Like many northern New Englanders, I have a complicated relationship with God.
My mother attended church regularly; my father had given up on it. My mother belonged to the United Church of Christ, one of the more liberal, “mainstream” Protestant organizations. It was an integral part of her life, so it was very much part of mine.
Eventually, I came to identify myself as a devoted atheist after my parents separated and I entered my teenage years. It’s easy only in retrospect to see that I took out my adolescent anger on God as I then understood Him. And what are the teenage years but a time to explore what you believe and who you believe in, which often results in shedding identities and exploring new ones?
I went to live with my mom outside Boston for a while, and she tried to lure me out of my self-imposed isolation by sending me to an Evangelical youth group. But the fervor of the kids and leaders terrified me and offended my Maine-bred stoicism. It likely served as the nail in the coffin of my devotion to Christianity. When I returned to Maine to live with my father, a nonbeliever, there was no expectation of weekly worship.
All the men of God — the men in robes — were full of it, my father contended. They abused the authority of their uniforms as many in uniform do. He remembers them prowling the school yards trying to get boys to pledge to the man in the sky, but if you asked simple questions of theology all they could do was cite a book written by other men in uniform. Where was God when his ship was hit during the Korean War? When he pulled bodies out of the water and put them in bags? And then, where was God when my dad was in his 70s, ravaged by disease and waiting for death?
We know millennials are typically more secular than the generations that precede us. We are more spiritual, whatever that means. We believe there is something, probably, but let’s acknowledge it without putting too much effort into defining something that’s undefinable. Let’s honor it and appreciate the stories that can orient us in a chaotic world, but let’s not legislate based on man’s fervent interpretation.
Elder millennials came of age as revelations surfaced of men in God’s uniform covering up for other men in robes who molested and raped young members of their church. We remember clearly the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Taken to its logical extreme, belief turns men into monsters.
Many of those who purport to represent God are so loud and aggressive that they put off the reasonable. After all, you don’t see anyone posting videos of decapitations to YouTube in the name of secular discourse. It is not surprising that Mainers are overwhelmingly secular compared with the rest of the country. We have an impressively low tolerance for BS.
As I grow older, though, I see this from a more nuanced perspective. I look back on my youth in the church with fondness. I am still in touch with members who serve my community with great devotion. And I appreciate the role the church played in shaping my development.
While my atheist phase has ended, I still don’t believe in God or Christ as literal figures. The stories, though, helped to shape how I saw myself in the world. Through my religious associations, I learned about the mechanics of community participation through volunteerism, potluck organization and selflessness. I don’t recall school teaching these lessons very effectively. Today, I have enough experience to realize religion was responsible for much good in my life when I viewed it purely as a negative.
For all of the damage the cynic will observe, religious narratives and interpretations have rallied people in the name of justice by way of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Pope Francis is a compelling figure today because he employs these narratives to inspire people to talk about the realities of economic inequality.
It is not, I’ve realized, association with God that makes something good or bad. Instead, it is heart, intent, character and the ability to assess oneself critically and honestly. Without these, the person of God and the person of reason are in trouble.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.