I’m not a fan of Christmas. But in our culture it is unavoidable. So too, I’m not a fan of religion. But again, in our culture it is unavoidable. So despite my secular psyche, even I ponder the Great Almighty at this dark time of year. Not as one of the faithful, mind you. More like an anthropologist observing a curious species—believers—from a detached distance.
The most obvious bifurcation of my sixty-five years on this earth is that I spent the first half living as a straight man and the second half living as a gay man. Yet more profound than flipping my terms of sexual identification, has been my journey into spiritual dissonance. As the devout third son in an Irish-Catholic family, I was groomed for the priesthood. That I was clumsy, introverted, and laden with shame (see bifurcation listed above) made me, as a boy, eager to trod the road of God’s service.
Religion was the solace of my youth. God offered safe haven from a family and community more interested in mocking my peculiarities than acknowledging their strengths. I felt acutely alien at Christmas, when the message of love and goodwill bore no parallel in lived experience. Often, in December, I withdrew to the basement or my top bunk, where I drew my way to comfort. One year, I holed up for days and penned a twenty-foot-long banner of the Christmas story (Luke 2:8-14) in Gothic script and presented it to my aunt, the nun, who hung in it her convent chapel every Advent. The wider world interpreted that banner as a sign of piety and devotion. I knew it was simply an exercise in applying ink to assuage frayed holiday nerves.
I continued to be a good Catholic boy in the eyes of the world until an unexpected event occurred: I started to think. It’s a cliche to say that Catholicism thrives on the ignorant and uneducated, but it is so, so true. My independent mind budded in high school, when I argued that being a priest, albeit a valid vocation, was no more important than any other calling. My handlers weren’t too upset—men condemned to think could still be Jesuits—and everyone sang along as I strummed guitar at folk mass.
The cracks in my priestly veneer grew when I refused to apply to Notre Dame or Boston College, and went to MIT instead. The ‘reality’ of the Holy Trinity couldn’t hold a candle to mysteries revealed through biology, chemistry, physics, analysis and synthesis. I became a person of science. Which doesn’t negate the potentiality of a Supreme Being; it merely compromises religion’s stranglehold on the mind.
The Catholic Church made bald attempts to convert the secular woman I chose to marry, and failing that, laid claim to the religious upbringing of unborn children. In their greed for increasing numbers, they finally lost me. When a young man falls from ‘the one true religion,’ the pitch is steep. In short order I stopped going to confession, then mass, relegated god to a lower-case noun, renounced Rome’s repressive hierarchy, and let the actualities of the world I inhabit set my moral compass.
The further I distanced actual practice, the more intellectually interesting human interpretations of god became to me. I am not an atheist; the idea of something bigger than us seems both right and comforting. Nor I am against religion; I appreciate friends and family who find solace in whatever teachings they choose. I savor theological conversations with my Mormon brother as well as my Evangelical one, and find it ironic that they both talk with me, but won’t talk with each other. From my wide perspective, Mormonism and Evangelicalism are not all that different; whereas they view each other as heretics.
Which is where my fascination with religion ends, and my problems with it flower. I’m fine with everyone believing whatever works for them; I am against any religion claiming a singular path to salvation. Which pretty much all of them do. Once a disciple feels compelled share their good news, whether through proselytizing, force of government edict, arrogance of crusade, or crime of genocide; religion steps over the line from benevolent coping skill to a rationale for abuse.
Ultimately, humankind will be better off without religion because religions always step over that line. True believers are never content to simply savor their theology. They compel others to believe, and then fight to enforce their doctrine. Diplomacy, negotiation, have no bearing in a religious worldview because religion is not based on reason. It is based on faith. And faith is circular. Belief=truth. Parting the sea, rising from the dead, angels in upstate New York. Every religion’s origin story is sacred truth to its adherents, and pretty far-fetched to everybody else.
Circles are geometry’s most complete and stable form. A circle of belief contains a comprehensive worldview. It answers all questions, soothes all doubts. Provides purpose, meaning, and the comfort of others with like mind. I can still the conjure the security the Catholic Church provided this lonely boy, and witness today the solace it offers people like my brothers.
Circles are also geometry’s most restrictive form. Difficult to expand, contract, or escape. It takes tremendous energy to spin away from their centrifugal grip. But once you’re released, a free-radical twittering through space, liberated to observe the world unrestrained, with equally grave concern and detached amusement, one is disinclined to ever infiltrate any religious circle again.
I hope you all enjoy this season of long nights in a warm house with a good book (or a subscription to Netflix). If you inhabit a circle of belief that brings you comfort, savor it. And please remember that goodwill toward men doesn’t depend on all men believing the same thing. It comes from granting each person the grace and latitude to their own beliefs.