An Experience With Organized Religion & X-Men

I’ll just say it bluntly: religion terrifies me.

Now, I’m not talking about Islamic fundamentalism or the far-right-Christian-Conservatism-Pat Robertson religions. I’ll assume all that can be picked apart and logically looked at as movements completely entrenched in politics and economics. Cultists and Wiccans (the fastest growing religion in the world!) can easily be written off as wackos and even be really fascinating. Just six years ago, over 60,000 Moonies were married at a mass wedding in Seoul’s Olympic Stadium. People from over 150 countries attended. That’s just plain amazing. Day-to-day religion is what really gets my skin crawling.

According to a study by the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), four out of five American adults identify themselves with a specific religion, with Christianity obviously taking the lead at over 75 percent. But with Christians, you also get the entire spectrum of God-fearing Jesus freaks, from Mormons (2 percent) to old school Catholics (24.5 percent).

However, there must be a significant number of religious Americans who go to church every Sunday, temple on Saturday, etc, but don’t really let it devour their everyday lives. And just from watching "The Simpsons" or “Family Guy” or (“God” forbid) “King of the Hill,” it’s pretty clear that religion, even in the depths of middle America, does not control every aspect of normal life for the majority of people.

I wasn’t raised under any religion. While most people I know can say, “my dad used to be Catholic,” or “I had my first sexual experience at church camp,” or “I had a Bar Mitzvah because my grandmother would’ve flipped out,” most of my memories involving religion are all ambiguous and leave me uncertain about it. When I’m asked what my parents “are,” I normally say my father’s a non-practicing Christian and my mother a fake Buddhist. Gross generalizations, of course. Nothing was ever pushed upon me though; there was no familial, institutionalized religions force in my suburban home. There was a Bible in our house, but it also sat next to piles of National Geographics , vaguely pornographic fashion and lingerie magazines, and various reference books.

My father asked me before I went to college if I believed in God. After a second or two, I said, “No, not at all really.”

It didn’t appeal to me. Aside from learning about all the religious wars that plagued Europe for centuries and the Crusades and Jihads and everything, logically, I decided that religious people were obviously insane. I wasn’t going to kill or die for a book or some bizarre entity with a fantastic story about virgin births and kings who gave spices as gifts, so why bother with it? But at my friends’ homes, I still recognized the cross on the wall, the statue of Ganesh. And I wondered if I could possibly be wrong.

Fuck no.

A couple years ago, I became curious again. I was friends with people whom I saw prayed deeply before each meal, before going to bed. These were people I respected. They were knowledgeable, well-read, rational people. How could they dedicate their faith, their sanity to luck and superstition? I couldn’t accept a simple answer like “It’s just something I’ve always done,” so one weekend I went to church with my friend Katie to see what it’d be like; to face this strange trepidation I had about the Almighty.
First and foremost, Katie is brilliant. She studied biomedical engineering, read philosophy, aced every math class possible, had acceptable taste in music. But unlike the rest of her Midwestern family, Katie was ridiculously religious. On Sundays though, she would wake up at six to get to church an hour early to set up the computer projector and help with the sound system to make sure the sermons of the day were seen and heard in the back. She would stay late to clean up and have a private prayer session with a handful of uber-Christians. When I asked her if I could go see what church was all about, she got incredibly excited, did a lot of hugging and reassuring me that it would be great and not scary.

Here are some notes I took that day:

- The New Community Church actually doesn’t have enough money to buy a church. They, like several churches on Sunday morning at 8am, set up shop in multiplex. X-Men 2, playing at 12:05.
- Katie explains to me that this is a “contemporary worship” church: most people are under 30, there’s a band, multimedia presentations, etc. Reverend Peter was only 32, had a girlfriend, liked jazz and blues, liked writing in his blog .
- The band sings between parts of the good rev’s talks. “There’s a friend in Jesus who will wipe your tears away.” Are most people here sad?
- Sermon entitled “When God says No.” Horny Christians, pay attention.
- There’s a spelling error in the Powerpoint presentation.
- Reverend Peter isn’t actually a reverend. He’s a pastor. I don’t know the difference.
- “My life is in [Jesus’s] hands…” No comment.
- Lots of group singing. People spontaneously stand if they feel the need to. Pretty much everyone does. Typical stance: right hand over heart, left hand in the air reaching for some unseen object, eyes closed, tears welling up. Katie tells me not to feel obligated to stand and/or sing. I do neither. Stadium seating plush seats are great for note-taking.
- The room wreaks of humility.
- Service ends. The movie theater manager comes in, says to clean up cause people are starting to buy tickets for the early show.
- I help Katie clean up, break apart stage, coil up sound system wires, smile at hot female bassist, Erin. We talk about music, how long she’s been playing. Erin digs Kim Gordon. Katie tells me later Erin’s 19 and married.
- Pastor Peter welcomes me into the family. Katie introduces me as “a really good friend who wanted to see what the church had to offer.” I realize I’m very hungover, probably still wreaking of booze and cigarettes. He hugs me. I go outside for a smoke.

I realize that there are plenty of people who don’t go to church, who still believe in God or at least consider themselves “spiritual.” And in the past few years, there have been several people on the street or in subway cars passing out flyers who’ve tried to argue the merits of Christianity with me, that there was no way I could possibly be a devout Atheist. But what they never seemed to understand and what I never could articulate was that organized religion scares the shit out of me. If a church can appear in the same space as a film that boasts evolution and natural mutations, be the driving force behind denying Constitutional doctrine, cajole people to hate and superiority, and still garner the devotion of intelligent, logical people, then it can do anything. Once that movie theater full of twenty-somethings starts pulling down signing bonuses at middle management positions in corporate America, New Community Church might take a giant leap up. Religious rock and sadness may be sheathed, replaced by blind singing and happy check-writing.

Organized religion will not take over the world or, more importantly, my daily musings. But it’s there. An easily accessible, socially accepted addiction. An institution of blind faith where the only thing that separates "Cult" and "Church" is the number of devotees. The Moonies, rather, the Unification Church, now claims over 4.5 million followers, and is now widely accepted in the US as a recognized church, a bona fide religion with tax exemptions galore. Like all religions, the Reverend Moon offers answers, even if he’s locked behind bars for tax fraud. Why does my life suck? God’s testing you. What happens to Grandma when she dies? She goes to heaven. What can I do to be happier? Believe. It’s simple. It’s all in the book. Forget history, forget rationale, forget science. No other resources needed.
I prefer the movies . They’re more believable.

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