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I am not a religious person. I cringe at the sound of Christian rock, think Broadway’s The Book of Mormon is shamelessly hilarious, and am often scolded by my elders for flippantly exclaiming “Oh my God!” I find the following of dogmatic religious rules to be a waste of time – why does God care that I eat bacon?
I am not a religious person, but I serve on an Episcopalian vestry, sing in a church choir, and attend a monthly theology class.
My relationship with religion has not always been so complicated. I was once a model Episcopalian, attending Christian summer camps and keeping a prayer journal. My epiphany did not come until high school, when I devoured My Name is Asher Lev, The Kite Runner, and even Itzhak Bentov’s A Brief Tour of Higher Consciousness. With the help of Chaim Potok and John Steinbeck and Ian McEwan, I discovered that being good is not mutually exclusive with being religious. I was suddenly free to explore my own beliefs without fear of divine retribution, and I realized that I had never truly believed any part of the Christian tradition.
Instead of turning away from the church, I chose to preserve my relationship with the parish. In fact, the year I stopped identifying as Christian was the same year I became a Vestry Member at Large. My work in the church is not a ploy to seem devout; I stayed because there are so many things I love about it. Being a student from a conservative rural high school, the church is my intellectual oasis: there are political debates over coffee, Chaucer-related jokes cracked during parish breakfasts, and discussions about last night’s symphony performance in the choir room.
I love the sense of community I feel when I walk into the chapel. I have grown up with the people there, from the acolytes with whom I cannot make eye contact during services, else risk bursting into laughter, to the Sunday School teacher who eyes me pointedly and squeezes my hand after I skip a few too many services. I appreciate the work my fellow parishioners do with the surrounding low-income neighborhood and I love the respect they have for everyone, regardless of race, socioeconomics, sexuality, or religious beliefs.
Sure, there are dangers to organized religion: wars, persecution, radicalization, the Westboro Baptist Church. Yet for every ugly facet of faith, there are a hundred beautiful ones: fingers surreptitiously dipped into a baptismal font; a ray of sunlight shining through a shard of stained glass; the soft mumbles of concentrated prayers at vestry meetings; tears shed during a moving offertory hymn.
For a while, I was decidedly atheist. However, try as I might, I cannot accept that humanity only exists because of a series of cosmic and evolutionary coincidences. There has to be something out there, but as humans, it must not be our business to know what. If a divine being does exist, I doubt humans are advanced enough to comprehend what He or She or It is. I suspect that my beliefs will remain turbulent for the rest of my life; for all I know, in ten years I could be drawn back into Christian dogma. At the moment, I am exploring the practice of Buddhist dharma, which focuses on maintaining a positive attitude, working hard, and treating others with respect.
Religion often builds barriers between people. It can be easy to see the world as black and white: the people who agree with me, and the people who are wrong. My time in church has taught me to see the world in full color: to try to never judge another person based on his or her background, to respect others’ beliefs, and to connect with everyone I meet.
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