I’ve spent a lot of time on Wikipedia. I enjoy, if not thrive on, gossip, so I frequent the “Personal Life” section on celebrities’ pages religiously. Upon learning a few basic facts– birth name, parents’ occupation, when they dropped out of college– I swipe long strokes across my trackpad, cruising to the bottom of the page. This is where you find the good stuff. This is where I learned about Jude Law and the nanny, Ben Affleck and the nanny, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the nanny. This is where I learned that Billy Crudup left Mary-Louise Parker, who was pregnant with their child, for Claire Danes. (Since then, Billy Crudup has become my nemesis. I avoid him at all costs.)
It’s also where I learned that some people consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious.” My family was never the church-going type, occasionally visiting on holidays like Easter or for events like weddings and funerals. We consider ourselves Christian– Armenian Apostolic, if you’d like to be precise– but don’t feel the necessity to follow a strict moral code as prescribed 2000 years ago by someone who claimed to be the son of God. We celebrate Christmas along with everyone else, choosing instead to venerate the abundance of family rather than the birth of baby Jesus.
At the time I happened on the whole “spiritual but not religious” thing, I was three years deep into an austere Catholic education. My school, while pushing its students to their academic limits under the guise of “university prep,” was saturated with Catechismic dogma and statues galore. As someone who barely knew the basic tenets of Christianity, religion class served me differently than it did my classmates whose families actively pursued a Catholic lifestyle. Already having an overly guilty conscience, learning daily what condemnation I faced after death wasn’t beneficial for me or my mental health.
When I was a child, my parents would sing me two songs before I slept: “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and the Armenian version of “Who Can Sail Without Wind?” I grew out of this just as I grew out of my papier-mâché ladybug night light, and eventually, it was replaced by prayer. Every night, I’d ask God to keep my family safe and healthy, repeating those obligatory prayers without which your other efforts would be useless (“See, I am selfless!”). Then, I’d transition into my own personal, selfish needs. I’d pray for my crush to like me back, the swift purchase of a newly released book, that sort of thing. This act comforted me and sent me off to sleep under the guise of connectedness with a being greater than myself. Then all of a sudden, after years of dedication, I felt nothing.
A switch flipped. I knew I didn’t believe. Prayer felt ridiculous, and so I stopped. It was weird, living by day in an ultra-religious setting while my entire sense of spirituality vanished literally overnight. So, when I read that some people were “spiritual but not religious,” I scoffed at the idiocy of the idea. The two had to be interconnected– there was no other way. It sounded lazy, a cop-out. This sentiment somehow let you believe in eternal salvation but also be free of the dread of damnation. There seemed to be no rules, as you assumed the role of arbiter of your own actions. Now, I only pray when I’m in dire need, a last Hail Mary said ironically when I know an exam is going to go poorly, or when I’m hoping to run into my crush at the bars. Always half-assed, always performative, saying the prayer out loud to friends at the library or at the pre, laughing away the existence of God.
For many people, whether or not you believe in God starts and ends with you. It’s one of few relationships in this world that you can cultivate in isolation. Sure, there are social gatherings in church basements and societal pressure to be a God-fearing individual, but that kind of religion has faded from view, at least in my eyes. I think that the need to perform religion or be openly religious has faded. We’re less reliant on institutions like the Church to be the adjudicator of universal morality. These days, it seems as though everyone subscribes to the notion of being “spiritual but not religious.” It’s healthy and it makes sense. But when your ancestors were raped and killed and beheaded in an attempt to extinguish them from the face of the Earth because they were Christian, not believing in God will make you uncomfortable. How couldn’t it? When your family members, both distant or close, have been persecuted for their religious beliefs, severing your religious and cultural identities sounds daunting, if not outright impossible.
In a crumbling empire, while politicians and demagogues are scuttling about for a Band-Aid solution to systemic problems, oftentimes they pick a scapegoat to unite the population despite the nearly inevitable destruction. Being Christian is what put a target on my ancestors’ back in 1915 and what prompted the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. In response to the impending fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turks in power decided to eradicate the Christian Armenian minority living, who were living as second-class citizens. They threatened the prospective unification of the Empire by not adhering to the religion of the majority. We’ve seen this same pattern repeated time and time again, because tyrants are good at inciting violence and at turning people against the “other”. We saw this during the Holocaust, the Bosnian genocide in the 90’s, and most recently the Rohingya genocide, to name a few examples.
Not believing in God sometimes feels like an act of betrayal, even though I didn’t actively make a choice in the matter. I don’t need evidence, although that would be pretty sweet, I just genuinely don’t think I’m built for organized religion. As I’m someone who famously over-analyzes my every thought and action, organized religion only reinforced the way I anxiously examined my life. If you’re someone prone to self-reflection, adding another layer of guilt and shame that extends beyond our limited human scope of space and time is not particularly helpful. Having gone to Catholic school and having been taught Church history extensively, it’s sometimes hard to see the Church, institutionally, as anything but a tax haven for pedophiles. None of this is to say that being religious is a bad thing. I think for some people having a religious community where morality is discussed and the ideas of charity and compassion are exemplified with grace and care is very beneficial. Wanting to surround yourself with people who are actively trying to be good is great, but it just doesn’t work for me. By equating religion as the only path to a strict moral code, everything else looks naïve, but it doesn’t have to be this way. One doesn’t need religion to know the difference between right and wrong, but if that’s what that works best for you, that’s totally okay! Whether or not you subscribe to religious codes is irrelevant if you hurt people or even yourself anyways. This isn’t to generalize that every single religion is the same, this is simply my experience with Christianity and may be similar to those who subscribe to similar, rigid organized religions.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to terms with the fact that religion is never something that I’ll care deeply enough about to fully integrate into my life. I try to be a good person, and I don’t need a set of strict rules nor strong shame mechanisms to make that happen. And I think that’s, like, totally fine, except that there’s something nagging me that I should try despite knowing it’s completely futile. I think Einstein said that, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” which is an adage that sounds true enough to dissuade me from actually putting in the effort. I don’t think that my cultural identity and religious beliefs are in a mutually inclusive relationship– I think it’s very possible to have one but not the other– yet I still feel like I’m disappointing someone when my disbelief in God is reaffirmed, and these days, that happens quite frequently. This thought loops through my head casually, but sends me into a brief spiral when it’s around: Am I bad at being Armenian if I don’t believe in God?
I’ve realized, though, that I can regain my ancestors’ trust in other ways. I don’t need to be devout in order to continue their legacy and keep our heritage alive. This may sound as though I’m motivated by guilt and my need to please everyone– including my martyred family members I’ve never met. That’s partly true, but more than anything I think this is my responsibility. I can learn their stories, shared in snippets in phone conversations with my family members who heard these narratives first-hand in their youth. I can recount their lives and bring attention to the continued strife of my people. We as the diaspora must continue to exist, and through us their stories can be heard. It doesn’t matter much if I believe in God if I keep their history a secret.
For now, what I’ve got going on– religiously, I mean– works for me. I’m open to change; faith can be re-instilled in us as quickly as it can be taken away– that’s kind of how I see what happened to me seven years ago: borderline theft. Do I think it’ll ever return? Probably not, but that’s okay, too. Either way, it doesn’t change much, so why not do what feels right? This feels right, or at least feels more right than pretending to believe in something when I don’t. And I doubt my ancestors will blame me for that.
Header Image Source: Alexa Margorian