“Is my living in vain? Is my giving in vain? Is my singing in vain? Is my praying in vain? NO-OF COURSE NOT!”

Earlier this year I had a debate with a Christian  on my blog which lasted for roughly two weeks. His first comment on my blog was a rehash of the tired argument that as a nonbeliever I can have no position on morals or justice. Since I don’t believe in God-and specifically HIS God-I shouldn’t dare address moral issues or criticize the religious. From there the dialogue only went downhill. None of this surprised me, for his worldview was one that I’m already well-acquainted with. However, one comment that he made led me to a point of reflection. To paraphrase it, he wanted to know what the big deal was.

Sure, my maternal family indoctrinated me into their particularly narrow and toxic form of Christianity as an adolescent. Sure, church attendance and belief was compulsory and expressing skepticism was forbidden. It couldn’t be as serious as I made it out to be. Once I reached adulthood I was able to do as I pleased.  And indeed, when I moved out of my Grandma’s house at age twenty I did just that. I worshiped when and how I wanted to. I spent my free time however I chose to, a luxury that I did not have previously. When I stopped going to church no one in my family could threaten or bully me into attending. And though some of my family and friends disapproved of my conversion to Islam and subsequent atheism, they were powerless to do anything about it. That is one of the key reasons why I cherish adulthood and the sweet autonomy that it brings.  There is simply no substitute for the exhilarating freedom that maturity gives, and that brings me to the present.

I’m now in my thirties, finally beginning to live and thrive. Deprogramming myself from the religious dogma of my youth-as well as recovering from the collateral damage it caused-has been a painful but successful process. I’m not nearly as angry, hurt and confused by my experiences as I was when I first started this blog. Life has moved on, and it gets sweeter and sweeter as the days go by.  So right now I’m able to see a sliver of truth in the criticism that I mentioned earlier. Faith was forced as a child, I made my own decisions as an adult and was able to survive it all.

Looking back on my old life, however, there is one thing I do occasionally wish that I could get back: the time that I wasted in the vain pursuit of religion. I think of all the time I spent in pews, wasting time with rituals and services that did not benefit mankind or even advance the cause of the faith I was  a part of. For when I was a Christian it wasn’t a matter of just going to church weekly. Sundays were certainly the most important day of the week, as anywhere from five to ten hours could be consumed in church activities on that day. Then there was Bible Study from 7pm-9pm on Wednesday nights. Three Saturday afternoons of the month were dedicated to choir rehearsal. Two Saturday mornings were dedicated to the Junior Women’s auxiliary meetings and bible lessons. And on any given school day I’d have to rush to finish my homework, as in the evening I’d be required to attend an ‘engagement’- the pastors or church anniversary celebrations held by our fellow churches.

To this day I’m not exactly sure what my church and those we fellowshipped with were celebrating, for we hadn’t actually accomplished anything. Our sister churches all fit the same profile: small to medium sized congregations located in the most economically disadvantaged areas of the city. Yet we didn’t hold food drives and we did not take part in community service. We only prayed for and visited the sick if they attended our church. We didn’t help the poor or the broken families among us. We didn’t go outside the four walls of our church to actually engage those around us. But we played church, and we played it very well.  We went through all the motions and patted ourselves on the back, secure in our belief that we were good Christians. Money was hoarded and raised-not to help the less fortunate, but to make sure that our building was impressive and that  “our” pastor could wear sharp suits and roll a pretty Lincoln Town Car. We displayed zeal and righteous indignation-over the dire and pressing question of whether gospel musicians could use elements of hip-hop in songs. We yelled and  fought for hours-over what color the mass choirs uniforms would be that year.

We devoted so much of our time and money to pure vanity, and the failure of that haunts me to this day. I think of all the positive change that we, that I, could have brought about had I not been engaged in such senseless rituals and minutiae . What if I had spent those Saturday afternoons in choir rehearsal and evening of ‘engagements’ serving food to the homeless, or holding premature babies in an NICU? What if the money that I gave as tithes, offering and special gifts to my pastor went to a battered women’s shelter instead? If I had done such things, if I’d expressed my faith through loving and helping others, then at least I’d feel that it all counted for something. Unfortunately that is not the case. I reflect on all my years of going to church and see nothing but futility. Perhaps a verse from Ecclesiastes best describes how I feel about that time:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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