learning about religion

i grew up protestant. can i use protestant as an adverb? i went to sunday school, participated in church fairly regularly, was in the choir, knew the lord’s prayer, all the stuff. i was even an acolyte- mostly because it let me wear a special white robe, hang out with my best friend, and light a candle on fire. that was exciting. so i did hear stories from the Bible; priests (we called them pastors or reverends) knew my name; people in church knew my family; i was baptized; i once memorized a verse (now i don’t know which) so i could earn a special coin.

but to me, going to church was about socializing. B and i drew pictures and wrote notes to each other (for some reason, we circled the letters on the program instead of just writing; i don’t understand the reasoning now except maybe for intrigue??) during the service. the kids that were my age ran around the adults’ legs during the ‘fellowship hour’ in the room that smelled of coffee and pulled on their pants when we wanted to go home. at church fundraisers, we helped the adults cook (making meatballs, stirring the pot of spaghetti sauce), then got to dress up in a fancy homemade apron and take orders like a real waitress, bringing them back to the kitchen where our parents, drinking too much wine and singing along to beatles songs, made up plates of spaghetti and antipasto before we took them out to the front. all of those times were awesome. after the spaghetti suppers, us kids would run through the darkened church, exploring and playing games in the sanctuary, hiding under pews, playing with lights, shrieking. until some dour adult (some man without children) came and interrupted us. it was pretty grand.

so church was never about religion for me. my parents never told me their religious beliefs, explicitly. we celebrated christmas and easter, but neither my mom nor my dad ever shared their own beliefs, or discussed what i was learning in Sunday school, that i remember.

then we moved to a different state, and stopped going to church. i became absorbed in my new busy teenage life (school, band, cross-country and track, artsy funky friends, driving, music, the internet) and didn’t have any need or interest in churchy things; and my parents had their own adjustments to make. we found a church to go to on christmas, but that was it. no new social circle related to the church community, no church suppers, no sunday school, nope.

and as i was a teenager, and my friends mostly infidels (i say with the utmost respect and affection), i had very little interest in religion. besides wicca, of course; it was trendy at the time. and the religion of magic and fantasy books and extreme idealism and music and love for your friends. but i wasn’t close with anyone who was really religious. and then i went to bennington, one of the least religious colleges in the US; where nonconformity was de rigeur and i made puppets on the weekends. not that puppets necessarily indicate a lack of holiness. but it was clothing optional. anyway, suffice it to say, bennington was not a place where i felt at all drawn to a religious worldview. i did have an excellent college boyfriend (shoutout to K), who boldly challenged my assumptions about the end of life, its meaning, etc., but even these conversations did not fundamentally shift my secular, moderately cynical worldview. death was just death; there is no big grandad in the sky. religious people were alien to me; i did not understand the need for faith, let alone its practice; and i carried with me a healthy liberal New England bias against organized religions’ orthodoxy and conservatism. it weirded me out, in essence.

so here i am living in the Middle East, this year and last year. when i explained to family and friends where i was going, several made jokes about the possibility that i would ‘be converted’ or ‘come back wearing a veil’. the intimation was that this would be ridiculous, inconceivable for me and my normal society, and possibly terrible- i would not be the same person; it would be bizarre. also, possibly dangerous. In American eyes, yes, still, Islam and terrorism are linked. in my dad’s eyes: if I came back a Muslim, i would come back an insane, radical deviant. it would be scary.

so it is fascinating to be in M’s class this fall. M & A (you know who you are) teach a ‘Middle East seminar’ for faculty to help orient and ground them in the history, culture, and politics of the region that they are now living in. It’s intended for expat faculty, of course, but several locals come as well. A handles the history side and M more the religion; but of course culture fits into and overlaps both of these. I find it utterly fascinating, and extremely strange. and in fact, it is causing me some angst, or rather, introspection.

you see, i’ve never heard a religion explained intellectually. to me, as M anticipated, religion is basically equated with ignorance. in my social circle, people that follow an organized religion are seen as dumb. they wouldn’t support gay marriage, they don’t admit to global warming, they resist change, they don’t accept fundamental scientific knowledge, they don’t echo our values. socially they are strange to us, sometimes our enemies. this is the bias i still have about many people (although now i could say, about conservative Christians) in the US.

but here, and in this class, i am realizing that smart people can be religious. i am starting to see that the wonders of history, the giant mystery of where we came from and what happened thousands of years before now, are so compelling that some of us are driven to make sense of these things. and to some of us, there are answers. i am starting to question what i really do know. i am not ready to give up science (why do we think they can’t coexist?) and i am not ready to convert. i strongly question the role of women in all organized religions nowadays. but my long-held critique is softening. it is so interesting to learn about.

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