How Dinosaur Books Made Me Lose My Religion
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My personal journey with religion has been complex, to say the least. And how could it not have been possible, when my parents baptized me in a faith that neither of them was a part of? My father grew up in a congregational church, a Protestant church with a Calvinist tradition that was not part of a larger religious organization. By the time I arrived he was a bit of a religious lover. My mother, on the other hand, was brought up in a Byzantine Catholic church. She worshiped in an ornate, incense-filled church capped with gold domes whose services feature chants in a liturgical language called Slavic. She is someone who appreciates the pageantry of religion and she appreciates her church’s connection to her mother’s Slovak heritage.
Surely my mother wanted to keep her faith along the matrilineal line, but there was no Byzantine Catholic church near where I grew up. So she chose the closest thing, Roman Catholicism. I was baptized in this faith and my parents sent me to Catholic school for eight years. Because my parents grew up in different traditions, my relationship with my religion was influenced more by school than by family. And that’s where the trouble started.
Sowing the Paleolithic seeds of doubt
I don’t own many books from my childhood yet, but I remember a lot of them were about dinosaurs. Many kids, myself included, go through a dinosaur phase, eagerly devouring Cretaceous facts like Halloween candy. I was also fortunate to have visited the American Natural History Museum in New York during this phase. Their impressive collection of dinosaur fossils remains etched in my memory. The dinosaurs were just amazing. Not only could I read about them, but I could look at their bones. I marveled at their size, their majesty.
But the dinosaurs were in conflict with what I was learning in school. My school didn’t take a particularly hard line on creationism, but it was definitely in the air. Enough that I was deeply disturbed when I was a child. I had good reason to believe all those dinosaur books. The creation story from church readings didn’t mean the same to me. Not a kid who was good at talking about his fears, I spent a lot of time silently worrying about being on a path to hell paved with dinosaur footprints.
Like many children, the dinosaur phase has passed, although I still visit natural history museums with great enthusiasm. This doubt, however, this growing feeling that not everything I was taught was true, stuck with me.
Ice-Nine brings the total gel
Fast forward to college, when I was going through my Kurt Vonnegut phase. I sincerely hope that everyone’s teenage years includes books that are truly amazing. I can still imagine exactly where I was when I read The cradle of the cat, a book that changed my view of religion.
A plot summary convinced me not to re-read The cradle of the cat. To be honest, he doesn’t look like he’s aged well. But reading it back then was like being struck by lightning. I distinctly remember a passage in which characters were discussing the recently discovered meaning of life and that it was “something about protein”. How I laughed.
Could the meaning of life be something as cold and sterile as protein? Was it true that once we got it all figured out it wouldn’t matter anymore because life would go on at a brisk pace? The rest of the book continued to confuse the faith, portraying religions as explicitly human creations. I needed to read this; I had struggled so much with my Catholic faith. Since college, I disagreed with the church’s stance on topics such as abortion and homosexuality. The cradle of the cat made me see the human machinations behind what was supposed to be divine. I left, light on my feet, freed from these childhood anxieties.
Unfortunately, with this breaking of faith came a feeling of disdain for religion. I am not proud of the patronizing and arrogant thoughts I entertain, although I at least had the decency to keep them to myself. I also consider myself lucky that I am not interested in atheism as a topic to read or a community to align with. We have seen how many eminent voices in this field have turned out to be vile.
Romance melts my frozen heart
If we are lucky, with age comes the ability to think with more nuance and generosity of mind than the grip of adolescent angst allows. This growth has not brought me back to faith, but I honestly think I can appreciate the promise of religion now more than when I was a part of it.
These days, I enjoy stories with thoughtful portrayals of characters of faith. As a reader of romance, I find such books quite frequently. Love from A to Z is one of the most amazing YA novels I have read. I loved the depiction of Muslim characters in this book. In particular, I liked the way they were able to express what they liked about their faith. An omnipresent absence of joy, among other things, had held back my religious experience. It was refreshing to see that it was not universal.
And it does not stop there. A Holly Jolly Diwali, featuring a Sikh main character, gave me new insight into how a religious celebration can bring people together even though they see its meaning differently. The experience of intimacy has a warm portrayal of someone hurt by religion but opening their heart to their possibilities.
These novels have shown me aspects of religions that I do not know personally. But that of Sierra Simone Priest the series hits me where I live. Even though I stay away from Catholicism, these bold books show imaginative possibilities for faith unlike anything I could have imagined for myself.
I sincerely doubt that the books will ever bring me back to religion as they have helped me away from it. But I appreciate this milder version of myself, the one who doesn’t quietly simmer in anxiety. I don’t stand aside from people who find joy in faith. Perhaps best of all, I’m at peace with the idea that finding meaning in life has little to do with protein and a lot to do with the stories we share with each other.