Freethought Today · Vol. 22 No. 7 September 2005

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Phyllis Stevenson Grams Memorial Award
First Place Winner -- FFRF College Essay Contest

Life is a Highway

By Rachel Evans

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Rachel Evans

"I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education." Wilson Mizner

When I was an undergrad, I went home to St. Louis for the weekend once with a friend. We were driving on the freeway in her small blue Geo Metro when a semi-truck in the lane to our left started to merge without warning into our lane. There was a van in the lane to the right of us, leaving us no place to go to avoid the wayward semi. We both screamed and then my friend did the thing I will never forget: she took her hands from the steering wheel, closed her eyes, and began to pray. At 70 miles an hour, with a semi closing in from the left and a passenger van boxing us in on the right, she removed herself from control and offered her life and mine up to Jesus. I grabbed hold of the wheel so that her car's poor alignment would not make the situation worse and shouted at her to open her eyes. She ignored me, continuing to pray, until I told her that the semi had righted itself and that we were clear of danger. Only then did she open her eyes and pull us over so that she could offer up a prayer of thanks. I was angry and stunned and speechless, but even more, I was strengthened by my decision to reject religion in my life. If life was a highway, I would decide how to navigate it and its perils, not close my eyes and hope there was a divine power guiding my path.

From the earliest time I can remember, I have rejected the religious teachings put upon me by friends, relatives, and the community at large. Though I grew up in a town that housed a church on almost every street corner and was forced each Sunday to take part in the ritual of attending services, I never embraced Christianity nor felt need of its presence in my life. I would sit in Sunday school and read passages aloud from the bible along with the other children while wondering why it was we were never allowed to ask questions about what we read or were taught. I was always particularly curious regarding the bible's attitude toward women as a subservient subset of humanity, and equally curious as to why the adults teaching the classes never wanted me to broach this inequality.

I was brushed off with a dismissive "you'll understand when you're older" or a disapproving "it is not for us to question the word or working of God." My distaste for religion grew stronger when my grandmother saw a book I was reading by feminist author Mary Daly and quipped that "whoever had invented feminism should be drug out into the street and shot." Apparently, feminism was against the teachings of Christ but shooting someone for holding a belief contrary to your own was not.

I was 14 when I finally convinced my parents that church was not for me. I know they both felt saddened and disappointed by my choice, but for me that first Sunday I was allowed to skip church came as a monumental relief. There was no place I felt more ill-fitted to be than at church. I saw the showmanship of it, and the hypocrisy of the teachings, and the squelching of individuality of both thought and speech. I was unable to stomach my fellow church-goers, who bought into the whole system of belief without questioning; who believed without knowing why. I saw children who had been raised in the church, born and bred on bible stories and sermons, who never knew any better and never questioned their own beliefs. It saddened me to think how many generations of automatons had been raised in our church.

One woman in particular floored me with her rootless faith. She was a neighbor of ours who liked to gossip about the neighborhood. When a family down the street had a houseguest one week, her gossiping kicked into high gear. The houseguest was a Mennonite. Our neighbor brought us a brochure she had found about the Mennonite religion and was scandalized by what she perceived to be a cult. The brochure talked about how Mennonites believed in baptizing members as adults instead of children, thereby ensuring that the person being baptized understood the ritual. The brochure outlined the core faiths of the church as being voluntary membership, the bible as the inspired word of God, and Jesus Christ being central to worship and everyday living. Throughout the reading of the brochure and after, you could tell she loved the scandal unfolding in our neighborhood. "The houseguest is a cult member!" When I told her that I thought the core values expressed in the brochure sounded pretty similar to Christianity, she had no response other than, "I don't know, it just sounds like a cult to me." Upon further discussion, as I tried to discern the difference between the beliefs of the Mennonites and of her Presbyterian faith, I referenced some passages from the bible. She grew exasperated and responded, "Well, I don't know about that. I've never read the bible."

As is so often the case, when speaking with religious people, I was floored. Our neighbor was accusing another person of faith of being a cult member because she dressed differently and belonged to an unfamiliar religion. Yet our neighbor wasn't even familiar with her own religion. She professed herself a staunch Christian, yet she had never even read the core document central to her own system of belief. The most amazing thing to me was that she was not singular in her ignorance. To this day I have yet to come across a single person who calls herself or himself a Christian who has actually read the bible. I have come across atheists and agnostics who are fully versed in the teachings of the church, but never a card-carrying Christian.

Tradition, it seems, is enough to justify lifelong devotion for the Christians of my experience. The dictates of their parents and of their ministers and priests reign supreme. It is as though they prefer ignorance because it is easier and more comforting. What would happen to the world they had constructed for themselves if they actually read the bible and decided they didn't believe all of its teachings after all?

Upon rejecting Christianity, I did research other world faiths, wondering if it was just the westernized version of god that I found distasteful. I found, however, that the world's major religions were all essentially interchangeable. They preached similar ideals rooted in equally similar principles. Calling yourself a Buddhist, it seemed, was no more identifying than calling yourself a Jew or a Christian. What my final rejection of faith came down to, then, was my desire to live by principles that made sense to me and were relevant in my world, rather than to worship at the feet of a god sprung millennia ago from an antiquated system of beliefs, and carried through history on the backs of myth and legend.

Religion's place in people's lives, from what I could glean through my encounters, was twofold. Religion first served to give people a sense of purpose for their lives. In my experience, Karl Marx's assertion that "religion is the opiate of the masses" rings true. The religious people I have met find comfort in the thought that there is a supreme being watching over them and that there is a place for them to go when they die. I do not know what happens after death, no one does, but I do not need the promise of an afterlife to be able to make it through my waking life. I am not so petrified by the thought that our existence here might not hold purpose that I need the crutch of religion to numb my senses and carry me through. Furthermore, if it turns out, as I suspect, that there is no righteous afterlife, I would rather have lived the one life I do have with my eyes open, rather than veiled and subjugated by the false promise of a second.

Religion, secondly, serves as a code of conduct for people, a measuring stick for how to treat others. On this point there is a quote I like from Steven Weinberg, who states that "with or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." It is hard to look at the countless evil and horrid things that people have done for the sake of religion and find the code of conduct preached in Sunday sermons. One can act in a Christ-like manner, just as one can look at any other person of good works and emulate their behavior. You do not have to give your life over to a belief system that has no evidence to back it up in order to be a good person. You need merely to live your life in good conscience.

Therefore, I am religion-free, based on personal experience with less than admirable people who preach religious teachings but do not follow them, based on a personal belief system that does not fit into the conservative mold of religious thought, and based on a need to think freely and question and know a thing fully before devoting my life to it. If that means my highway ends with a cliff edge rather than a bridge to the next stretch of highway where we're all driving Mercedes instead of Geos, then I am fine with it. That's no more than I ever expected.

"I am a first year graduate student in film and video production at Columbia College in Chicago. I enjoy reading, writing, hiking, mountain biking, team sports, and improv comedy. I am immensely interested in the delicate bonds that permeate human relations and strive to explore these bonds in my films. I intend my thesis film to be an exploration of humanity's relation to God through the character of an atheistic documentary filmmaker producing a film about religiously motivated terrorists."


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