If you feel it, it must be true
In the mid – 2009, as a twenty-two-year-old atheist, I joined a local church. It wasn’t just any church. It was the Pentecostal Church, often condescendingly described as “happy – clappy”. I had been an atheist for a number of years by then. I denounced my faith in God when I was a teenager. This wasn’t what many teenagers did in Catholic Poland, where I grew up. Church had, and still has, a big influence on the way we lived and how we were supposed to view the world. There were four big rituals meant to confirm your subscription to the Church and your relationship with God. By the time you were a teenager you’d participated in three of them.
First, your family gather in the local church to witness your parents sacrifice you to God in the form of Baptism, our first ritual. Then, around seven years later comes the Holy Communion. It is almost like graduation. You spend months practicing, attending lessons in church, memorising prayers and songs. Your parents invest in a nice suit or a white dress for girls, and you get a haircut before the big day. You also must be pure of sin for this occasion, so you are made to memorise a template of the Holy Confession and confess your sins to the Priest. I remember desperately trying to make my sins realistic, but what could a seven-year-old possibly be guilty of? Not tidying his room? This was the first and last time I confessed, and it made me a bad boy among my peer group who kneeled and asked for forgiveness on regular, even weekly, basis. On the day of the ceremony, you are old enough to accept the body of Christ. Your whole family gather again to witness the renewal of your subscription to Catholicism. This is such a big deal that nobody comes empty handed. Everyone gives you more money than a seven-year-old knows what to do with.
Third ritual, called Confirmation, comes when you’re a teenager. It also requires effort, such as spending your Saturday mornings with a church group preparing to “confirm” your ongoing membership with the Faith. Failing to do so prevents you from completing your fourth assignment – getting married in the presence of God. I skipped the Confirmation and therefore freed myself of the obligation to participate in any further rituals, including a big, glamourous wedding in a church.
The education system was also infected with Catholicism. We had math, geography, history and biology, all coexisting with religion. Religion class didn’t teach us about the history of religions, different faiths or even the origins of Catholicism or Christianity as a whole. It was pretty much reading the gospel, praying and being indoctrinated. I had one teacher in the later years, who didn’t practice what he preached. He frequently sent me to the bookies to place football bets for him. Not only was gambling a sin, illegal for under 18’s, but sending me across town when I was supposed to be under his supervision was irresponsible. Maybe he calculated the risks and liked those odds.
Poland also gave the Catholic world John Paul II, who served as the head of the Catholic Church for twenty-seven years – the second longest time spent in the Vatican by any pope. He was worshipped by everyone and his death devastated Polish Catholics like the Queen’s death will, without a doubt, devastate the UK one day. You can imagine, I bet, that escaping a nationwide cult, as described above, was not the easiest thing to do. But I made it.
Apart from feeling liberated to think freely, leaving Christianity didn’t affect me that much. For the first time, I was able to question the world around me without the fear of punishment and go with my mind to places no god-fearing man ever dared. In my early twenties, I became what people called a militant atheist, meaning I would gladly debate any religious person and attempt to convince them that God, most likely, didn’t exist.
Around that time, I became good friends with a Hungarian girl at work who was the exact opposite of me. She was super religious and was a member of the Pentecostal church I mentioned at the beginning. One day, after many discussions she invited me to “see it for myself” and come to the church.
That Sunday I went to the service. It was composed of two parts – Bite Size, attended by families with kids, and the main, more intense service during which kids usually stayed in the play area. The full service took around four hours and I stayed for all of it. I went out the night before and my phone had died and failed to charge overnight. Still, by some mysterious force, I managed to wake up right on time. The session was very strange to me. Catholics, while wearing their Sunday best to every service, tend to be modest, quiet and moderate in the way they worship. This was a whole new experience to me. The group was singing, dancing and at some point a man collapsed to the floor and started mumbling in a made-up language. Speaking in tongues, they called it. It’s when you want to express your love and admiration for God, but you simply know not the right words that can capture your feelings. When you speak in tongues, it is believed you are composing a superior message that is intimate between you and God. I witnessed it on many occasions because I went to that church every Sunday for six months without missing a single service. One night, after a couple of weeks, I had a dream. The devil himself paid me a visit. I was in my bed and he was standing over me holding me down like I belonged to him. I never told anyone about it, because I knew they’d believe this to be a sign or a warning of some kind, while in reality, it was most likely just my brain making sense of the recent events.
By the second or third week, everyone knew my name and that I was a non-believer. They welcomed me with open arms and hearts hoping I would find God with their guidance. They didn’t know my true intentions. I was there to investigate, to understand, to educate myself, to research and, when possible, ask tough questions and point out flaws in their beliefs. I even attended Alpha Course – a ten-week program where we studied various lessons from the Bible which were relevant to the teachings of the Pentecostal Church. It was hosted by Trevor and Helen and I intended to ask them questions that would make them doubt their beliefs. Trevor was a scientist with a very Nobel goal of one day finding a cure for cancer. He was a runner who believed that when we die we get brand-new bodies. He believed, just like everyone else in the group, that the only way to get to heaven was through accepting Jesus and having a personal relationship with him.
As much as I wanted to ask hard questions about their beliefs, I realised soon enough that there was no converting anyone. I carried on going mainly because it felt good. I suddenly had a lot of friends, I was invited to birthdays, Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Although I didn’t ask those questions, I found the answers I was looking for. Every Sunday, I showed up, but I didn’t participate. I dressed casually, I didn’t dance, didn’t sing, I did not clap once. I most certainly did not speak in tongues. I remained true to my convictions even when I was surrounded by people who knew in their hearts, not only that God was real, but that their way of communicating with Him was the only way. I did not compress my personality to fit the group who tolerated me, considered a friend, but never accepted as their own, because as soon as I stopped attending the church, the ties I’d had with anyone began to loosen. There were, of course, plenty of opportunities for me to try to blend in, do what everyone else was did and be accepted. I’d, by now, be married to one of the good-looking girls who were part of the group. I am now happily married and just became a father, but I’m just saying, there were incentives of singing up for the full membership. I, however, had seen enough and moved on with my life.
I remember Trevor’s face light up when he spoke of his relationship with Jesus Christ, even as he tirelessly worked on destroying cancer – one of his creations. He played the guitar in the church band by night and wore a white lab coat by day. With the guitar in his arms, infecting everyone with the melody of worship, he needed no evidence for his beliefs. He felt it in his heart and no amount of reason and logical thinking would convince him that what he felt was most likely not real. In the lab, however, he had to arm himself with scepticism and critical thinking, there was no room for feelings. Trevor, wherever he is now, was happy. The relationship with God made him happy. It brought him joy I did not understand and he didn’t need anything else. This is true of all truly religious people I’ve met over the years – they are genuinely happy. They don’t need approval, they have it, they feel it inside. Who was I to ever think I had the right to debunk that?
Isn’t it interesting that people can pick up the same book and conclude different, even contradictory, things from it? Trevor might have never read the Bible in its entirety. All he needed was a feeling inside his heart and a voice inside his head to be confident that God was real and that he knew exactly what God wanted. I asked Trevor once, why Catholics had a different path to God. I asked him why thousands of different denominations of Christianity existed, and all claimed they knew the one and only true way to reach the Kingdom of God. For example, The Pope has absolutely no authority for Trevor and the Pentecostal Church, but is the most important person in the Catholic hierarchy. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is another example. To millions of Catholics around the world, she is holy and has the power to listen and to answer prayers. When I asked Trevor about it, he said he believed Mary was just a woman who gave birth to Jesus and was, therefore, not qualified to answer prayers. He couldn’t answer why millions of people, reading from the same book, believed she was. To many different faiths within Christianity, in fact, believing Mary has all these powers is not only wrong, but blasphemous. Blasphemy is probably the biggest sin one can commit in all religions. But how can millions of people be both right and wrong at the same time? They are reading from the same book but come up with different recipes. Trevor wouldn’t admit it, but he believed that over one billion Catholics were simply wrong and that they would only get to heaven if they had a personal relationship with Jesus, much like the one he claimed to have. Trevor knew that those who didn’t accept Jesus would burn in hell. Somehow that never stopped him from believing that he would be truly happy by God’s side knowing that some of his friends and loved ones were burning in hell because they didn’t get the memo. Trevor also believed that no matter what bad things you had done, as long as you accepted Jesus as your lord and saviour, you’d go to Heaven. Still others, more casual believers, would say that all you needed was to be a good person and all bad people ended up in hell regardless of their beliefs.
Some Churches, like Westborough Baptist Church for example, preach that God hates homosexuals and many others also believe that homosexuals, as well as other sinners and nonbelievers, are directly responsible for God’s wrath. The wrath that manifests itself as earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. This is another characteristic of a cult – blaming the outsiders for God’s anger and disappointment. Then there are other Christians who think this is not in God’s nature and he loves us all no matter who we are attracted to. The contradictions are endless.
In the end, if God does exist and prefers one form of worship over other, then millions of Christians are screwed because of their misinterpretation of the Bible. If, however, God doesn’t really care, everyone who is a good person and/or calls themselves a Christian will go to heaven. The problem is that all these Churches claim they got it right and others are wrong.
I’ve often been accused of being stubborn. I left Catholicism and I wasn’t seduced by the happy – clappy Pentecostals despite being a part of their community for six months. In both cases I was presented with convincing evidence and personal experiences. Enormous churches in Poland, indoctrination from early age, participation of entire families and the whole country. Then ten years ago, a small church where the Pentecostals held their Sunday ritual, where everyone swore they felt God was real and that he loved them. Is it stubborn to remain yourself and stick to your values and beliefs even, or especially, when everyone around you is under the same spell?
Everyone has a compelling story
Gary was one of the first people who introduced themselves to me that Sunday I attended the service. He was immediately able to pronounce my name correctly and said he had visited Poland many times. He was in early twenties, but looked a little older and had a lot of tattoos. I made an assumption that we both had the same taste in music and that we were both the outsiders at the church, so we talked during the tea break between Bite Size and the main service. He told me that day that he had lived a selfish and careless life, abusing drugs and alcohol until he got to know Jesus. “Jesus saved me”, he said to me. Before he knew Jesus, he had spent his life pursuing short term pleasures and following false prophets, he said. “I now know the meaning of the true happiness and love that I didn’t know before”, he admitted.
To many people, Gary’s success story was a powerful evidence of the glory of God. Gary’s feelings and affirmations were enough to convince him that what he believed was real and nothing would ever contradict his beliefs. A reasonable person would suggest that perhaps the actual thing that saved him from drug abuse was the support of the group and the feeling and sense of belonging they provided. I’ll admit, I felt that too. After all, I joined them every Sunday for six months. I enjoyed being part of something bigger than myself too, but I recognised it as being nothing more than a community. After all these years, even though I don’t believe his feelings were the accurate representation of the reality, I am glad that Gary found a way out of darkness and I hope, wherever he is now, he is still as happy as I remember him.
Gary’s story is not unique. People who survive car crashes often speak of their near-death experiences. I say “often”, but it is only an illusion because we never hear from people who have no such experiences to report. Those who do, however, always seem to describe seeing the god that happens to be worshipped by those around them. That’s why in Catholic Poland people tend to see Mother Mary in their visions and not Zeus. There is a very little chance that I, as a non-believer, would ever, on my deathbed, convert to Islam. I would, in the moment of uncertainty and weakness, possibly, accept Jesus into my heart just to be safe. It wouldn’t prove Christianity to be right, just like Trevor’s feelings and Gary’s beliefs don’t. It would only prove that out of fear of the unknown, a person might accept the God they’ve been exposed to the most.
Can they all be wrong?
In 2020, I found myself in a similar situation. A spell of fear has been cast on the entire population who, without question, submitted to the demands of COVID – the new deity and his prophets – the world leaders. This god of 2020 demanded lockdowns, separating families, suspending education of the next generation of fathers, lawyers, scientists and politicians. He spoke only through his prophets who swore they and only they knew how to please him.
The majority of people were thankful for the politicians who were able to guide them through the process of understanding the demands of COVID. It was the “stubborn” and “selfish” few who took a step back, distanced themselves from the fear and looked at it all with a sober eye and said they didn’t believe this was right. I was among those few and I have been this whole time. Not seduced by the propaganda, not pressured by the majority we said that what was demanded of us was too much and that COVID wasn’t as big and powerful as his spokesmen had introduced him to be.
Moses went up the mountain, so the story goes, and spoke to the burning bush. He returned to his people with the list of ten rules for humanity to obey to please God. The Ten Commandments were thus created. Some of these laws were based on already existing laws of human nature. Respect your parents, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat – these more or less predate Moses and his Commandments. It is easy to follow rules that you already follow voluntarily because they reflect your nature. Sure, those were violent times, but people understood that stealing or murdering felt wrong and was wrong for one reason or another.
Boris Johnson, back in March 2020, didn’t speak to a burning bush on the top of a mountain, but that didn’t stop him from claiming the higher ground and presenting us with his list of Commandments and saying we “must” obey them. Some of them were pretty easy to follow because they were things we had always done already like hand washing or staying away from sick people and staying home when feeling ill if possible. As the first lockdown continued, the list of Johnson’s Commandments expanded to more intrusive rules. Rules that went against our nature. We were told that seeing our family, sitting alone on a bench, holding hands with our partner displeased our great deity, COVID. The Corona Police force was deployed onto our streets and parks to make sure everyone was obeying Prime Minister’s laws. He banned families from meeting, people from protesting, Christians from celebrating Christmas, and suspended young people’s education and cancelled their plans for the possible future and careers. And what was the majority of people’s response? They asked for more restrictions. They still believed COVID was displeased with people’s actions and selfishness and demanded more sacrifices and restrictions on the infidels and heretics.
Here we have a perfect example of another cult like behaviour, blaming others – in this case the non – cult – members, non – followers of its rules and COVID deniers – for angering and disappointing their deity. Or to put it in simpler terms, blaming them for the rising cases and delay in returning to normality – whatever that means anymore. Just like various religions blame the sinners for the humanity’s misery and God’s anger, Covidians blame the non – mask – wearer or a grandma who, against all odds and risks, decides to witness her grandchildren grow. The fault always lies with the “others”. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, other world leaders also locked down their citizens. “How can all the world leaders and their experts be wrong?”, say the supporters of lockdown and haters of freedom and personal responsibility. We have already seen earlier that a large number of people believing the same thing can still be wrong. It is important to note that, although many countries implemented a lockdown of their population, they did so with many different measures. To name a few examples, in Poland, Spain and in Melbourne, Australia facemasks have, at one stage or another, been mandatory outside, but that’s never been the case in the UK. During the most recent lockdown in Greece, people had to send a text to their local authorities before leaving home, but Poles, Germans or the British never had to do it in their countries. In part of Australia, people weren’t allowed to leave their house for any reason, even to walk their dog or to exercise for a whole week. Such strict measures were never introduced in the UK. So, while the world leaders had the same initial goal, they had a different idea of how to get there. Why, for example, is it safe (for now) to go outside without a facemask in London, but in Madrid you risk being fined or arrested for doing so?
It’s the Pentecostal beliefs VS Catholic beliefs all over again. They both believe in the same God, but they both believe he expects different things from us. Ultimately, both of them believe the other ones are wasting their time. The same way the Spanish authorities might look at Boris Johnson and think he is never going to please COVID, unless he mandates facemasks outside. Boris, on the other hand, follows the words of SAGE – his burning bush – and thinks facemasks outside are nonsensical. Greek leaders salute Australians for enforcing a very strict lockdown, but think they are missing one crucial element – the text the authorities part of the equation. How can Brits feel safe from COVID’s wrath knowing that all these different measures exist elsewhere, but not in the UK?
Can they all be wrong? In my opinion, they can. And by the looks of it, COVID is never truly satisfied. Peruvians have lived under the world’s strictest lockdowns and suffered the highest death rate. Melbourne was on lockdown for months, with very strict mask rules and police presence on the streets. They then celebrated victory over the virus, only to see it return in December. I won’t even mention Sweden, where the government imposed almost no rules on their people and trusted them instead. The alternative to lockdown doesn’t have to be ignoring COVID completely, but it has been almost a year and he still hasn’t been satisfied, so maybe, just maybe it is time to rethink our relationship with him.
Personal relationship with COVID
COVID works in mysterious ways. For example, if the charlatans who call themselves politicians didn’t tell us about it, most of us wouldn’t even know of his existence. Most of us would confuse him with the flu and that would be a blasphemy. Somewhere in the middle of this world, dominated by the COVID cult, are people like me – those who have read the book, went along with the recipe for a while before realising this was not the way to go. When lockdown became the status quo, we questioned it. We wanted out. We weren’t happy that the beliefs and fears of the COVID cult ruled our lives as well. We had other worries, other values and other priorities. Sacrificing them to COVID was no longer an option for us. For me, the moment of realisation came early, back in April 2020. Others are slowly beginning to wake.
Of course, for every sceptic, there is a Trevor or a Gary – those who have seen the light and now have an undeniable personal relationship with COVID. They have experienced his power and his wrath in one way or another. They’ve seen what he can do to an old person with a weakened immune system or multiple underlying health conditions, who would otherwise live up to a hundred years if it weren’t for COVID. These born again Covidians, want more sacrifice. They want to please COVID by destroying jobs, killing cancer patients and lonely and desperate people through neglect and suicide. They demand their leaders to implement more restrictions so that these sacrifices can be made and COVID be satisfied. For now.
Covidians use the same flawed logic as members of other cults. They think that their personal experience is proof of what they believe to be true already. Just like my old friend Gary, they have a compelling story of how they came to know COVID and now believe we should all sacrifice our freedoms to him. I’ve seen someone share a story of a nurse, working in New York, who claims to have seen people die way too many times now. Her story sounds like a fabricated propaganda to persuade people to stay at home and wear a mask, but I don’t doubt there are nurses who, in between their TikTok routine rehearsals, have experienced tough times. Then again, we could find an overwhelmed nurse anytime and anywhere in the world, I’m sure. We could also find thousands of nurses who, apart from going viral on TikTok, have had a rather boring and uneventful pandemic.
The difference is that the stories like the one above, find their way to the surface precisely because they are rare, uncommon and, most of all, shocking. Recall from earlier the example of near-death experiences and how we never hear from people who nearly died, or even came back from the dead and saw absolutely nothing on the other side. We always hear from those who see their dead relatives or the god they happen to believe in. The reason is, nobody cares that an accident survivor hasn’t seen anything on the other side, just like nobody wants to hear about a nurse’s boring day taking urine samples.
In another example, four weeks ago I spent a day in the maternity ward at my local hospital. My wife was in labour with our son. Tina, the midwife who was looking after her, seemed to have had everything under control. The labour, however, didn’t go as planned. It was taking too long, and my wife’s contractions weren’t getting any stronger or more frequent. The baby was getting tired and Tina’s shift was coming to an end. When she had left, we were told our son had to be pulled out for his and my wife’s safety. They were both fine in the end, but let’s focus on Tina. She might have gone home that evening and told her husband that she’d just had a lady with a really long labour, the baby didn’t want to come out and she was really starting to get worried. Or maybe this was a normal shift to her. No doubt, she loves what she does but delivering babies might just be a routine to her and usually end with happy endings that have become such common place that she doesn’t inform her husband about every single baby she delivers. When he asks her how her day was, she just says it was busy.
Now imagine Tina having a really bad day. In 2017, according to World Health Organization, around 810 women worldwide died every day during childbirth. Of course, many of the deaths happened in developing countries, but let’s put one of these mothers to be on Tina’s bed. Now, her slow Tuesday turns into a nightmare she hoped would never happen to her. A woman dies in her care. It doesn’t even have to be such dark scenario. She might have a woman who’s expecting triplets and that is also very unusual and worthy of sharing with her husband. The point is, we aren’t interested in the average, only the extremely good or extremely bad and that’s exactly what we get and demand. If this happened to Tina, however, it wouldn’t prove that these things happen all the time. It would only show that they happen occasionally, but by collecting stories like Tina’s extremely bad or extremely good day, we could create an illusion that the work of midwife is full of twins and triplets and mothers dying at childbirth when, in fact, they only happen sometimes.
Let me give you another example. When I was a teenager I had a group of friends. We used to hang out all the time for a few years. One day, our group split after a minor argument and we never really got back together because adulthood got in the way. Some of us got jobs, girlfriends, went away to university and I left the country and came to the UK. For the last fourteen years, I’ve kept touch with half of the group and almost forgot about the other guys. I haven’t heard from them or about them, so their lives have most likely been uneventful or, in other words, not worthy of gossiping about. Just regular guys getting jobs, starting families and going on holiday to Turkey and Spain.
Until one day, in December of 2018, just before Christmas, I received a message from one of my friends. “Have you heard about Andy?”, he asked. As I later learned, even my aunt had heard about Andy by then. Andy, who I hadn’t seen since our group’s disagreement sixteen years ago, stabbed his girlfriend to death after a drunken argument and was then on the run. To make it worse, it all happened in front of her kids. I couldn’t believe it even when I saw the article with his picture and his name in it. Even though we parted our ways as teenagers, I remembered him as calm, shy, responsible and reasonable boy. As I then learned, his life had taken an unexpected turn and he fell a victim of alcohol and drug abuse.
It is no wonder that I hadn’t heard about him until that December morning. His daily life was no headline. I didn’t need my friends to update me whenever Andy went on holiday, got a new job or bought a car. These are all normal things that don’t need to be talked about. But when he did the unexpected and the unspeakable, horrible thing, everyone was going to find out.
Stories like this emerge out of nowhere, because they happen in the sea of school runs, nine to fives, birthdays and other regular and boring activities and routines. It is easy to fall for the illusion that these events shape the world around us. We are also hardwired to seek out the unusual. Our brains don’t like surprises. We are drawn to sensations and extremes, both good and bad. It is part of our survival mechanism that dates back to when our ancestors had to know the surroundings and anticipate the unexpected to be prepared for a threat. The legacy of that instinct now comes in the form of a shock when our old friend commits a murder and excitement when the horse we bet on wins the race. This is why after sixteen years of living his average life, Andy only made the headlines on my screen when he did what he did. And you know what is really messed up about his story? He will now spend the rest of his life paying for what he did, and I can’t help but feel sorry for him. I remember him as a charming and innocent seventeen-year-old, who we all looked up to, and I know that whatever led to that drunken argument with his girlfriend, he didn’t choose it. It happened to him. Somewhere along the way, he took the wrong turn and it led him to destruction and to the night when he took another human’s life.
COVID stories follow the same rules. Whether it is the “my uncle died of COVID” or “I had it back in June and it was horrible” or “I am a nurse and I’ve never seen so many sick people in my life” story, it is all the same. It is the extreme taken out of the sea of average experiences. We won’t hear from people who’s relatives haven’t died during the pandemic. That’s not news. The news needs to shock, surprise and scare. That’s where the money is. We won’t hear from nurses and doctors whose pandemic days have mostly been just another Tuesdays. No, we will hear the testimony of the overworked nurse who has seen people die even if her experience doesn’t reflect the experience of thousands of other nurses around the country. Whenever we see a compelling story of an overwhelmed nurse asking us to stay at home, because she has seen what this virus does to people, it’s worth remembering that one gambling friend we all have. He always seems to tell you about his winnings, but never tells you about his losses. It doesn’t mean he always wins but losing is so common it is not even a shock or a surprise anymore. It happens all the time, it’s the default, the status que, he loses regularly, possibly every day or every week, so it’s not newsworthy.
Early in 2020, Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. It’s not everyday that a basketball star and his family die in such a way, so when it happened, nobody was glad and relieved that Michael Jordan was alright. This is yet another example how we pay attention to the extremes and the unexpected and this is what the media serves us all the time. Next time a celebrity dies, the headlines won’t read “David Beckham is still alive” (status quo), but “So and so was found dead in his mansion” (the unexpected). When Chadwick Boseman died of cancer, nobody knew he had battled with, last year, the headlines reported exactly that, not “The Rock doesn’t have cancer”.
COVID nineteen will always have his Garys, Trevors, Andies and Tinas. They will make it easy for the untrained mind to fall for his spell. He will have compelling stories told by survivors and relatives of the deceased. But when those emerge we have to remember about the scepticism and look at the bigger picture and realise that these stories are just the highlights of a mostly boring and uneventful pandemic which does not justify sacrifices that have been demanded of us. Personal relationship with COVID is a delusion that does not excuse the attention we have, collectively, given this newfound deity. It is time COVID, just like other cults, gets left behind. The leaders, the charlatans, who tell you what COVID wants and what he doesn’t like, need to be held accountable for their lies and deception. And those who claim to have had a personal experience with COVID need to understand that their experience does not define the reality we all live in and that we all have to move on and live our lives. Lives we have all earned with freedoms we have all been given by the one true god – the Flying Spaghetti Monster