It is needless to say that our beliefs change as we grow up, so this story starts with childhood beliefs. As it happened when I was a child, I spent a good deal of time being exposed to religion.
Among other religious practices, there were the weekly sermons in the Dutch Reformed Church. In those days, you were more or less forced to go, and told to sit still, be quiet and listen. Then there were religious groups for children, like Die Kinderkrans, and there were the nightly "huisgodsdiens" sessions around the kitchen table. Sometimes we would listen to the evening Bible reading and prayer on the radio, and at other times my dad would read a random Bible passage to us in a monotonous voice and we would each get a turn to say a prayer. Pretty much the same prayer as the night before - and the night before that, and the night before that, and always the inevitable request for God to be with the men on our borders - essentially a wish for the "good guys" to be able to kill the "bad guys." There were also daily reminders not to be a child of the devil; a vague, cloudy, snake-monster kind of creature who lurked around every corner and forced children to do very naughty, evil things even if they didn't want to. Things like pretending you didn't hear your Mum calling you when you knew she was going to give you a chore to take care of, or teasing your siblings, or playing in places where you were forbidden to be - even though you were told you would one day be condemned to hell for these devilish activities.
Even as a child I had lots of questions. One that I remember specifically was: When God gave Cain a mark to wear so that "other people" won't kill him, who were the other people? Another one: What did all the animals on the ark eat? I remember thinking about the concept that God knew everything, and yet we had a choice to do the good thing or the bad thing, and I argued that God already knew what we would pick, so what was the point of any choice then? The very religious, Afrikaans environment I found myself in were not very indulgent. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to question the Bible, and that one day we will understand it all.
Then, in my teen years I found God. Or more accurately, I found at the church youth meetings a social environment that was acceptable to my parents simply because it involved the church, and I confused that with God. So while some of my friends were having video parties at someone's house, kissing boys in the dark, I was with my church friends, having video parties in the church hall, and kissing boys in the dark. As another Christian good girl, I was accepted here and not so severely judged for the social awkwardness, and "weirdness" that is a normal part of being a teenager that grew up in an overly religious house. Not because Christians don't judge, but because we were all so busy singing Jeugsangbundel songs, worrying about who's hair and shoulder pads were bigger, studying the Bible, praying, eating curry and rice and making out behind the curtains of the church hall stage that everybody, including me, just kind of slotted in, if not exactly fitted in, and everyone was none-the-wiser.
After about 4 years of this, in the late 80's, I found myself super-imposed on a Christian university campus and living in a conservative small town. On the surface anyway... Under the covers it was a very different story, and I don't have to go into the details. Everybody knows how it goes on a campus. The difference here was that while all the normal things were going on, all the church-going Christians somehow still managed to justify their behavior as better and more moral than that of the handful of people who couldn't be bothered by it, or who had different beliefs and didn't feel the need to justify anything.
More and more I started thinking about the things I observed around me. The way that so many of the Christians did everything everyone else did, but judged the others whenever they wanted to. It was so often okay to lie to lecturers about why they were not in class, but it was, of course, not okay for me to tell the truth about why I was not at the compulsory (for first years) church service that they marched us all to on Sundays. A Christian had to love thy neighbor - but only if thy neighbor was white and didn't break any convention; they could drink themselves into a stupor and dance on the tables every Friday night at the local student hang-out, but one particular Friday night when I preferred to sit by candlelight in my dorm room and watch a raging thunder storm outside, a house committee member was sent to me to talk to me about the seance I was performing. The Bible was quoted and used whenever it suited someone, and conversely ignored when it suited them. I had to admit that I had questions about religion and the Bible, many of them still unanswered since my childhood, and I developed a sort of a faith crisis that grew more cynical by the day. The truth was, I was seriously starting to question religion in a far more general way than wondering about the inconsistencies in the Bible, and the truth was uncomfortable, even to myself. As an 18 year old with my background, it was scary!
I didn't want to think about the condemnation that was going to befall me for my doubts, so I started avoiding places where the ideas of condemnation was forced down my throat. It slowly happened that when religion could not be avoided, I stopped being blind to the manipulations of dogma and deaf to the threats of the concepts of sin and redemption. I started thinking about the idea that a third party had to die for my sins and absolve me of all responsibility for my life, and the more I thought, the less it made sense. I could not understand what I was doing that was so bad that I had to die for it, and even if my life was really as sinful as I was made to believe all my life, what it would help if someone else was killed by his own father because I committed "terrible sins" - like the occasional lie, a drink too many every now and then, and of course the worst of all sins - having sex!
That was the beginning of the end of religion for me, and where defining my own, independent beliefs started. My beliefs include, among many other things, kindness, honesty, not playing games with people, not manipulating people, talking in situations of conflict rather than flying off the handle, living with awareness in stead of ignorance, helping when I can, being reasonable, listening before reacting, standing up for myself when people try to abuse me, living with hope rather than fear, changing things in myself that I don't like, changing things in me that hurt others especially if changing them makes me a better person... I don't need religion for any of these beliefs, and as I grow older, some beliefs change, and sometimes the focus on beliefs change. When I was a young adult, I was angry with how religion, and the emphasis my mother placed on it, ruined the relationship I could have had with my parents if they didn't judge everything I did, and accused me of "terrible sins" and if I didn't shut down and made sure they didn't know a thing about my very normal, and not quite that sinful, life. These days the focus is more on maintaining the good, open relationship I have with my teen-age son, where I am proud of his choices about right and wrong, even though religion plays no part in our lives.
To me, one of the differences between beliefs and religion is that beliefs are allowed to change, and anything that is real enough to live your life by, must change, grow, evolve and adapt. I know many Christians will now want to tell stories of how they have grown spiritually and as people, since finding God, or having God in their lives. I have heard the arguments; I even believe some people have grown because of their religion, but for me as an outsider looking into the community called Christians, for example, very little growth shows in the bigger picture of the group identity. What I see is religion staying very much the same; imposing the same laws, rules, condemnations, false promises, demands and expectations that are often nonsensical on its followers, century after century, creating the same senseless intolerances, wars, cruelty, fears, guilt, judgments and obsessions.
Not a single Christian or religious person that I know is kinder, more moral, less cruel or judgmental, more forgiving, loving and generally a nicer or better person than anyone else, simply because of their religion. I think beliefs do determine your moral code, but it absolutely doesn't have to be religious beliefs, and for the most part I can't agree with the injustices, intolerance and warped self-righteousness that is determined by a static and rigid religious moral code. I'd much rather live my life by my own beliefs that define my morality, and maybe be remembered some day as a kind person rather than a good Christian.