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How My Religious Views Almost Prevented My Wedding from Happening

September 27th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

In my blogging and social media activity, I often explore topics of religious intolerance.  Why do I care so much whether Christians and Atheists get along (or any other group in the religion spectrum for that matter)?  It’s simple.  I believe the world is a much more beautiful place when we open our minds and hearts.  I’ve also been on both sides of the religious fence, and have experienced some form of discrimination based on my religious and non-religious views.  Heck, I’ve even been called out for being too moderate in my views.  You can’t please everyone.

Like many people, I spent my formative years struggling with what I believed about the nature of existence (which incidentally is the title of a fun documentary – go watch it).  I remember when I was quite young, I asked my Mom if I could be baptized.  I grew up in a non-religious household.  It wasn’t that my folks were anti-religious, they just didn’t have any use for institutional religion.  I did, however, have many friends who were raised Christian (and one friend who was Jewish).  Yes, my hometown was very Christian-centered – and it still is to this day, as you’ll read about shortly.  So, when I asked my Mom about being baptized, she looked at me like a deer caught in headlights.  Clearly, my young ego merely wanted to fit in with my peers.  My Mom told me that when I was older I could make that decision, but she compromised and permitted me to attend Sunday school with one of my friends.  It was during this time that I started to learn stories about Jesus Christ – aside from the well-known Christmas stories that invaded the television airwaves every holiday season.

Of course, it was also during this time that I started asking my Mom about what she thought about Jesus and the afterlife.  She told me that she thought Jesus was probably a really nice man who did lots of good things for people, a long time ago.  On the subject of the afterlife, she said that when she died that she’d be buried, and eventually become part of the soil and the grass.  Then one day she’d be part of a bird that plucked up a worm that lived in the soil.  So, when she died she’d get to fly like birds and butterflies.  Yeah, my Mom was a lot wiser than she’s ever given herself credit for.

During one Sunday school activity, we were asked to choose a picture from a story of Jesus’ teachings and memorize the Bible verse associated with it.  We then had to create a Popsicle stick frame for the picture.  I don’t recall the exact verse, but I do remember the story.  It was about the poorest woman in the village donating her last bit of money to feed the poor.  It was a story about the virtues of charity, self-reflection, and perspective.  It taught me that no matter how bad you thought you had it, there was always someone else who had it worse; and that giving, rather than receiving, was one of the highest virtues.  That story shaped the way I treated people from then on.  I also carried that Popsicle stick frame around with me for the next two decades.

Despite my efforts at trying to blend in as a Christian, it never fully materialized.  I think those efforts were derailed when I tried to read the New Testament.  The version I was reading started with the verses about some person begetting another person who begat another person, and on and on about people begetting people (clearly, I am not a Biblical scholar).  It was boring, and I had no interest in continuing to read it.  It’s too bad that someone didn’t tell me then that the Old Testament makes for a much more interesting read.

Shortly after my brief exploration of Christianity, I experienced a trauma that I would never wish upon a child – and one that had me questioning the existence of a good and almighty God.  At the age of twelve, I lost one of my closest friends in a car accident.  As time passed, I began to get angry – very angry.  How could a good God allow such horrible things to happen?  Why would God take someone who was a good person, yet still allow evil people to exist?  I was unaware at that age that these are questions that theologians endlessly ponder.  As the next few years passed, I simply became dismissive of God and uninterested in the teachings of a religion that worshipped a God that would allow such injustice to occur.

Now my Mom not only raised her children to never let anyone tell them what they should believe, she also raised a young woman to be fiercely independent and to aspire to be anything she wanted to be in a male-dominated world.  I’m not sure at the time that she intended to instill such feministic values in me, but she did.  So, it was no surprise when I flat-out refused to believe that God was male.  I also adamantly rejected patriarchal monotheism as a viable faith system, particularly for women.  So, I did what so many young women like me have done – sought out a more welcoming belief system.  This was when I was introduced to Wicca.  It was a religion that valued women, and indeed, worshipped women.  It was also a religion that was highly misunderstood.  This led to my very first encounter of religious discrimination.

I made it no secret that I was a practitioner of the Craft.  I proudly wore a pentacle around my neck and carried Tarot cards in my purse.  I also held full moon rites and various other rituals, much to my Mom’s amusement.  In fact, my immersion into Wicca became a bit of an inside joke in our household.  On windy days, my Mom would chirp at me as I was leaving the house: don’t forget your broom.  It was all light-hearted humour – to her, I was her little white witch.  She even helped me gather essentials for full moon rites so long as I promised that I wasn’t drinking anyone’s blood.  I’d simply roll my eyes and say: grape juice, Mom… grape juice.  She’d give me a wink and send me off with my friends to sit in a park and draw down the moon.

While my Mom was quite accepting of my new found path, others were not.  Gossip around school was that I, and some of my friends, were witches.  It was obvious, wasn’t it?  We all wore black clothing, so we must all be witches.  It also may have had something to do with my request to school officials to read the Charge of the Goddess following the reading of the Lord’s Prayer during morning school-wide announcements (I didn’t actually recall this incident until recently.  One of my good friends from high school relayed the story to me and recounted that the Lord’s Prayer was never read during morning school announcements thereafter).

It was clear that people misunderstood my beliefs, as further evidenced by the students who moved their lockers away from mine or who whispered about supposed hexes I had cast on other students.  It’s not surprising that teenagers can be so cruel. That’s just a fact of life.  What was surprising was how adults treated me.  One especially brazen incident was when I was having coffee with friends.  I was reading my Tarot cards and the waitress serving us approached the table and told me that I was playing the Devil’s game. I had to put the cards away immediately or she’d ask me to leave.  Did I mention how Christian-centric my hometown was?  It was clear to me that if I was going to practice the Craft that I’d have to do it privately.  This became more evident when a woman approached me in a bank and whispered: you are very brave for wearing the symbol in public.  Honestly, at first I had no idea what she was talking about, then I realized she was looking directly at the shiny pentacle hanging around my neck.

Eventually, I left the Wiccan path as a devoted practitioner.  I still held many of the tenets close to my heart, but began to question my motives for being drawn to such a faith.  Primarily, I was put off by the strong radical feminism from some Wiccans I encountered.  I didn’t want to be held in higher regard than men, I just wanted to be given the same regard.  While it is true that most Wiccans I met sought to attune to the balance of female and male forces, there were far too many other Wiccans who were simply jumping on the bandwagon of what seemed like a woman’s religion.  I also began to feel silly anthropomorphizing the sun, the moon, the trees, the water, etc, etc.  It no longer felt right for me.  So, I dismantled my altar and stopped engaging in ritual.

This led me into a long period of searching, questioning, and almost always coming back with the answer: I don’t know.  For a long time, I felt like I simply had to find something to call myself.  I couldn’t just live the rest of my life without an answer, could I?  Turns out – I could.

Many years later, as I went about my life in the unknowable bliss of Agnosticism, I experienced one of the worst incidents of discrimination that I ever had, and hope I ever will.  In truth, I never thought that my lack of religious belief would be the target of discrimination, but as I quickly learned the nonreligious are walking targets for some believers.

When hubby and I decided to get married, we were surprised to see a section on the marriage license application that asked us to indicate our religious affiliation.  I was perplexed and wasn’t sure how to answer the question.  Hubby simply filled his in as Atheist.  I opted for n/a (not applicable).  Since we were getting married back in my hometown, I decided to do all the prep work for the wedding there – including filing the marriage license application.

I presented my application to the city clerk.  She looked it over and frowned.  Handing it back to me she angrily pointed at the word Atheist and said: That’s not very nice, and then pointed at n/a and said: Neither is that.  She then refused to process my application until I changed it.  I was dumbfounded.  I inquired as to what I should put in those sections and she replied to change both to Unknown.  Honestly, I wanted to shrink into a hole and never come out.  I knew what was happening was wrong – and that it was violating my rights, but I felt like this woman was holding my ability to get married hostage to serve her own religious agenda.  So, I concede and changed it.  It didn’t really matter to me what was on that piece of paper.  I just wanted to get married.

Later, I told my Dad about the incident and he was furious.  He wanted to go down to City Hall and speak to the <insert colourful curse words>.  I pleaded with him not too, because I was still fearful that she wouldn’t process the application.  He agreed, but he wasn’t happy about it.  In hindsight, I should have let him go down there and raise some hell (no pun intended), but at that moment all that mattered was my wedding.  The gravity of what had occurred didn’t really hit me until much later.

Shortly after that incident, I began to invest more time into studying religion, particularly from a psychological perspective.  I wanted to understand how religion influenced people, how it shaped their behaviour, and how people came to hold religious biases.

Now, there are many fine religion programs offered at many different post-secondary schools around the world.  Some have a more theological focus than others.  Indeed, within any given institution, some classes have a more theological rather than secular method to the study of religion.  In some of the classes that I took that were more theologically focused, I began to engage in dialogue with people of faith – many different faiths.  Some were much more accepting than others.  Some were inquisitive about my lack of faith, and some were accusatory.  In one such online discussion I mentioned that I was married to an Atheist and the chat room lit up with questions such as: How does your husband know how to live a good and righteous life? Doesn’t he worry about going to Hell? You’re an Agnostic and he’s an Atheist, but aren’t they the same thing? Or comments such as: Really?!  I’ve never met a real, live Atheist before!  If I didn’t know better I’d have thought that Atheists were some extinct species recently resurrected as harbingers of the Apocalypse.

More interesting was that it wasn’t just believers that were making ridiculous and callous comments, but I began to notice vast numbers of angry Atheists that were just as cruel, if not crueler than some of the radical faith-goers I had encountered.  It made my stomach turn.  I decided that I wasn’t ever going to be like any of those people.  I made a commitment to myself to put all of my education, and my skills at writing to good use for the purpose of promoting tolerance.

You see, I have religious – and nonreligious – friends and family.  I want them to feel safe and free to believe (or not) in whatever helps them get through life.  Sure, it’s not an easy line to toe.  There are a lot of misconceptions that are hurled from both sides of the fence.  It also doesn’t make you very popular online to be somewhat of a moderate.  People tend to seek out drama, especially in the online world.  A moderate viewpoint does little to entertain those seeking a bit of controversy.

It’s also been difficult because I do have friends and family that have some rather uneducated viewpoints about (non)religions other than their own.  It saddens me to witness some of the things my friends/family say about different religious groups.  It’s also hard for me to not say anything, because I do believe it’s their right to say what’s on their mind – no matter how stupid those things may be.

I have many Christian friends, some of who are shining examples of what it is to live in Christ’s light.  Yet, others are more reminiscent of the fundamentalists that capture news headlines south of the border.  The same is true of the many friends/family I have who are Atheists.  Some claim to be nothing like the radical religious folks that they abhor, yet in the same instance they are calling for the annihilation of all persons of faith.  Some have even suggested that banning religion would solve all the world’s problems – because clearly their brand of ideology is going to save the world.  Then there are the Atheists who want no association with those kinds of Atheists.  I’ll keep my beliefs to myself, so long as you keep yours to yourself, is typically how their thought-process goes.

Like I said, it’s not an easy line to walk, particularly when you have so many people in your life that have different beliefs and backgrounds.  I walk this line though because I truly believe that we can all learn amazing things from one another, if we’d just give the other a chance.  I know it’s a bit unnerving to have your beliefs challenged – and sometimes shattered – but trust me, the rewards outweigh the unease.  There are so many interesting people in this world – all of which have a unique perspective on our purpose in this life.  All I know is that I am much richer for embracing people of many different beliefs.

I would never have heard the unadulterated splendour of the Adhan had I refused to listen.  I would never have beheld the allegorical triumphs of the Pali Canon had I refused to see.  I would never have treasured the complex history of the Torah had I refused to study. I would never have respected the warmth of Christ’s light had a refused to look.  And yes, I would never have valued the magnitude of reason and doubt had I refused to question.

The world really is a more beautiful place when we open our minds and hearts.

M. xo

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