July 1, 2013

On religion

In polite conversation, it's generally wise to avoid politics and religion, especially if you don't know the crowd very well. And while there are topics I avoid here on this blog, religion and politics aren't among them. With that said, this particular post could be dicey, so proceed with caution. I've rewritten it several times, putting it off for fear of how it will be received. But I guess I should get it out there.

As I've noted before on several occasions, I've never really been religious. I used to go to church with my grandma, but the teachings stopped resonating with me as soon as I learned to think critically. None of it made sense anymore. Today, not only do I not follow any traditional religion, I also don't believe in gods, demons, or spirits of any kind.

I've long held this belief (or lack thereof) privately. Surrounded by religious people who look down on atheists, I've always felt alone—ashamed, almost—for my lack of faith. But I'm beginning to realize that I'm wrong to feel that way.

We human beings, quite naturally, are afraid to die. But we still do. Wishing otherwise cannot prevent it, yet we try anyway. We wish that we could somehow live after death, or that there is a part of us that persists after we die, and maybe preceded our birth.

As far as I'm concerned, wishing doesn't make it true. For me, it's perfectly reasonable (and not at all disturbing) that my sense of myself, my thoughts and feelings, and my personality are all the result of reactions between billions of neurons in my brain. In fact, I find that pretty cool.

Over the past century or two, we've learned a lot about the vastness of time and space. We've learned how insignificant our brief-lived little species is, on this lovely but small planet, orbiting a very average star along one of several spiral arms of a typical galaxy in an unassuming part of the universe. We've also found out just how old our little planet is and what a tiny portion of that history we humans have occupied.

Further, we've learned that, despite our sometimes-parasitic accomplishments, we share genes and basic physiological processes with everything from chimpanzees to sponges, ants, and algae. We're all very much related, and it's clear that humans are merely a late-sprouting twig on the ever-growing evolutionary tree of life on Earth.

If we somehow wipe ourselves out by changing the climate or starting a nuclear war or simply not being able to avoid extinction in the next few million years or so, life on Earth will soldier on without us. After all, it has survived worse calamities—like asteroid impacts and the ancient poisoning of the atmosphere with oxygen—before.

When a flower dies in our back yard, it's just dead, and we compost it because there's nothing left of it to live. When I die, I imagine the same thing will happen to me, though with any luck not in the back yard. When my body shuts down, I won't be here (or anywhere) anymore. I won't go to heaven or hell, be reincarnated, or roam the halls of creepy old houses, clanking chains.

I've been pointed toward this philosophy since I found out there was no land at the North Pole for Santa Claus to live on, and that bunnies are mammals and therefore can not lay eggs. It doesn't make me feel sad, or that life is meaningless, because I don't think happiness and meaning require eternal life.

However, it does mean that religious teachings are largely meaningless to me in their spiritual context. I don't believe there's an afterlife, so that makes it senseless to treat my actual life as a big exam to get into heaven, or to reach nirvana, or to avoid being reborn as a snail (though I imagine, to a snail, a snail's life is pretty sweet). To me, the huge swaths of theological analysis say a lot about human thought and institutions (not to mention politics), but very little about the reality of the world and the universe.

It means that, even if I did think there was a god or gods who created the universe—and I don't—it wouldn't matter, because once we're dead, we're dead, and there is nothing left of us to be judged or evaluated. Plus, given the scope of this universe, and any others that may exist, why would any god or gods be so insecure as to require regulated tributes from us in order to be satisfied with their accomplishments?

We fear death. We create ways—beliefs, stories, rituals—to pretend it's not the end for each of us. Huge worldwide institutions arise from those inventions. They provide meaning, comfort, and a sense of wonder to billions of people. But not to me.

My meaning and comfort come from another place, from trying to understand people, creatures, life, the planet, the universe, and their amazing diversity from my tiny perspective as someone living in the 20th and 21st centuries here on Earth. From trying to be a good person, a good friend and lover.

What will outlive me is not my soul. But my future children will outlast me, and their children, if they have them, will too. As will, perhaps, some of my words and ideas, like the ones written here. Anything that persists of me—besides the molecules that make up my body—will be in the memories of others, and in their genes. That might not be much, and it won't be up to me to decide what that includes, but that's okay.

I don't begrudge my friends and relatives who do believe in gods and spirits. And I realize that what I've written here may hurt them, or inspire them to pity me and fear for my nonexistent soul. I'm sorry if that's so. I have no way of knowing with absolute certainty if one of the many philosophies and religions that support the idea of an afterlife is right. If they're wrong, as I'm all but certain they are, but if those beliefs help people to live happily, and to die comfortably when the time comes, that's good, because they'll never know. If I'm wrong, I come by my error honestly.

The incredible height of a mountain, and the depth of geological time—to me, these are natural miracles, not supernatural ones.

So is being able to feel love and share it. Is love biochemical? So what if it is? It's not "just" biochemical. The atoms and molecules in my brain and the infinitely complex interactions between them is a natural miracle, too—one I cherish. Even more because I only have a short time—eighty years of life, more or less—to experience it.

I hope to make the most of it.


  1. Yet another excellant piece. enjoyed and agreed with you on and every point!

  2. I share your atheism, as well as your fear to 'come out.' It's a harsh world out there...a world filled with ignorance. The battle of atheists today is vaguely similar to that of homosexuals 30 years ago. Things have gotten better (though still not ideal) for them...I just hope it doesn't take another 30 years for the word 'atheist' to stop being stigmatized.

  3. [...] and prophecy for comfort. Although I was raised to be a Christian, I am now subscribed to an atheist worldview. As far as I’m concerned, religion is nothing more than a coping mechanism. I definitely [...]

  4. Thanks Cheryl! Glad we're on the same page.

  5. Brad,
    I agree with you completely. This was like reading my own thoughts...I'm in the Cinci area if you'd ever like to meet for coffee or something. :)

  6. Very well written. Glad to know I'm not the lone person staring at the floor during "Grace", every year at Christmas breakfast.

  7. You're definitely not alone there. Christmas, for me, is a family event -- not a religious one.

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