I get asked pretty often what I’m studying in college. It’s the most common question any student is asked, really. A lot of the time, during my Undergrad years, I usually just told people I was studying one of my two subjects- Classical Civilization. Classics is a cool subject, after all, and it was easy to tell people why I chose to study it; I’ve been obsessed with the ancient world as far back as I can remember. When I was about ten years old my teacher asked me to teach our class Roman History because it was all I ever spoke about and he probably knew I’d just take charge of the lesson and teach it anyway, like the show-off-nerd that I was. I’ve always known I wanted to study Graeco-Roman History in college. It has been one of the few constant things I’ve enjoyed my entire life.
I tried to avoid telling people I was studying Religion alongside Classics. There was never really a good reason for it, but it was a subconscious decision that I made pretty early on. The same conversation took place every time anyone found out I studied Religion; they asked me why, and I never had a very satisfactory answer. Religions interested me. I liked learning about different cultures and I was fascinated with cults. At the start it wasn’t too hard to answer because when they asked if it was World Religions in general or ‘like, the Bible?’, I could say World Religions. Hinduism and Buddhism are fascinating to hear about if you don’t have any experience learning about them. But I started to specialise in Biblical studies in my Junior Sophister year and that was a little trickier to explain. I always felt the need to justify just why I was studying it, even though that need really wasn’t there. I took to quickly explaining that I wasn’t a religious person before anyone could label me, and that I just enjoy it. I have a knack for Biblical studies.
It’s more awkward these days. Now, I have no Classics or World Religions to hide behind. I am most definitely studying the Biblical tradition. My Senior Sophister dissertation was on Judas Iscariot which most people I spoke to found interesting, and I always joked it was inspired by Lady Gaga. In truth, it was inspired by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Way less impressive. My Postgrad research is predominantly focused on The Dead Sea Scrolls, which again sounds kind of intriguing, until I specify that it’s focused on one particular wisdom scroll called 4QInstruction, and the allusions to Genesis 2-3 therein. By that point in the conversation, most listeners are already asleep.
I grew up in a Catholic household. We were more religious than your average Irish family nowadays; we didn’t just go to Mass one day a year but went every single Sunday, and we said our prayers before bed every night. The only time we didn’t go to Mass on Sunday was if we went on Saturday instead. I, like most children, believed there was a God and that He had a son called Jesus who was born in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mary. He performed lots of miracles and said lots of really great things, but the general population didn’t like him so he was crucified on Good Friday. He rose on Easter Sunday. That was the extent of my knowledge as to what it was that I believed. I just went along with what I was told.
I started to first question my beliefs when I read a book on a Roman festival called the Saturnalia which took place every December. When I discovered that our Christmas replaced the Saturnalia and that Jesus wasn’t actually born on the 25th of December my entire world was tilted off its axis. After that, I discovered Adam and Eve never existed and that the whole story of creation I was fed was simply an allegory. As I grew up I discovered that a lot of things I had taken for granted weren’t actually true, and my logic went as such; if Santa is a lie we tell children, why couldn’t God be too? I stopped believing in God the same time I stopped believing in Santa, as far as I can recall. I read the Bible, something I find a lot of people who believe in the Bible haven’t done, and as a man by the name of Isaac Asimov said;“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”
But I didn’t want to stop believing. It’s not pleasant to experience your first existential crisis at such a young age. I wanted to believe in God because as far as I could see, His existence just made sense. My parents believed in Him and surely they couldn’t be wrong. I liked the concept of Christianity growing up. I liked the stories of the Saints, I liked the artwork, I liked the music. Some of my favourite musicals are based on Bible stories, and I still think that ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is an absolute bop. I wanted to believe there was something-somebody- out there looking over me. But my wish to believe couldn’t reconcile with what I was reading, and perhaps what hurt the most was that nobody could answer the questions I had. I learned very early that while my parents believed in God and believed in Christ, they could not detail for me the specifics of what they believed. Nobody around me wanted to talk to me about Christianity because they couldn’t put into words just why they believed. And of course, I was rather annoying about it; I constantly pestered my parents about what they thought of different things and they couldn’t give me the answers I wanted. They believed just because they believed, and that didn’t satisfy me. Nobody wants to deal with a know-it-all teenager challenging their faith, turning every conversation into a debate, and so nobody did.
I wasn’t one of those teenagers who stopped believing in God because all their friends did and because it was ‘cool’ to be an atheist. I stopped believing because I thought long and hard about it and couldn’t come up with a good reason why I should continue to follow the Catholic faith, though I was still made go to Mass every weekend until I finally turned eighteen. Most of my peers now don’t believe in God because they’ve simply never questioned it all that much. They didn’t grow up attending Mass every week, or reading the Bible before bed.
I have a massive amount of respect for anyone that, like me, grew up in a religious household, but who, unlike me, still believes. There’s a lot of pressure nowadays to steer away from religion, and not just Catholicism. ‘Religion’ is constantly labelled as dangerous. And yes, fundamentalism of any kind can be toxic. Religious institutions have a negative impact upon their members. But to believe in something beyond us is an admirable thing if you have taken the time to really stop and ask yourself what it is that you believe. The generations that came before us didn’t question their faith-they were forced into following particular doctrines, and scared into believing. My grandparents have told me about their experiences studying religion in school; they were absolutely terrified of the grandiose visions of Hell and Purgatory perpetuated by religious leaders who, for the most part, were abusive and cruel. Ireland has had a mostly negative experience with the Catholic Church and it is easy to see why the majority of people nowadays want to distance themselves from that tradition. It is sickening, truly sickening, to think that the very people held up by society as moral leaders caused so much pain and suffering.
I won’t deny that I do not like the Catholic Church and I wish that my family no longer supported it. But that doesn’t mean I wish they didn’t have their faith. To quote Gandhi, “God has no religion.” Having studied religion for five years now I recognise just how important having faith is to so many people; it has the power to save lives. As my Dad always says, there’s no atheists in foxholes. However, a belief in God or in Christ is not dependent on the Catholic Church, or on any religious institution. There are a lot of people that don’t seem to realize that you can be a Christian without supporting the Church. As Garrison Keillor once said; “Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.” A real Christian is not someone who goes to Mass every Sunday, but someone who lives their life according to their faith.
A person’s faith is a private thing and it is their fundamental right to practice and believe whatever they want, so long as it bears no harm on anyone else. Religious freedom is a key aspect of society today and it is needed if we are to thrive. Too often nowadays young people are judged or even attacked for believing in God, in whatever form that belief might take. I have great respect for any Christian young person now because realistically, they will be far better Christians than those that came before- they don’t believe because they are told to believe, but because they have questioned it and still do. A true believer is someone who questions their beliefs, just as Doubting Thomas did.
Both my family and friends were surprised that I didn’t study English or History alongside Classics in college. Even I was surprised at my own spontaneous decision to study Religion, too. My English teacher in school called me a prodigy, after all, and at least with an English Degree I had some hope of getting a job. It’s ironic also in a lot of ways that in continuing on to Postgrad level in this subject I am essentially going to devote the rest of my life to something I don’t believe in. At first I thought I was studying Religion in college because the more I learned, the more I could argue. I love arguing. I love talking about Religion, and learning why people believe what they do. Now, I study Religion not just because I’m good at it but because I genuinely think that it is important and for me, personally, it is necessary. Doctors have a vocation to study Medicine, and Lawyers a vocation to study Law. My vocation it seems is to study the Bible, even though I don’t believe it, as a text that has shaped modern civilization, and I am more than excited to do so. Just because I personally don’t believe in it doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. If we were ever to stop studying it we would forget one of the most significant influences on the very course of history. I cannot even begin to count the amount of discussions I have had on this topic, and it continues to both amuse and shock me. If I ever have children I will make sure that they are educated as thoroughly as possible on the doctrines of the major world religions because it is truly baffling how many people don’t realize the Christian God is the exact same as the Muslim and Jewish God. Mark Twain once said that; “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” It’s even more baffling how many people don’t realize the historical Jesus was not Caucasian. Religious education, regardless of what you think of ‘Religion’ itself, is important. Religion is a fundamental part of society and so long as people live in ignorance of the most basic doctrines of the major World Religions, their similarities and differences, their place in history, there will never be true understanding as to why it is so important. There will never be true respect between those with beliefs and those with none.
And it remains true that I wish I could believe. C.S. Lewis believed that atheism was just too simple and in a sense I agree with him. I want to believe that our lives, our world, are more than just a slip up in the mechanics of the Universe. And so I continue to hope that someday, something will convince me one way or another. For now, I shall simply follow in the path of Abraham Lincoln; “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
It’s hard to explain to people like that just why religion is important to me, even when I don’t believe it. And yet nobody can deny the influence Christianity has had on Western civilization when it is literally everywhere we look, and I enjoy studying that. I want to be a part of and contribute to a tradition that has existed for thousands of years. I like learning about how the Old Testament was written, and how the early Church understood Christ. I think of Christianity as a puzzle and I like piecing it together. It fascinates me that the story of Adam and Eve was used by the Church to justify the patriarchal structure of wider society, but was not written or originally interpreted as such. Most people find it boring and, granted, I can see why. Not every subject is for everyone. But when you look a little deeper into just how influential the Bible and the Christian tradition in general has been, you’re looking into perhaps the foundation stone of our world today.