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Religion

Save it, Jesus!
The only "cult" I belong to is atheism

April 10, 2003
The Iranian

One of my clients has given me a curious Nowrooz gift: It is a video depicting the life of Jesus Christ, dubbed in Farsi. He is a sweet, soft-spoken man who happens to be an evangelical Christian i.e. he feels it a duty to guide non-Christians into the light of Jesus’s heart. I just smiled and thanked him.

Poor guy: He doesn’t know what he is up against. I am like those annoying people at nightclubs who get picked by the magician for a “hypnosis” number and then sarcastically smile at the audience with this “my will is too strong for such mind games” expression in their eyes.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to convert me to their religion or cult or whatever you want to call it. I sometimes think I have a radar emission unwittingly transmitted from my head to various religious recruiters that gives them a signal that they can approach me.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have been stopped randomly in the streets and given a lecture on this or that God. This isn’t necessarily from people who are actively handing out pamphlets or standing at a kiosk with a big sign saying “Deepak Chopra is the Greatest Guru.” Rather, they are complete strangers on the street who seem to be going about their business and make a sudden U-turn upon seeing me, trying to strike up a conversation about religion.

I have been handed books and pamphlets by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ba’Hais, and I think even that Korean guy who marries 10,000 couples in those stadium size wedding ceremonies. Though I always keep a polite demeanor, I can’t help feeling disdain and pity for these people, with my oh-so-superior all-knowing attitude. But come to think of it, I may be in a cult of my own. After all, people who belong to cults… well… don’t know that they are in one! They simply believe that is the norm and everyone else is crazy.

The cult I belong to is not Islam, even though I was born of Muslim parents. I think my parents were just weary of the fanatics who came out of the woodworks in 1979 and forced us to relocate elsewhere. Whatever reason it may be, they never taught me a thing about my supposed religion. No, the cult I belong to is that of atheism.

It wasn’t a conscious choice I made when I grew older to reject my belief in God. I was never taught a belief in God to begin with. Given that I grew up in France, my fate was sealed. I think the staunch republicanism and atheism advocated in the French public school system is a consequence of all those great philosophers and politicians being tortured at the hands of Jesuits or other members of clergy, who in the past exclusively handled the education of French children.

Whatever the cause may be, I distinctly remember that anything they taught us at school having to do with the clergy was negative, especially the depiction of their role in the French Revolution. The Church was always the obstacle to scientific progress and political freedom. They supported the noblemen and oppressed the poor and the peasantry with their unreasonable taxes and threats of ex-communication.

Even when they would teach us about architecture of cathedrals and churches (I still remember roman vs. gothic style), they would slip in that, because of the Church’s insistence on building these palaces for themselves, countless Frenchmen died during their construction, their bodies crushed and embalmed within the walls and woodworks. Creepy isn’t it?

I grew up reading about Alphonse Daudet’s obese priest who was condemned to purgatory because he had rushed through a mass and God decided to punish him. Or La Comtesse de Segur who stated that if children prayed to God every night, the “Bon Dieu” would give them their wishes. I remember making up my own prayer and repeating it every night a hundred times, hoping that my wish could get fulfilled. But we never went back to Iran.

The worst was the Church’s persecution of my beloved Moliere. The thought that this brave genius was the victim of the Cabale, and he was so miserable during his life when his plays should have been praised and celebrated was it for me! I could not think of religion except as the root of all evil.

So I grew up a fanatical atheist the way other kids grow up fanatical Christians, Muslims, etc. When I became older, I kind of had a religious crisis because I would observe my Jewish and Muslim and “fill in the blank with any known religion known to man” friends. I kind of longed to belong to a community the way they did, and felt perhaps I had not given this whole religion deal a fair shake.

But no matter how hard I tried to educate myself on the subject, whether privately or by attending various religious services, sermons and what have you, I just couldn’t shake the feeling of skepticism and contempt that had been so deeply engrained in me since childhood.

It’s like trying to get to those kids who have grown up watching human “angels” flying over their head at the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County. Even if they grow up and start having doubts, a tiny little speck in the back of their mind will always be there to bother them. In the end, I think they will all revert to their childhood teachings.

How else could you explain even my beloved Moliere repenting for his alleged sins on his death bed. When the king of anti-hypocrisy succumbs to the “What if?” factor when faced with death, and prefers at the last minute to believe in eternal life, what hope is there for anyone else?

I think whatever religious experience you grow up with during your early childhood will affect you your entire life no matter how many changes you go through when growing up. What we are taught at birth will inevitably and insidiously find its way back to our heart at death.

Even if I decide to become a Bible thumping Jesus lover tomorrow (which would undoubtedly elate my client), I fear that before I take my last breath, it won’t be any divine light, or St Peter at the gates that I will envision in my head, but the shadows of Voltaire or Rousseau wagging their fingers at me with their “tsk…tsk”s of disapproval.

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