Recently, I’ve seen a number of very amusing memes about religion, and, of course, some very disturbing ones. Some of the worst, in my opinion, are those depicting childhood indoctrination. Pictures of children holding signs emblazoned with the slogans “God Hates Fags” and “Behead Those Who Insult the Prophet” are now forever burned in my memory. One such picture both made me laugh and cringe at the same time. It is this: Young children, raising their arms to the sky, and presumably, their god, in obedient, faithful worship.
Why did this make me cringe? Because though this type of indoctrination is certainly less violent and hateful than the others I mentioned, it is still inherently disturbing. Why did it make me laugh? Because any one of those kids could have been me.
At the age of 10, at my churchy church camp, was the first time I came across this strange loud music, arm-raising, dancy-dance type of worship. Until that point, my experience at “worship” had been church, which, as it is for most kids, was boring as all fuck, with an air of judgement from the older members of the congregation every time I moved or made a noise. But this… guitars, drums, crazy dancing… this was NOTHING like church services I’d been to in the past. At first, I didn’t really understand why people kept raising their arms, and closing their eyes while they were singing. And they looked pretty stupid, but yet, I felt this itching sensation that I was supposed to do what they were doing. Almost as if, by not participating, I was missing out on some part of this “god” experience.
Later that night, during our nightly devotional, our counsellor decided to explain the arm-raising (she must have seen my looks of bewilderment). Paraphrased, from a memory of events that occurred 17 years ago (but it’s pretty well burned in my brain, so it’s probably accurate):
“When I have my hands out, but down near my sides, I’m saying ‘Jesus, I need you to come and speak to me, now!’. When I raise one hand, I’m saying ‘Yes, God, I hear you, and I’m willing to do as you say’. When I raise both hands, outstretched and up high, I’m saying, ‘Jesus, I surrender myself to you, and praise you with all that I am!'”
At the time, I was amazed that she and Jesus had such an intricate system of hand signals worked out. I wondered if he’d use the same system with me, or if we’d have to develop our own code. And then I wondered, vaguely, why it was necessary at all, if God could just look in her mind and know what she was thinking. But I dismissed that thought, encouraged by this new knowledge and so excited to start worshipping God in this “correct” way.
Worship services from there got much more interesting, and much more stressful. Stressful, you ask? Well, of course. Just because I now understood the reasons why people raised their hands, and I wanted to do it too, didn’t change the fact that they looked completely ridiculous. It’s funny looking back now to see that, even then, something inside me knew the whole thing was bogus. But as a child of that age, all you want to do is fit in, even if that means dancing around, singing to a magical sky ghost with your arms raised above your head.
In the 7 years that followed, I returned to that church camp every summer. As I got older and began to understand what god was supposed to be, the worship “experience” changed for me. I remember telling someone once, a non-believer friend of mine, that I “knew” god was real because I had “experienced” him in my life. This was something I attributed to worship. That feeling of singing a song to god, raising your hands, and feeling something emotional, something in your heart, that moved you, and that you just KNEW had to be god.
However, that was when I was young, and naive. Now that I’m older, wiser, and hopefully a little less ridiculous, I’ve come to understand what those experiences were. Today, I can’t watch a choreographed dance routine without being brought to tears. I can’t listen to some kinds of music without feeling my heart rate speed up, without feeling emotional, or getting goosebumps. Is this god, all of these years later, still “moving” in me? Of course not. This is a natural reaction I and many others feel when connected to something beautiful like music, or dance. These are emotional experiences within themselves. Now I realize, looking back, that the “experience” I had with god at bible camp was just the same- an emotional reaction to an emotional situation, accentuated by a piece of music. Despite what I may have thought I was experiencing at the time, god was never moving in me. It was simply my own emotions, cleverly masquerading as an outside force, when really it was just within me all along.
So- What’s my point? There are two points. 1) Childhood indoctrination into these crazy religious beliefs and practices is just as odd and frightening to those being indoctrinated as it is to the observer. 2) I firmly, completely believe that any “experience” one thinks they’ve had with god can very easily be explained if you apply logic and critical thinking. Considering that “personal experience” is one of very few proofs people offer of god (and I’m being generous calling it proof), what does this mean for god? To me, it means his case for existing has gone from weak, to weaker.