Religious beliefs are largely determined by the mere chance event of where you were born. Folks tend to adopt the dominant religion of the region of their birth unless their immediate family follows a different tradition. But neither geography nor family fully determines religious belief. Temperament and life experience play important roles. Not everyone is satisfied with their inherited religion, while others simply have no interest in the big question of "what it's all about." Some are looking for certainty in this disturbingly chaotic world. Religion gives answers, like a parent telling a child "everything will be alright." Others are catapulted into a search for meaning by the traumas of life. Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, left his sheltered home to begin his famous quest for enlightenment after encountering suffering, disease, and death. Though I can't claim to have achieved his goal, my motivations were largely the same.
I was born into a traditional Roman Catholic family but was raised by an atheist father. He encouraged me to think freely and question everything. Nothing was off limits for discussion. This influenced me a lot, but other forces came into play. His mother and siblings were active in the church and raised their children in it. He was the "black sheep" of the family. I bonded strongly with his mother because she helped raise me and my two sisters for about three years after our parents divorced in 1960 when I was still an infant. I didn't see my mother again until I was eleven. Grandma played the role of "mom" though one of my earliest memories is her reprimanding me for calling her that. "I'm not your mother, I'm your grandmother" she said. "What's that?" I asked. She said I'd understand when I was older.
Dad remarried in 1963. He met my step-mother Janet at the Mountaineer's club. We often went camping as a family. That's about all they had in common. Janet became an evangelical Christian a few years later and took us to church though my father refused to go with us. I was put in the Sunday school class and was told that Jesus would come to me if I prayed. So I went to my room when we got home, sat on my bed and asked Jesus to come. I actually thought he was supposed to appear with his famous white robe and a halo. Nothing happened, of course, so I dismissed the whole thing as false. This is my earliest religious memory. Dad and Janet were divorced when I was ten.
Though Jesus had failed to appear at my request, something about Christianity held my interest. For a while I would bring home Christian books from the library which evoked a fair amount of ribbing from my two older sisters who have remained skeptical of religion their whole lives. When I was twelve, I often would ride my bicycle to Grandma's after my Sunday morning paper route and we would go to church together and then play Scrabble. I think Grandma chose Scrabble because she wanted to encourage my linguistic skills. When I was six I used a little black crayon to write a story about a little black crayon that was calling for help because it was getting used up by writing a story. Grandma read it and said "You're going to be a writer." I really loved my Grandma. She understood me.
Life was pretty comfortable and my childhood memories are pretty sunny until Monday, April 8th, 1974. I was fourteen years old. My father had begun smoking pot and taking LSD about a year earlier. He shared both with me. I loved those drugs. I thought he was the coolest dad ever. Then at about 11:00 PM on April 8th I was in bed and heard Dad call me from downstairs. I went down and asked what he wanted. He was putting on his shirt. I asked why, and he said "There's about a 94% chance I'm not going to make it through the night." Dumbfounded, I asked why. He said "I'm tired of the whole rat race" and "It's not working out with the only woman I ever loved." I answered "But I love you!". He smirked, and said "That's not enough." He got up and left. That's the last time I saw him. My sisters were out with friends, so I called one of his coworkers from the University of Washington. They were in animal research and had a lot of sodium pentobarbitol on hand to euthanize their subjects. His friend thought he might go there to get the drug and said she would call the campus police to be on the lookout for him. Unfortunately, they missed him. The police arrived at about 4:00 AM to inform us that they found him dead in his car. The police report said they found an empty bottle of sodium pentobarbital about a block away from the scene. There are no words to describe what I felt that night, and what haunted me for years afterwards. I now had intimate knowledge of betrayal and guilt. Betrayed by my only parent, left alone with no one to care for me, and living with an black abyss of guilt for letting it happen. Though I knew, in an intellectual sense, that I was not guilty, that's not how it felt. If anyone was primed for religion, it was me.
So there I was, a confused, distraught, guilt-ridden, drug using teenager with no responsible adult to help me find my way in life. Uncle Jim, my thirty-eight year old alcoholic uncle who was still living at home with his mother, came to live in our house and did his best to care for the son of his dead brother, but that didn't work out so well. So I was on my own, in a desperate search for someone to help pull out the knife my father had planted so deeply in my back.
My first religion wasn't really a religion at all. It was just a ridiculous cult started by conman L. Ron Hubbard, famous for little else but writing pulp science fiction. I was walking down the street in Seattle, Washington in 1977 when a Scientologist approached and asked, "Do you want to take a Free Personality Test?". I said "Sure" since I was always looking for answers for my troubled soul. The test was designed to find what Scientologists call a person's "ruin" - the pain in their life that makes them susceptible to religion. They have a prescribed "patter" which instructs them to say things like "Scientology can help you with that" for any personal problem they discover. If someone is resistant to their ploy the are told to "cave them into their ruin" - that is, make them feel like shit. They found my "ruin" in short order and confidently stated that Scientology was the answer. So I signed up and was quickly sucked into the cult. Within a month I was living with other cult members and had forgotten what few friends I had had outside the group. Hubbard devised some wickedly effective techniques to keep people trapped. First, you learn an entirely new language of invented jargon like mest, thetan, reactive mind, and mu which can only be understood by other cult members. They strongly discourage any relationship with non-members which they deride as "wogs." And most effective of all, Hubbard invented an "Ethics Scale" that puts the condition of "Doubt" near the bottom between "Liability" and "Enemy." This means that anyone entertaining any doubt about the cult is one step away from being branded an enemy, and enemies were not treated well. Enemies and critics of Scientology are called a "suppressive person" against whom the Fair Game Policy could be applied. The Policy, written by Hubbard himself, states that anyone deemed an "Enemy" of Scientology "May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed." All of this is designed to stop people from asking questions or thinking critically. And worse, it is taught that the only reason a person reaches the condition of "Doubt" is because they have committed sins against the group. It is a very effective institutionalized form of mind-control. Such methods are the sin qua non of most religions and all cults. Given my intellectual temperament coupled with the absurdity of Scientology and its complete ineffectiveness to meet its claims, it is no surprise that I spent a lot of time with the Ethics Officer repenting of my "Doubt." This was a constantly recurring trauma because the only way to rise out of the Condition of Doubt is to admit the sins that supposedly caused you to doubt and to ask each member of your local cult if you may rejoin. It is designed to humiliate and make people feel guilty for asking questions, for the very act of thinking.
After nearly two years in the cult, I was so thoroughly brainwashed that I joined the Sea Org and signed their notorious Billion Year Contract. I was then shipped down to the headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. But this turned to my benefit because the exalted claims about the super beings (Operating Thetans) at the Sea Org were so obviously contradicted by the reality I saw when I got there. And I was away from all the cult members that I knew personally so they had no influence on me. I began to take long walks alone. I became very reflective and began to admit the truth to myself. I stayed up late listening to popular music that reminded me of the freedom I once had. I finally decided it was time to "blow" (the technical Scientology term for leaving without permission). It was very difficult. My heart was racing when I snuck out the back door, knowing that if they caught me I would lose my resolve. After two years of seeing the world as made up of "wogs" and Scientologists, it seemed to be a very unfriendly and threatening place. And no one spoke the jargon I had been babbling for two years. I was on my own again. I felt very isolated. And worse, I felt like I was risking my soul since Scientology was the only way to be free from the engrams of my reactive mind that would keep me trapped forever if I left. What a villainous system L. Ron Hubbard invented! It took me years to cleanse my mind of that crap.
I called my mom, who I had met only once, and she bought me a plane ticket to Seattle. I went to stay with Uncle Jim who now was living in a sixteen foot trailer on an empty lot by the Sammamish river we called the "Swamp." He was drunk nearly every day. We had no electricity and just a yard tap for water. I was completely broke and my mind remained very confused after Scientology and my dad's suicide. Jim made sure I had food, a little pocket money, and a place to sleep. He was a collector of junk. We joked about opening a store called "Unk and Junk." He was very intelligent and was always a reader so I had plenty of interesting books available. But I had no electric light, so I would often sit under a lamp by the Cottage Inn cafe to read in the evening. That's where John, one of "God's hound dogs," found me and offered me a hamburger. While scarfing down the rare delicacy, he prodded me to find my "ruin" - the thing that would make me open to Christ. For some mysterious reason, I thought I was too smart for Christianity and told him so. He made my salvation his project and began to visit me frequently at the "Swamp." He would take me to youth group meetings though I did not profess belief. We argued a lot. He tried to give me logical reasons, but his logic sucked and I knew he would never convince me that way. But everything changed when he took us to a three day "Praise The Lord" (PTL) festival in Vancouver, Washington. The first day felt very strange. Everyone was exuberantly proclaiming how God had told them this and God had told them that. Everyone was smiling - filled to the brim with the "joy of the Lord." There were preachers and healers, hours of praise and worship, and special guests like Mike Warnke who told stories about having been a Satanic High Priest (he's since been debunked as a rank liar). All the happy faces made me feel sad. John kept trying to get me to pray, but I just wasn't interested because I didn't believe. On the second day, things changed. Here is how I described it a few years ago when I was still a Christian (highlights in the original):
I continued to think of myself as Christian for about another six months. I began attending a community college and my faith waned the more I learned about science, particularly evolution. Then I met a very liberal young woman who had never had anything to do with Christianity and I soon forgot I'd ever been a believer. I followed her to Washington State University and began my degrees in Mathematics and Physics. The more I learned, the less I believed in any religion. I had a brief "flare up" of faith in Christ when I became close friends with a brilliant Christian man who was working on the same two degrees as I, but it didn't last long. I then met an East Indian woman who coerced me into marriage with sex mixed with threats of suicide. She was a Muslim so I tried that faith on for a while but it didn't fit at all. There was nothing compelling in it, and it certainly didn't offer any solution to the pain still aching my soul. The marriage lasted three years, during which I completed my two degrees and began working on a Ph.D. in Quantum Physics. I finished all my prerequisites and aced the preliminary exam, but my soul began to ache more and more and I couldn't finish my dissertation. I quit school in 1987 and went to hang out with Uncle Jim again. We spent six weeks in a cabin in the Cascade mountains. I didn't know what I wanted to do next. Then I had an inspiration. I got a bicycle and rode twelve hundred miles down the coast to California! I thought of the trip as a "vision quest." It was one of the best things I've ever done. The days were peaceful and meditative. The scenery amazing, the air fresh with ocean breeze and the scent of the towering Redwoods. Every day was new and everywhere I went I met friendly people who took me in, gave me a place to shower and sleep. The trip was the best therapy I've could have imagined. I wrote every day in my diary trying to work out all the kinks in my mind.
I returned to Seattle and didn't know what to do next when I met an old friend who told me there would be a Gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light in Texas. It was an amazing experience. Imagine 5000 semi-clad hippies dancing and singing in the woods. Everyone called each other brother and sister. We all shared food, laughter, and friendship. The love was palpable. Everyone was into some variety of spirituality, most of it would be classed as "New Age" or "Eastern" though Christ was held in very high esteem by many. It was a "hippie religion" if you will. Symbols from all religions were freely adopted. The Family spoke of bringing the New Jerusalem to earth, and the conventional world was called "Babylon." I felt I had finally found my own tribe. I wanted to stay forever, but the Gathering lasted only a week. My ride left before I was ready to go, so I ended up hitchhiking back to the coast. I landed in Santa Cruz and found the town teaming with Rainbow Family who had come for the Grateful Dead show. I met a man who called himself Pan. He had a staff with Micky Mouse on a crucifix, smiling and waving. He gave me a tab of LSD and a copy of his "Theory of Everything" which he titled "A Damned Good Guess." I met a woman who was into the Tarot and we became fast friends. She flew in from Connecticut for the show. She had a vial of liquid LSD. We wanted to trip together but were waiting for the right day. I spent the night on her floor, and when we awoke in the morning, she opened her sliding door and let in the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." We thought that auspicious. We split all the acid and sat on a park bench above the ocean below a perfect blue sky. The heavens opened and we shared visions of God (to borrow a metaphor from Ezekiel 1:1). That's why LSD is called an "entheogen" - it evokes a direct experience of God within. The vision spanned the universe and all the world's religions and I saw they were one. This became a new goal for me, to find and express the unity underlying all the world's religions and reality. I had become a mystic.
My mystic quest soon led to a serious study of all esoteric fields. I was particularly interested in the I Ching, Tarot, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and Hebrew gematria (word/number associations). This inevitably led me back to the Bible, the fountainhead of the Western esoteric spiritual tradition. But at that time I was only interested in the Hebrew Old Testament because that's what most of the books were talking about and I knew nothing of Greek gematria. Soon after beginning my studies in earnest, I had a series of profound dreams which took years to decode and ultimately led me back to faith in Christ. The central dream was very simple. I was in a semi-lucid state, floating in blank space. A woman appeared and said "Are you looking for Dumbo? 12 x 44." I awoke and wrote the dream down. After a couple years of study, I became convinced that the essential message of the dream says "Jesus Christ is Lord" and "By His Blood you are saved." I explain how I came to these conclusions in my post called Looking for Dumbo.
I had many experiences which drew me back to faith in Christ. I was by a river one night, practicing ritual magick which is supposed to enable a person to cause things to happen by the power of will. I thought it would be cool if I could cause a fish to jump out of the water. I tried for about fifteen minutes and finally gave up, someone despondent. I said to myself "I don't know anything." Then I glanced down and saw my Bible. I picked it up, held it to the sky, and said "One thing I know, this book is holy." And a fish jumped, right at that moment! It felt like a direct acknowledgement of what I had said.
Much of my study in those years was done in my favorite dive, the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle. On a typical night you would see me with a calculator, a notebook, Bible, and a beer. That's where Mike, a Christian who understood the spiritual value of LSD, found me. He asked if we could go to my place, drop acid, and study the Bible. I thought it was a great idea even though I wasn't into the New Testament. It was a transformative night that re-awoke my faith in Christ. Mike read a verse about the Holy Spirit and when I heard the words a blindingly bright phosphorescent white light - unlike anything you could see with your natural eyes - began to emerge from my chest with wings expanding like a dove that filled the universe. I had visions of how the everything was created by the Word. I had visions of rabbis dancing with joy as they came to knowledge of Christ. A little later I randomly opened my Bible to the fourth chapter of Hebrews and felt something tugging my eye, compelling me to look at verse 12 and to make a connection with the verse number:
I had only one fear as I felt the knowledge of Christ awaken within my soul. I feared I might become a fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell. And my fears were sadly realized as my studies led me to an ever increasing certainty that the Bible was the Word of God. This was aggravated by the fact that the only people who showed any interest in my studies were themselves fundamentalists. I was pushed over the top by my discovery of the Bible Wheel in 1995 which fully convinced me that I had objectively demonstrable and incontrovertible evidence that the Bible was the "Word of God." But I didn't fall into the typical fundamentalist error of claiming it was "inerrant and infallible" because I knew that was not the case. Knowledge of the Bible Wheel allowed me to hold the Bible with a "light hand" - I didn't feel I needed to have answers for every little problem because the overall design, which required every book to work, proved that the Bible as a whole was designed by God. This is why I was able to ignore all the problems that now convince me that the Bible is not the Word of God (in the sense used by most Christians). Everything I've learned, all the evidence of the Holographs and the Bible Wheel remains valid as far as I know. Only my interpretation has changed. I'm now mystified by how such patterns could appear in the Bible because I can't attribute them to the God describe in it's pages! How's that for a paradox?
This is why - or rather how - I became a Christian. I didn't "choose" it at all. It felt more like waking up and realizing what I was. Knowledge of Christ felt innate to my soul. It was the joy of my life for well over a decade. It was not something I could choose to take or leave. I used to say I felt like a pot of dirt in which God planted a seed, and it was the seed that sprouted. I had nothing to do with it really. And I feel the same way now that I reject the Christian faith. It's not really a choice - it's more of a realization. A person cannot choose what to believe. We believe what we believe for a complex set of reasons, most of which are well beyond our own conscious control.