You could say I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with God. You could say it’s been in the off position for twenty-five years. I don’t mean to be cavalier with this admission; losing my faith was the most devastating thing to happen to me. But it did happen, and it went through the same Kubler-Ross stages of dying, from denial (I still definitely believe in one God, the father the almighty, and don’t tell me I don’t) to acceptance (being an atheist won’t be so bad. Look at George Carlin.)
I was raised Catholic and lost my faith at the age of thirteen. I fought to get it back from ages thirteen to twenty-one, and then embraced its absence ad infinitum. But I was never evangelical about my atheism. I never looked down upon the faithful or thought I was better or smarter than anyone because of it, and never tried to break someone else’s faith so they would become as enlightened and confused as I was.
When I had faith, I had faith. I took my religion so seriously that I turned down losing my virginity in high school because I didn’t want to commit a sin. I think back to that decision somewhat differently today. During the life that followed, I have broken more than half the Ten Commandments, which earns me a 40% grade — a failing score, by any measure that would have sent me straight to Hell upon death if not for the Christian loophole called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Despite this, I never broke the First Commandment, or the Second for that matter.
This year I celebrated Diwali with my girlfriend who is from Chandigarh in India. She has been in the States for over six years, and because of a restriction on her visa, she cannot return to the U.S. if she leaves. She rarely sees her family and at times gets terribly homesick. When she asked if I’d go to a temple with her on Diwali, I said yes because I wanted to make the holiday special for her. I also had never been to a Hindu temple and wanted to experience it. She asked me with some trepidation because she knows my beliefs, or lack thereof, and she didn’t want to offend me by asking me to enter a religious building. I explained that walking into a house of worship would never offend me; since I don’t subscribe to any religion, they are all equal in my mind. I will enter a church as readily as a mosque or a synagogue. But I had never been to a Hindu temple.
“So you’ll really go with me?” she asked.
I said yes.
During the drive, I asked her questions about her faith. I already knew that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, and I was ok with that, but what I didn’t know was how I’d feel watching people pray to gods that were not my God, even though I was no longer a believer. Christians, Muslims, and Jews ostensibly pray to the same god,so there I was, driving to a religious experience that was novel in every possible way.
We entered the temple and I immediately noticed many differences between it and any church I had entered before. The most striking was the brightness. Churches can be very beautiful, like the Catedral de Barcelona in which I had the privilege of attending mass, but most are dimly lighted. Everything inside a Catholic church is subdued: the light, the colors, the garments worn by the parishioners. By stark contrast, everything inside a Hindu temple is bright and bursting with color. The statues are blue, orange, red, and turquoise instead of the white stone likenesses I was used to. Women wore saris that contained every shade of color in bold designs, beautifully embroidered with gold and sliver thread.
Nidhi and I took a seat together and listened to the priest chant in Hindi. I couldn’t understand him, but I found it had no effect. This was one similarity of the church and temple. The words hardly mattered. It was the tone, mood, and repetition that mattered. In church, once you’ve memorized the prayers and the songs and the call and response, your brain goes on auto-pilot. You recite without thinking about what the words mean. You could recite it while thinking about what you’re going to buy at the grocery store after mass. It might as well be in another language.
Nidhi took me on a tour of the temple and we stopped at all the stations of the gods. It reminded me of the stations of the cross. She knew these gods as well as I knew the Christian angels and saints, and she described them to me like one who had been praying to them all her life.
We returned to the main floor and Nidhi lowered herself to the ground and onto her knees. She bent down and touched the floor with her forehead in a child yoga pose and prayed in silence. I instinctively did the same as I had been trained by the clergy to do what everybody else is doing: sit, kneel, stand, sit, stand, shake hands, sing, kneel. Touching my forehead to the floor followed quite easily. As I laid more or less prostrate, praying in front of a statue of an elephant, something weird happened. I had an experience.
It started with a funny feeling in my gut, the classic “driving over a hill in your car” sensation. Then I felt a tingling throughout my body, and it didn’t take me long to recognize it as the beginnings of an anxiety attack. A thought blasted into my head.
“You’re breaking the First Commandment!”
With that thought, the Gates of Hell opened before me, but not like the one by Rodin. It was pitch black and cold. As many Commandments as I had broken in my life, I had never broken the first one. The Commandments are ordered from most important to least, so breaking the First Commandment is like breaking the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is unforgivable because our God is a jealous god. Worshiping another god is even worse than being an atheist. If someone breaks your heart, and years later you find out the person never married and carried a torch for you all that time and regretted the decision to leave you, that would feel a lot better than hearing the person married someone else and had a blissfully happy life. God doesn’t want to hear that anymore than you do.
My heart raced and my breathing became shallow. Then I heard Nidhi rise beside me. I turned my head to look at her and saw an expression of such peace and joy on her face that whatever I had been feeling vanished like incense blowing in the wind.
“Which god did we pray to?” I asked her.
She returned a quizzical look.
“You know, which one did I just pray to?” I asked again.
“All of them,” she replied.
“All of them?” I said nervously.
“Yes, all of them,” she said.
I had broken the First Commandment not once, but hundreds of times. I also broke the second one for good measure:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image — any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
It’s a good thing I don’t believe in Hell. But even though I don’t, the experience affected me. It produced a physiological effect within me as I knelt before a god that was shaped like an animal. I’ve since realized that I still live with the fear of going to Hell, no matter how minute, no matter how far back I tuck it into my mind. I have also come to marvel at the First Commandment. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” How many among us realize what this really is? It is an agent of meme warfare. It is the granddaddy of killer memes. With one simple sentence, it slaughters all other collections of god-related memes with its exclusivity. One must stand in awe before its authors who possessed such an innate understanding of meme-replication, and how to prevent it, thousands of years before it was given a name.
As Nidhi and I made our way to the exit, we passed a large box with people stuffing money into it. I chuckled to myself. There I saw the greatest commonality of all religions, and I found it strangely comforting.