The Power of Belief
I was born into and raised within a Christian community, more specifically a Catholic parish. This article will discuss how I went from attending a private Catholic school and Catholic Mass every weekend, to feeling a lot of doubt in faith during high school, to becoming a born-again Christian in my early twenties, and then finally becoming a non-believer. Seeing as today is Easter, one of the most important Christian days of observation, it couldn’t be a more suitable time to reflect on the power of belief and all that it entails.
Growing up, my family was fairly religious. We were not the Evangelist type that tends to go about proselytizing to non-believers in an attempt to get them to convert, but we were certainly a part of the Christian conservative ranks of Midwestern Americans. From attending a private Catholic school, to observing Catholic holidays and participating in parish community events and various religious sacraments throughout different stages of life, much of our lives pivoted around religion.
Throughout my childhood, the idea of questioning anything that I was being taught never once entered my mind. My family, my school, my community, everything all around me was immersed in Catholicism. It wasn’t just one small aspect of our lives, it was an integral part of everyday life. From the words we used, to the way in which we conducted ourselves and how we saw the world, faith was the lens through which we experienced life.
Belief, the tenants of faith, this wasn’t just ideas in our heads, it was action. How we interacted with those around us, whether they were family or stranger, belief was something that was always with you and in the things that you did. Of course in being a kid, however, religion was still something that I was not fully capable of grasping. It is not unlike learning to ride a bike. You can watch others do it, attempt to mimic them, but for the most part you still need a guiding hand when starting out. In time and through practice you gain a much deeper understanding of what you’re doing, the mechanics of the bike, how to control and navigate your way while keeping yourself upright.
Faith is very similar in that it requires due diligence, constant reflection, sometimes a guiding hand, and continued practice in order to understand all that a religion encompasses. As kids, we’re all easily distracted or led astray, adult things typically do not engross us the same way that humor or entertainment does.
The things that were likely to catch my attention as a kid were the lives and actions of the various saints, more than the salvation of my own soul, a concept I could not actually contemplate at such a young age. Transubstantiation was certainly not a concept I fully grasped. Even though the Catholic church teaches that during the sacrament of the Eucharist, the wine and the unleavened bread offered are literally turned into the blood and body of Jesus Christ, inexperienced children and even those who have already undergone the sacrament of First Communion, still have no understanding of what the priest or the adult congregation is uttering about. They look at the wafers of pressed bread and the wine for what they are and not what they are allegedly transformed into.
As an adult, I look back at such a ritual and realize how cult-like many of the sacraments of Catholicism truly are. Eating flesh and drinking blood are very pagan in origin, no doubt a concept adapted from old world belief systems when Christianity was subjugating non-Christians while it swept across Europe, absorbing many of the beliefs and figures of religions in other civilizations.
I continued to attend a private Catholic school, spending eight years of my life as a student there. Once I entered into high school, I found myself no longer surround by other Catholics. There were various types of Christians and some who had no religion at all. Public school was a very different place than what I was used to and most of the students I had grown up with all went to a different high school. Only one other student came with me to this public school and so I went through a bit of culture shock. I attended mass at church less frequently during these years, but I did fulfill my last sacrament, that of Confirmation, when a young person who was previously baptized becomes a full member of the Catholic Church.
It was during high school that I spent a lot of time thinking about what I believed in. Witnessing others who were not Catholic and hearing them talk about what they did or did not believe in, set in motion my own self-reflection. Things that I was once told to stay away from and that were considered a sin or the workings of Satan seemed less scary to me. I was less afraid of other religions and belief systems and slowly started to grow less interested in my own childhood religion. The world, in my tiny corner of it anyway, seemed to be expanding beyond what I once knew.
Throughout high school and two years afterwards I spent a substantial amount of time reading articles about other religions, watching documentaries about their history and belief systems, buying books about them, and looking for information online. I was immensely curious about the things that other people believed, especially people on the other side of the world, with their cultures and customs so different from my own. I acquired a thirst that could not be quenched by the religion that I had spent the entirety of my life, up to that point, steeped in and devoted to. I was tired of Catholicism, bored with it, uninterested in it, and above all else beginning to doubt what I had been taught was absolute truth.
When I learned that millions of other people believed in religions that were not my own, that they had their own views of a creator or in some instances creators, I was mind blown. I had been living under a rock of Catholicism and had no idea there were so many other belief systems out there, all with their own stories and figures, laws and codes of conduct. It fascinated me that my own religion was supposed to be the one true religion and yet here were all of these others, with millions to hundreds of millions of followers, all convinced that their religion was the one true religion. I wondered to myself how so many people could all think their religion was the right one while everyone else was wrong.
After spending some years learning about other world religions, I eventually made my way back to Catholicism. But the religion of my childhood was not the religion of my young adulthood. I no longer saw my childhood religion the same way, not necessarily because I was then in my early twenties, but because I had learned so much about the world, about cultures, about faith in a much more general sense, grasped more of an understanding of what it meant to believe and the power such a thing can have. In essence I both physically grew up and spiritually grew up.
I rejected the old way that I was taught to view various elements of my religion. I tossed aside outdated and irrational ideas and teachings, such as those about sacrificing animals, killing non-believers, beating women who had sex outside of marriage, and the list goes on and on. These things to me were not the Word of God, but were instead the trappings of impure minds who had attempted to use my religion to push their own beliefs. They were heresy in my mind and not what my perception of God would have wanted his followers to engage themselves in. Therefore, when I read the Bible, I skipped over the verses that I believed were penned from minds of weak men and not the true Word of God.
Other elements of my religion that were once distant or unknown to me became very close, exposed and available in a way that removed the obscure nature that once blinded me to what it meant to believe. It was in my early twenties that I became a born-again Christian, or to be more accurate a born-again Catholic. I returned to attending Mass on a weekly basis. I became much more vocal about my beliefs than I had ever been before, suddenly it became not just something that I believed, but it also became part of who I was, my identity. I didn’t just want people to know that I was Catholic, I wanted them to see me and the joy I found and then consider their own beliefs, to nonchalantly encourage others to convert.
I would even wear Catholic themed t-shirts in the hopes that people would point it out to me and start up a conversation. And this worked, people did often comment on my shirts, asking about it. Whether I was at work, at the movie theater, or that one time in a hospital elevator, men and women, young and old, would either comment on my shirt or ask me about its message. During this time I also wore a Cross around my neck, and in an act of penance branded a cross on my forearm, to act as a constant symbol of my faith in Jesus Christ. I did this believing that I should in some way make my own physical sacrifice for the ultimate sacrifice He made for me, a constant reminder to never again wander astray from following my Lord and Savior.
All of these outward things came into existence because of what I felt inside. A lot of people who come from backgrounds that are not religious, have a hard time understanding the power of belief. Without the experience of feeling it for themselves they cannot fathom why people hold so tightly to it. Rediscovering my faith changed not only the way I saw everything outside of me, but everything that I saw inside of me. I was literally born-anew, I believed that I had been touched by the Holy Spirit. I felt this swelling of love inside of me, a love for life and for others, a sincere belief that my soul had been saved and that I must live my life in such a way that reflected the teachings of Jesus Christ, for I was a living vessel of God, my Father.
In addition to the other things I’ve mentioned, I also started listening to Christian Rock. I favored bands such as Casting Crowns, Jars of Clay, Third Day, Jonah33, Red, Fighting Instinct, Decyfer Down, among others. Listening to songs of worship filled me with a sensation that I would assume many others feel when they listen to songs of worship. A sense of joy, like I was somehow in-tune with God, that His Holy Spirit was entering into me, and I felt strong, I felt safe and that any sadness I had went away, I felt healed, empowered, fearless, somehow invincible, like I could do anything. These are the types of feelings other people claim to have at certain religious gatherings, it is the power of belief.
Through these experiences I began to believe that I needed to reach out to other people through more legitimate ways. Naturally, I turned to ministry. When I was much younger, I had contemplated the priesthood, but it was not something that I ever pursued seriously. I had a cousin who had chosen that path and so I spoke with my mom about the idea. I didn’t want to take the time to go to seminary school, which all Catholic priests must do. Because I rejected some of the views of Catholicism, I did not feel as though I belonged in such a place, despite having the desire to change the Catholic church and bring it into a more modern ideology. Instead I decided to look for a Christian ministry that was seeking a younger generation of leaders.
I found this ministry with the Interfaith Church, which sought to bring people of various religions together. At this point I had gained very unitarian views of world religions, believing that the world would be a far better place if these systems of belief unified with common goals. I applied for ordination through this church and was asked to take a test and write an essay about my beliefs and why I was seeking ordination. I passed the test and was celebrated for my essay, and so the church offered to ordain me as a young leader of their ministry.
I graciously accepted and in 2010 I officially became a minister of the Interfaith Church, receiving a certificate of ordination and an identification badge. Soon after, I traveled to the local court house to make sure that my paperwork was legal and that I could legally perform marriages within the community. The county clerk took my paperwork to the attending judge who was not in session at the time and brought it back stating I was good to go. The judge came out to meet me and shook my hand, welcoming me to the community as a minister.
Not long after this took place, the doubt that had once been vanquished from my mind came back to haunt me. Just as my faith had returned with a certain vigor, my doubt equally came back with a virulent power that changed everything for me. Not only did I eventually stop believing in Catholicism or even Christianity, but in time I would stop believing in the existence of a creator god. During this process I stepped down from the church and informed them that I no longer wished to be a minister, realizing that I was no longer fit to act as such. They seemed baffled and did not know what to think, since I had previously discussed with them about establishing a new church in my local community. And now there I was surrendering my ordination and walking away from it all.
I stopped wearing anything that reflected Christianity, I stopped attending Mass, the world seemed to come crashing down as though it had all been a dream, a fantasy, a constructed set on a stage. For the next several years I plunged back into my own soul to search for answers, to ask questions I had never before dared to ask, particularly on the existence of any sentient god at all. In time I became an atheist, someone who does not believe in the existence of a creator god, realizing that I did not believe any type of omnipotent being existed, no such being could exist in this part of the Universe with the types of things that take place here. No being must exist unless he or she be evil. The process of course was not this simple, the questions and answers not so easy, it took years to go from being a believer to being a non-believer.
Science soon replaced the metaphysical way in which I saw the Universe and humankind. From physics to neuroscience, my understanding shifted from believing in the supernatural to looking toward the natural for answers about the questions I had on birth and death and everything in between. I looked towards people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for guidance and information. While they certainly helped on the subjects of science and psychology, they could not assist me in life after faith, as neither of them were particularly religious in their youth. Instead, I had to find my own way through and writing down my thoughts became for me a torchlight showing me the way through that darkness.
Being a spiritual person, however, means that the road cannot just simply end there, and it has not ended there. In more recent years I have spent my time going back to the old belief systems that once interested me in my late teens, particularly Buddhism as there is no creator god in this way of life. I have spent quite a bit of time studying the various Buddhist scriptures including the Tripitaka and the Prajna Paramita. For the most part, I do now identify as a Buddhist student of the Mahayana tradition, but certain aspects of the Theravada monastic tradition do interest me and I find it rather commendable to give up one’s personal life to pursue a life of study, service, and practice. I do practice meditation, but I am not interested in the esoteric beliefs of Vajrayana Buddhism, such as deities and the more mystical ideologies.
Apart from a structured belief system, or way of life to put it more correctly, I do also hold a high reverence for nature and the greater Universe, a very spiritual perspective of it and physics. I incorporate these views into my practice and carry on with my life without feeling as though anything is missing. One would think that the huge jump from ordination to atheism would leave someone wanting, but I have not found anything missing from my spiritual life. In fact, I look back now and stand in amazement at how I ever believed the things I used to believe. It’s as if I am looking back at a completely different person, as if the memories are not mine, but someone else’s. Perhaps in some sense I am, for the lenses I once wore have been removed from my eyes and I can now see the world more clearly, without prejudice, ill-judgement or preconceived notions.
The power of belief can do great things for you, but it can also do great harm. One must always be aware of what they believe and how it impacts not only their own life, but the lives of those around them. Anyone can believe in anything, the world religions are truly no different than the fictional tales we often cherish. Stories such as those on Middle Earth by John R.R. Tolkien, where the lore and tales are so well-thought-out that one could easily mistaken it for a real world religion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that his lore is certainly far more interesting and enjoyable than anything the writers of modern or ancient religions offer. Even though such lore is known to be fictional, many people enthrall themselves with it in a way that is almost spiritual, making it a very important part of their childhood and adulthood.
Beyond J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, other fictional works inspire the same kind of love and loyalty. The Star Wars Universe, the Marvel Universe, the Elder Scrolls series, all of these offer a rich history of fascinating belief systems and stories of legendary figures that often out perform world religions in what they teach. The difference again being that people know these collections to be fictional and most people don’t even pretend to believe in them. Yet, in religions we have people believing equally outlandish tales of astounding feats and omnipotent beings and legendary figures, but all of these things written in scrolls, pamphlets, and books are considered true stories and are believed by followers as real. Except that followers of one religion will declare the religion of another to be false, while failing to see that his own is equally unbelievable.
Imagine a world where people believed J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters and stories were true, that his books and the films were considered sacred, and that other people believed that George Lucas’ Star Wars Universe was real and the films and books considered sacred. Each side believed the other was wrong and not only did they argue over who was right and condemn one another in the error of their ways, but that they went so far as to kill each other over it. Well guess what, that is the world we live in, it just doesn’t involve modern systems of lore that people are dying over, it’s ancient systems of lore people are dying over. This too is the power and the danger of belief.
How startling it is to realize that there is absolutely no more credence to believing in any one of the world’s religions than there is in believing in Tolkien’s legendarium. Neither can be proven to exist, but neither can be proven to not exist. You would be just as well off worshiping Tolkien’s created god Eru Ilúvatar as you would any of the other thousands of created gods among the world’s religions.