Humanism or Religious Dogma

I was born a Humanist in a religious household, and that created a battle between the values taught at home and school and my developing mind. Parents and church would like say that I was born a Catholic, that I have no choice about that just as much as children born into a Jewish family or in any other faith have no choice about their religion. My mother sent me to Sunday school to learn Catechism with the same fervor and duty that parents of any religion instruct their children in the Torah if they are Jewish, in the Qur’an if they are Muslims, in meditation if Buddhists, and so on.

It was expected of me to embrace their Catholicism, their beliefs with all the dogmas. But participation in many church functions was often a chore, something I did out of obligation. Those times when I found them enjoyable involved my dressing up like a little bride for the first communion and confirmation ceremonies.

My lessons in catechism had me captivated with Bible stories told by Sister Agnes that were grimmer than Grimm’s fairy tales. But that’s all they were to me—just another type of fairy tales. Sister Agnes wanted me to believe that the stories were true, that they were events that happened long before time, and said that I had better believe them or I wouldn’t get to wear my pretty, white dress. I wanted to believe her stories, but I had many questions, and her answers generated more questions.

Q: If we come from Adam and Eve, where did they come from?
A: God created them.
Q: Who created God?
A: God is eternal.
Q: How do you know?
A: You must have faith.

Then came instruction in the Ten Commandments with its great principles of ethics and morality, except for the first commandment:

I am the Lord your God; you shall not have other gods besides me. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandment.

I had problems from the start. God was merciful, jealous and vengeful. How could that be? My young brain couldn’t put into words what my gut was telling me. If I didn’t pray to this God, then my children and grandchildren and their children’s children will be punished for my “iniquity.” I didn’t understand. I asked Sister Agnes, What is iniquity. She told me I was too young to understand and again told me to have faith. So I prayed to God to give me faith. But the word “mercy” in the same sentence with “jealous” followed by threats of vengeance toubled me. How can a person who is jealous and vengeful have mercy? Punish me, if you please, but leave my children out of this. There had to be a mistake.

The second commandment had me worried.

You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.

My father, a good man, used “the name of the LORD” in vain every time he had an emotional outburst, and he never apologized for it nor went to confession. For all his goodness, he was a damned man. Where was the merciful part of the good Lord?

I pushed aside the first two commandments because the other eight were pretty cool, especially the one about observing the Sabbath. But, wait a minute! Why did I have to go to Sunday school on my Sabbath day? Wasn’t that conflicting? Hypocritical? The questions kept sprouting. I asked, If God is all powerful, Why couldn’t he save my friend Lucy from the whooping cough? Why didn’t he stop the rain that overflowed the river and left people homeless? Why did he allow daddy to get hurt in the war? Why didn’t He stop the war?

Most of my secondary school years were spent in a sectarian boarding school with regimented daily routines and robotic religious services. These were my years of arrested development—educational, emotional, and social. When I returned home after four years of boarding school, I was incapable of independent thinking and acted out my gut feeling with rebellious outbursts.  

I rejected the religious teachings that had been passed on through generations. The dogmatic current of my indoctrination from home and school failed to grab me. Therefore, I did not drift away from religion as I was never taken in by it. This I recall as well as an incident when I was nine years old, when my mother expected me to receive the eucharist every Sunday. This ritual required a clean, empty stomach to receive the symbolic body of Christ. While my mother wasn’t looking, I took a sip of milk and left my white mustache on for her to see. It was my first act of conscious rebellion against her beliefs. 

My religious education continued through the years of middle school without any progress. I could not accept the existence of anything on faith. I needed empirical evidence, and the fact that someone was confined to a wheel chair and suddenly could walk was acceptance in blind faith. I needed something empirical, something to believe.  Who was I without the beliefs that defined generations of my bloodline? Nothing more than a spineless splotch of muscle and gook that couldn’t stand up to anything.

I had to find something to hold me up, that could give me what religion failed—a spiritual identity that I could live with. I delved into any book on religious philosophy and related literature that I could find. I could not embrace a dogmatic religion with dos and don’ts that other doctrines exhort, and I was still lost in nothingness.

I chanced upon The American Humanist Association through the widespread availability of internet searches. The key word that grabbed me to this site was the use of the word “progressive,” in its many ways. It appeared as part of the mission statement on its home page:

Advocating progressive values and equality for humanists, atheists, and freethinkers.

This same word showed up again in the first sentence that defined “What is Humanism.” Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life . . . Progressive—developing gradually, step by step, defined me best. It suited me like a pair of soft leather shoes with a sturdy sole and perfectly sized arch support that would wear out with use until it was time to update. Progressive. It was the antithesis of religious dogma, where belief in ancient doctrine was literally written in stone. I was reminded of a few lines of Walt Whitman’s poem “To the States.”

To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist
much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever after-
ward resumes its liberty

It takes more than courage to resist much. It takes an understanding to know what one is resisting to and, most of all, it takes maturity. It is a process of becoming. To obey little means standing up to authority, to question their dictates. It would be easy to give in to their demands, to live a life without conflicts. So many times I’ve been advised to “roll with the punches,” but I obeyed little and suffered the punches. I wish I had known of Walt Whitman then; I would have found strength in his words.

As humanist, I’m moving forward, wearing out old and tried doctrines, and developing over time. That development doesn’t stop but continues to happen with every breath I take, with every book I read, with every person I meet, with every port I visit.

Somewhere in the literature of Humanism I read that the universe is a dynamic force, that it is in a continuous flux. I’m a part of this force, infinitesimal as it may be on the universal scale but profound in one human being, Me.