In the first grade, Miss Smith told our entire class that animals don’t go to heaven, explaining that they don’t have souls. This when a classmate arrived distraught after the passing of one of his dogs. And I can tell you, that day was the beginning of my separation from organized religion.
Through the sixth grade I attended a small Catholic school in the Philadelphia suburbs. One where a class visit from the parish priest would begin with the question, “Who is going to be a priest or nun when they grow up?”
The same two kids would raise their hands every time. The rest of us sat on our hands. We were afraid we might slip and raise them by accident, thereby implicating ourselves for a lifetime as a Catholic priest or nun. I didn’t know what I wanted to be yet at that time, and that was just the point. The whole wide world was open. If I thought about it, I felt like I could maybe be a Marine Biologist… or an Archeologist. A nun wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. And yet here we were, being questioned in such a way that, amicable though it was, instilled some bit of silent guilt and fear.
In December Pope Francis was credited with implying to a young boy that his departed dog would go to heaven. Turns out that it wasn’t actually Francis who said this, it was indecisively Pope Paul VI. Still the controversy brought back memories of Miss Smith and those Catholic School days.
I’ve never felt guilty about my separation from the church. It wasn’t that I separated from morality. More like I separated from an institution that was kept alive through instilling silent guilt and fear. One that told me that homosexuals are sinners and dogs don’t go to heaven. One that, when I studied the brutal history, wasn’t much different from any other. I was able to separate spirituality from organized religion and have never looked back.
I sit here today watching perfect, white snow fall from my window and I know that there is more to this world than just you and I. But I can’t claim, any more than the next person, to know exactly what lies beyond you and I. That is one of life’s great mysteries, and I can appreciate and respect it for what it is.
But the Miss Smith story brought me to an important part on my path to adulthood. For the first time I knew that I directly did not agree with a teaching from the Catholic Church—that animals do not have the same immortal souls as humans and would not be eligible to enter the Pearly Gates, so to speak—and that’s okay. Not only did I disagree with what I was being taught, as I watched my classmate tear up and then begin to cry I disagreed with the way and the circumstances under which it was being taught. So I began to seek alternative teachings.
I’ve written here quite a bit about partisan differences when it comes to what is viewed as totalitarian, or autocratic. To me, being told that who you are and what you believe or feel inside is wrong is autocratic. To watch a mourning child be made to cry further over the loss of his pet instead of being comforted, because of a teaching by the Church, is autocratic.
And that is also why, when I see the Bristol Palins of the world cry discrimination over something like the state of Kentucky denying tax incentives to a Noah’s Ark theme park, I cringe. It’s why when I go back and study slavery, the civil rights movement and the barbarity Americans have committed in the past, right here, in the name of their own God, I question the inability to see that it is something similar to what ISIS is doing now. That will never come close to making ISIS any less barbaric or more correct, but it says much to me about our collective intolerance when placing all Muslims under one general negative umbrella, and the push to stoke the flames with more war and brutality. As far as I can read in the past there has always been this sort of religious superiority complex. Each wanting to prove that theirs is the most correct. Because the most correct should have the most power and control.
I’ve heard Ann Coulter—whom I admire for her ability to speak her mind fearlessly but disagree with vehemently—openly state that to her, the ideal America would be one in which every citizen is Christian and Republican. If any American holding beliefs similar to those of Ann Coulter is truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS—and many sharing similar beliefs seem to be among those most appalled and moved to demand military action—then a wise and necessary first step would be to examine your own words, understand the temptation of brutality, and look back on how easily your own culture can, and how often it has succumbed to that temptation.
I’ll step back and leave you with that. And I will say that after the sixth grade my parents pulled me from Catholic school and enrolled me in the local public school district, to this day ranked one of the best districts in the United States. It was there that I found the freedom to be more of who I really am and think more of what I really think. If not for this change, I wouldn’t have met the art teacher who became my mentor, and I most likely wouldn’t be where I am today. I know that I am very fortunate.
I still believe that animals have souls, just like humans. I still believe that whatever the afterlife may turn out to be, humans will meet their beloved pets again, and even animals they may have harmed with cruel intention, in some way, shape or form. This goes back to my belief in karma—not just between lives, but between moments every day. Karma, to me, is not so much about action as it is intention. The intention behind the action is what counts. This is powerful, and it implies that mindfulness is key. Our actions and efforts are not lost. They spin off into the world to create influence. That means it's important to take care of our thoughts, intentions and actions—be mindful—because they make change in the world. And so I still think that despite what some may say, it’s okay, with good intention, to distance oneself from organized religion and have one’s own beliefs.