all organized religions have similar beliefs tucked in their teachings.

Don't steal, don't kill, be nice to each other, give to charities when you can, do your part.

These moralities can and do form the basis of many communities that are not even remotely religious.

Anonymous said...

This is one of your best written blog posts. Well done!

Anonymous said...


kimbopolo said...


-Heidi said...

Brother Ken! Wow, did we grow up in the same body. ~grin~ ... well except for the girl stuff, you were telling my story. I was the *only* non-mormon child in my school growing up outside of Salt Lake City, UT. My best friend for several years (only during school hours because she lived so far away) mentioned to her mother that I wasn't mormon... she came to school the next day and told me she could no longer be my friend, as I was going to burn in hell! hahaha

My daughter does much better than I did... she's an Atheist living in Provo, UT (the home of BYU). She is very popular and seems to be excepted by all... even in her dorm. She *did* have to sign an LDS morality contract to live there. She doesn't get worked up about such things though (unlike her mother). ~grin~

DragonheartD51 said...

Congratulations Ken, you earn a trophy for 3 things.

1 - Posting another awesome post which leads to 2 - you broken my brain cause I cannot read anymore and 3 - scaring me over the PC.

But in seriousness, I usually keep my trap shut so I don't get into trouble that I never wanted. Anyway... I guess you know the old saying, You're the product of your environment... right?

Ken said...

Bob L--Well said. I obviously admire and to live up to many of the Christian virtues, but of course they're not exclusively Christian as you point out. Empathy is in our basic nature--and it's present, to varying degrees, in all societies.

Anons & Kimbopolo-Thanks!

Heidi--my goodness, a contract... I suppose that's not as bad as other colleges. I once lived within walking distance of Liberty U. in Virginia, and was told horror stories from students about the curfews, dorm rules, etc. It sounded more like an army barracks.

Dragon--sorry for scaring you. Certainly not my intention.

Anonymous said...

Your debaptism ceremony sounds hilliarious. A mind free of the common death cults is a truly free mind. If it made any sense, they wouldn't have to threaten us with hellfire. None of my early religious training ever stuck on me. Made no sense & seemed ridiculous even when I was in grade school. Still makes no sense but community is a draw. I tried Unitarian Universalists for a while. Some are good & some still have that heavy aura of conformity.

It has been my observation that despite all the shouting, there is no correlation to morality and being religious. Indeed, the active thought that it takes to shuck the shackles of superstition seems to encourage development of thoughtful morality. Too many of the pious simply use their religion as a bludgeon to get what they want & justify base actions.

Milton said...

Ken first thank you for sharing candidly about your experience with religious people over your life time.

Second, I pause to think of how to respond. And frankly I agree with some of your points (1) religion boring complacency (2) a lack of acestism in America given the sheer number of Christians, (3) the use of religion to fill the religious leader's coffers and (4) following tradition without personal revelation. While I've noticed these points/concerns in the church and moreover the larger American cultural fabric, yet these observations don't annul the potential for a God.

Searching for God or as you word a path can be done individually yet I believe searching for a path is best achieved individually and communally. It is in the individual space that we can begin to unwrap the path before us and it is in the communal space that we understand the intricacies of the path. Imagine four blind men they are in a room with an elephant. Each man feels a different part of that elephant. Yet there individual images of that elephant are true. In community we construct a true image of faith, of life, of nature, essentially of this world.

Now as for heaven or hell, God or no God, rapture or no rapture - these are age old preponderances that scholars, religious leaders, etc. have debated over the centuries. I have some responses to this debate and to methods used by the many people who told you were going to hell. So this is what I believe: (1) hell is a real place and people do go there, (2) "prayers, read our Bibles, deny gays equal rights, multiply, spread, and exterminate a few species in the process" doesn't give one an instant pass to hell (if that was the case - I should have been in hell along time ago), (3) obsessions with going to heaven or avoiding hell can led to escapism and a skewed picture of God, (4) so what is God asking if it isn't my church membership or money? your life and a relationship with him and (5) God loves questions, frustration, concerns, emotions - he loves it. So these are some of my response to what you wrote.

I hope you are having a lovely white Christmas with David and others. Blessings to you bro and again thanks for your openness - Milton

Anonymous said...

I think you have the rapture backwards. Only the true believers die & float up to heaven to sit with god. The rest of us get to stay on earth (i.e., stay alive). That might be a big improvement - the sudden disappearance of fanatics. Me? I choose life!

Ken said...

Anon—My goodness, nice comment. I agree: one does not have to be religious to be moral—and I’m flabbergasted when a religious person insists that this is the case, as if peaceful human relations did not exist before the advent of Christianity.

Milton—delighted to hear from you, and I’m grateful for your thoughtful response. Thank you for your blessings. A couple thoughts I had upon reading your comment:

1. I have some trouble with the word “God.” It just seems like it can mean too many things. Some say it’s energy; others a human-like figure, and others something completely different. And as you say, it can even be considered a “path.” I feel like there ought to be different words for each definition because the popular connotations of “God” make having cross-cultural religious conversations difficult. It’s like calling ice, water, and gas all “water.”

2. You express the need for a community-based interpretation (in addition to an individual path-finding quest) extremely well. I agree—and sometimes I put too much emphasis on the individual journey when I should appreciate other means more.

3. Please feel free to ignore this question: but why do you believe in hell? I ask only to sate my curiosity and to hopefully achieve a better understanding of someone’s mind—which of course helps one understand humanity as a whole better.

4. I don’t think I communicated myself clearly on your second point. I’m insisting that we go to heaven if we do those bad things. What I was really trying to do was point out the hypocrisy of religions who extol “compassion,” while preacher and practitioner alike do some, what I think are, very un-compassionate things.

Anon—I think I had the Rapture right. I was trying to say that I’ll neither be up in the clouds nor in a church—but especially not in the clouds. Though I think I worded my thought awkwardly. I’ll see if I can fix it up.

Kevin M said...

I grew up Catholic, went to church every Sunday and sometimes during school hours. I can identify with a lot of what you say. I realized most of the so-called "religious" don't even know the "why" behind most of the customs (rules) they follow.

Example - Years ago I asked some co-workers (also Catholic) why no meat is eaten on Fridays during Lent. Not one could tell me. That really made me think - why are they going to Church, partaking in rituals and prayer, but they have no idea what it means?

I always felt religion was very personal and thought it weird to go to church to "prove" you believe something so abstract. I sort of get the concept now, the church is more a gathering place to mingle with people you share beliefs with. Unfortunately, most people just show up late and leave early for church, thus miss out on the real benefits of the community.

Your Debaptism sounds hilarious, BTW.

Kristen Rene said...

Hey, I just found your blog and I feel about a week late for the party.

I just wanted to let you know that I love your blog and that I'm starting it from the beginning.

I admire your courage to live like this, it makes me feel envious and astounded. I am in awe.

I'm sure you've heard all of this before.

You are a completely interesting person and wish I could meet/talk with you one day just to meet someone who seems so amazing.

I am a community college student and I admire your way of life. There's that word again, admire.

Anyways. Thank you. Your writing is truthful and I feel privileged to see parts of your life in this way.

Ken said...

Kevin--wonderful anecdote--doesn't surprise me one bit. The debaptism was hilarious, and a hit. I ended up doing another one that night for a member of the congregation, except in an inebriated state of mind. It occurred to me that I could make a buck off the ceremony if I tried to market it, but I'm afraid I hung up my shawl long ago.

Kristen--oh, don't make me blush. I appreciate the nice words.

Louise said...

great post Ken! and I love the buddhist quote.
I am reading Richard Dawkins at the moment and loving it. I think what frightens me most is that so many politicians in the US are of the fundamentalist persuasion, and don't even believe established science. Fortunately downunder our prime minister is openly atheist.

kenavo said...

My motto; lets keep it simple.
Natur is miraculus, dont need more.
And if....there would be something ; speak out your message loud and clear.

Happy newyear my friend!

Ken said...

Louise--I always wondered whether those politicians were really fundamentalist, or if they were posing as such to attract fundamentalist voters. I don't know. I was appalled when several of the 2008 Republican nominees for president admitted that they don't believe in evolution. I try to do my best about not being overly cynical, but something like that is just dumbfounding. Here's the link to the video:

Kenavo--Happy New Year to you!

Anonymous said...

On The Freedom of a Christian

By Martin Luther