Some of you will know that I come from a Christian background. I was raised in a protestant family and went to schools that looked at the world from a ‘biblical’ point of view.
At first I wasn’t so much aware of this, because it was all around me. There were two large protestant groups in the town where I grew up. One went to the “Dutch Reformed Church”, and the other to the “Old-Reformed Church”. Both of these conservative protestant communities were represented in the board of the town school, and beside the normal curriculum we had to learn to sing the psalms (in the old Dutch manner, so non-rhytmic), heard the stories from the bible and were indoctrinated with the rules of the “Heidelberg Catechism”.
From the start I was an active, bright and curious kid. Always wanting to know more, and always eager to know how things work and the reason behind it. My parents answered my questions, and encouraged me in this. But at school it was different. The teachers were reluctant to give answers, especially when it came to subjects regarding faith.
In first grade we learned that the universe was created in six days. To me a lot of questions came up: How did the Lord create the universe then? What was before? If God created the universe then who did create God? What kind of tools did he use? And what matter? How about the dinosaurs? I was four years old at the time, and the teacher said I wasn’t allowed to doubt the truth she told. When it came to Noah’s Ark I wondered if there was enough space on the boat, or where they stored the food, were there dinosaurs on the boat, what did they do with the manure, and if there was enough water on the world to flood it entirely… The teachers said I just had to believe what she said, because some things are just true because they are true. When I kept asking about it they ridiculized me and said I asked dumb questions.
Around the same time I watched a cartoon series about the history of the world. This was the first time I learned about other human species and evolution. When I asked about this at school they told me that this were lies, that mankind was created in God’s image and everything in the bible was the literal truth. Asking questions was doubting God’s authority and therefore wrong. You had to do and think as you were told. Everything else was wrong. The other children in school started to mock and bully me because of this.
After a while it didn’t work out anymore, the bullying from the other kids rose to new heights (children from the highest groups even put a knife on my throat) and as a result my school results went down. The teachers decided that I was a dumb, stubborn child, to stupid to learn. In the fourth grade my parents decided to take me to another school.
The new school was a lot better, but again it was a “Christian” school. I still didn’t fit in with the classroom. But something else came along. My mother started to do volunteer work at a local public library. From the age of seven I discovered reading, or more precise, I discovered information books. Up till then at school we only were allowed to read children’s novels, boring, slow, childish things, mostly based on the rigid Christian doctrine the school followed.
I became hooked on learning. Every friday night I spent at the library, browsing the collection and getting as many books home as I could. I discovered the fields of archaeology, ancient Egypt and fossils. In a few years I had read almost the entire history and science section of the library.
At school I did only what was needed to get me trough, it didn’t bother me anymore. But after school I read everything I could get, eager for knowledge, just consuming information.
When I look back I understand those teachers at the town school. With their limited world view, stuck in a Calvinist doctrine, a tradition, they simply couldn’t look beyond what they were told themself. Everything else would put their whole world upside down, it would let them doubt their entire system of belief. In the past this hurt me a lot, but now I only can feel sorry for them. It’s ironic that st. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians tells that they have to “Test all things; hold fast what is good”(1 Thess. 5:21). In other words “Question everything, and hold on to what’s right”. It’s almost the basic law of science…
Jean Calvin, the Pope and Martin Luther quarreling…
But that is just the thing the teachers lacked entirely; the ability to look further than the length of their own shadow. Be critical, think for themselves and be prepared to be wrong. But on the other hand it’s an easy life. Why think for yourself if you have a book and doctrine (social pressure is high on the Dutch Bible Belt) that does that for you?…
By teaching their students the same thing they robbed them of the opportunity to discover new things, to look past the borders of their own town, their own church, their own faith, their own imagination. They believed that they were the only ones chosen by God to be right and tell the whole world about it. They even demonized other Christian groups as headons and idol worshippers, that wandered away from the right path. For them it worked, living between their own borders of their little village and church, and most of their students would never leave this ‘getto’. But it is a very limited view at the world, and even at the works of the god they worship.
Despite this social pressure pain I have found my own path over the years. I have studied the bible, but also “On the Origin of Species” by Darwin. I read the old Babylonian myths that precede the bible and found the origins of the Noah story there (fascinating, because there is also a Noah-like myth in other ancient cultures). I have read books by philosophers and scientists that were forbidden to read at the schools. And yes, I did also read works of Luther and Calvin, as well as the Heidelberg Catechism, but wouldn’t recommend them.
I have spoken and worked with people from various religions, churches and from different backgrounds. Muslims, Hindu’s, Lutherans, Baptists, Orthodox, Catholics, Jews, Agnostics and Atheïsts. Some of them became dear friends, some of them scared me. But what stood out for me was that they all have their good and bad sides. The one thing I learned is that there is no ‘true church’, all try their best, but it’s impossible to do it perfectly. The problem rises when one religious group starts to think they are better than the other.
Ever since all this I slowly lost faith myself, but also refound some. I am a man of science and I don’t believe fairytales are true. But I also think allegorical stories can have meaning. That they can make you think and learn a lesson. I don’t know wherether there is some kind of divine being or not. And if there is one I don’t know wherether I can live with him/her/it or not. When I look at the news sometimes I think that, if he exists, he must be one of the greatest bastards that ever was around.
But on the other hand I can appreciate the social function and existential meaning religion can give in someones life. It helps people to grasp the things they can’t understands. I learned a great deal about christianity by studying other cultures, religions, churches and their rituals art.
To me the two stories in Genesis (yes there are two, look for yourself) about the beginning of the universe are beautiful allegories, myths that people used to give an explanation for what they didn’t know or understand. But at the same time I have the utmost respect for people who can be satisfied with this given explanation. And I have more understanding for people who say they don’t need to know how it really happened, than for morons who try to sell an idea of creationism (we need to hijack that term and apply it to what humans create) or “Intelligent-Design” to others. Please be serious, holding on to these concepts and rejecting emperical knowledge and passing them on as ‘science’ is an insult to all human intellect. If god really wanted us to believe that, then why did he make us intelligent beings in the first place? Wouldn’t it have been easier to make us pre-programmed robots?
I only have problems with religion when it is shoved up someones throat, by saying that ‘this or that is what you have to believe’. Sometimes people seem to think the word “faith” is synonymous with the word “truth”. Especially when it comes to ‘proving’ faith. That you believe something doesn’t mean that it’s an empirical truth. Truth is something that can be measured and seen by other people over and over again, faith is something personal you believe.
So; examine everything you hear, be critical, ask for more information, evidence, weigh it, and draw your own conclusions. But also be kind to people who draw another conclusion, that’s fine, as long as they don’t try to make it mandatory for others to believe it. But also try to learn from them. And don’t forget that it isn’t wrong to change your opinion based on new-found evidence. Don’t get stuck in the mud, think for yourself. A flexible, open mind is the most sane mind there is.