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.”
“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.