For too many years, my view of the world was one dimensional.I saw everything around me in black and white.
The Bible was a black and white textbook on how to live. Men were to lead, women to follow. Men were to work outside the home, women were to keep the home and tend it. All mankind was destined for eternal torture in hell unless they repented of their sin and accepted salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. There was no nuance, only certainty. We were right, and everyone else was wrong.
My religious beliefs dictated not only gender roles and mankind’s eternal fate but also which politics were right, what to wear, how to educate, what science was accurate, and so much more. It mandated patriotism and economic libertarianism and the passing of laws against abortion and gay marriage. It laid out every step of my life and assured me that we were right, and everyone else was wrong.
It’s like being on a float in a parade and not knowing any other floats exist, or, rather, calling every other float wrong, evil, sinful, and headed for ruin. Only those on your float are right, happy, and destined for eternal salvation. If you ever glance at the floats around you all you see are garish dragon heads and demonic white faces, and if you glance at the people on the ground you see angry yelling faces.
To stay on the float, there is one requirement: you have to keep repeating “it’s all true because the Bible says it” like a mantra. When everything is laid out like that in a complete and total worldview, questioning even one piece is a no-no. If you stop chanting the mantra and start to question, or to disagree with something, you have to get off the float, or else risk being thrown off.
The questions came to me slowly at first. Somehow I thought I could stay on the float. I didn’t realize right away that questioning anything meant hopping off entirely, but I soon knew. I had a choice: give up my questions and repeat the mantra, or hop off the float and start over from scratch. I got off. I looked up at the float with tears in my eyes as I saw my family and friends move by, still chanting the mantra. My mother was crying, but still she kept chanting. My sisters looked bewildered, but still, the chanting.
And then I found myself alone. I was afraid. In hopping off the float I had let go of everything I had known, but more than that, I had let go of certainty. I suddenly realized that I didn’t really know anything for sure. And that was very, very scary.
While this process was painful, it was also exhilarating. My world suddenly went from black and white to technicolor. I looked up and realized that the people standing around me were just people, like me. They weren’t angry, they were cheering. I looked at the other floats passing by and realized that the scary dragon was merely the Chinese dragon on the Chinese student association’s float, and that the demonic white faces were those of clowns entertaining the children with peels of laughter. Suddenly, I could no longer simply declare anyone different from me to be unhappy, sinful, or headed for disaster.
But there was also such a cacophony of voices. There was something so comforting about chanting the mantra in unison, something reassuring, and now I was bewildered. The world around me might not be evil, but it was also far from simple. There were such a variety of people, beliefs, and cultures. Over the following months and years, I learned about different religious beliefs, different cultural practices, and different political and economic systems without assuming in advance that I had it right and every other view was wrong.I began to understand just how complicated the world is, but also how much more interesting it is than I had always thought. My need to claim absolute truth disappeared, and I started seeing my views as contingent and subject to change. I learned that I could even say “I don’t know,” and the world would not end right then and there.
Sometimes I still struggle with the temptation to claim certainty. In this complicated world, certainty can be very appealing. It would be easy to recreate a new black and white where I assume with absolute certainty that I and my way are right and everyone else and their way is wrong. It would be easy to jump on some other float and declare that all others were headed for disaster and mine alone is right. But I can’t do that. As soon as you close the door to the possibility of being wrong you close the door to depth, beauty, growth, and understanding.
I am fairly certain that there is no God, but that does not mean I believe that everyone needs to believe and live as I do. It does not mean that I think those who believe differently from me don’t have interesting insights or things to add to the discussion. It also does not mean that I have closed the door to future information and future arguments.I don’t think there is a God not because I choose to assume there is no God, but because it is the conclusion my current experiences and knowledge have brought me to.
I now see life as a journey rather than a destination. Not content to stand upon the float I was born on and repeat a mantra, I am free to wander the crowds and look at the different floats and different perspectives. I can join a float I feel drawn to, perhaps just for a time, perhaps longer term, but that does not mean that I will deny the existence of every other float or proclaim them all damned or headed for destruction.
I can embrace difference, embrace the cacophony, and embrace the ability to say “I don’t know.”