Faith Life + Arts Religion Special Section

When does religious devotion go too far?

The first time I begged for my life, I was 12.

One month into the seventh grade, I sat helpless on the edge of a hospital bed as a surgeon told my parents there was a strong possibility I would need a blood transfusion. My father told her to let me die instead.

From the moment on the way to the operating room that the doctors told my parents they couldn’t come any farther, I begged my surgeon not to let me die for a religion that wasn’t mine. On the operation table, I refused critical minutes of anesthesia until she promised.

When I made my first post-operation visit to my dad’s house, he lectured for hours on my lack of integrity and morals.

I’m not going to go name names when it comes to his views, so let’s just say his community is known for knocking on doors, occasionally denying modern medicine, and most importantly, exiling family and friends who don’t agree. Unfortunately for me, I have only ever fallen in the latter group.

My dad’s devotion to his religious views and subsequent community have been his highest priority since before I was born.

Among his peers, my dad is praised for this fact. In my eyes, it was that love for his faith that prevented him from attending a single athletic event throughout my childhood. When I brought home good grades, he disapproved on the basis that I could have instead reserved that time and effort for the faith we didn’t share. His faith has been more important than anything I’ve ever done.

My parents have been divorced since before I started elementary school. The arrangement was that I would visit him and his new family every other weekend. For those four days each month, friends, schoolwork and any entertainment that didn’t align with his views were off-limits, and I was subject to the worship activities of his choosing.

It took only a few years of missed birthday parties and family holidays before I started asking my mom to stay home on those weekends, but she didn’t want to disrespect his right to parent me.

By middle school, I was begging with more and more success.

There was a weekend during my freshman year of high school that I asked to stay home. We had just moved, and I had nearly a week’s worth of schoolwork to catch up on by Monday. Getting permission to stay home was an uphill battle on a good day, but there was a special event at my dad’s church that weekend.

After about an hour of back and forth, I told my dad it just wasn’t possible for me to go that weekend if I couldn’t get the necessary work done. He sent my mom three emails informing her that I was evil — yes, Biblically evil.

We didn’t speak for two years.

When my stepsister told him I did well on the SAT, he broke the silence to tell me I made him sick.

A moderate level of devotion keeps faith alive, and I’m not here to say religion is in any way bad. Religion follows the same rule as just about everything else: It’s good in moderation.

In excess, even a religion that lists family, love and tolerance as some of it’s most important tenants can change people for the worse.

When I think of my father, I think about the details my mother and grandmother have told me about the person he was before. I’m confident I’ll never be lucky enough to experience having that person as a parent — which is a shame because my dad supposedly used to be pretty damn cool — and I made peace with that a long time ago.

But if the job of a good parent is to love and want the best for their children, isn’t he trying in the only way he knows how? If he thinks the best he can do for me is ensure I do right by the god he believes in, should I excuse the negative impact it’s had on my life and our relationship?

As a teenager and young adult, I used those questions to cushion blow after blow of rejection and disappointment, and I would tell myself that even if he doesn’t like or believe in me, at least his continuous effort to right my religious “wrongs” proved his love.

Adulthood, and my changing relationship with both parents, has taught me that it’s OK to cease my efforts to make him proud, to connect with him. The knowledge that I’ll never earn his love is as brutal as it is certain.

Today, I ask whether I would have brought pride to the father I feel I missed out on, the father I never knew. Love, the kind religion teaches and that we should all strive to feel for those around us, asks only that we become better people, not different ones.

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