A Confession, part 1
I grew up in the Orthodox Christian faith. But by the time I was eighteen I no longer believed any of the things I had learned at school. As far as I can remember, I never seriously believed them, but I had said only what other adults around me wanted me to say.
Before I was eleven, a student visited us one Sunday and said that students at his school they were saying that there is no God and that what the church says about God is not true. This was in 1838. I remember how interested my older brothers were in what our visitor was saying. They called me to their meeting and we all talked enthusiastically about what life would be like if this was true.
I remember too when my brother Dimitry, who was then at the university, made a strong move to give himself fully to religion. He started to go to all the Church meetings, to fast and to lead a very perfect life. All of us, even our parents, made a joke of him, and for some reason we started to call him Noah. I joined in with these jokes, which left me believing that, even if it is important to go to church, one must not take such things too seriously. I remember that I read Voltaire when I was very young, and far from making me angry, his arguments against God interested me deeply. It is not strange for people like myself, who have been well educated, to leave their faith in God. Religious teaching is not a part of the life that we live. Faith is looked on as something that some people do on a Sunday; but who can say from the way a person lives his life the other six days of the week if he is a believer or not? I see no difference between an Orthodox believer and one who does not believe in God on those other six days; and, if there is a difference at all, then I think I would choose to follow the one who is not a believer. Most church people I knew then and know now are not very smart, not very honest, are cruel, and think of themselves as being more important than they are. Ability, a friendly spirit, and good actions are easier to find in people who do not believe in religion.
Schools teach the students the rules of the church, and the government gives papers to show that you are a church member. But people like myself, who have finished with school may live for ten or twenty years without ever remembering that they are living in a country full of Christians, and without remembering that they themselves are members of the Orthodox Christian Church. Religious teaching that only comes from the word of teachers at school slowly melts away in the world of science and life. And even those who think they still have faith often do not.
S., a smart and honest man, told me how he stopped believing. He was on a hunting trip with his older brother, at the age of twenty-six. Before going to bed that night, he went down on his knees to say his prayers beside his rug, as he had done from the time he was a child. His brother, who was lying close by, watched him. When S. had finished, his brother said, "So you still do that?"
That was all that was said; but from that day on, S. stopped saying his prayers and stopped going to church. And that was thirty years ago. He did not stop because there was a change in his beliefs, but only because those few words from his brother were like the push of a finger on a wall that was close to falling from its own weight anyway. The word from his brother only showed that where he had believed there was faith, was an empty space. Saying the prayers, making the sign of the cross, and other religious actions were not really important to him, so it took only those few words to show him how stupid he had been.
And this is how it is with most educated people who are honest with themselves. I do not say it is like this with those educated people who use religion for other selfish reasons. But such people are the worst believers, because their faith, used as it is for selfish reasons, is the most false. Yet, for most honest people, education and the problems of life soon show that religious faith does not have the answers that they need.
And so, religious teaching stopped being important to me as it did for most other people; but for me it was something I clearly chose to turn away from at the age of sixteen, after a year of studying the writings of many great men. At that time, I stopped going to church, stopped praying and fasting, and stopped believing what I had learned as a child about God. But I did not choose to stop believing in God as such. It is just that I could not say what God was like. And I did not fight against Christ or his teachings, but then again, I could not say what his teachings were either, for the church had never really told me.
As I look back at that time, I now see clearly that my faith – that is, my only real reason for living – was to make myself perfect. But I could not have said why I believed this was important. I tried to make my mind perfect by studying everything that came my way. I tried to make my will perfect by following many rules that I made for myself. And I tried to make my body perfect by doing many difficult exercises. All of this was part of my "faith". It started with me wanting to be perfect in a good way. But soon I was not thinking about God or even about my own rules for what is right. What I wanted was to be perfect in the eyes of other people. And this soon changed to a feeling that I must be stronger, more important, and richer than others.
Chapters: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
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