I’d had something light and fairly fluffy lined up for my first opinion piece. It’s about why I hate Superman, but I think we need him. It starts out in a pretty dark place, then gets brighter as it goes on. But then something happened to piss me off tonight, so maybe that will more accurately reflect my personal tone. This is the conversational gambit that will make me hate you…
Let’s set the scene. It’s past 11pm outside the National Taiwan University campus where I let my dog relieve herself for the last time of the night. These are grassy patches where no one walks or congregates, and there aren’t many people around, so my pooch is sniffing around off leash by herself. While I’m waiting, a young Taiwanese man on a bicycle stops and says hello. This is a common occurrence in Taiwan, as the Taiwanese people are both wonderfully friendly and always keen to practice their English.
Not wanting to be a dick, I smile and say hello back.
“Are you a student here?” he asks. A reasonable question. I’m on the campus. It’s dark. And despite being in my mid-thirties, I still look like an infant.
“No. I’ve been living in Taiwan for about 11 years.” Which is true. Normally, this is where conversations transition to Mandarin. But he soldiered on, bless his little heart.
“Where are you from?” he asks. Again, we’re just working our way through The Interview, those 5 to 8 questions Taiwanese people ask foreigners. All of them. All the time. It’s all well-intentioned, and this young man is friendly enough.
“Canada,” I say. By now, my dog has returned and is sniffing at the stranger. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“So in Canada, or Taiwan, have you ever heard of the Gospels?”
And that is the precise instant I started hating this perfectly affable, polite young man.
Why would I say hate? Mostly to get your attention. It’s not a violent hate, as I would never attack a person for their beliefs. Nor is it one of intolerance, as I will happily attend temples with my wife or churches with family. It’s a hate born of experience and too much international news, and a visceral response to some very shitty assumptions.
First of all, let’s clear the air: I’m definitely an atheist. I’ve waffled around through my life, and I’ve assembled my own piecemeal set of pseudo-spiritual self-delusions, but I don’t believe in any of the versions of God that I’ve heard. For some reason, religious people (read Christians) seem to think I’m only an atheist because I haven’t been introduced to a mythological conjurer named Jesus. And despite disliking religion in general, I actually have nothing against religious people. I also dislike carrots, but I won’t hold it against you if you eat the vilest of root vegetables. What bothers me is when people proselytize, try to sell me on beardy-man in the sky, and assume I must just be woefully ignorant of the Good Word. It would be like someone trying to force-feed me carrots, which wouldn’t end well for anyone involved.
Because I have heard the Gospels. I was baptised Roman Catholic as a baby. When my mother divorced (against the church’s wishes) then remarried, my sister and I converted to the Church of England with her. Then I did my youthful puttering around in Wicca and the Occult through junior high and high school. All the while, I prayed for relief from crippling depression and anxiety. (Spoiler alert: No relief. Still an issue.)
Then in university, I had the unique experience of living at a theological school. It was not a seminary, so there were no Catholic priests being trained, but there were Anglican priests and United ministers pursuing their ordination. This is in addition to those students who were simply studying theology, not entering the clergy themselves.
However, there were not enough theological students to fill the dormitory, so rooms were let out to the overflow from other local universities. We were interviewed for our attitude, not our religious beliefs, so we had one of the most eclectic bunches you’ll ever see. Among theological students of all ages (some had received the “call” to the ministry in their 60s or 70s), there were also undergrads, medical students, law students, artists, and even a bodybuilder/bouncer who lied about being enrolled in university. As you can imagine we had some engaging and spirited conversations over the surprisingly good food served at the cafeteria.
That was when I realized that people of the greatest faith often suffer from the greatest doubts. It’s also around the time I figured out that religion has very little to do with morality.
Because I met people who argued for religion, but who were bigoted and hateful. I met people who were staunch atheists but were big sweeties. The flip side was also true. Some of the atheists were just assholes. Alternatively, that many of the devout used their religious views to expand and share the love in their hearts. I’m still in touch with some today and smile whenever I see Facebook photos of them behind the pulpit.
What’s more, I learned that priests were human. They would tell dirty jokes and admire beautiful women (or in the case of female priests, handsome men). The first time I got drunk (a year underage): priest and priests-in-training were there drinking in my neighbor’s dorm room. First time I got stoned? One of the out-of-towner theological students asked me to score weed from the cooks where I worked.
But many of these priests also started to see themselves as human. Back home in the small towns and church halls of East Coast Canada, the call to the ministry was loud and clear. Once they arrived in the big city, however, students started to drop like the proverbial other shoe. Some would say that the temptation and sin of the big city were too much for weak souls. Others would simply say that these students consciousness expanded in the presence of new ideas and thoughts. This is the way I see it, for sure.
So now we come back around the friendly Taiwanese guy talking to me while I wait for the light to change. I told him a much-abridged version of all this above. I’m aware of the Gospels and do not accept them. I’ve heard of the Jesus fellow, but at best he was a rabbi with some pretty solid idea of being awesome to each other. Most likely he’s an appropriated sun-god from much older mythologies.
So this particular traffic light is a long one, and friendly guy is yammering on about Jesus’ miracles and how he was the One True Son of God. I took a deep breath, clenched my teeth behind a smile, and gripped the leash a little tighter. Finally, the light changed.
“Time’s up,” I said and walked into the crosswalk.
“God bless!” he called out to me.
I didn’t look back. I was angry that what should have been a friendly inter-cultural exchange became just pushy telemarketer annoying me face to face. But I didn’t tell the kid to fuck off, or flip him off over my shoulder as I stalked across the street. I didn’t even complain to my dog about it. (She had seen the whole thing anyways.)
So maybe that is a little miracle unto itself.