Saturday, August 06, 2016

From Catholicism to Epicureanism- Changes in my religious beliefs

I've been working on my autobiograhy; How a Left-wing Journalist Survives the Bible Belt. This is a chapter on how my religious ideas changed and what they changed to.  

By SJ Otto

For almost half of my life I was a Catholic. I was raised Catholic. My parents were Catholic. For a time I even raised my son Catholic. But today I'm not Catholic. So how did that happen? I was in my early 30s when I decided to change my religious beliefs.
I was raised a Catholic and that is a religion that influences a person's basic life in all areas of life. It isn't just a "go to church on Sunday" and the rest if the week it is forgotten. I went to a Catholic school until the sixth grade. We had crucifixes on the walls. I said prayers before meals and before bed time. During school we had a class each day for religion. We went to mass every morning, during Catholic school.
I believe I actually enjoyed having a sense of right and wrong that I constantly had to live by. I had strong moral beliefs. In St. Louis we were taught to give to the poor, to share with others and to stand up for our families. Those are not out of step with what I believe in today.  
It was in my teenage years that I turned to the idea of socialism. I took an interest in the presidency of Salvador Allende, in Chile, during my high school years.[1] I read about him almost every week in Time magazine.  For a long time it seemed as if being Catholic and left-wing were compatible. After all there was a Catholic priest in the Sandinista leadership in NicaraguaFernando Cardenal, the revolutionary Jesuit priest who served as Secretary of Education. And for  many of us, at that time, the Sandinistas Revolution was the most advanced revolution ever. Because of the policies of Liberation Theology.[2] I could be both a Catholic and a democratic socialist.
At the same time I was also agnostic. I had doubts about God, heaven and the after-life. I did like the idea of an after-life and going to Heaven, so I stayed with the church.  
Pope John Paul II played in important part in my break with the church. He condemned Liberation Theology.[3] But I had other problems with the church. I had always disagreed with many sexual beliefs of Catholicism. That included differences over pre-marital sex, birth control and although I'm not gay, I never agreed with the anti-homosexual positions the church took. The church's roles for women in the clergy was clearly sexist. I was against abortion when I was in my teenage years. But as I got older I changed my mind about it.
I never agreed that the pope was infallible. Also as I studied the history of the Catholic Church I found there had been a lot of corruption. At times the church acted as a political institution. It was supposed to have given up all its political power centuries ago, about the time that that European feudalism was dying out. But I realized after a while that the Catholic Church still held a lot of political power. That became perfectly clear when a Time magazine article revealed that Pope John Paul II had conspired with then President Ronald Reagan and the CIA to bring down governments in Eastern Europe.[4] I had not been a fan of the governments in Eastern Europe. I didn't see them as being very genuine socialist governments. I supported the "Socialism with a human face" programme by Alexander Dubček inCzechoslovakia, a movement that the Soviet Union put to an end with an invasion. But it seemed to me that the Catholic Church had no business getting involved in such an in-depth political movement. What gave the Pope such a right? The Time magazine revelation was the last straw. I had problems with Catholicism in the past, but that article finally put me over the edge. I had a strong belief in supporting those on the bottom of society, not the wealthy and the aristocrats. I decided that my  beliefs were more important that my agnostic religious leanings. I was through with Catholicism as of then.
I could have sought out another Christian religion to take the place of the one I left. But after living in the Bible Belt and observing the results of the Christian majority in Wichita, I had no interest in following any of those religions.
For a while I studied Druidry. I wanted to learn about the religions my ancestors worshiped before Christianity came to Europe. One of the main books I used for learning about that religion was The 21 Lessons of Merlyn, Douglas Monroe.[5] I found it very interesting and I learned a lot from that book. But after a few years I realized that book was poorly written and very inaccurate as to the practice of the ancient Druids. The book had a terrible reputation for being wrong on a lot of things. I also had a hard time believing in re-incarnation and multiple gods. Eventually I dropped it. However I did try to keep the celebration of holidays, such as Winter Solstice in place of Christmas and Samhain as Halloween. I still like to celebrate those holidays.
Eventually I came across some readings on Epicurus and his ancient Greek school of thought. It is not really a religion, more of a philosophy. Epicurus did not deny the existence of god(s) but decided that gods take care of gods and humans need to take care of humans. He also told people we should learn not to blame everything on gods. ‘If your house is crushed by an earthquake it isn’t the anger of the gods, you built your house in an earthquake prone place.’ And he didn’t believe in an after-life. This is closest to what I believe. I'd like to believe in an after-life, but I just really don't. I liked the idea of a belief system based on the needs of humans and not an abstract god. I can't see any god or gods, but I can see and feel other humans.
A young student at the middle school where I work asked me if Epicureanism is "one of those religious with sayings?" And I said "it is." Fore example:
"When measured by the natural purpose of life, poverty is great wealth; limitless wealth, great poverty."
"In other occupations, the reward comes with the difficulty after their completion, but in philosophy delight coincides with knowledge. For enjoyment does not come after learning, but learning and enjoyment come together."
"Against all else it is possible to provide security, but as far as death is concerned, we all dwell in an unfortified city."[6]
One thing I like about Epicureanism is that it is not the same as saying that I'm an atheist. When I tell people that I'm an atheist they say "So you don't believe in anything?!" I do believe in things. I just don't believe in the after-life or the necessity of worshiping God. There are a few points were Epicurus and I don't agree. That is mostly in regards to political power. Epicurus said to avoid it. I find it necessary to take part in elections and other political activities. But I really don't believe that religion should be taken absolutely literally. It should be taken with a grain of salt, so they say.
I also enjoy other writers from ancient phylosophers, some related to him, such as Democritus, Titus Lucretius Carus, Aristippus and some of the ancient Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tzu and Mencius.

 Steve Otto, Memoirs of a Drugged-Up, Sex-Crazed Yippie, (Authorhouse,BloomingtonIndiana, 2005), pp. 43 - 44.
[2] Liberation Theology,
[3] Pope John Paul II,
[4] CARL BERNSTEIN, "The Holy Alliance," Time, February 24, 1992, Vol. 139 No. 8, pp. 28-35, reposted June 24, 2001,,9171,159069,00.html
[5] Douglas Monroe, The 21 Lessons of Merlyn, (Llewellyn, St. Paul, Minnesota), 1993.

[6] Eugene O'Connor, translator, The Essential Epicurus, (Prometheus Books,AmherstNew York), 1993, p. 79, all three quotes.

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