When you are raised by atheists in the Bible Belt you can’t help but be a little religio-curious [pretty sure that is a new coinage, but it’s my language too].
As a young agnostic I flirted with the idea of believing in God. Not exactly because I believed in or wanted to believe in God, but because believing in God seemed very attractive in that all the things one needed to know, think or do in life had answers and were clear. How comforting. Almost relaxing. Being agnostic – which is to say raised in doubt – is somewhat terrifying if you already are a somewhat anxious child raised by adults who have intimated that they are not stellar at adulting [this was before adulting was a word].
If I had continued to live in New York state for my entire young life and not moved to the Bible Belt I might never have known that there were still deeply religious people all over the place [that they in fact even lived in New York, but knew to keep their mouths shut about it]. I have joked for years that even at the ripe old age of eleven [when we moved] that I knew there were people who believed in god [there that’s better, that G was oppressive] but that they grew out of it. Like at some point they realized that god, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, was not real, but a construct that held both the origin just-so story of the universe and also all morality for human kind. You know, it was just a thing you told kids so they wouldn’t be afraid of the dark.
However, move I did. And in rural North Carolina even adults and middle schoolers believed in god. Like they really believed. Sure, there were people who “believed” because all their friends and family went to the local church, which is to say they participated in the community aspects of religion without devoting much thought to belief. But also there were people who BELIEVED. And they did not all believe because they were stupid [as my parents tried to tell me] or because they had made Pascal’s wager. Instead they were coming from a place of credo quia absurdum [“I believe because it is absurd” or perhaps a more faithful translation of Tertullian’s sentiment is “I believe because it is impossible,” because apparently this attribution is dubious and anachronistic].
The take-home message here truly is that many religious believers are not gullible rubes, or grifting hypocrites: they do believe. Whether what they believe is what the founder of their religion intended is really immaterial [all unintended consequences of those beliefs aside]. And when you are a lonely girl on the slow train to puberty, who is outside of the peer group looking in, belief and social cohesion start to look attractive. I wanted to explore what it was about religious people that gave them solace and a sense of belonging. What made them want to share the good news.
So I started reading the Bible.
Nothing is crazier than reading the Bible to yourself, alone in your bedroom like it’s porn [“Who can find a virtuous woman? She is far more precious than rubies.”]. Nothing perhaps but deciding that you’re going to major in religious studies and then telling your family who all – in variously judgmental and impolite ways – tell you you’re crazy. It would have been easier to tell them I was gay than that I thought there was any merit to religion as a focus of study.
But religion, like language, is a fundamental cultural technology of humaness: We need it because it has served [and continues to serve] an evolutionary purpose. If you are a secular person – one of the “nones” – who feel a bit rudderless in the modern world but you’re keeping that at bay by various instruments on non-religious magical thinking [like the cult of exercise, or mindfulness, or clean eating, or positive thinking, or drinking wine – no judgment] then you feel the void left by religion. This is not a knock on exercise, good food, or unwinding with wine, but to be clear it is also not a knock on religion. I know that committed atheists want it to go away, but it’s been not going away for all of modernity.
This isn’t me proselytizing, don’t fear. Have whatever religion you want, but don’t doubt that you have one. This is not a conversion story. I do not believe in any anthropomorph in the sky, or virgin birth, or resurrection of the body, or afterlife, etc [at some point what I believe will be made more clear, though probably not today].
The point is that I remain curious in the utility of religion as a cultural technology. And I understand that deeper in my pre-modern brain, without its artifice of enlightenment and reliance on the scientific method [some of my favorite ideas to rethink], religion scratches an itch. It is like a phantom limb.
A(n) hierophany [I have never seen anyone write it with the indefinite article, so I am leaving room that for the ‘h’ to be silent, or else conventionally treated as silent, as in “an historic”] is – as it was told to me in my required junior seminar for Religious Studies majors – an eruption of the sacred.
It is El Capitan, Uluru, Mount Fuji. It is Mecca, the Wailing Wall, the Holy See. It is the Constitution, the New York Stock Exchange, Silicon Valley. And a multiplicity of smaller, lesser well known loci of the sacred like your grandmother’s kitchen or your grandfather’s shop or the family farm. It is not an orthodox idea, but a feeling that comes at once over someone and gives them a glimpse of the immensity and totality of existence.
You know, no small thing [especially for my tiny corner of the internet to lay any claim to].
I experience hierophanies an awful lot for a non-believer. I am an ecstatic and awestruck individual. I am often overwhelmed by the miraculous fact of our improbable existence and the security of my inability to comprehend it. It’s a wordless and comforting lullaby [that I suspect sort of scares the shit out of lots of people].
I’m here to talk around it because it’s impossible to talk about it. An oracle is both a person and a place who divines or channels the voice of the gods [I swear this is not as arrogant as it sounds]. They are a person who is a(n) hierophany, the Hierophant [if you’re into tarot, which I wouldn’t say I am]. It’s more about the channel than it is about the vessel.
I say some true stuff sometimes. It is not that I think I am the prophetess of a new religion because that is bonkers. It is only that I have created a place, here built of little ones and zeros, to concentrate the pneuma with which I am temporarily entrusted and to share it.
Undoubtedly, this is all heresy.