Unlike some “exes,” I find it difficult to describe accurately the series of events that led me from superstition to reason. Nor is there any one singlular watershed event that sealed the process. So forgive me if I can only speak in general terms.
I consider myself a very intelligent person. I have always had a mind that can thoroughly analyze any situation, follow chains of logic, see connections that others do not, and work on many different planes at once.
So how does someone like me end up as a Christian believer? Very simple. One thing that many folks fail to understand is that intelligence has nothing to do with religious belief. There are millions of people on this planet who in every other facet of their life are rational, thinking people, yet when it comes to religion, every shred of rationality is thrown out the window, or at least safely compartmentalized so as not to interfere with that belief.
No, my friends, religious belief is about need. Specifically, emotional need. And this need is common to geniuses and dolts alike.
You see, the great tragedy of mankind is that, while man is just like all the other animals in that he will one day die and cease to exist, he is the only creature sufficiently evolved to be aware of his fate. And man is scared silly by the prospect of one day simply ceasing to exist.
Religion comforts this fear. At some point in human evolutionary history, mankind started to really comprehend what death was. They saw their companions eventually stop breathing and moving and talking, and watched their bodies decompose. With the sense of loss felt at the departing of his friends, and the dawning realization that one day we all will suffer the same fate, man despaired. This was a truth too horrible to bear. And so, gradually, man began to hope, wish, and eventually believe that there “must” be something beyond the grave. To think otherwise was simply intolerable.
And it persists to this day. You know, when I was a child, and would lay in bed awake at night, pondering the things that we do, the thing that really, really scared me shitless was not the thought of hellfire and brimstone as fervently preached by the priests in church and the nuns in Sunday school. No, it was contemplating the idea that death equals the end of existence. It was a concept both impossible to fathom and frightening to contemplate. How can this be, I thought? You mean, one day, everything I have done, every thought that has passed through my head, every sight I have witnessed, every experience good and bad, all the memories…..will just END? I would shudder in terror at the prospect.
So, ultimately, I became a Christian by profession and belief not because I really believed the doctrines of the church. I did so because I was afraid NOT to believe.
Being a Christian gave me hope. I was comforted by the scripture that said that one day God would wipe away every tear, and the line in the Requiem about resting from one’s labors. In my life, I’ve shed a lot of tears and expended a lot of labor in struggling to survive both materially and emotionally, and the notion that not only was there an afterlife, but one that was positive and infinitely better than my miserable earthly existence, was extremely seductive.
There were other emotional needs met by my religion as well. I have always been somewhat of a misfit, a loner, an eccentric – the kind of guy who is the quintessential “square peg.” People don’t understand me, and I don’t understand them. Christianity gave me a God who not only knew who I was, and cared about me, but who thought I was special and valuable, and loved me like I was the only person on Earth.
Many years down the road, doubts would creep in. Unanswered prayers, the confusing and contradictory nature of Christian theology as espoused by its many denominations, my inability to conquer what I considered to be personal faults no matter how hard I tried, seeing so much evil in the world and good people suffering while bad people prospered. There comes a point where pat axioms like “the Lord works in strange and mysterious ways” no longer suffice.
And I began to study the Bible, and Bible history, more intently. Many things bothered me. The obvious contradictions, for one – I mean, many time the gospels couldn’t even agree on simple, basic aspects of the story. I found the whole concept of original sin suspicious and even a bit sinister. I mean, God creates Adam and Eve, puts them in Paradise, but gives them a free will and makes them capable of moral decisions. Then he puts temptation right in their path, they give in because they are not perfect beings, and then are punished for all eternity for doing what they could not help but do based on the way they were created. It reeked of God “stacking the deck” against us from square one.
I was also greatly troubled by the manner in which God supposedly instituted his “new covenant.” I mean, here we have God who’s tried everything to get through to people, and finally becomes incarnate, preaches to a handful of people in a small geographical area, dies and is somehow resurrected, then charges his small band of followers to “go and tell the world.” For most of these men, their “world” did not extend past their own little region, and numbers and logistics were against them. Why would God, if he wanted to spread this message of salvation to the world, do it in such an ineffective manner?
I studied the history of the Bible, and learned how parts of it were amended, changed, redacted, and embellished over the centuries. I learned about the apocryphal works, and saw how political motivations and the desire for control had far more to do with what ended up being accepted in the Biblical canon than did inspiration or doctrine.
And the process went on. I honed my critical thinking skills and logic and applied it to the whole notion of religion and the existence of God. As I stated up front, there was no clean, definable break where I went from belief to unbelief – it was more of a gradual process. And a tortuous one – because, you see, those emotional needs that led me to religion made it very hard to totally break away. It was a long struggle to accept things as they are, rather than how I wanted them to be.
So, to fast-forward to the present, I am probably what most people would define as an agnostic, although I term myself an atheist. See, I think that it’s almost impossible to assert conclusively that there is no God or higher power of any sort. One can simply say that there is no evidence to support the notion, and based on that, give provisional assent to it. This is exactly what the scientific method entails, after all. Maybe there is something in the universe greater than ourselves, but I doubt it. And even if there is, we have no idea of what this entity is like, or whether it even thinks or cares about the affairs of the creatures on this little planet at all. An impersonal force, maybe, or some sort of “collected consciousness” of all living creatures – who knows? But as far as I can see, there is no such thing. To assert as Christians (and many other religious folks) do – that not only does this entity exist beyond the shadow of a d! oubt, but I know exactly what it is like and what it demands of us, etc. – well, that is the height of ignorant arrogance.
Have I made peace with the notion of death = The End? Well, let’s say that I have begrudgingly accepted it. I still don’t like it, and would be pleasantly surprised if someday when I breathe my last breath, I find myself still alive and aware in some form in some state of being. But I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I’m still somewhat fearful of the idea, but how can I fight against it? As unpleasant as the concept is, I must as a logical person accept it.
The funny thing is, I was, indeed, a much happier person as a Christian. A wise man once said “most people will always embrace a comforting lie rather than confront a distressing truth.” Well, I don’t want to be like most people. Perhaps putting on blinders and working myself into a state of belief that all is well and that I will live forever would be more pleasant. But it would be intellectually dishonest and I prefer to deal with harsh reality. I cannot be honest with myself and live any other way.
Paradoxically, you might say that my salvation lay in accepting that there is no salvation. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense to you. But then, neither does life make much sense. Don’t use superstition or magical beliefs to try and make sense of it. Accept what is, and get on with your life.