by Selma Khenissi
Freedom is something that, more often than not, is highly desirable. The Declaration of Independence extols the virtues of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” so it is safe to say that the desire for freedom is an integral part of American society.
Within that freedom is the choice not to believe in God. Granted, according to The New York Times article “In Seven States, Atheists Push to End Largely Forgotten Ban,” there are some states that still require people to believe in God if they want to serve in public office, including the state of Maryland, where I am currently a resident.
Why do many people feel compelled to believe in God? I don’t know about other people’s stories, but mine is one that still leaves me stunned.
Maybe part of the reason why I chose belief is pressure from family, friends, peers and, overall, the surrounding community and culture. I am not one of those people who believe in proselytizing. I find that total strangers who ask me about my faith to be annoying and acting in a way that is completely inappropriate. To be honest, it’s none of their business, especially if they act in a way that I consider extremely weird.
And yet, today, I acknowledge that I cannot cast off my belief in God, even in the face of disapproval. In spite of the pressure for me to believe in God, I kind of got used to the idea of having the freedom to choose an irreligious life for a long time. Being educated in the French academic system for many years, it made sense that religion didn’t have such an essential place in my life. Growing up in the atmosphere of the post-9/11 world, former President George W. Bush’s references to God and the existence of Al Qaeda didn’t really make me want to be a supporter of religious belief.
The truth is, however, I couldn’t stop believing in the existence of a higher power. Something terrifying happened to me and my immediate family when I was eight years old, but the fact that none of us came out of the experience physically harmed instilled in me the belief that someone who was beyond my grasp kept an eye out for us and made sure we were okay. I didn’t follow up on that experience until I went to college.
By then, I started having intense spiritual experiences and eventually realized that I could no longer run away from this powerful presence that I kept on sensing and still can sense today. This is where submission comes in because I didn’t feel like I had a compelling choice to become an atheist, even though I wouldn’t have had to worry about where God is in my life if He actually existed.
But that was only the beginning of my submission to the spiritual journey and what I’m called to do and be. Back then, I wasn’t sure what religion to choose. A weirdo tried to push me to join a Bible study group and when I said that I was going to take a class in the fall semester that would help me make my religious choice, she appeared confused and possibly angry. I still believe to this day that it is important for religious seekers to be given the choice to choose their desired religion, as long as they do so in a way that is responsible.
I had the occasional dream where I was given the hint that Christianity would be the right religion for me. It wasn’t until I read a passage from the New Testament, which I was assigned in the aforementioned class, that I became convinced that this insight was indeed valid and true.
I think that for some people, they are compelled to choose Christianity over other religions. Look at Frederica Mathewes-Green and the main character, Lauren Winner, in the autobiographical book “Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life.” But for a long time, I didn’t see myself fitting into the Christian mold. The Christian religion has so many denominations to choose from that for a recent convert, it’s overwhelming and the desire to run away from it all is very tempting. In the midst of my feeling overwhelmed and running away from the task of choosing a denomination, I ended up wanting to abandon Christianity altogether, but I always felt compelled to come back to this specific faith.
For now, I regularly attend services in three different Episcopal communities, where I feel at home. However, Bishop Mariann Budde challenged me a while ago when she told me that to be confirmed means that I am ready to choose the Episcopal Church over other denominations. I still have a lot of thinking to do before I reach that step, but I trust that I will be compelled to make a choice that I am comfortable and happy with.
image: Path in the garden by David Burliuk