Daniel received $350 for his essay. [This essay was mistakenly omitted from the winners published in the September issue, and the photo was wrongly placed with another essay.]
Pyongyang, North Korea, 2009. A thousand people sit quietly in a dull white compound, facing the front of the room as a doctor addresses them and explains what’s about to take place. Each listener sits tensely in complete darkness with their eyes behind makeshift bandages, hastily wrapped around their heads to keep out the light.
In the preceding days, a Nepalese doctor by the name of Sanduk Ruit had been granted a 10-day stay by the government to perform cataract removal surgery. Working day and night, Dr. Ruit successfully carried out his goal of 1,000 surgeries on medically deprived individuals, each of whom now waits in darkness for him to remove the thin plastic covers and gauze wraps from their faces.
One by one, the wraps are removed and cries and cheers of joy begin to echo through the room. But the cries are not directed to Dr. Ruit or his staff but to a small display in the front of the room: three photos of Korean leaders, with the deified Kim Jong-il in the center.
On the stairs leading up to this shrine, the patients fling themselves in religious devotion, tears falling from their repaired eyes. Through syncopated sobs, they pledge fealty to their dear leader with grand declarations to the crowd — people promise to work harder in the salt mines, some even promise to die, but all profess service to their leader.
While watching this unfold via documentary film, I glanced at my father, an evangelical pastor of many years, as he slowly shook his head and in disbelief muttered expressions against this churchlike procession such as “how deceived they are,” “how blind, how lost.” It was at this moment, while an “awakening” took place in Korea and my father sullenly intoned with conviction that these people needed Jesus, not Kim Jong-il, that I was struck by the most conflicting realization I’ve had in years.
I was stunned at how, in this militantly anti-religious country, with armed guards posted at each doorway, possibly one of the most devout expressions of belief I had ever seen was taking place. More sincere than in any of the churches I had grown up in, these people were chanting subservience and speaking with more dedication than any Christian I had ever seen.
By this standard, watching from America in my Christian house, my family would swear that these people were in fact the deceived ones. I could only imagine how many Christians would call themselves deceived, for most of them had never believed with such conviction. Watching this unfold led me to believe that it is in fact quite possible to simulate religious experiences. This brought to mind the possibility that my own experiences, the ones which I had sworn were God reaching into my life, could be from within my own head.
I thought to myself, “How could my father call them the deceived ones? At least they can see their god, or watch him on television. In this country, we worship a being which doesn’t even physically exist.” The more I watched, the more I began to feel it is the Christians who act strangely, not the North Koreans.
I started becoming slowly disenchanted with many of the religious practices I had grown up with. First, the authority of church began to crumble. The more I listened to Christians’ experiences of God supernaturally intervening in their lives, the more everything began to look slightly fabricated. If the people in North Korea were capable of experiencing the stupefying powers of religion, and certainly without any intervention by the Christian God, then surely individuals in America could be capable of the same experiences, whether a legitimate God was behind the experiences or not.
The experiences my Christian friends were having were the same ones my nonbelieving friends were having, but my Christian friends were predisposed to attribute everything to God. Thus, the authority of God began to crumble as well.
I realized there was no divine reason why so-and-so had died or had been physically disabled. God isn’t up there pulling all the strings; events are simply unfolding.
People die, lose jobs, get cancer and so on. There doesn’t need to be a spiritual reason for it. Understanding this, I have immense difficulty with the concept of God and have since dismissed it.
Daniel Davis, 19, grew up in McKinleyville, Calif., and is a cellular/molecular biology undergraduate at College of the Redwoods in Eureka. He’s also enrolled in paramedic school and will be receiving a medic’s license in the coming year.