*[Please note that the author speaks mainly about Christianity because this is what the author has had a personal connection to. It is also the largest religion in the world. This piece could very much apply to any other religion that tries to provide definite answers to existential questions as well as guide you on how to live in between.]
PART 1: DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD?
When I was about 15, I won a soul for Christ.
At least I thought I did at the time.
After months of back and forth discussion about what is and what isn’t relative to the state of one’s soul, I was finally able to convince a staunch atheist friend to come to church one Saturday evening for a service by a visiting pastor. The air had suddenly become ripe with miracles and optimism, he was finally going to see reason in what I had been saying for months.
That evening was an electric one. The music was intense, the preaching was hilarious and when the altar call finally came, I looked up to my surprise and absolute pleasure to find my friend walking very purposely to the front wiping tears from his face. I was absolutely ecstatic. The following Monday, I gave him a Joyce Meyer book I got delivered to me which was basically a guide for new converts. I was so happy, and to a large extent proud of myself. I was doing the Lord’s work.
That didn’t last long at all by the way, and I do not blame him one bit for it.
I grew up in a Christian household. My dad took his faith very seriously. Every morning, he would find a quiet spot in the corner of our little living room and settle down with his pen, his notebook and his Bible, digesting what the Lord had to say to him that day. On Sundays, he would get incredibly frustrated when we were late to church, sometimes, leaving us to come with my mum. My mum, on the other hand, wasn’t really too concerned. She went to church most times, other times she didn’t. This had more to do with her being an introvert and much too unconcerned with all the graces you had to put up at church and with church folk than her personal relationship with God.
In my early years, I wasn’t too bothered about church. I went simply because my parents went and stopped dreading it only when I was able to slip into an adult church unnoticed. The praise was electrifying in the way only African praise is, church was a joy, and I tried to diligently take notes during the service.
I was a good Christian girl.
I tried with devotionals, I read my Bible, I prayed without fail every night -“Let the angels watch over me, the four corners of my bed, my household, my family, are all covered with the blood of Jesus”- you know the drill. Praise and worship were part of the Nigerian boarding school routine, and I got so into it because there’s something about a group of people singing and harmonising to only our hands as instruments that struck a nerve. It was such a blessing to be surrounded by people who in that moment were all - what appeared to be - eagerly and earnestly seeking the divine, hands raised, eyes closed, beckoning for God to come down and show his power.
Fellowship and communion carried me through my early conscious years of Christianity. Moving out of that forced structure and tight community proved not to be entirely beneficial for my “spiritual growth as a Christian”.
When I was out of Nigerian boarding school and fully responsible for my weekends, I went to church because I thought I was expected to, as a good Nigerian Christian girl. I was never particularly spirit-led, I was always waiting for God to reveal himself to me. I wanted to be a good person, and Christianity taught me that the only way to be a good person was by following Jesus. So I did.
I believed in God. I was sure of the metaphysical, I based my entire existence on the other worldly. So why wasn’t I moving forward?
It started out as me being the problem, me just not being diligent enough, me not being consistent or disciplined enough. As I grew older, I started to realise that the reason I just couldn’t keep up was because I couldn’t reconcile some parts of what was said about God to the image I had of Him in my head, and over time I just lost interest. I didn’t not believe that God was real, he showed me everyday, I just wasn’t interested in how the Bible defined him and therefore him.
The God I believed in was not the accurate portrayal of the God who I now believe to be everywhere, in, up, down and around us. The God I believed in sat on a throne, making grand decisions daily about who to punish and who to uplift. He played judge and jury but at the same time, took the additional role of a loving protecting father, who only wanted the best for us. That being said, he also had to let us know that if we didn’t live up to his standards, or trust him with all our heart and soul and might and love him just as equally so, we were going to be sent to hell to burn for eternity. I mean we had grace I guess, grace in the form of his son Jesus who he has now made the only way to access him in an evolving world with 7 billion people and counting. This, the entire basis of Christianity, is what I seemed to have a problem with.
Over the following months and years, the logic of Christianity started to break down for me. It just stopped making sense. I was still going to church and serving in church because the community I found there was beautiful. I just couldn’t help but feel like a fraud, like an imposter. Not only was I trying to fit into this thing I had huge doubts about, I couldn’t relate to any of it.
I was repulsed by Christianity’s various agendas. The constant reminder that you were born out of sin and are sinful your whole life and deserve nothing but death if you don’t believe that somebody bought death away from you. Being created as these wildly varied beings with wildly varying impulses, impulses that we couldn’t acknowledge, understand and move past without feeling incredibly shameful and dirty and guilty and unworthy because they have been so condemned by so many different agents of God. But most of all, my deep dissatisfaction with the answers Christianity gave to life’s most fundamental question.
“Why are we here?”
By we, I do not mean you specifically, because you could very much find meaning in your daily interactions with others and what brings you joy. By we, I mean, humanity. I mean Earth. Why were we created?
I’ve been on the Alpha course, I’ve had several pdfs and think pieces trying to grapple with the more logical side of the whole thing, and it just exhausted me trying to understand why the world is the way it is and what Jesus’ role in all this is and why he even had to get involved if God was all-knowing, and all-good and all-powerful.
I always thought I became incredibly close to non-religious people because God was going to use me to minister to them. I was supposed to help them get their faith back. Looking back, I realise it was because I saw a bit of myself in them, and frankly I was intrigued, even more so, when they were the same race and ethnicity as I was. Black people didn’t just not believe in God! That was preposterous!
I was fascinated by the way they looked at the world, the way they were able to get up everyday and navigate this wild existence without the comforting knowledge of supernatural beings clearing every path for them and protecting them from evil, the way they were comfortable not knowing what happens to them when they die.
How were they so positively peaceful? How did they have good things happen to them when they didn’t have anything to fall back on that guaranteed them rest and good tidings at the end of the day? I loved how courageous they were about speaking up when things didn’t make sense to them, I loved that they were kind, and thoughtful and gave back to the community not because they were bound to loving by some promise of heaven or blessings being returned to them by a random being in the sky, but because they genuinely believed in humanity and wanted the best for people. They were good for goodness’ sake. I loved that they lived normal lives that weren’t shadowed by the foreboding thought of hell.
I loved that, for a lack of a more appropriate way to put this, they did things with their chest. Unlike the sliminess you find buried in many religious circles, there was a very clear lack of hypocrisy with my non-religious friends. This is not to say that all non-religious people I knew were good, but if I could find that level of intentional goodness in people who weren’t bound to a religion, what exactly was religion for? Why did I need to believe in this specific story to be able to attach any value or meaning to good actions and to learn and refrain from doing things that were hurtful to others?
To me, accepting Jesus had nothing to do with my lifestyle in relation to the world itself, it became a spiritual formality that had no real grounding for me.
PART 2: SO WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE?
In a Bible study session our pastor sat in on one time, he asked which member of the Trinity we identified with the most and I said the Holy Spirit. At the time I didn’t understand that this wasn’t really a question because they’re all one, distinct but one. I had a solid answer because the Holy Spirit is genuinely all I imagine God to be; a whisper, a gentle tugging on your soul, a calling to look inward to find peace and balance, to be one with the waves of love and energy that flow through us, willing us to care for our neighbour like they were our offspring, or our sick pet.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control - the fruits of the spirit, all required a stilling of the mind, casting off of the ego and a blissful state of unshakeable balance.
Personally it comforts me to no end to think of God as this collection of unknowns, ideas and powerful forces contained in one divine collective. This collective guides our creation and everyday lives, encourages us to be one with the universe in how we care for ourselves and others, prompts us to regard everything with wonder and respect and allows us tap into their collective power for peace, clarity and strength. This collective is far from a temperamental parent who gives us tough love to test us and will send us to burn eternally if we don’t follow His rules or believe that there is one way to access Him.
As a people, I think that our understanding of God is too humanised, the concept of there even being a God gets much more exciting when we consider the actual unknown-ness of him/her/it and how unlimited this set of forces can be, how far we can stretch our imaginations to conceive Him that still will not be far enough, how elegant and precise creation is and can be when we imagine nature as the mind of God, how disturbing and twisted but also awe-inspiring and ridiculously complex it can get.
Thinking of God in this way gives me goosebumps and tingles. It humbles me, it fills me with gratitude that I have been given a part to play in the Creator’s consciousness.
Thinking of God in this way helps me understand that suffering is present because it also has a role to play on Earth. Everything must be juxtaposed, black with white, good with evil, prosperity with suffering, that is the order of the universe, the order of life. It helps me understand that there is a very random component to our levels of suffering, because life itself is extremely random. You could easily be born in the most affluent parts of London as you could in the most war-stricken part of South Sudan, your consciousness does not choose where it inhabits.
Because I understand that there is an element of luck, I am neither proud nor boastful, and I’m starting to shun the idea that I deserve all the success because of my hard work. I try to be compassionate towards the needy because I am acutely aware that it easily could’ve been me, and also because if they are alive, they deserve to be here just as much as I do!
But of course, I also recognise that this is all just speculation.
PART 3: ARE YOU SURE?
I am very skeptical of anything that claims certainty and full agency of a concept as intangible as this. I am just as skeptical of atheists as I am of theists because what guides me is a simple question, “How do you know?”.
How is anyone so sure of what does or does not exist beyond this reality?
How do you start whole wars, execute people, send people to jail based on words written by mere mortals that have been passed down and tampered with over centuries? It tickles me when I ask a question and people say “The Bible says” but if I don’t believe in the Bible then doesn’t that already void the argument?
How is it possible that a country such as Nigeria, can hold two opposing beliefs to such a high standard, and they’re both accepted, but everything else is rubbish? How do you pick and choose what is true or not, and foist your own interpretations on things quite clearly stated in the Bible in the name of contextualising? If we are able to do this to the Bible, why then do we not treat it as we do art? Art is subject to our own interpretations and could guide the way you choose to live but shuns the burden of trying to explain why humanity is here or what happens when humanity is no more.
One of my biggest questions, one that nobody, regardless of how sure in their faith they are, has been able to answer is, “What happens then, to the people that have never come in contact with your religion?”
If we reverse it, and the major religion in the world was Hinduism, and we only heard about Christianity in passing the way most people are only aware of Hinduism from their favourite Indian romcoms, does that mean that billions of people will end up burning in hell forever because they are technically classed as unbelievers according to your religion?
Beyond that! Let us dance around what we do know.
Earth is one planet, in one solar system, in one galaxy of which there are billions. Just on a statistical probability, there is absolutely no way that we are the only intelligent life in the universe. It is simply impossible. Now, what other rules are those other beings guided by? Is there a version of your religion specifically for them? If what you believe is absolute truth, does that mean that those other beings will get lumped in the same after life space, if there is one, as we will be?
Once my Christian faith collapsed, I made it a point to start seeking truth in other religions. I ran through them all, until I realised that to an extent that they were all the same. People come together and create stories about what could be and gather a following based on humanity’s quest to find meaning in existence.
The realisation quite shamefully reminds me of this analogy my staunch atheist friend referenced often, the analogy of the celestial teapot by philosopher Bertrand Russell, an analogy that I dismissed as ridiculous because it came too close to the shaky ground I felt I was planted on. Summarised, this analogy basically proposes that if I say that there is a small teapot orbiting around the sun that is too small to be seen by human instruments, but I wholeheartedly believe it’s there, the onus should be on me to provide empirical evidence that the small teapot is there not on people that don’t believe me to provide evidence that it is not.
Back in the day, my immediate comebacks to that were incredibly personalised. I am here, on this side of the planet, doing this incredible thing despite all odds so God must exist, my current existence is a miracle. Look at my family, look at my friends!
What happened to the children born into war though? Did they not deserve God’s protection and favour too?
Christianity specifically, is incredibly comforting in the way that it personalises a whole possible magical being, and whatever drives this being, to our needs and wants. In some ways it is similar to the thinking that existed before Copernicus postulated that we were, in fact, not the centre of the solar system. No matter how comforting this feels, based on the statistical probability I mentioned earlier, my reasoning just cannot be beaten into shape to accept it. If God created me this way intentionally, why should I then be punished for choosing to deal with what is in front of me as opposed to what could be, whether or not it has grounding in physical things that can be proven?
PART 4: BEING THE OTHER IN NIGERIA
As for Nigeria, it fascinates me to no end when I meet more people, born and raised fully in Nigeria, that have chosen not to buy into the matrix because Nigeria’s politics and culture are so heavily intertwined with religion. From colonisation, to the criminalisation of homosexuality to the innate misogyny that Nigerians seem to go to the mountains to maintain, religion and supposed knowledge of what God wants has been used to oppress and repress for years. I spend more time talking to my gynaecologist about religion and God than I do talking about my actual lady parts. To him, it is much better that I believe in something, than I believe in nothing at all.
When it’s time to tick on official forms, you have a choice between Christian and Muslim, and to avoid any unwanted queries, I put Christian. I smile when people quote Bible verses to me for comfort in trying times. I am puzzled when people think that how many times in a week they give an offering in church determines the outcome of their situation.
When I meet new people, they ask, “Where do you worship?”
To avoid the question and ensuing conversation, I simply say, “My family goes to [insert whatever church here]”.
Some people prod further, “That’s your family, but where do you go to?”
I finally respond, “I don’t go to church.”
Sometimes, the subject is dropped like hot potatoes, other times, it’s a whole interrogation that leaves me emotionally exhausted, and leaves them questioning themselves or praying once again that “God reveals himself to me”.
You cannot be faithless. To be faithless is to shun tradition. It is to shun naming ceremonies, it is to shun vigils and prayer as a means to cover up inaction and hopelessness, it is to shun commanding fire and brimstone upon your enemies both visible and invisible. It is to break Sunday rituals with your families, and disappoint your mother yet again when she sends you a link for zoom Bible study. It is to shun the idea that you are favoured above everyone else, and that life must work out for you specifically because you have the supposed creator of the universe in your corner.
Of recent times, there has been a shift in more millennial Christians. They have chosen to interpret the Bible in a different way and live their life based on that, which brings me back to one of my original points. If this one thing is supposed to guide the passage of your soul into eternal torment or eternal bliss, how can it be so open to interpretation? Religion is never just about your personal relationship with God because one can have all the fruits of supposed relationship without actually believing in God so what then is its real purpose except identity formation?
A common identity builds community and togetherness, and that is what I believe we all innately seek as humans.
PART 5: WHERE DO YOU FIND REST?
I am agnostic.
I have no clue what in the world is going on beyond what I can see in front of me, and I live my life based on my ability to be of service to humanity. I believe that if you’re so moved by your faith, as in, a deep emotional pull that cuddles your soul and causes you to live beyond yourself for the benefit of others, then your faith is valid. What your faith is however, is of very little importance given the state of the world we are in. We need more love. We need more kindness. We need more harmony, more justice. We’re all so caught up in such unnecessary dogma, we forget that the point of it all is peace and compassion.
If you are an atheist and what comes out of the fact that you think we randomly happen to be present on a floating rock in the middle of space is the need to protect, and care for as many people as possible, living as courageously and compassionately as you can simply because you value human life and you recognise that we’re all in this randomness together, well guess what, the world is a better place thanks to you.
The truth is, none of us really know for sure what’s out there. There is too much uncertainty to be so intimately invested in other people’s lives and choices the way we tend to be, because they think differently from us. We are in a battle with no root cause that we can never win. The only thing that we can do in this battle is prop our fellow soldiers on our back and give them water, food and first aid. The world is cruel, we do not have to be too.