I just realized that losing my religion as an early teenager led to a lot of troubled times throughout my teens and even into my early 20s.
I'd actually believed this religious stuff before then. I'd been raised as a Christian, and everyone I knew was a church-going Lutheran or Catholic (though the latter was eyed with suspicion), with a couple Evangelical Free friends. As I begin drafting this late at night, after pondering this article (about how Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts) and this debate on the Facebooks, I can clearly recall being really emotionally moved by hearing certain sermons or reading stories about Jesus and salvation through love and sacrifice. About how, after He came along to burn down the authoritarian patriarchy, we could throw away all those old hateful bigotries and prejudices, and look forward to a utopian future based on love - if only everyone would just believe in Him!
What ruined this for me was when my confirmation teacher forced us to say that the unbaptized go to hell. (It was a fundamentalist strain of Lutheranism that no longer exists, closest to the Missouri Synod.)
"What about babies born in areas where they could never have heard of Jesus?" I asked, trying to fit this logically into what I'd studied about this religion's eponymous founder.
"It's tragic, but that's the Lord's law," she said.
This bore no relation to anything I had come to believe about Jesus, or the very foundations of what I believed Christianity to be. So it couldn't be right. But this religious teacher - and the pastor's wife embodying the Church itself! - was insistent this irrational notion was true. When I asked my Mom about this, she said to do what I was told (ah, the underlying virus of religious authoritarianism) and "just say the damn words! You don't have to believe them."
But if that were true, what was the point of the Church (in its broadest sense), the most-massive and enduring undertaking in all human history? If we simply recite the words but don't believe in them, how can we call it "faith"? More importantly in the societal sense, if we don't need to believe what we're told or what we say, what's the purpose of organized religion at all?
The existentially horrifying part of all this is that seemingly everyone in America (where 83 percent identify as Christian) was part of a conspiracy of fear ("You'll burn in Hell for eternity if you're a disbeliever!"), or else consciously trying to suppress reality - and trying to infect the minds of their children with this mind-virus. So it seemed that either everyone was aware of the lie and complicit in its perpetuation, or they were dangerously out of touch with reality, allowing fear to control their minds so they could accept blatant untruths, or some mix of scary-unhealthy world-views. Or all of these.
So on that day, like the clouds parting for the first time to let sunlight illuminate what used to lurk unseen in the shadows, it became lucidly clear that my faith in the teachings of Jesus as told in what I'd thought of as historical documents bore no relevance to what humans had hammered into doctrine.
Worse, what if this thing that had consumed so much of human creativity and ingenuity over the millennia had merely been a tool for authoritarian oppression devised by men seeking to control a populace who appear willing to swallow nonsense and spout things they don't even believe? And who continue propagating the lies and delusions, forcing their children also to blindly obey?
This was terrifying. Remember the movie THEY LIVE? It felt like that, as if I were surrounded by threatening aliens. How could the people around me not see them? Certainly pre-teen me couldn't be smarter or more insightful than the vast milling masses of adult church-goers. So were they collaborators in some vast alien conspiracy to take over the minds of children?
Which is worse?
Regardless, this is the moment I point to, when I lost my religion and my faith in anything. From here on out, unless I see verifiable evidence of something bandied as truth, or morally right, or real, I disbelieve. Just because some authority says something is so doesn't mean a thing, because clearly authorities were fallible, all the way back to the dudes responsible for founding the early Christian church - and obviously those who created early superstitious religions were wrong: Not only are we taught this by the leaders we're told to believe and obey, they're falsifiably incorrect. I mean, only the most protean animistic religions bear any relation to the real world, because we can see how lightning causes fire or how animals behave in the face of storms. Only the philosophy-based religions seem to offer anything useful to their practitioners, yet look at how even Buddhism has been twisted by the patriarchy.
Before this revelation, I had seriously considered pursuing a career (or at least an avocation) in religious work. During my years of crisis, I spent a great deal of time and energy researching religious systems, seeking to piece together a core set of universal and rational beliefs in an attempt to construct a religion relevant to our times. Something I could believe in, something that might help make sense of a world that otherwise seems intentionally insane.
Nothing came of the search except a deeper appreciation of the universe. I've never lost my spiritual connection to nature - the animals who've inhabited this world far longer than we've built cities, the planets where such beings can live, the stars that provide the energy to fuel our lives, and the rest of the universe, which provides the soil for everything else to grow.
But that wasn't enough to soothe my existential angst. I suffered pretty traumatic and turbulent teenage years, and barely made it out of then alive. Because this is also when I lost faith in human beings. I mean, if the single greatest communal effort to build and maintain something in all of human history - the Church in its diversity of manifestations - was either a lie, or a delusion, or a shield against fear, how could we hope for a better future? If people choose ignorance, accept on faith things that are verifiably untrue, and oppress those who do not believe mutually incompatible articles of faith, there's no hope for a long-term human future.
I just now also realize that my rejection of Christianity (and organized religion in general) is probably a big part of why my Mom treated me so much worse than she treated my brother. For whatever reason, and despite her powerful intelligence and terrible childhood, she was deeply religious. She's the one who forced child-me to go to church every Sunday and holiday, and to attend Sunday school and Confirmation classes. When I was an adult, she forwarded me so many hateful, bigoted, racist spam-mails that I had to filter out most of her messages (once such capabilities appeared). These were indications that she was probably one of those hateful Christians who now rule the American discourse. She probably hated me for rejecting her God, and her Church (she did every so often tell me that she hated me). Despite her strong advocacy of feminist concerns, I know she hated how I reject out of hand all forms of authoritarianism. She was always a leader in everything she did - work, church, friends - which was an outstanding trait for a woman in the 1970s. But it was still authoritarianism, and she still served the patriarchy.
So when my brother told me at mom's funeral that my childhood experience under Mom was nothing like his, it makes sense. He went to church, and Sunday school, and Confirmation. He accepted authoritarian rule. He continued to say the words that he was supposed to say; he might not have believed them, and I know that in his heart he was not obedient to authority, but he pretended to be. And that seems to be all that really matters to religious extremists.
To Mom, my brother was one of Them, or at least a willing conspirator, whereas I was loud and determined in my rejection of the entire enterprise. Burn it all down and start fresh!
As a boy standing alone in the dark beside my telescope, I remember calling out to the starry sky, begging benevolent aliens (for what other type would visit such a flawed world yet not eradicate us like vermin?) to take me away. I drew spaceships that I could imagine piloting far away. I dreamed of exploring the moons of Jupiter alone, far from the insanity of Earth, of the coming changes that would transform our society and ourselves into something worthy to endure into the future. I wrote stories about these things, and the fall of adult civilization, and imagined a world where I could bear to live.
See, this was also the time during which I discovered most of my friends and many of my closest relatives had endured horrifically abusive childhoods. What kind of species tortures their young? The same kind that holds them down and injects cognitive retro-viruses into their brains.
I spent a great deal of my teens and early 20s in deep depression, suicidal on occasion but mostly fearless of death, because how could it be worse than having to dwell in the shadow of the monsters who rule our world, whom we must obey - or at least pretend to obey? I've never been any good at pretending such things.
Under such rule, there can be no bright future. There can be no utopia.
Ever since I discovered it, science fiction has served as my primary existential comfort, and it remains so. SF needs no gods, and if it has religion, it can illuminate what's wrong with how we do it. It offers visions of futures where things can be different.
It taught me that change is good. That it is, in fact, necessary for growth, healing, learning, and everything else that is positive in our lives. If we're not changing, we're dying. (Huh, I just realized something else: This is what The Galactic Adventures of Jack & Stella is all about, and where its themes come from.)
Only by finally letting go of desperately clinging onto the plague-ship of religion was I able to restore my faith in humankind. Only be letting go was I able to imagine futures without hate or bigotry, where we can build something instead of expend all our energy dragging along the toxic casks from our past.
I sometimes joke that my religion is the Church of Science Fiction. Looked at in the right light, SF does serve that purpose better than any church I've ever encountered, in that it also offers stories about the Big Questions, about our origins and our ultimate end, what's right and wrong, transformations and transcendence. It's a space where we can identify flaws in our world today and envision possible futures where those things have either gotten worse or where we've solved them. It needs no gods but those within us and around us and illuminating the sky. It does not demand faith; it rewards knowledge and imagination and creative re-envisioning. Like science itself, it questions everything and accepts nothing that cannot be verified. Best of all, it's a community and an ongoing conversation. It's a family.
And SF is more true than any religion could hope to be.
Organized religion almost killed me. Science fiction kept me from falling into the abyss. I survived to become a science-fiction writer, a teacher of SF literature, and - like long-time friend and SF writer Frederik Pohl - a science enthusiast.
The only way our species can survive is to transcend as a whole the self-perpetuating, outdated, and damaging authoritarian structures we drag along from our past, which hold us back from reaching for the future. Science provides the tools and methods to determine what needs to be changed, and science fiction provides the safe laboratory where we can test-run alternate visions of ethics, societal structures, and an infinity of other things, including ourselves.
So, yeah, if I retain any semblance of religion in my personal life, it's definitely science fiction.
EDIT: I neglected to point out that I simply refused to say the words I didn't believe and got confirmed anyhow! When the teacher realized how stubborn I was about these convictions, she said she’d pass me if instead of answering in a way I had problems with during the test, I could just recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Of course, this made it clear even to barely teen-me that her compromise was a bogus and cynical CYA move - she didn’t want to be exposed as a failure and a fake! Hypocrisy doesn't inspire the numinous.
So I guess that’s a pretty important part of this transformation, too.