Religion is the Biggest Bully of Them All

Superlatives are hazardous. The biggest, best, or worst are declarations just begging to be shot down. Superlatives almost always lead to a great big heap of smoking one-upmanship. There’s always something bigger or better and always something worse. That’s the way it is in a universe of infinite variables; suck it up. mortals. This is our lot.

No one will ever agree on the best athlete. Imagine that conversation in a sports bar at midnight after shots and a losing game. Or imagine getting multiple generations to agree on the best music. Kanye West? Taylor Swift? The Beatles? Elvis? Let me know when you work that one out. Now imagine the worst ailment. Get a bunch of retirees together and discuss health. It’s kind of hilarious. Or compare notes on the worst date ever. That one’s fun too, after the horror of the incident has finally been rubbed off by time.

But there’s one superlative that doesn’t bother me at all. It’s a conundrum, and I feel safe in saying it’s the biggest conundrum of all: Religion in the 21st century is the biggest bully in the room.

See how quiet it got, all of a sudden? Either you’re for it or against it. It’s the topic that isn’t discussed with strangers and has ruined as many holiday meals as politics. And not surprisingly, politics and religion at family dinners are a combination about as constructive as Fukushima and an earthquake. Nothing good ever comes from it.

Well, maybe one thing; now you have an excellent excuse to go to a friend’s house next Thanksgiving, after your crazy aunt kicked over her chair in a rush to leave the table and pray for everyone because a grandchild said “fuck.”

Personally, Christianity was kind of an early teen angst pageant. Godspell was a big stage hit, and I’d worn the hell out of the soundtrack playing “Day by Day” again and again and again until my brothers threatened to stomp the cassette to smithereens. Then a girl I worked with asked me to go with her to church. I was still desperate to be straight and thought, What the hell.

Everyone whose undies just wadded up about being desperate to be straight, try to imagine very, very different times. I knew absolutely no gay people. I was certain I was the only male who was far more interested in Superman’s comic book bulges than Supergirl’s short skirt. That Certain Summer wouldn’t air on television till the next year, which was, incidentally, life-altering. Of course the characters were sort of tragic, but at least there was finally a depiction of two men in love who seemed pretty ordinary, and no one committed suicide.

But anyway, the point is, I had a very hard time coming out. Like I said, it was a different time and there were no role models. I was incredibly ashamed. So,I went to this church with my “girlfriend” and tried to pray the gay away.

Ahem … it didn’t work, after a rain of “Amens” and before “It’s Raining Men” caused a stampede to the dance floor. But I kept an open mind in that goofy little pre-New Age church in the basement of some obscure building in Akron, Ohio. I patiently awaited for the spirit to flood me. I was promised it would if I prayed hard enough. And I continued to trace Superman’s bulges with my eyes and fingertips as soon as I got home. There was a tad of conflict for a few years.

Then sometime later in the 1970s, billboards and bumper stickers popped up everywhere with a very, simple message of three little words: “I Found It.”

For several weeks it was a mystery. Who lost what? And what is it?

Then the truth came out. The “I Found It” campaign was organized religion’s foray into the politics of mass marketing. No longer were the religious powers that be content to wait politely to be discovered. Their secret message, plastered on billboards, bumper stickers, and T-shirts, was a devious sales pitch.

Like many others at the time, I lost it. Any interest in becoming a part of the fold vanished like Joseph Smith’s golden tablets. Besides, by then I’d discovered the real thing was far better than comic books, and I was just tired of feeling guilty. “I Found It” was prophetic. I found myself.

At this stage, I’m agnostic. I believe there’s something going on that’s far beyond human comprehension, and if science can explain life, time, thought, and consciousness, and if humanity will ever be able to grasp the vastness of this thing we call the universe, then maybe I’ll rethink the agnosticism. I doubt that will happen anytime soon, though quantum physics is getting pretty darn close to proving that the ancient mystics were right all along.

Matter is an illusion. Now, to circle back to the conundrum.

Sometimes I think there is truth in religion and ancient texts. The Bible speaks of an Antichrist, and I wonder if the Antichrist isn’t a person, despite the temptation to bring Cheeto Head Trump into the conversation. Perhaps the Antichrist has never been a being but is instead a metaphor. Perhaps the Antichrist is a metaphor for organized religion. Maybe organized religion sprayed Roundup on the Garden of Eden.

How many wars, how much death, and how much havoc has been wrought over who is most loved by the biggest, baddest God? How many people have been subjugated and diminished by priests and clerics, over the millennia? How many Buddhas dynamited, and how many skyscrapers destroyed by airliners? How many people, in this country alone, have been enslaved and oppressed, because the Bible or the Koran said so? How much longer will “faith” be confused with morality?

Living in the Bible Belt has been eye-opening. The people here are really, really nice and generally kind. But way too often, many vote for and believe some pretty hateful concepts. Too often, these nice and kind people quote laughably selective scripture to justify injustice and tragedy, both past and present. There are more churches than schools here, by at least a factor of 10, and an astounding number of these folks tithe to the church monthly. I wonder, what would it be like if they gave 10 percent of their income to  the school systems and preschools instead?

Here’s the justified superlative: Is there any bigger conundrum than nice people all over the world doing really crazy shit in the name of religion?

Malicious misinformation in the name of good is the worst thing ever, especially in less educated, overly religious regions, and especially right before a presidential election.

Now there’s a superlative I can wrap my arms around.

KURT NIECE is an artist, jeweler, and author of The Breath of Rapture and Mercury Fields. He and his partner, Gary, live with their beloved feline in the crystal valleys of Hot Springs Village, Ark.