First off, I need to make something clear.
I believe in God. There's no way you can tell me otherwise. When I look at human beings, animals of the air, ground, and sea, rocks, trees, green grass, new-fallen snow, the stars in the sky, it's just all too easy. We are made of nothing but chemicals, minerals, and water, and powered by millions of tiny electric charges each second.
So, yeah, someone built us. That's why it's easy to believe in God.
But what I have had the hardest time with all my life, is the means in which we practice these beliefs.
From the time I was about eleven years old, I was a member of a Lutheran church in my home town of Elyria, Ohio. We had a congregation of about 400 to 500 people per Sunday, except in the summertime when, let's face it, people weren't about to stumble out of bed after a hard, late Saturday night to attend the 8:30 a.m. service.
There were some things you just couldn't do, even for the grace of God.
I remember, from Confirmation and onward into my early 20s, not being happy about everything to do with the church, and most of the people associated with it. I didn't like my Sunday School class, where someone always found some reason to laugh at me or insult me the moment I walked into the room.
I didn't like being an acolyte, because I was generally too nervous to light the candles, and I knew in my heart people were watching me from behind with nothing but amusement or pity.
I didn't like being on their softball team, because the whole team was pretty much convinced I was no good at sports, and was better off as the bench-warmer every single game.
Most of all, I think I really didn't like the people all that much, even the pastor, who shook my hand each Sunday and asked me the same question, "Paul, how are you?"
And then I'll never forget that one day I opened up a hymnal, and saw an old, obscene remark on the front page, directed solely at me -- and realized that hymnal had been opened by the whole congregation at one time or another for years, and no one had said anything about the slur.
You see, it stopped being a church to me. Instead of a church, it seemed like a place where rich, powerful families lorded over the middle-class and low-income ones. Money spoke volumes, and the more you gave, the better your status. If there was something different about you, in my case, a terrible stammer, you could just see it in their eyes when they shook your hand or greeted you. I just never felt comfortable there, despite my mother's insistence that I'd be rewarded someday for all my efforts.
Yeah, I'm still waiting on them, Mom.
I've tried many different religions, most recently Islam. That's right, I was Muslim once. I took my Shahada, that is, the proclamation of faith, in the Spring of 2013, at a time when I truly believed I needed some kind of direction in my life. I felt I needed to please my then-girlfriend, who is also Muslim, but I also thought it would be nice to meet new people, make new friends, build up a solid network, and create a new path for my life.
I'm here to tell all of you, that is not what religion is all about. If you seriously joined a religion for one of the reasons I just stated above, you should probably get out of it.
Religion is not, nor should it ever have been, a fan club, cult, or some special society open to a select few. Is there any wonder our Founding Fathers, from the very beginning, deemed that religion should be a personal, private right? It's like somehow they knew what mind-blowing, devastating consequences we Americans could face if we let our cats out of the bags.
Religion should never have been about going forth and spreading messages and trying to recruit new people. It's not about coming together as a group and praying in a church, temple, or mosque. And it's certainly not about suicide-bombing a Parisian restaurant or concert hall.
I have often told others that I believe most religions are made up of one or two strong-willed, highly-charismatic individuals -- and millions of followers. That's probably what most of these terrorist groups today are. A bunch of weedy, cowardly people who, for one reason or another, decided they needed a new direction in life, and since they couldn't get a job, or sex, or a family, promoting and causing terror seemed like a pretty neat idea, like digital watches.
Religion is a personal choice. You do not choose it because others have, or you feel pressured in some way to do so. For several years, I was inundated with the Watch Tower pamphlets handed out by Jehovah's Witnesses. To this day, I still don't know what the religion is all about because I keep throwing them away without reading.
I made a mistake. My girlfriend insisted on wanting to marry a Muslim man, and I thought I was doing the right thing in becoming one of the followers of Islam. Right away, I knew I was in trouble. Fasting for a month? Praying five times every day, on time, even at 4:30 a.m.? Flying out to Mecca to join the great pilgrimage on the Haji? Leaving everything to God's will?
Well, I knew I wasn't going to make it. I tried it for about two years, and finally this past winter, I just gave up Islam entirely. There would be no happy ending for me after all. Whatever path I'd tried to forge and walk upon, it was closed to me forever.
And yet, I somehow feel like I did the right thing. Islam was never in my heart, or in my mind. Deep down in my soul, even when I was trying evening prayers at the mosque, I just didn't feel like God was paying me the slightest attention.
I guess religion means something special to a lot of people out there. I just hope that whoever, and whatever, they follow, they're not just doing it just to do it, you know? These people who attend churches, or temples, or mosques, have to be there for a reason, and that reason needs to be just one thing -- God. There shouldn't be so much camaraderie, or social gatherings, or anything else that distracts from that one purpose. I'm just not sure that's what religion should be about.
It is a personal, private right we all have. And it's when we don't make it private, or try to encompass others into it, that terrible things happen.
I'm with the late great John Lennon when he sang about imagining a world with no religion, at least in some aspects. I don't believe it needs to be so organized. I don't think we need to have everyone following each other like lost lambs looking for shelter from their storms.
Why can't religion be about individuals giving their praises to God, and that's it?
Again, I do believe in God very much, and I think He'd be exceedingly angry over how far we've gone, with the money, the power, and the horrific loss of life.
It wouldn't be the worst idea in the world, if we got rid of all the churches, temples, mosques, and others houses of worship, and deconstructed and did away with all the organizations, foundations, and associations.
Then the people of the world could just quietly, reverently, privately worship God.
And maybe then He'd finally hear what we have to say.