I have often tried to fathom why religion is so important to so many people. One explanation might be that we humans have always wanted to believe we have a semblance of control over random events, or at least that we understand them. The feeling of being tossed about in a sea of illogicality is unbearable. After all, we see ourselves as the most sophisticated animals on the planet, so surely there must be a special reason for our creation. Unlike dogs, cats, or wildebeests we could not simply return to the earth after death. We probably live forever, and, if we embrace the Christian model of heaven, it is clear that we will live in a kingdom where the streets are paved with gold and sickness and disability no longer exist.

How comforting to believe that suffering has a purpose. Why, for example, would a woman give birth to a blind child? Perhaps because of her child's handicap the mother will learn important lessons that will stand her in good stead in her own life. Perhaps through the suffering she endures raising her son she will be guaranteed a place in heaven. The boy, who lives with such a devastating handicap, will learn to see the important things. He will judge the world by how he is treated; he will become a barometer for good and evil. Having endured his suffering on earth, he will have no worries about his place in heaven when it comes time for him to die.

The problem with this scheme of things is that it is nothing but a fairy tale. Religion, in its organized, mass expression is a negative belief system that gains us nothing. The truth is that we have little control over what happens to us, although a great many of our misfortunes can be predicted and even prevented if we have sufficient knowledge.

I, for example, was born almost three months prematurely, in 1949, when little was known about how to save a child who weighed 1 lb. 14 oz. The doctors knew only one thing for sure: to survive, an infant needed oxygen, so I was placed in an incubator and given high doses of that very thing. In addition, bright lights were used, perhaps as a way to keep me warm. As a result my retinas were damaged, and, like many other infants, I was totally blind when I emerged from the incubator.

Some babies put in incubators retained partial sight while others experienced no eye damage at all. I know a set of twins, treated identically. One boy is totally blind, the other's eyesight is perfect. What a field day this would be for the religious, who would attempt to find reasons why some babies but not others were spared their sight.

In my neighborhood, some superstitious Jewish women forbid their children to play with me. After all, my parents must have done something terrible to merit a blind child. Perhaps the family was "fastruft" they would say, "cursed." My mother, who had been brought up in a very traditional, religious Jewish home, began to realize how narrow-minded people were. She knew that she had done nothing to "deserve" a blind child; she also knew that her little boy wanted friends, and deserved better treatment.

In her confrontations with negative attitudes on many fronts, she fought to give me what she could, and in doing so went through many phases, even taking me to a Christian faith healer. If people could be healed on TV, my mother reasoned, what was there to lose, but the laying on of hands and the command to the demon of blindness to "leave this little boy" were to no avail.

Despite this early experience I am ashamed to admit that at the age of twenty-four I went to a church to ask for healing. One woman covered by eyes and another beat a tambourine while a third howled biblical verses. Believe it or not, I was not healed, but something important did happen. It suddenly dawned on me that I would always be blind, and that I was wasting my time, energy, and intelligence on chasing rainbows that I couldn't see anyway. Once I accepted this, I could go about my life.

I wish I could see. I know my life would be very different if I weren't blind, but I have to make the best of the hand that was dealt me. And this hand was not dealt by a loving god who wanted me with him in heaven, but by a medical establishment victimized by insufficient knowledge or shoddy practice—not very romantic as a theory, but the simple truth.

Religion and disability have been at loggerheads in my life for almost as long as I can remember. When I was thirteen years old it was time for my bar mitzvah, a ritual that proclaims a boy's manhood and welcomes him into adult religious community. Our synagogue was excited about the publicity that having a totally blind thirteen-year-old boy would generate. The cantor spent hours teaching me the verses I was to recite, which meant I had to learn Hebrew Braille. Because the chanting was complex, I memorized different melodies and inflections. I did well, and was ready for the big day.

Because everyone was so excited I, a mere boy, after all, never reflected on the meaning of it all. The day before the ceremony we learned that the other boy who was to be bar mitzvahed that same day had been invited to read a short portion from the torah itself, as well as chanting the haftorah. I wanted to do this too, and my mother believed I should be treated equally.

The Rabbi told her, however, that Jewish law demanded this particular portion be read directly from the torah. When my mother replied that I could put it into Braille, he insisted that this was against religious law. Furious, she told the rabbi he was penalizing me for being blind. He, in turn, said that she was a very bad woman to dare contradict a man of god. I went through the motions of saying my haftorah, but all the joy had been taken out of it for me. As I listened to the sighted boy read a passage from the torah I knew I could have done as well.

This was the turning point for me and my family. After that we stopped going to services. At home we celebrated some of the holidays because I liked the traditional chants and songs, but they ceased to have meaning for me.

While growing up I made vain attempts to be accepted by sighted people. To this end, I experimented with joining different religious groups because they do make a pretense of accepting disabled people, one reason, I believe, that you'll find numbers of blind communicants. Think of how uplifting it is for a blind man or woman to stand up in church and read a prayer or a lesson. They are being included, a rarity in society at large. Such connections are alluring for the isolated blind.

My search for fellowship of this kind introduced me to some odd situations. While a freshman in college I attended Christian Science meetings where I learned that this world is a dream and that physical sickness does not exist. All I had to do was change my way of thinking and I'd be sighted. After all, a perfect God created only perfect things. I couldn't help wondering why, if blindness weren't real, there were so many books in Braille.

Perhaps it was good mental exercise, but I finally decided that the Scientists were not for me, so I tried a more mainstream church, but praying to a man who had been crucified struck me as peculiar, and when people talked about a "personal relationship with God" I wondered if they weren't a bit schizophrenic. How could you have a relationship with a man who had died thousands of years ago, and who might not have lived in the first place? It made no sense to me at all. What's more, I noticed I wasn't very successful at making friends in this new church, either.

Then I tried the Mormons, but their service was boring and I fell asleep.

As I grew older, I began to realize that religion gave me no comfort. I was too practical, and maybe too political. For instance, I did not respect people who traveled to different countries to preach their own ideas and submit the population to their agendas. Instead of helping others this sounded to me like mind control and blackmail.

As a blind person, I often need help. I have found no difference in the help given by a "religious" person and a person without religious beliefs. One of my best friends, an atheist, is one of the kindest people I know. He also has a very high standard of morality. I contrast his behavior with that of "religious" people who go to synagogue but who manage buildings so poorly that tenants don't receive basic services. I think of my dentist's super-orthodox daughter who refused to lead me to a seat "because I cannot touch a man."

Once I met a young man in a wheelchair who was a Jehovah's Witness. In talking to him I mentioned that I needed readers. "No problem," he told me. "I'll get some members of my church to help you." He called me back a few days later and said that he'd found people willing to read to me and even help with shopping. I thanked him profusely. Just before ending the conversation he said, "Oh, by the way, we will expect you to go to the Kingdom Hall and learn about God's word."

"And if I choose not to?" I asked. "Well then, we can't help you," he said. We are told "we must walk in unison light." I hung up in disgust. How stupid I had been to hope that a religious person would act without ulterior motives.

Adhering to doctrine, quoting scripture, listening to a religious leaderall these things can be dangerous to your health. You stop thinking critically. You stop questioning and begin to judge others by what you are taught, not by what you feel in your heart to be right. You help others not simply to do good but to get them to think the way you do.

Worst of all, the moment you begin to suffer doubts you are threatened with losing your salvation, with eternal damnation. No gold-paved streets for you, but the fiery furnace instead. For me, this is just fine. Because I like it hot, I'll be comfortable there. Perhaps I'll even find some interesting new friends who think for themselves.

2004 Robert Feinstein
Illustration 2004 Mark McBeth, IDEA | MONGER



Bob Feinstein lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2004