Religion and I

My parents were Protestants, but rarely attended church. I never went to Sunday School, but always said a prayer before going to bed. When I was young, it was always the well-known (but morbid) prayer from the 18th century:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Amen.

At some point, I graduated to the Lord’s Prayer. As best I can remember, it was the long Protestant one with “debts” and “debtors”, instead of “trespass” and “trespasses”, and the extra praise at the end:

Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts
As we forgive our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom
And the power
And the glory,
Forever.

Amen.

By the way, did you know that “amen” is roughly translated as “so be it” and that it came from Hebrew, or maybe Aramaic, through Greek and Latin and then to us? In other words, just like the rest of the Bible.

Then one night when I was 13 or so, in the grip of burgeoning skepticism or adolescent rebelliousness, I decided not to recite my nightly prayer. It felt like a major step. I’d never felt religious, except maybe around Christmas. But I wondered whether going straight to sleep would mean I’d end up in Hell. (Obviously, the jury is still out.) I think I’d concluded that God probably doesn’t exist. For roughly ten years, I’d simply been talking to myself, rather like Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class:

Lady Claire Gurney: “How do you know you’re God?”

Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney: “Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.”

Within a few years, I was studying philosophy and my skepticism increased. Philosophers are trained to question assumptions and offer evidence. Citing tradition or faith as justification for one’s views isn’t enough. Plus, the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are uniformly weak. As a rule, therefore, philosophy is hard on religion. So much for religion, for the next twenty years.

Then, however, I began thinking about religion again – not because I wanted to become religious, but because I wanted to understand its popularity. Where did religion come from? Why do so many people take it so seriously? Why, for example, have religious authorities been so concerned about sex?

I began reading about the history of Christianity in particular. I read William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, and about the “historical” Jesus, and the Council of Nicea, and several books by the historian of religion, Elaine Pagels. I read about the idea of Satan, and the Gnostics, and Paul’s conflict with Jesus’s brother James.

The conclusion I reached is that the history of Christianity is much more complex than most people realize. What got into the Bible and what is promulgated in church could have turned out very differently if other people had translated or copied the texts or won the arguments about church doctrine. People will say it’s all been decided and documented according to God’s hidden plan. I think it’s much more likely to have been a messy, contingent, unpredictable process, like all other major human endeavors, and there’s nothing supernatural about it.

Probably next time: I found a label for what I believe, and have begun reading the New Testament in a way I never thought of before.