It's odd how a particular theme will dominate moments in one's life, whether they invite it to or not. Looking back on all the writing on this site, I can't see that religion has taken up too much space or time, and yet, I have had two readers email me recently, asking about my beliefs "if, in fact, you have any", and just this morning, I had a woman in a debate group question a statement I'd made about my prior beliefs. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised -- religion still plays an immense role in the lives of many, and I've made enough passing references to pique curiosity for those so inclined, I suppose.
I guess it's also time to get this all off my chest. While religion no longer plays a big role in my life, it's long been a fascinating topic for me, and has influenced my life greatly at times. What I believe, what I don't believe, what I used to believe, and why those beliefs have changed so much is a long, convoluted story that I expect exactly no one to be interested in. However, there are particular questions that I get asked time and again, and they are, not surprisingly, the same questions I asked (and continue to ask) myself all along this journey from Christian to agnostic-Taoist. Perhaps it is time I answer them out loud, for the sake of the curious, and myself.
Were you ever really a Christian? This is the question I (and I presume all former Christians) get asked most by believers. The Bible implies at times that one cannot lose salvation -- that if they truly believed, they would never lose their faith completely. Because of these verses, I have been both subtly and directly accused of having never really believed. There is a bit of truth to that, but not in the way those believers think. I truly believed in God -- there is no doubt about that. In fact, for an embarrassingly long time, I didn't even pause to doubt it. It seemed self-evident to me that there was a God, that the world had been created, and that there was a heaven waiting for us. That said, I wasn't too fussy about the details. I believed that Jesus had died for us, but that was about as far as the specifically Christian aspect of my beliefs went. I always had pretty serious doubts about the creation story being taken literally, the concept of original sin, and a lot of the things the people at church told me. I didn't understand calling other people's religions "false", and I tended to believe God would judge us more on whether we were decent human beings or not than whether we worshiped the right God or not. I expected to see Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists in heaven. Being "saved" to me did not mean being guaranteed a spot in heaven while others were left to rot in hell, it meant making a commitment to try to follow Jesus. Looking back on what I believed now, I guess it's fair to say I wasn't much of a Christian, but I was a firm believer in Jesus.
So, what changed? In a word, everything. I can't tell you the moment, but at some point, I started really questioning what I believed and why. My mom is a Christian, and obviously, her beliefs had influenced my own. I grew up in a predominately Christian city, with a predominately Christian family, and those who didn't believe didn't talk much about it. In fact, religion was so common to every aspect of life that it literally hadn't ever crossed my mind that there may not be a God. I did begin to question, however, who this God was. As I read more, and came to fully grasp the concept of original sin, I began to seriously question how God could be both just and merciful, yet condemn all of humanity for this or that reason. How this being could be perfect and all-loving, yet require worship and obedience to such an extent that he'd punish you eternally if you got it wrong.
Once the questions began, they did not stop, and there were no answers to be found. I asked my mom, I asked people at church, I asked my friends, I looked in the Bible, but mostly, I prayed. I prayed that God show me who he actually was, because he surely couldn't be the tyrant religion made him out to be. We had to have it wrong. The Bible had to be wrong, people had to be wrong. I just couldn't believe that we'd be expected to take these stories literally, that this was really the way it was. I got a lot of shallow answers and "trust in God" speeches and Bible verses that seemed wholly irrelevant parroted at me. But never did I get an actual answer to my questions. Never would it make sense to me again. Never would God respond. And never again would I call myself a Christian.
But, you still believe in God, right? I mean, you don't have to be a Christian to believe in God. For awhile, yes, I did. I explored Wicca and some vague, nameless forms of modern paganism for awhile. I believed there was indeed a deity out there, but it had become a much more abstract concept. I came to believe that all religions were acknowledging the same entity, in their own ways. I saw the petty (and often lethal) divisions between religions as a human flaw, an issue that had nothing to do with the deity itself. I came to see God as a rather impersonal being, energy that we could harness if we so desired, but that did not deliberately interfere in our individual lives unless we called for it to. I played around with Buddhism and Hinduism -- maybe God was actually many Gods, maybe God was a cosmic consciousness that we had created, rather than vice versa. Maybe God was the life force of the universe itself.
And that's the point at which agnosticism took hold, and I began to discover Taoism. I realized, quite quickly, this time, that if I couldn't be sure about the Christian God, I couldn't be sure of any of them. And if I couldn't be sure about any of them, I couldn't be sure there was a God at all. I had to admit that the only intellectually honest position was agnosticism. It became painfully clear to me that, whatever one believed, no one actually knew. And if we don't know, we aren't really seeking truth by standing by a pre-determined conclusion, are we?
Now, I know a lot of you are thinking "but I do know. I've had experiences that can't be explained away. I've felt the hand of God. I have no doubt he is real". And you know what? I believe you. Unlike the angrier atheists you may have encountered, I don't poo-poo the personal experiences of others. I don't explain them away as delusions or wishful thinking. I've had them myself, and I certainly don't write off the idea that there is more to existence than we realize -- in fact, I strongly defend it. But that's kind of the point. Countless experiences have been had, countless theories abound, countless possibilities exist, and we've just begun scratching the surface of understanding. If there is one thing that I believe without doubt, it is that the idea that we've pinned the ultimate, universal, objective truth down in a book of parables or a handful of rules is ludicrous. The idea that, of the hundreds of thousands of concepts of god, spirituality, religion, creation, divinity, and truth, that one particular group of people got it right, is not only unarguably unlikely, it is the height of arrogance. To be sure, this doesn't mean I'm discounting anyone's experience -- quite the opposite. It is indeed the fact that so many have had inexplicable experiences that leads me to believe truth claims about such things are baseless. There are simply too many possibilities, too many different experiences, to make any meaningful claims about what is true and what is false. To say that the Christian experience is real while the Hindu experience is false, that enlightenment is real while heaven is not, that Allah exists but the Tao does not, is, quite simply, absurd.
Which leads to the final question that inspired this long and rambling rant in the first place: what, if anything, do you believe? I call myself an agnostic-Taoist, but really, that's a bit misleading. I don't know a hell of a lot about traditional Taoism. I've read English translations of the Tao Te Ching, I've studied a few Taoist concepts, I've dabbled in Tai Chi and I've always had an affinity for the yin-yang. Even as a Christian, I chose to wear a yin-yang over a cross, as I've always believed in balance -- the striving for, and the natural state of. When I began studying Buddhism in my late teens, I found a lot of truth in it, but there was always something a bit...off about it. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but I felt it had missed the mark by just a tiny bit. I felt that it valued truth, but put too much focus on the wrong things. Still, I was intrigued, and read up a bit on the Buddhist pantheon (most Buddhists do not believe in literal Gods, but their traditional stories do include elevated beings), eventually discovering Guanyin. The beautiful myth associated with her led me to explore her origins, which led me to Taoism. As I mentioned earlier, I still don't know a whole lot about traditional Taoism. A lot gets lost in translation, and a lot more in the culture gap. The reason I call myself a Taoist is that the Tao Te Ching is the only text I have ever read that manages to articulate the many vague beliefs and feelings I've long held on my own.
Simply put, Taoism is the belief that everything just...is. That there is a flow to the universe, and if we wish to seek truth, we must follow it, not fight against it. That belief or disbelief in a deity is irrelevant and a distraction from the bigger picture. That confusion is to be avoided at all costs. That balance is to be sought. That you should live for yourself -- not in a selfish sense, but with regard for personal freedom and personal responsibility. Beyond just what is found in Taoism, I believe in respecting the universe -- in doing as little harm and as much benefit as possible. I believe in individual freedom, I believe that existence itself is divine and should be treated accordingly. I don't know if there is a deity (or several), nor do I care all that much. I believe that, by focusing on these random, varied, unproven entities and what they may want of us, we are missing out on the apparently very rare experience of life. We are missing the opportunity to be the living universe. I believe, quite simply, in existence, and in respecting it, being awestruck by it, seeking to understand it, enjoying it, improving it, and, ultimately, living it.