The first “religious experience” I had was at ten years old, courtesy of one hell of a crazy Pentecostal upbringing. The church pastor was a real charmer full of hellfire and brimstone teachings. He encouraged the congregation to speak in tongues. That’s when you babble a secret, made-up language to commune with god. It’s not really a “language” at all. It’s just a bunch of babytalk like halacashamala all strung together with your arms raised in the air and your mind stuck in neutral.
We also took part in river baptisms and the casting out of demons. Those were really dramatic with extra loud god-talk and a lot of really, really big arm movements. Anointings were a weekly event – that’s code for pretending to pass out in the church aisles when a faith healer touches you.
I attended school in the church basement. Here, I was taught a controversial Bible-based school program that I know is still being taught today. I don’t know what changes this program has gone though in the many years since I took it, but when I was a student, it was packed with pseudo-science and scripture.
We went to church both morning and night on Sundays. That was a real problem for me, since Battlestar Galactica aired on Sunday nights. On those nights my begging or feigning illness worked, my parents would hang blankets on our windows so that those church members charged with checking up on no-shows wouldn’t see the glow of the TV.
Eventually, scandal hit the church. Amid the confusion of financial indiscretions, various infidelities and Biblical preaching that became even more wonky and extremist, we decided to make a run for it and snuck out of the town in the middle of the night. The area had become a hotbed of hate – including white supremacy and religious judgmentalism – and the media was zoning in.
Another move, another church. By this time I was in my teens and was teaching grade five Sunday school. I was a church salesman though and through. I was a good one, too. The best salesman is one who believes in his product and I did.
When I was sixteen, I was sent to Europe for three months to work as a missionary. I made balloon animals for children – what kid can resist a balloon poodle? – and when they gathered around me, I told them all about Jesus who was able to make the whole world, not just balloon animals!
Amid another scandal involving church members, we moved again. This was our last move as a family. My parents announced their divorce and the family was split up. Not surprisingly, it was then that I started to openly question my faith. When I look back, I had always had little doubts.
I remember one of my first doubts involved dinosaur bones. I had been taught in church and school that dinosaur bones were not real. The Earth was only 6, 000 years old, so they couldn’t be. Rather, they had been placed there by god as a way to test our faith. Yet I had watched a television show that said science had proven that dinosaur bones were millions of years old, and it all sounded pretty convincing. When I asked the pastor about this, he grew frustrated and offended and told me to stop watching science shows and more importantly to stop asking him questions.
That only led to more questions. I started to think more critically about what I had been taught and what I had been lifting up my arms in adoration for. I thought about what the “peaceful” Bible actually contained. Stories and messages of violence, rape, incest and racism. I thought about the “loving” nature of god. Jealous, angry, judgmental and hungry for praise and adoration.
God loved us, but he ruled with terror and threats. He told us not to kill, but he killed all the time, and usually in very cruel ways like mass drownings and warfare. He told us that he loved his children, but he let his own child die a horrendous death. He told Abraham to kill his little boy, with his own hands, to prove his faith. He demanded that we love him more than our families and children and that we leave them if they didn’t love him, too. Whenever I asked about this, I was told that, “God works in mysterious ways.” More and more that sounded like a cop-out, not an answer.
I think I lasted another year at most in the church. My increasing doubt and questions led to increasing feelings of being ostracized and alienated. I was seen as subversive, but I wasn’t trying to be. I was just searching. Searching for answers, searching for meaning. Searching for something to believe in as both my family and my faith began to crumble around me.
If I had still truly believed in Christianity, nothing would have stopped me from carrying on, despite my parents’ divorce or any disappointment in the preachers or Christians around me. I had felt the calming blankness of prayer, the psychological benefit of putting worries and problems “in Gods hands“ and the serenity in not thinking too hard about anything. It’s hard to let go of that kind of comfort. It was nice but now I knew it wasn’t real.
I really struggled in my early 20’s. I was out on my own for the first time, without the church or my parents, and was flat broke at times. I often felt a hopelessness that bordered on despair as I realized most of the things I’d believed in my whole life were a lie. Had the Mormons come knocking, I probably would have signed up. I was the type of young man they drool over – sharp, hardworking and earnest, but also lost and lonely.
I took another road, though. The road of logic and skepticism. I took an analytical look at what I was experiencing. I began to wonder why so many men blindly follow other men with such zeal, why they unquestioningly give their money to these men and most of all why they allow these other men to tell them what to think, believe, say and even how to live their lives.
I found an answer to this. A man lives with his parents until he’s eighteen or so, and during this time he’s told what to do and what to believe. Basically it’s whatever his parents do or believe. Then he’s thrown out into the world and there’s no one to tell him what to do or what to believe. He’s alone. He feels the weight of insignificance when staring up into space one night. He feels like he’s falling backwards off a cliff with nothing to grab onto. It’s a scary feeling. The void is immense and he is nothing.
He isn’t sure what to do or believe so he is easy pickings for someone who will fill that void for him. He joyfully jumps into the safe arms of a church leader, some pseudo-daddy who will cover his eyes and ears to the big bad world. “Do what I say, believe what I believe, and the fear and confusion will disappear. Believe what I say, and you can mentally check-out from your worries.”
My problem was that I preferred the feelings of fear and confusion to the idea of having yet another con-man tell me what life was all about and how I should live mine. I had to stop letting them fool me, and I had to stop fooling myself.
You see, I had spent my youth around church men. These were men with wives and children who – at least to my way of thinking – came across as insecure and unable to lead their families without the outside guidance of virtual strangers.
These were adult men who were so anxious to be accepted into the social club of the church that they happily, joyfully even, lowered themselves onto their knees in front of another man, some “man of god” who pretended to have a closer connection to the divine than anyone else. They let some other man tell them what to do, what to believe, how to treat their wives and children.
As I moved through my twenties, I started to feel a mix of disgust and pity for these kinds of men. It all seemed so pathetic to me. All a man had to do was donate 10% of his income before tax (that “before tax” part was always stressed in church) and put on a fake “everything is perfect” face for a couple hours every Sunday and, ta da, all your problems are solved.
Best of all, you as the male are automatically granted divine status as the “head of the household.” If your wife or kids act up or give you any grief, you just wave the Bible and remind them that god himself ordains that you are the boss. It’s basically impossible for them to argue with that kind of divine back-up, isn’t it? That is why god is male, not female. That whole justification falls apart if you honor a goddess. It is so transparent and men know it. But if you’re the type of guy who can’t otherwise assert himself or feel powerful, then hey, it works for you.
It’s the greatest scam that power-hungry and sex-hungry man has ever invented. Have sex with me because god told you to. Honor and obey me because god told you to. Forgive me for my lies, my temper, my abuse or indifference to my kids and my screwing the secretary because god told you to. I started to feel a mix of disgust and pity for the type of woman that would buy into this, too.
All of this was pushing me into being a fierce atheist. I remember an “aha” moment when I heard a comedian talking about what a sociopath “god” was. How god was basically an insecure, cruel, woman-hating bully who ruled through terror. I had never heard that kind of talk. It was equal parts shocking and liberating.
It blew my mind. That description of “god” as I understood him from the Bible seemed so logical and right but it was the exact opposite of what I’d been taught. The light went on. I realized I had been brainwashed by church teachings. I started to think that some of what I went through – the violent, recurring nightmares, the belief in demons and the threat of burning in hell – was some kind of religious abuse.
I think the scariest things were the End of Times countdowns. I remember being a teenager and kneeling in desperate prayer, staring at the clock and then looking up in terror at the sky, expecting it to split open any second. I thought I was going to die. I don’t believe that religion brought anything good to my childhood. To me it brought more fear and confusion than anything else.
I don’t believe it lived up to its promises of making families stronger, either. I saw many people at church who seemed more concerned with “appearances” than with the honest integrity of their own marriages and families. Maybe that is because the core of Christianity isn’t about the family, it’s about Christ. Even the Bible says you should put God before your family. On top of that, no amount of holding hands or chanting with strangers can replace thousands of years of evolution and human social development where a person’s real family is more important than their fake church family.
As an adult, I swore I would never have one stitch of religion in my home. I had a lot of resentment from my childhood and how it was filled with thoughts of demons and feelings of never being good enough for god, and how so much of my family’s time and energy had been directed toward the church so that it felt to me like our family came in second.
I vowed I would never terrify and brainwash any child with religion, ever. I vowed that if I ever had a wife and children I would choose my family’s happiness and well-being over any other obsession, be it religion, sports, or any other social club.
Yet as a young man growing up in the Bible belt, all the girls I dated were either religious or had lingering baggage of religion from their youth. They wanted nothing more than to drop a few kids and take subordinate orders from their husband the way they had taken them from the other men in their lives. I knew the moment that times got tough in our marriage, they’d be turning toward god and the church and turning away from me, just like a drug addict who shoots up after hearing bad news.
I knew I wanted Deb to be my wife almost from the moment I met her. However, she was the exact opposite of what some people in my family would have wanted for me. It wasn’t that she was a divorced cocaine addict with a gambling problem and four kids from three different men. Oh no, it was way worse than that.
She was an atheist.
And she was fascinated by my religious upbringing. She thought it was hilarious when I’d have one drink too many and start talking in tongues. It was a great party trick.
I proposed seven months after I met her and we got married seven months after that. We had an awesome marriage. We were best friends and had a great kid. Then one day during dinner she hit with me it. She told me and my son the fascinating story of how, when she was 20 years old, she was given an old Vestal candle, right in Rome, and how the whole thing was now giving her a wider perspective on life, marriage and family life.
At first, I went along with the whole Vesta thing just because I liked what it had brought to my marriage and family life. A great marriage became even better. As the months went on, I found myself opening my mind to what Deb had embraced in her life. She never asked me to. I wanted to.
Now you have to remember something. I had been brainwashed by the church to hate paganism. I was raised a devout Christian who was sold the lie that pagans were devil-worshipping nuts who did bizarre things from dancing naked to sacrificing babies.
Yet when I look back, I see that the type of Christianity I experienced – talking in tongues, casting out demons, faith healing, End of Times prophecies – was and still is far wonkier than anything practiced by those who honor Vesta, or those who honor other pagan gods and goddesses for that matter.
The Vesta tradition doesn’t ask you to pretend to eat your god’s flesh and drink its blood. It doesn’t require you to abandon critical or free thinking, common sense, logic or rational thought. It doesn’t require you to alienate family members who “come out” as gay, hate people who don’t live life the way you do or kill those who don’t pray to the same deity as you.
It doesn’t give you nightmares or steal your kid’s childhood by scaring them to death with the idea of hell. It doesn’t ask you to sacrifice your children or withhold life-saving medication from them, and it doesn’t demand that you put your faith before your own family. It doesn’t ask for a piece of your monthly paycheck. It doesn’t compel its faithful to burn other human beings at the stake or fly airplanes into buildings. Its doctrine provides no authority you can use to lord over your wife. So I ask you: how exactly is it weirder than today’s Abrahamic religions?
I have seen first-hand how religion rips apart and destroys families in one generation or the next; however, I’ve also seen fiercely atheist families that, without a common focus or sense of spiritual meaning, eventually succumb to apathy and drift apart. So I’ve come to realize that most men need some kind of spiritual bond to keep them focused and to help them through good times and bad. I now believe that there can be a balance between rationality and spirituality.
A man can have common sense and critical thinking while still having the comfort of a spiritual aspect to his life. He can follow a personal home-focused spirituality like Vesta without having to shift his brain into neutral or, maybe even worse, get onto his knees to subordinate himself to man or god.
Ancient customs and values can help men in a larger sense, too. Who in modern society do men have to look at as a role model? Our fathers and grandfathers? Very rarely. In the last few decades, the traditional family has split and fragmented into single-parent households and blended families that are often more miserable than the first family was. Dads aren’t around and many kids don’t even know their grandfather’s first name. Boys don’t have any family roots or role models. They in turn grow into men and fathers who don’t know what it means to be a man or what it takes to be a role model for their own sons.
Things were totally different in ancient Roman families. Men took plaster casts of the faces of their deceased fathers, grandfathers and other ancestors and hung them on the walls of their homes for generations as a symbol of reverence but also as ever-present role-models to remind them what it means to be a man.
Men would look to these masks and consult the spirits and wisdom of their ancestors when trying to make decisions that were in the best interests of their families. These masks were passed down from generation to generation, and were the most valuable items in the household.
Today, many men lack the pride that comes from “keeping it all together.” The pride of being the rock in a marriage and family, of being a strong, loving husband. The pride of making sacrifices for their family and having their wife and children look at them with admiration and appreciation. We have this idea nowadays that it’s somehow wrong to feel “obligated” to one’s family. I completely disagree. You are obligated. You married this woman, brought a child into the world and now these people are your responsibility.
After being terrified and brainwashed in religious extremism as a child and emerging as a skeptic and atheist as an adult, I have now decided to welcome the Vesta tradition into my home. It’s a tradition that worked for centuries with some of the world’s most resourceful and independent men, and I think it has a lot to offer men.
I will never defer to another man’s judgment of what is divine or how I should treat my responsibilities as a husband and father. I will never defer to what was written in a so-called “holy book” by men I never knew.
To me, there is something powerfully grounding about the Vesta tradition. It’s a perfect blend of spiritual focus, private ritual and personal freedom. I want my son to have a comforting face in the flame and a sense of family history that he can cling to during times of uncertainty. I want the same for myself. Like countless men who came before me, from the greatest of Caesars and soldiers to the simplest of family men, I have found that in Vesta. And I’m happy to say that I’m not alone. I know there are many men who practice this tradition, each for their own reasons.
This blog is an adapted excerpt from The New Vesta Home.