The great big religion post

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Disclaimer: This is an open, honest post about my own experience with religion. If you are sensitive to the topic then I ask you to ignore this post. I am not trying to push my beliefs on you, nor am I trying to get you to disengage with yours. This is simply my experience and my story. I am happy to discuss the topic with anybody who would care to discuss it with me but abuse will not be tolerated and will be deleted immediately.

Like any good little Maltese girl, I was raised Catholic. My parents are people of faith, but they are open-minded and they never shoved religion down my throat. Still, growing up in a place like Malta meant I knew all the stories and parables like the backs of my hands. What’s more: I went to an all-girl Catholic school from the ages of 4 to 15, which means I could recite about 10 different prayers (including the long version of the Act of Contrition) as well as the Commandments, Sacraments and Beatitudes by heart, in both English and Maltese, by the time I was six and did my Holy Communion.

For the most part, I took the whole thing quite well. I have always been a literary creature and I welcomed the stories. I loved hearing about Noah and the flood, Jonas and the whale, Moses and the parting of the sea. The Nativity story was a favourite, along with Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and Peter Pan.

I liked the idea of having a big, friendly, invisible and bearded giant listening to my rants before bedtime. I clearly remember getting bored when I couldn’t fall asleep and asking God to tell me a story. I then waited patiently for a story to be told to me, and when it wasn’t I made up my own. I made up stories until I fell asleep.

The older I grew, though, the more scary God became. There is a marked difference in the way God is taught to you when you are still in pre-school and God is a father-like creature who loves you unconditionally, and when you begin to grow up. Suddenly, God becomes a tyrant, and one who makes no sense. God loves you unconditionally but will not think twice about sending you straight to hell if you slip up.

I remember having to do my first confession before my first communion. I remember my school-friends and I sitting in the pews, waiting our turn to visit the priest, exchanging sins.

“I’m going to tell him I called my sister an idiot.”
“Me too!”
“You can’t steal my ideas.”
“Okay, I’ll tell him I ate two chocolates instead of one after dinner.”
“Oooh, that’s a good one.”

And I remember every confession after that, counting my sins. I wanted a nice, round number, like five. But I was six years old. Honestly, how many sins can a six year old really have committed? I invented sins because I felt like I needed to earn my confession. And when I walked into the booth I rattled them off, counting them on my fingers as I said them to make sure I hadn’t left any out.

My first communion was fun – but only because I got to wear a little white dress and a veil. Choosing my dress, I felt like a little bride. After the ceremony, my family and I all went to San Anton gardens, where I posed and pouted while my parents took photos of me in my dress.

And so it continued. I went to Mass every Sunday. My parents were adamant that I should go until I was 18 (I stopped when I was 15, telling them I was at Mass while I was really hanging out with my boyfriend at the park for an hour). I wish I could say that I was ever moved during Mass. I wish I could tell you I felt a divine presence while sitting there, hearing the priest go on and on, but never really listening to what he said (I did try, but I would find myself getting distracted very quickly).

Here’s what I do remember of going to Mass:

  • I would become really fascinated with the person in front of me and the back of their head, especially if they had dandruff.
  • I once counted the fans in my parish church. I believe there were 12.
  • A cute boy once walked me home after Mass. We spoke about music but I didn’t ask his name and we never met again.
  • One of the priests had a habit of saying ‘eh’ after everything. Once I thought about that I couldn’t think of anything else. It drove me up the wall. All his words blended together until all I could hear was the percussionesque ‘eh’s.
  • I remember the host getting stuck in my braces. We were always told not to chew up the wafer and let it sit in our mouths, but if I did that I always got stuck in my braces, which I found a little bit gross.

My confirmation came and went. And then I was a pre-teen and I was suddenly learning about other religions. Not from school, mind you. No – at school the topic of other religions was approached in much the same way the topic of sex-ed was: briefly and euphemistically. Mostly, we were told pagans would rot in hell. We were told Catholicism was the One True religion and everybody else was wrong and would spend eternity in the lake of fire.

But I began to learn about other religions. I read a lot, I was online a lot. I was a sponge. I read about Islam and Buddhism, about Hinduism and Judaism. I flirted with Wicca for a year or so, but I never really did manage to part with that overwhelming sense of Catholic guilt. Even now, I feel Catholic guilt: completely irrational and deeply-set guilt which I’m sure I’ll never completely be able to shake off.

And then came my 15th birthday and suddenly I was a rebel. Suddenly, I grew up. I’m pretty sure I was clinically depressed – something which made me question everything I had ever taken for granted. Including religion. And that’s when everything stopped making sense; when all the loose ends came into view and began to fray. I had questions that nobody could really answer. I asked priests and teachers but they never gave satisfactory answers to questions like ‘If God is love then why would he create hell?’ or ‘If God created us in his image then how come we are imperfect’ or ‘If God exists then how come there is suffering in the world?’ Even ‘If God created us in his image then how can you dismiss as “morally evil” people who are simply fulfilling their sexual destiny?’

The ubiquitous ‘God works in mysterious ways’ stopped being enough.

Living in a country like Malta, which is not secularised in the least, it is even easier to see the hypocrisy of religion. How could I be part of a Church which marginalised people based on their sexual orientation? How could I be part of a Church which since its inception has been patriarchal and done everything in its power to disallow women control over their own bodies? How could I be part of a Church which used guilt and scaremongering to keep its members from straying? How could I be part of a Church whose clergy abused children, ruined lives?

I stopped calling myself a Christian and for a while held on to the belief that there is a supernatural, divine force present in the universe. I didn’t necessarily believe in a benevolent God, or even a cognizant God. Still, I felt there must be something bigger than me and I also felt the need for a divine presence in my life. I wanted to experience the infinite. I wanted to live a life with purpose.

For a while, I believed God is everything. God is not a separate entity, judgmental and bearded. I believed God is the sum of everything that is present in the universe. Myself and you and your loved ones and your pets and plants and all your beliefs, fears and hopes.

And this comforted me – the idea of an absolute. The idea of a giant wheel spinning, which I was a part of, no matter how small. I liked the idea of being fundamentally connected to my family, my friends, even people I didn’t like. Because this meant that despite the dislike, this person was also a part of me. This would mean I would have to overcome that dislike – not because holding a grudge might mean I would go to hell, but because everything is love.

Reality, what you see and what you know is only one, completely arbitrary, way of ordering the chaos. It is what we have all agreed on but that doesn’t make it correct. It just makes it true for us.

And that was my way of experiencing God. By this I mean that there may be some people for whom the Catholic story works; people who feel the divine at Mass. These people are lucky they can find God in a set paradigm and they have every right to that. Nobody can take that away from them.

The older I get, however, the more concerned I become with empirical evidence. I used to relish arguing with believers – now I avoid it because I am sick of being asked to justify my non-belief. It should be the other way round. Extraordinary claims should be backed by irrefutable evidence and it is absolutely up to the believer to prove the existence of his/her claims, and not up to the nonbeliever to disprove them. And so far, I have not experienced any evidence to compel me to live my life according to a book supposedly written a couple of millenia ago by a divine being. Nor has anyone presented me with such.

I do not like the idea of atheism as a religion. While my journey has led me down the path of science and scepticism, I must appreciate that others may be determined to hold on to their own beliefs because they make them feel good. As long as they’re not shoving it down my throat, that’s fine by me. Nor would I ever approach a believer and insist he or she convert to atheism. That’s not the way it works in my head. To each their own. May your beliefs bring you joy and enlightenment and whatever else you seek in life.

Whichever way you choose to do that I believe that what is most important above everything else is maintaining humanistic values and realising the inherent beauty in loving yourself and loving your neighbour, cultivating empathy and seeing that God is in every person, white or black, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, atheist or Pagan, young or old, male or female, thin or fat.

You don’t have to be religious to do that.

19 Comments
  • @accidentallykle
    February 22, 2012

    I could have written this myself. It’s only been a few years since the guilt finally disappeared. And I can truly say it’s now gone. I no longer associate Sundays with mass, which I never thought was possible. Ultimately, as you perfectly summed up, life is about being a decent human being.

    PS I took “Religious Knowledge” at Intermediate level, thinking I’d learn about all these until-then secret, intriguing religions. So naive of me. We brushed over the names of other religions and where they perhaps originated from – all of one, maybe two lessons – then the rest of the two years was focussed on Catholicism. Brainwashing, much?

    Thank you for writing this x

    • admin
      February 22, 2012

      Oh god! Two years of that! Poor you!
      I’d say as Maltesers our experiences are all quite similar. You were at St Joseph too weren’t you?

  • B
    February 22, 2012

    Wonderful blog post, has made me feel like getting back to my (abandoned, desolate, cold, lonely, tumbleweed-like) blog :)

    • admin
      February 22, 2012

      And so you should! Looking forward to a new post from you :)
      Thanks for reading too!

  • Emerson Farrugia
    February 22, 2012

    Well written, and I love the tone. We all get worked up about this stuff too much, you kept it nice and calm and relatable. Kudos.

    I’d played around with the idea that God was good when I was going through much the same process. “Good” the noun, not “good” the adjective. As in “good incarnate”, without the meat bit. The omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient attributes of God start making sense then. But once you put religious institutions and the people in them into the picture, that simple idea gets bastardized by their respective agendas. So I decided that values are great, and religious institutions are horrible. Too cynical? :)

    • admin
      February 22, 2012

      Emerson – completely understand that! How can you give people so much power over another person’s SOUL and expect them not to be corrupt? Can’t happen. Humans are human.

      Thanks for reading and glad you liked it :)

  • MarkBiwwa
    February 22, 2012

    Good post Dav, I think it accurately captured the ‘sturm und drang’ of adolescents being forced to stomach what you aptly called Catholic guilt.

    • admin
      February 22, 2012

      Thanks Mark. I think it’s something we all went through and those of us who have left the faith have all found it really hard to shake off the feeling we were sinning or whatever, simply because it was our reality for so, so long.

  • Kristen
    February 22, 2012

    I find myself sharing most of your thoughts. My immediate family isn’t über religious but my mother still took it badly when I told her I won’t be going to Mass any more. She couldn’t understand it and for years she tried to make me go, to no avail. I’m thankful that she never really told me I’d be going straight to hell if I don’t go. Now she’s accepted it, for the most part :).

    I think my decision to finally part my ways with the Church for good came about after I found out that my pious, church-going (for any given excuse possible) ex-boyfriend had lied to me in such incredible ways that led me to think that I wouldn’t want to be part of such a hypocritical institution.

    • admin
      February 22, 2012

      Hey Kristen – glad it resonates with you too. Catholic people always feel they have some kind of duty to save us nonbelievers. Their intentions are good but it is drummed into them (and us) from a young age that we must “spread the good news” blah blah blah. Especially her being your mum, I would imagine she feels responsible for your wellbeing – fair enough hux. Thankfully both your mum and mine eventually accepted the fact that we’re intelligent enough to handle our own afterlives :)

      Yeah I know a few Holier than thou people who in reality are anything but. It’s just so hypocritical I can’t take it.

  • Magatha May
    February 22, 2012

    Your experiences with religion sound exactly like mine. I grew up in rural Ireland where the catholic church ruled all and priests were never questioned. At the moment I still believe in a higher power who is a watching force in all of our lives, but who only engages in your life if you engage with him/her. It comforts me a little to know that I’m not alone but I feel in no way connected to the catholic church.

    My answer to anyone who berates my choices, or tries to make me go to mass on a Sunday has always been ‘Just because I don’t go into Starbucks doesn’t mean that I don’t drink coffee’. It usually quietens them :)

    Thanks for writing something so honest, I loved reading it.

  • Cecilia
    February 22, 2012

    Great post. I think it is a very common feeling for Maltese. I totally agree with your last comments, and it is something I really believe in. You do not have to be religious/ go to mass etc etc to have values.

  • Sarah
    February 24, 2012

    Ah yes, the Catholic guilt. Been there and shook it off pretty quick!

    I stopped going to Mass after I saw a woman who had just shook hands with me and wished me peace turn and sneer at the black guy with hand outstretched next to her before turning away. Lots of events and thoughts had led up to that point, but that was the one that made me realise what a hypocritical place a church can be and I wanted no more of it.

    Over the years I’ve gone from the stance of “I believe there’s a god, I just don’t believe in organised religion” to “I believe there’s something, but I don’t know what” and now “I don’t know what I believe”. But one thing holds true for me and that is exactly what you put in your last paragraph. I believe in good and evil but I believe it is human nature that dictates this within us, not the presence of some divine being.

    • admin
      February 25, 2012

      Ugh what a hypocrite :(
      I think like everything else our beliefs will be constantly changing as we encounter new experiences and things, but yes – kindness should be our priority regardless of our faith.

  • Samantha
    February 25, 2012

    Wow great post. I had similar experiences with mass growing up-I remember at around age 10 I began having an increasingly difficult time reconciling my idea of God as an all-knowing, loving, uber wise entity with the God I was told about who didn’t particularly care for women or gay people, etc…

  • Simmy
    February 27, 2012

    Great post Davinia. It pretty much sums up my feelings on the topic and although I never grew up going to Mass; moving to Malta at the age of 15 and being thrown into a catholic school proved to be an extremely confusing time for me which I’ve never really spoken about but probably contributed towards my depression during that time in my life.

  • Colette
    February 28, 2012

    I agree with this post so much. Since young I have seen the corruption of the religion community and also noticed that some parts are taken too literally to fit well and other parts not. I had stopped going to church well before 18 but had to go sometimes because my grandmother couldn’t understand my reasons for not going.

  • adrian
    June 24, 2013

    LOL

    I knew from the pic it was going to be an article I’d enjoy reading.

    I must say I share you experience and opinions, although I can trace my atheism going back to 15 years of age. by 13 church had no meaning what so ever and unlike you people in front of me especially with dandruff did not seem interesting, probably because the whole context was wrong.

    I must admit that I sometimes feel a stranger in my own country. All these traditions folklore are deeply rooted in religion. even the language itself. “ma kienx imnalla” or “alla hares” or “jekk alla jrid!” does not make sense sometimes and i do my best to avoid such phrases.

    The phrases I have fun with it most are “jagmel alla” or “jekk alla jrid”. when subjected to me I’d reply bluntly “Le, int trid taghmel, Alla ma jidholx fiha”. Can you imagine the stares I get :)

    In my experience the problem is that most believers cannot distinguish between morality and religion, The difference does not exist in their mind. it goes beyond them completely and this is what makes them afraid. They think that not beleiving in a god automatically makes you a person of no morality. The opposite is also true that If god did not exist then , they could go and kill and do whatever they please, which does not make sense either.

    It may not be their fault entirely because as arthur c clarke says “The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.”

    Well there is good news. If there is one thing religion cannot withstand is scientific knowledge and historical facts and information in general. In the internet age information is so widespread that its easy to get an answer to most all your questions from good reputable sources. Once you learn some basic science you will start questioning the little things but when momentum builds up it all falls done like a house of cards. I see this trend only increasing overtime.

    Anyway we were all born atheists after all.

  • Michele (Michael) Garzola
    June 28, 2014

    I was raised Catholic as well, I still attend church, I am impatient and I don’t like the singing and the mawkish community thing. I like hearing what the literature says just in case of stimulative inspiration, but I too am skeptical, cynical and wary. I want to believe in phenomena but mostly I believe everything is motivational lies. I like Wicca. I love literature for all what one wants to believe or what is supposed to exist lives and usually is not a mess but made to be perfect and satisfactory through editing.

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