By Chez Pazienza: Not long after I moved out to L.A. at the beginning of this year, my mother sent a care package after me in the form of a large box containing a bunch of my stuff from back east. Since I had come to California with basically nothing -- two weeks' worth of clothes and the assumption that I'd be returning to Miami after a couple of months of freelance TV work and a necessary change of scenery -- I was eager for anything I could get my hands on that would make my new apartment on the West Coast feel like a real home. With that in mind, I tore through the box like a kid on Christmas morning, pulling out familiar clothes, shoes, my beloved XBOX and a couple of odds and ends that my mother had just figured I'd want to have around as I set up an entirely new life. As I took inventory of everything she'd shipped me, I kind of marveled at just how well the woman who gave birth to me knew me and still knows me -- even now -- which would only make sense being that we've been putting up with each other for 42 years.
Then I got to the bottom of the box and I stopped cold.
There amongst all the pieces of myself that I so easily recognized were two DVDs that I damn well did not. The discs were unopened, still in their original wrapping, and as I turned them over one at a time in my hands, examining them, I'm sure the expression on my face was something between incredulity and bemusement. One of the DVDs was Fireproof, the Kirk Cameron movie that was a minor hit nationally a couple of years back but which remains a touchstone in Christian pop culture and "pro-marriage" propaganda. The other disc was some documentary I'd never heard of called The Case for Christ, which billed itself as "a journalist's personal investigation of the evidence for Jesus."
My first thought upon mentally processing the fact that these two DVDs had somehow hitched a ride in a box full of my things: My mother, it seems, really does know me all too well. And at the same time, she doesn't know me at all. Or maybe it's simply that she underestimates my resolve when it comes to issues of religion -- namely, my decision to want nothing to do with any of them and to often fiercely admonish the outsize role faith is allowed to play in our supposedly enlightened culture -- and indulges in a pretty fair amount of wishful thinking. My second thought was that I should probably call Mom and talk to her.
When I asked about the surprise Jesus movies that seemed to proclaim their own mystery of faith simply by being in a box with a bunch of crap that belonged to me, my mother pleaded ignorance. She said that since she'd found the discs among a bunch of other DVDs, and she knew they weren't hers or my fathers, she naturally assumed they must be mine.
As Bill Cosby used to say in a famous bit from years ago, one coincidentally about God: right. If you'll pardon the ironic vernacular -- there's no way in hell I own a Kirk Cameron movie.
I can't say for sure whether Mom purposely slipped me some religious agitprop, but I do know that for some time now her very strong faith and my nonexistent faith have been at odds. Friendly and loving odds, mind you, but still -- odds. She believes in God, Jesus and so on, as described in the Bible (although she's far from obsessive or puritanical in her views). I believe there may be some sort of consciousness out there bigger than all of us but I don't think it's anything the Bible, Koran, Torah or any other self-professed holy book that man has cobbled together and held up to the skies like Simba over the African plain has adequately represented. And no, if there even was a Jesus of Nazareth he was probably just a pretty good guy, certainly a major pain in the ass to the establishment, but he wasn't a divine creature. He was a man like the rest of us.
I bring all of this up because a study was released a couple of days ago that's generating quite a bit of discussion. According to the Pew Forum, for the first time in our nation's history a majority of us aren't self-identifying as Protestant. Add to that this little surprise: The number of Americans who now claim to not be willing to affiliate themselves with any religion has skyrocketed to 20% over just the past five years. This doesn't necessarily mean that atheism is on the rise, since it only accounts for a minor percentage of that overall number, but it speaks volumes about what many people now see as the negative effect of organized religion on American society -- particularly its draconian, demagogic grasp on our politics -- and a return to, if any, a faith and belief system that's more personal and less intrusive.
I've been down the road of explaining my lack of belief in what I deem to be ancient superstition and nothing more many, many times, so there's no point arguing the details yet again. I don't consider myself an atheist simply because there's no reason to consider myself anything at all when it comes to religious or lack-of-religious labels. I abide by logic and reason and therefore something as utterly ridiculous and unreasonable as an unwavering faith in myth and magic isn't even a possibility. Yes, I was raised to believe in God and Jesus, but at some point I kind of dumped the unnecessary hand-me-down and came to the realization that while I respect my family as people I don't have to adhere to or defer to their beliefs, certainly not beliefs that are based on an ancient book written by people who knew nothing about anything as well as the centuries of supposedly sacrosanct tradition that followed. Yeah, I love my mother and father wholeheartedly -- as well as the rest of my extended family -- I just know to avoid discussions of faith with them, for the most part. I don't go out of my way to denigrate a faith in the Christian god when I'm in their presence, but I also respectfully push back when challenged on my own views. (Again, for the record, neither my mother nor anyone in my family has ever really taken me to task for my lack of belief.)
With the sharp rise in the number of polemics over the last several years written and spoken by high-profile atheists like Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, it's certainly become at least a little easier to take a stand against the notion that you need religion in your life to be a good person. But to be honest, I never felt like I needed the backing. My argument has always been that there's no truth in democracy, that just because a lot of people believe something doesn't in any way make that something real. That's the kind of argument I often hear from Christians and the otherwise faithful: "Well, 85% of Americans believe in God, so that proves you wrong!" No it doesn't. That number is utterly irrelevant. Just about 100% of America's kids firmly believe in Santa Claus -- it doesn't make him real.
Actually, if you're looking for what very likely accounts for the sudden shift for a lot of people to the position of "none of the above" when it comes to matters of faith, I think you need look no further than Georgia Republican Representative Paul Broun. In case you missed it, he recently called evolution and the big bang theory of creation "lies from the pit of hell." And he merely followed up the divinely dictated opinion of Todd Akin that abortion was unnecessary because, in addition to it being an affront against Christ, women's bodies can shut down the unwanted sperm of rapists. And the years and decades of myriad awful legislation proffered in the name of keeping Jesus happy. Despite the guarantee of a separation of church and state, God owns the government in this country -- particularly the right, upon which he has a stranglehold -- and I can't help but imagine that there are quite a few people who are damn tired of it. These are the people for whom faith is a personal choice and one they refuse to impress upon their fellow man and woman. These are the people who aren't so arrogant and grotesquely pious that they believe they should be able to enforce their spiritual views through public policy.
For years now, religion has been allowed to hijack our national politics, turning us into a theocracy. One of the most pronounced in existence in the civilized world. Essentially the same kind of fundamentalist nation we purport to loathe and stand in defiance of when that country happens to be located in the Middle-East and worships a god not officially sanctioned by the Bible.
It's the intrusion of religion into our lives, whether we want it or not, that's very likely pushing people away and inward.
A few years back, my mother, who had been a practicing Catholic for most of her life, stopped going to church entirely. She made the decision to abandon the organization in an official capacity after the worldwide priest sex scandal exposed the modern Catholic Church as being nothing but a bunch of common criminals who shielded their evil by wrapping it in the cloak of supposedly infallible piety. It disgusted her -- and she'd had enough. While she still believed in God, ugly, man-made fact turned her away from the church as an institution.
Reality eventually sets in. It corrodes faith in even the most mundane of ways and in all but the most delusionally dedicated.
I'm not sure I'll live to see a day when we truly do cast off our submission to ancient superstition, but we may already be at a point where enough people are questioning religion as an institution that it moves us all a little closer to the light.
By the way, I still have those DVDs if anybody's interested in them. Still in the original wrapping.