Trigger warning: sexual abuse, violence
Faith is something which our world polarizes in this modern age, with dogmatic rule still prevalent and the complete rejection of God becoming an ideology all of its own. Faith can feel like an amazing party with the best of everything at your feet, as well as the feeling like the “odd child” who was not invited. It is not innate, not something a child would understand, if kept away from the ideas surrounding the belief – based on spiritual conviction rather than proof. It is an indoctrination passed down, just as we tell children the sky is blue, children who are raised religiously are told that God exists.
My journey in understanding faith starts as everyone’s does – in childhood. I was raised as a French Catholic by my French Grandmother, who was one of my main caregivers as my parents were workaholics, neglectful and both atheists, both having been raised within Christianity, my Father, through the Church of England and my Mother French Catholic. Their experiences had left them devoid of spirituality and had pushed them into a complete rejection of the church. Ironically they insisted I was raised religiously, especially as my schooling was happening in the UK and faith schools were considered better in the 1980’s and 90’s with more discipline and better grades.
At 4 years old I was sent to a convent called St Margret’s and here we prayed 4 times a day, went to church 3 times a week and had religious education 5 days a week. The nuns were terrifying, stoic women – with sharp tongues and thick Irish accents. As this school was private, corporal punishment was still in effect, as this was not abolished in private schools until 1998 in England. So as young as 4 we wold be punished with a sharp wooden ruler across the backs of our legs if our prayers were not loud enough, if our appearance was not right, basically anything which they decided was against their rules of conduct, was punishable with violence. This became my first indication of hypocrisy as a small child, wondering why God and his son Jesus would allow for us to be in pain. Little did I know that in this first year of school I would meet “evil” face to face.
In the summer of my first year of school the molestation by a family member begun, something which perplexed me further due to the religious teachings – made to feel unclean and sinful, taking the abuse on, as my own contrition. As a consequence I became highly sexual as a child, the pain and confusion could be seen with the stories played out with my Barbie’s, with the female Barbie’s being made to have sex and other disturbing scenes which a child of my age should have no comprehension of. Shame set in and took hold, keeping me shackled to its weight, it still pulls me down to this day.
My religion was fading with every year that passed, even with the joyful sides not comforting me anymore, such as Easters in France with my Grandmother, or the creating of the nativity scene at Christmas. Even though my conversations with God throughout my day to day existence never waned, “he” became another neglectful parent, abandoning me when I needed him most. Searching for relief in other ritualistic practices, becoming a pagan and a Buddhist – hoping to find the answers to why faith kept escaping me.
In 2000 I met my husband Mohammed at 16 and found a common ground with him as we had both been raised religiously. Mohammed is from the holy land, Jordan, so to me he was almost an affirmation in himself. The week before meeting him, crying on my bed, looking up to the sky and praying – for someone to save me, to look after me. We would spend hours’ discussing and debating religion, politics and philosophy, we were both dual nationals and bilinguals, something which connected us, we both know what it is like to “not belong” in either country, with your nationalism and heritage being questioned continuously, my prayers had been answered. This led me to examine Islam, with the idea that this may be the answer, the missing piece to this puzzle.
After years floating around in agnosticism, my path took me to philosophy, which is what I decided to study as an adult student, in preparation to go onto degree level. Philosophy was like being awoken from a sleep which I did not realise I had fallen into. Within the first few lessons my brain hurt and my mind was being nourished with wisdom and knowledge – a new drug of choice. My studies in the philosophy of religion would be the enlightenment I had craved since being that little girl faced with evil.
The Teleological argument or otherwise known as the intelligent design argument, which is an argument for the existence of God or, an intelligent creator based on the idea that the universe and especially our planet has been created. To illustrate this I shall use the watchmaker analogy from William Paley:
“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.”
This analogy took me out of the dogmatic ritualistic teachings and led me to the idea of natural religion, evidence based in nature – that at some point “this” where we are, was created. Moving on from this looking into the anthropomorphism of God and how “he” was viewed as a man, or at least referred to as such. The idea did not satisfy me and my beliefs, it seemed to Disney to me, and it seemed to fulfill our need for a Father, a beginning – something which would make sense in our own perception of how we come about, our existence, mirrored.
This led me on to one of the great thinkers of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud. Having studied Freud in depth over the years his thoughts on religion were very informative to me, echoing feelings which had gone round in my mind for two decades.
“Religion is a ‘universal obsessional ritual’ designed to avert imaginary misfortunes and control the unconscious impulses which lead us to feel we are causing them. The rituals attempt to control the outside world and our egoistic and aggressive wishes as well.”
These words allowed me to understand why “we” as a species interpret God the way we do, it made sense to me as it was clear this had been the motivation throughout history as well as a means to control groups of people which was another of Freud’s theories. My path was now a clear one, which after my own confirmation that God was in fact a word, a description – for an invisible force of creation, one which could not be fully understood, just as how we see faces in clouds, we had assigned the features which made God accessible.
Next stop on my quest was another great thinker, one that I felt akin to when first reading him, Friedrich Nietzsche. With his words “God is dead, we have killed him” – the feeling of relief swept over me, validating me, making me feel the shackles of shame, guilt and sin falling away from my skin as if they had been encasing me in a dry thick mud, cracking and emerging from the undergrowth, Nietzsche had freed me. With his views on morality and the idea of suffering; he allowed me to examine why suffering and religion needed one another, when there is a God who will forgive all your sins and answer your prayers this belief allows for suffering to be dismissed or even capitalised from. In the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche writes that man is: “a sickly animal: but suffering itself was not his problem, but the fact that there was no answer to the question he screamed, ‘Suffering for what?’ … The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering, was the curse which has so far blanketed mankind.”
Now seeing my destination in the distance, it is the horizon, the beauty is mouth wateringly delicious, tasting knowledge as the apple falls from the tree. The sign is clear and feels open, not rigid or exact, more like a “you are welcome, please come in” kind of sign, it reads – Deism; I have arrived. Deism is the belief that the universe has a creator, or God, but that God is no longer involved in the universe. It is an open belief system with many different thoughts and perspectives within, but the one thing which keeps Deism unified is that it is a personal belief system on examining evidence and drawing conclusions from the natural world and universe. God in Deism is not human, or revealed, for Deists God does not intervene with us or anything for that matter. There is no requirement for faith, only reason, this is what truly separates it from other religions, especially the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Deistic beliefs have been around since Ancient Greece with Plato who believed God was a creator, however not involved with the wold around us and with the enlightenment bringing about the formal movement which is known today
On my path to find my religion, I lost it; and found a philosophy which resonates with my understanding and experiences, with arriving at my destination, a new cross road has emerged with endless possibilities of knowledge at every turn, with no rigid patriarchal teachings or dogmatic rule, my breath is now aligned with the waves, drawing in and out. My hope is in challenging my existence to obtain all I can, to challenge, to bask in the absolute tragedy of it all, but still see the beauty. Humbled by my insignificance when star gazing, my empathy is boundless because the idea of a saviour is dead. My life is not subjected to guilt, the idea of forgiveness and the label of a sinner, gone. Now my life is guided by reason.
There is no salvation, my “soul” is not at peace and faith is not what guides me in my choices, nor does it steer my morality. However this does not make this a sad or empty existence, in fact this makes life more accessible for me – a person with mental illness and disabilities. Mohammed and I still debate theology, philosophy and the universe and even though our beliefs are somewhat different, they always align in the search for knowledge; our love engulfs us and keeps us from free falling through existence.
Charlotte Farhan is a mental health activist who advocates through art. She runs the nonprofit Art Saves Lives International and is most likely being snuggled by her future service animal, Amadeus. She is the Open Thought Vortex Artist-in-Residence.