When I was growing up in a religious Polish family I found myself really close to the church.
I spend years helping with all all the ceremonies, and watching people who were attending them. I could not speak against the religion as this would have been unacceptable, but what I could do was simply observe and learn how mass manipulation works.
Once a week we also had a 45-minute lesson about a god and all aspects of the religion, but answers to our questions were never given. To be honest, there was no time for questions as part of the “learning” was to prepare us for yet another initiation into the religious hierarchy. Bad examination results would prevent one from moving up to the next step of the religion ladder, a failure that would have proved unacceptable both to my parents and whole community.
The process was like being on a train speeding towards a bizarre destination you really don’t want to reach. But all the other passengers on the train would try to stop you from jumping from it. The message was clear: you will die if you do so.
Many years ago when I was just a few years old, my parents made me believe in many unreal things and stories. My favourite one, as probably for any other kid at that age, was the story of Santa Claus. There was no reason not to tell a child this beautiful story about the old man from the North Pole who once a year visits all kids to leave presents for them.
I still believe that concept behind it is pretty good. There is surely no harm in the magical tales we tell our children because all fantasies will soon be recognised for what they are when adults stop pretending and kids happily accept the truth. This moment changes not only way kids perceive reality but it shows them too that the communities in which they live in can accept reality mixed with fiction without any problems.
Except when it comes to fantasies based on religion.
As a kid who knew that Santa was not real it came a big surprise to me that adults could still believe in all those magical stories offered by religion without asking any questions. On the one hand my teachers were encouraging me to look for the answers every day, but on the other I was told by priests and family that I should not look for answers when it came to religion.
Please understand how difficult it is for teenager to deal with this confusion of reality and fiction. What struck me most was that people were totally blind to the things they were doing. Ceremonies and the glorification of religious relics, pictures and sculptures were so immature that I became to wonder whether the people whom I once thought were the ones I should learn from were the ones I wanted to learn from.
No one wished to speak with me about the doubts I had, and there are millions of children today who still face the same predicament. Adults still believe that it is their duty to instil religion in their children, thinking that once they grow up they can choose to accept or reject their early indoctrination. This is a mistake. Most of children will not reject religion in later life. Only small percent of whole new generation will be strong enough to look for the answers themselves. The rest will choose simply to go with the religious flow, if only to avoid being targeted by by their peers.
The reality of being forced to believe in fiction has many dire consequences. Here are just a few:
Religion provides people with ready answers for any disaster in their lives, and teaches young people not to overcome problems but accept them instead.
It tells you that in order to live you have to die; that true life will start only after this one. We will all meet in heaven where our families are already there waiting for us. Our ancestors are watching us constantly. So whatever you do someone is watching you.
It treats current life as something not really important. Why should people take responsibility for what they do? Why look for better places to live, better jobs, and relationships when a finer life awaits us after we die.
It stops one from reaching for one’s dreams. You should not have a targets in your life. Religion has already set you a perfect target which is heaven, so there is no reason for you to set yourself any other goals.
It impedes many aspects of your true human nature. Belief that one is is constantly being spied on by spirits, gods, angels and devils does not help a person make their own decisions and creates unnecessary feelings of guilt. How confusing is this for teenagers who starting discovering sexuality?
It creates conflicts between people. Today the news is dominated by reports of religiously-based incidents of terrorism and wars.
It is an insidious form of mass mind control. As young boy I was astonished how easy it was to make grownups to sing, cry, pray, tell someone else their secrets in order to be forgiven by a god, and how aggressive they can be towards these who don’t want play their games. Today it scares me even more when greater numbers are given guns in order to kill others and risk their life to gain the access to an afterlife.
Fiction stories are good in order to expand child’s imagination – but only as long as we keep those stories within the realm of fantasy. Religion restricts kids’ freedom of thinking and makes them vulnerable to psychological and physical abuse by religious fanatics.
Why we do this to our children? If we want our kids to be free we should give them free minds to cope with life’s pressures.
I was lucky I did not to take the path that my childhood friends took. I was lucky to see the life as it is. I was lucky I had a chance to move away from home to stop being told how I should live. I was lucky I did not accept the false reality towards which I was being nudged. I was lucky I did not became blind to who I am and what I do.
In my life a four-generation pattern occurred:
My grandmother was obsessed with religion. All aspects of her life were directed towards the church.
My parents are people who would blindly follow all the rules of major celebration days.
I who took big step to by turning upside down all the rules that religion taught me how to live.
My kids who are totally free from religious pressure.
Some people would ask how my kids are doing without religion. They are really bright – doing well at school and are full of questions. When they ask questions about God and I tell them:
Itsup to you if you want to believe in god, I do not as it does not make sense to me.
The next questions always follows:
So how did people get here? How did the Big Bang happened?
I tell them:
There are many theories; you can also come out with your own one if you want.
There is no question I would not have a conversation about with my kids, and if I do not know the answer I simply encourage them to look for one. Maybe one day they may decide to join a religious group and I will be happy for them because they would approach religion with inquiring minds. Right now I teach them that every question can be answered and that life is too precious to waste on fictions parroted and followed blindly by others.
What are main benefits for me living without religion?
My time is limited – and I’m so happy that it is. Imagine an infinite life: whatever you should you do today you could do it tomorrow. Whatever you should do tomorrow you could put off until the day after. This spiral would goes endlessly.
This where religion really scares me. I was told that this life is not important because another infinite life would be given to me. Why should I then care for the life I have right now when true happiness can be only found in a life after my death. Even now, as I write this, it scares me how stupid this sounds. Why I would believe in such nonsense? I love my life and I can enjoy every day of it. I schedule things I like to do and learn about happiness and psychological aspects of it. It is amazing how some of the techniques can make you feel happy pretty much every day.
We are constantly changing our point of view in physics and I’m a glad about that. Even Einstein said that his theory could be true for thousand years, but one day someone might come up with a new one. This tells me something unique about our way to see ourselves. When I was a child everything I knew was a true for me. When I grew up everything that I knew as a kid became a lie.
How can I be sure that what I believe right now is a true? I cannot. I should be looking for better answers and explanations. Reality is really fascinating and there are thousands of unexplained questions. Quantum physics is more bizarre than any reality we know. Our reality is more magical than any story you ever heard. Why then limit one’s life to the controlling forces of religion when we should be exploring and enjoying the real world?
For my parents or my grandparents seeking for the answers outside of religion was almost impossible. Luckily, today we have almost instant access to information beyond that which religion chooses to dish out, and it is our duty to explore the real world, and encourage our children to do the same.
• Bart Stanek was born in Poland and moved to the UK in 2006. His interests include photography, travel, science and psychology.
Article originally published in the Freethinker