Breaking Bread with My Religious Past
Religion and spirituality have shaped my relationship with sexuality, gender, and monogamy; sometimes this has been intentional, and sometimes it has been very much not. My feelings around all things spiritual are complicated, and they are tied up in equally complicated feelings about relationships and identity. I am deeply confused about what I want, but I do know that I want to integrate all parts of myself and that I am probably not alone in this project.
This first post of Reclaiming Ritual explores the founding principle of the series: that we can create our own meaningful rituals and even queer traditionally harmful spiritual practices. I also explain some anthropological concepts and tell the story of my journey from deeply religious believer to experimental spiritual pirate (with a stopover at happy atheist).
I mentioned previously that I grew up in a small conservative community focused around a tiny esoteric religion. People often call it a cult because, well, it kind of is. All of my friends were in this religion, and I went to religious school until I decided to move away for college. On top of the usual conditioning that happens in such a situation, I was a studious, introspective kid who took her spiritual beliefs extremely seriously. When I left at 18, I felt truly confirmed in the faith—it was my own, not just something my parents told me to do or think.
However, I was also mentally ill (which I knew), and queer (which I didn't know), and all that religion was a pretty powerful tool for self-harm. When my worldview started to unravel I took it hard. Deciding to use the term ‘atheist’ was a powerful act of healing from all that emotional flagellation I had grown addicted to. In exploring atheism I learned a lot about the harm religion has done, both on a societal scale as well as to individuals like myself. Atheism opened me up to the beauty of a universe that is vast, random, and chaotic. I still identify with the word atheist, even if I no longer quite fit the definition. It is my anchor when my head starts to spin into old habits.
I often ask myself what business I have exploring spirituality, given my atheistic leanings. Putting aside my religious past for a moment, I want to talk a bit about my academic past and how that factors into how I understand this whole endeavor.
I am a scientist. As it turns out, the whole point of actually doing scientific research is to figure out something we do not already know. We don’t have all the answers, and we likely never will. The first job of science is to find the questions.
I am foremost an anthropologist. I study and believe in the power of culture. Cultural forces intimately influence us all—they are our mythological Fates, tugging threads this way and that. We create them, and they create us. Ritual is only one of these forces, but I have found it to be one of the most powerful. Rituals happen when we repeat an action intentionally, often within community, in a way that reinforces a particular understanding of ourselves, our society, or the cosmos. These practices seamlessly connect the ideological with the physical. Through ritual, concepts and worldviews seep into our muscle memory. Rituals are often the scaffolding of a society—they cement bonds between community members, create unspoken contracts of reciprocity, and transmit ideas about what the world is. They are part of what make us feel that we know something, not just hold an opinion.
Often, if they are paying attention, students in Anthro 101 courses undergo a period of disillusionment where they feel like nothing they know is real. Most beginning anthropology classes drive home the idea that our beliefs about gender, sexuality, family structure, politics, art, and even science are all shaped—maybe even created—by whichever particular culture surrounds us. As someone who grew up in an isolated, closed religious community that believed we were keepers of the final and most complete Divine Revelation, which made known a universal truth in all religions and offered hidden knowledge to explain all natural and spiritual phenomena, making us the capstone of all churches… well, let’s just say anthropology classes literally changed my life. I spent a lot of college dealing with feelings of betrayal, loss, fear, disgust, and not a little anger.
Now that I have sat with the idea of cultural relativity for a while (um, almost a decade?), I am moving further away from: help, these terrible forces made me think something untrue and awful was actually true and good and creeping toward: these forces are really thorough and efficient at what they do, and if I am careful maybe they can help me truly believe anything I want to believe—including that I am worthy in all particulars.
At this point, I have thoroughly rejected almost every tenant of my childhood religion. Yet when I walk into an old stone church, something happens in my chest. I experience awe and reverence in my body. When I look up at a stained glass window, I instantly snap into quiet introspection. Organ music makes me feel loved. The structure and vocabulary of poorly translated 18th century neo-latin puts me in a thoughtful mood. When anyone prays around me, or even just says “amen,” I instinctively fold my hands and bow my head.
I have been programmed by religious rituals since birth. They touch me, and something happens. Often this includes the emergence of old thought patterns: You are disgusting. You are useless. You are not worthy.
The way I see it, I have two choices. I can try to avoid triggers and resign myself to bittersweet nostalgia (heavy on the bitter) when they inevitably show up. To be honest, this was the best best option available to me for many, many years. Now, though, I am slowly exploring a second path. Religious trappings will never lose their power over me, but perhaps I can re-route that energy for new and nefarious purposes. I am beginning to wheedle my way into that magical little space between religion and ritual.
Reclaiming ritual, for me, means embracing ambiguity and using that perspective to rework a harmful practice or symbol into a healing one. It means re-visiting the stories that are in my blood and turning my attention to the outcasts and perverts. As an act of defiance and self-love, I want to queer the fuck out of my rituals. I imagine myself a spiritual hacker, a psychological alchemist, a religious mutineer turned pirate captain. I aim to take Ritual out of the hands of the men who think my gender makes me incapable of spiritual leadership and use it to reaffirm my own power.
Because you know what? I am a queer. That is what we do. We subvert, we create, we thrive. We turn the shit that hurts us on its head and call it our own. Just as much as the religion of my childhood, reclamation is my heritage.
My present self is allowed to own the stories of my past.