Thursday, March 07, 2013

Journey of Thought (a Toastmasters speech)

Sharing your belief system can be risky, because sometimes people don’t like what you believe and they decide not to like you. But tonight I want to take a risk and share my belief system with you.

Toastmaster, fellow toastmasters and honored guests:

I could start out by telling you exactly what my belief system is, but that would not explain why I believe the way I do. Instead I want to tell you about the journey I took to arrive at my belief system. A journey of thought.

I was raised in a non-religious home but somehow I came to know about God and I believed for no good reason that God existed. At the age of 13 my mom became a born again Christian after a while I too became a Christian. I made this decision in 1972 during the summer before I entered high school. Like a lot of teenagers I didn’t take my religion too seriously. However, about a year later something happened to me that caused me to become deeply religious.

When it happened I was living with my family in a two bedroom house and I shared a bedroom with my two younger sisters. One night my youngest sister started crying and said that she could hear bees in the bedroom. Neither me nor my other sister heard anything and we tried to reason with her and tell her that bees don’t come out at night and that she probably just had a nightmare. Sometime later I too heard a loud buzzing noise and I felt an evil presence in the room. I tried to get up but my body was paralyzed. I tried to talk but I couldn’t. I thought a demon had come into the room and was trying to possess me. I prayed and soon the buzzing noise went away and I could move again.

After that, for months, every night when I went to bed I felt the same evil presence in the room and I thought a demon was waiting for an opportunity to possess me. Because of that I would pray and read the Bible every night for about an hour or so before I fell asleep.

In the same year I had another strange experience. Like the first experience I was again laying awake in bed when it happened. I heard a loud voice say to me, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon you”. The voice was so loud that I was sure everyone in the house had heard it. It scared me and I pounded on the bedroom wall and asked my mom if she had heard the voice. She hadn’t. In fact, I was the only one who heard the voice and I assumed it was the voice of God. I thought that perhaps God wanted me to be a minister and I began to study the Bible even more.

As I was reading I came across some scriptures that bothered me. One that stuck out is in the book of Joshua where God tells Joshua to kill every man woman and child living in Canaan. That didntt sound right to me. It’s at moments like these that a lot of young people make an irrational leap to atheism, as if there is no place to land in between. I didn’t make that leap because my spiritual experiences outweighed any doubts I had about the Bible.

It wasn't until after college that I received my first nudge away from Christianity. A friend invited me to go see the movie Gandhi with him. I thought Gandhi was just how I imagined Jesus to be, a person dedicated to peace and justice who lived a life of voluntary poverty. A person followed by masses but who was also persecuted and eventually murdered. My friend enjoyed challenging my belief system and asked me if I thought Gandhi was going to hell because he was not a Christian. Of course I didn’t but this question got me thinking. How was it that Gandhi acted like a better Christian than any I had ever met. I began to think that perhaps the way a person lives and treats others is more important than what they believe, and perhaps God doesn’t really care what we believe. I was freed from the idea that what I believed would determine my eternal destiny. I began to think of the Bible as only partly inspired rather than infallible. And although I didn't voice this opinion, I also began to think of writings by people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Scott Peck as being just as inspired as parts of the Bible.

As time went by my thoughts drifted away from Christian dogma although I still considered myself a Christian. Eventually I stopped going to church, but I always wondered about those experiences I had as a teenager. One day I shared those experiences with someone else and she said that as a child she often experienced the same loud buzzing noise that I did. She told me it was sleep paralysis. I googled it and sure enough sleep paralysis described what I had experienced. Only about 1 in 20 people ever experience sleep paralysis, and when they do experience it their interpretation of what happened usually depends on their belief system. I read further and discovered that the other experience which I thought was God’s voice was a hypnagogic hallucination, that is, a hallucination experienced on the verge of sleep. I was almost sure that what happened was not supernatural after all but I had one nagging question. Why did my younger sister also hear the loud buzzing noise on the only day of my life that I did? A few years later I read something that led me to believe that our experiences with sleep paralysis were probably triggered by a virus.

I had invested much of my life in Christianity. It was hard, but I finally admitted to myself that I was no longer a Christian almost 30 years after my conversion experience. I am still on my journey of thought, and I doubt that it will ever lead to atheism, however, one atheist said something to me that I consider profound. She said "if there is a God, he wouldn't want to be worshiped". I agree with that, but maybe God wants us to appreciate what was made and that’s what I and many of you probably like to do when enjoying the wonders of nature. And some, like myself, like to take this appreciation to a deeper level through the study of science which is one of my hobbies and part of my ongoing journey. As Carl Sagan once said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”