When it comes to dying and coping with life, religion probably isn’t helping

I turned 65 recently. This makes me officially old, in that I’m now old enough for Medicare.

The good news is that for the first time in my life I’m on socialized medicine. The bad news is, well, I’m 65. My mother died at 85, my father at 89. That’s pretty long as lives go, but it also suggests about three quarters of my life is in my rear view mirror.

Both my parents were devout Catholics. This was one of the few things they had in common: they liked going to church and the ceaseless rituals their faith provided. For both of them, religion was mainly a way to cope with life, which can be pretty chaotic. It also offered a way to cope with death, as it provided assurances that you were loved by some higher power. Unless you led an egregiously bad life, the afterlife was promised to be much better: free of the pain that is rampant in real life plus external life to boot.

But when it came to actually helping my parents cope with death, the results were mixed. It worked better for my father who took comfort in Catholic rituals for the dying. My Dad also had an easier death, as he could exercise reasonable independence right until the end.

For my mother, dying was something of a horror show. Removal of a polyp in her colon resulted in loss of bowel control, and her Parkinson’s-like symptoms meant she could not move her eyes or focus on much. She confided in me just how terrified she was in dying. All that Catholic ritual didn’t work and seemed to offer no comfort.

She wanted family by her side 24/7, but that simply wasn’t possible as her children were living all over the United States. The best I could manage was a once a week visit. For much of her last year she languished in hospitals and a nursing home. Her fears were entirely rational. In a way, the church made dying much worse. She sensed the falsity of their teachings about an afterlife and took it as a betrayal of trust. She exited the world a scared woman with no sense of control over her life and unable to cope with the reality of death.

In a way, both of them were cheated out of a lot of what life could offer. While religion offered the illusion of certainty, it also imposed shackles on their thoughts and behaviors. Sundays were not for sleeping in, but for going to church. It imposed limits on free thought, introducing guilt or worse if they even considered transgressing those boundaries.

My father picked the wrong spouse. As a result, we got sort of Stepford parents who often seemed unreal or surreal. I hold their religion principally to blame, in that it imposed a set of rules and expectations on them often contrary to their nature but which they could not seem to escape.

It’s not surprising then that of their eight offspring, just one remains a Catholic. It just didn’t agree with us. Coming out as non-Catholics as adults simply added to my mother’s guilt. My father didn’t seem to be very much bothered, as his father was Catholic and his mother Protestant.

The good news is that many of us survivors are getting it. The “Nones” (unchurched) now amount to about thirty percent of the population, a figure that is likely to keep growing. The long term impacts of this trend are hard to know. It’s unclear whether by being unchurched these same people will be as loving and charitable as those who are churched.

As I read the tealeaves, I’d say the Nones are in general more so. Those in the churched community seem increasingly non-ecumenical, at ease only among people who think and behave a lot like them. In many ways their lives seem cloistered, and they seem unable to cope with those who don’t share their perspectives. I think this contributes to a lot of the racism and political instability that exists in our current society.

This results in large sets of “Christians” bearing no resemblance to Jesus Christ. I give Catholics points for at least being ecumenical. The word Catholic means universal, so it’s a faith meant to apply to everyone, regardless of race or creed. But even among Catholics, a lot of them no longer seem to have that ecumenical spirit. I count, for example, my brother-in-law (married to our Catholic sister) who voted twice for Donald Trump and does not want “those people” living anywhere close to him.

If religion is supposed to form your center of being and be the prism through which you experience and navigate through life, then it’s largely failing here in the United States. It’s likely to fail faster for the churched than for us unwashed heathens.

You can see it in the response to the pandemic. Minds trained by religions to be closed are minds that are conditioned to believing crazy things, like the pandemic is a Chinese conspiracy, vaccination is evil and wearing masks is an infringement on personal liberty. Over 900,000 Americans have died from covid-19. While many of these were in minority and marginalized communities, many were also people of closed minds simply untrained to cope with reality and the shared sacrifices modern living requires.

If this is what religion amounts to in the 21st century, the sooner it goes, the better.

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