Some ten years ago, at a time when my mind was still clouded with fantasy, I had the belief that only through faith could moral, ethical, and compassionate behavior be made manifest. That quintessentially, only through religion could we ever become better human beings. It was both grossly dishonest and dangerously delusional.
I was still attending Catholic mass at my hometown church because at 21 years of age, I had become a born again Christian after having fallen off the bandwagon when I was in high school. High school had been a time where I intellectually grew beyond a faith-based education, due to attending a public school for the first time.
I grew up attending a private Catholic school for eight years, once I turned 15 I had to abandon that small community feeling and leave behind nearly all the people I had grown up with. Initially it was a strange time as I had never before been surrounded by people who were not Catholic, and some weren’t even Christian. During those four years of freedom, I was able to take time to begin investigating the truth claims of my childhood religion.
From the time that I was fifteen to the time that I was 19, I made many worldview shattering discoveries due to a small seed of doubt. Not only did other people not believe in my religion, they weren’t being punished by my God for doing so, even though it clearly stated in the Bible that people would be punished for such things.
As time went on, I continued to notice during those four years that much of what the Bible said wasn’t even true. In science and history class I learned that indeed the Bible was outrageously unintelligible and outright wrong about many things that we understand about history, our lives, our world, about the origins of humankind, and human civilization.
I began to realize that Christianity was indeed false, that indeed my faith and my holy scripture was based on false claims, lies, and the desires of mere men who wrote down their own opinions of traditional oral stories they heard from their elders and travelers from other civilizations, or they wrote about events that happened some one hundred years before they were even born as though they were there to witness it unfold.
I began to see holes in the story I had been taught as truth for so many years, I began to see the lies now appallingly obvious to me in the tapestry of my childhood faith. I started researching other religions while in high school, trying to find a religion that was true. At the time, I still believed in God, but realized that organized religion had too many negative aspects to be of any value. I found the dogma of my religion to be suffocating, poisonous, and riddled with deceit.
I wanted truth, I wanted answers, I wanted something I didn’t feel stupid, childish, ignorant, sheepish, for believing in. I still sought to find God in the fog of human desire, fear, and delusion because I wanted to believe in something far greater than myself, something empowering, comforting, enriching. Around the age of 16 I found myself drawn into the occult by researching it online. It was strange and new, exciting and seemingly dangerous for teenager who had spent his entire childhood warned of such things. As a true believer in holy scripture, the literal Word of God, any interest or exploration of other religions, particularly those of pagan origins was a sin, an act against my god and my church.
It was an invitation for being damned by my creator. The Church of Satan, Paganism and the modern Wiccan movement, these were organized institutions or groups and classifications that I became fascinated by, but more broadly the spiritual ideologies of other people really intrigued me. It was bizarre and yet oddly familiar. From that point forward, I gained a thirst for possible knowledge or hidden gems of wisdom in other belief systems and world religions.
It sparked something inside of me, a yearning to learn and expand my understanding of other cultures and more generally the world I live in. I explored the beliefs of Native American tribes, the ancient beliefs of the Aztecs and Mayans. I read about Voodoo and animism, which are still practiced today by African tribes. I read about the Druids of Europe, the Norse gods of the Scandinavian region of Northern Europe.
I studied religions of the Middle East, such as the various sects of Islam, from Sunni to Shia, and Sufism to Salafism. I learned about much older religions that were born within the Middle East, like Zoroastrianism. I studied religions that though they are smaller in adherents than some of the much larger religions, they have some of the more profound and admirable beliefs, such as the Baha’i Faith.
I ventured into more Eastern beliefs, such as the Jains of India, those who belong to the religion known as Jainism, which practices nonviolence and renunciation. I read about one of the world’s oldest religions, if not possibly the oldest, Hinduism and the many interpretations and traditions like yoga, and the seemingly limitless gods and goddesses. I read about Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, and their influential legacy on Asian philosophy. I studied the Tao Te Ching, believed to be authored by Lao Tzu and it affected me greatly. I read about Buddhism and its many lineages of traditions and schools of thought. From the oldest and most strict or monastic, known as Theravada Buddhism, to the largest tradition known as Mahayana, and Vajrayana the second largest and most esoteric.
Though both Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism emerged from Mahayana and both traditions are influenced by Yogic or Tantra practices from India, those lineages in Tibet have truly become their own school of tradition. Another popular tradition that grew from Mahayana was Zen Buddhism. It was during the study of this tradition that I came to know Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk who greatly impacted my life. Outside of China and India, I also studied Nichiren Buddhism which originated in Japan by a monk of the same name, the practitioners of this tradition place a lot of value on chanting the mantra Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
Mantras are essentially like prayers in the Abrahamic religions, but depending on which tradition of Buddhism you adhere, the value, purpose or intention behind these mantras can change. By this I mean that some mantras are chanted with the equal intention of Christian or Muslim prayer, by which the devotee is hoping that a Buddhist deity will hear his or her pleas or praise. In other traditions no such belief exists and mantras are solely meant to raise the mindfulness of the practitioner, to reach higher levels of clarity and peace.
Like all other world religions, Buddhism has several sacred texts, known within the traditions as the Pali Canon and the sutras. The Pali Canon is the teachings of the first Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama and his disciples and scholars, in a collection of ancient writings recorded in their original Indian language of Pali, sometime in the year 29 BC by the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka, 454 years after the death of Siddhartha. This fact is important because it means that the text retains its original meaning and hasn’t been deluded by continuous translations over the millennia.
The sutras on the other hand came later, covering a span of two hundred to four hundred years later and containing more than two thousand texts. The most well known sutras are the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra. Reading from the Pali Canon or the sutras, you quickly learn that the tone of these documents are much different than the Holy Bible or the Qur’an. The reason for this is the man or his disciples from whom the texts were transcribed from. Siddhartha Gautama never believed himself a prophet, nor a demi-god, he was merely a man who found his way to inner peace, mindfulness, and loving-kindness.
Like other sacred texts such as the Bible or the Qur’an, these Buddhist texts do at times become steeped in esoteric, metaphysical, mystic, or a superstitious nature. Which brings me back to my childhood faith and the scriptural books that make up the Holy Bible. From the time that I was 19, I considered much of the words contained within these texts to be preposterous nonsense, written by men who’s only true intention was to convert other people into their absurdity, particularly through fear and lack of education. That truthfully the Bible was a work of fiction and not fact, a dangerous and false interpretation of semi-historical events, and in some cases just flat out fabrications of imaginary occurrences.
Through studying other religions and sacred texts from 19 to 20 years of age I realized that so many of the world’s religions were actually quite similar. When you break them down to the core fundamental beliefs such as the Golden Rule, most of them appear to share a similar theological origin, the similar characters, similar events, just with different names, places, and interpretations. This really shouldn’t be surprising as many of the world’s largest religions originated geographically close to one another or literally were formed from the teachings of each other. For instance Christianity and Islam both grew out of Judaism and are collectively known as the Abrahamic religions. Buddhism formed from Hinduism, which is why they share similar features in practice.
Despite my doubts in Catholicism and my rejection of some of its doctrine, by the time I was 21, I rediscovered my faith in Christ and became a born-again Christian. I dived deeply back into Catholicism and once more began attending mass at church. I started reading the Bible again, page by page, overlooking the parts about violence and the abusive commands.
I felt the need to share my faith with others, adorning myself with a cross, wearing Catholic themed t-shirts, listening to Christian rock, and branding a cross on my forearm – a self-imposed punishment for and a permanent reminder to never again walk away from my savior Jesus Christ. I felt brave, strong, and righteous through my love and faith in Christ. I contacted seminaries for students who wished to become priests and I contacted monasteries where young devotees entered into the monastic life.
Not only did I still believe in God, but I wanted to gain the knowledge and practice I needed to share this knowledge with others through proselytizing and good deeds, to let my faith and my god speak not just through my words but from my hands. During this time I also felt called by God to join the U.S. military. Eventually, in 2007 and 2008 this fiasco would turn into a poor decision, though not one I regret.
This rebirth of faith originally occurred in 2006 after I spent time studying the Baha’i Faith, one of the world’s youngest religions, founded in Iran during the middle to late 1800’s, by a man named Baha’u’llah. The Baha’i Faith believes in uniting world religions and the human race in a common goal of world peace. Inspired by their worship through labor I joined a missionary trip organized by a Methodist Church to rebuild homes in Mississippi that had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina the year before. During this time I believed myself to be a spiritual adviser, uniquely qualified due to my extensive knowledge of world religions. When I returned from my missionary trip, I decided that it was time for me to become an ordained minister.
Through the Inter-Faith Church I applied for ordination. After paying an application fee and submitting my application, I had to be tested on my knowledge of the history of world religions, their beliefs and practices, and I then had to write a 3,000 word essay on why I wanted to receive ordination. They accepted my application, I passed the test and they praised my essay. I was awarded a certificate of ordination and an identification badge noting my title as ordained minister. It seemed so much easier than attending a Catholic seminary school for several years. I visited my local county courthouse to make sure the ordination documents were legal in accordance with state laws, as I intended to form my own church community, perform legal weddings, baptisms, and funerals.
Less than a year later I denounced my ordination and rejected the claims of Christianity after deep self-reflection and a re-evaluation of my goals. I returned to studying other world religions and practicing their tenets, particularly Buddhism. From famed spiritual leaders such as Tenzin Gyatso, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
I found a freedom in Dharma, from the dogma of Abrahamic religions, a liberation from Christianity’s classical definition of a deity. In fact, Zen Buddhism does not teach the worship or admiration of any such god or deity, Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha, is seen merely as an enlightened human being. I didn’t stop there, I also studied an atheist interpretation of Pantheism, which originated from and focuses on the famed philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s concept of spirituality. Heralded by Paul Harrison and charmed by the eloquent Sharman Apt Russell, Pantheism opened a door for me into a reverence and admiration for nature without any recognition of a creator god.
By studying these religions and spiritual belief systems I came to realize that perhaps God as I knew him did not exist, that indeed my childhood teachings on the nature of a creator as vengeful, dubious, violent, hateful, were all wrong, that even more ancient teachings of mysticism from the Far East were the accurate interpretation of the source of all life. As the years passed I practiced meditation and yoga. I found a peace that I had never known before, a connection between my outer self and my inner self, I discovered a wisdom in the dharma and a freedom in letting go of the dogma of Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Suddenly I felt alive, alive in a way I had never felt before, connected not just within myself, but connected outward with the energy of life, of the living things that surrounded me. Animals, trees, the scent of the Earth, the feel of the sun’s warmth, hearing the songs of birds, all of these things felt differently to me, I felt as though I was a part of something far greater than myself. Enveloped in some sort of divine nature. Something sacred, something that needed to be protected. It is along this path that I became an atheist. One morning while laying in bed, I asked myself if I believed in some conscious, omnipotent creator god and the only answer I could utter was no.
From that day forward, my every understanding of our world and the Universe came from the field of science and not from an archaic collection of angry, deceitful, barbaric, useless books written in a time when people didn’t even wipe their asses after taking a shit, in fact that bit of hygiene didn’t start until some time in the 16th century. I began looking for more intelligent people than myself who were also atheist, trying to find some sort of guiding hand through this new existential view.
I found that guiding hand in the thoughts of Sam Harris, a modern philosopher, neuroscientist, and author. I found it in Richard Dawkins, ethologist, biologist, and author. I found it in Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, science communicator, and author. I wanted the rational, I wanted reason and logic, I wanted answers, I wanted the truth. And I learned that the only way to truth was through evidence and not faith, for faith and fallacy were one in the same.