Michael Wolraich's picture

    How I Lost My Religion

    This post is not about a break-up or a political conversion. It is literally about how I lost my religion, more or less, and became an atheist. I thought about posting it yesterday but decided to spare the believers who care about me from witnessing me commit sacrilege on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we are supposed to beg for God's forgiveness in case he left us off the Book of Life this year. I don't think there is any evidence that atheists suffer from higher death rates than believers, so whatever the drawbacks to atheism, premature death does not appear to be one of them. But that doesn't mean that my mom won't worry. I can wait a day.

    In September 2002, one year after 9/11, a good friend of mine asked me about my religious beliefs. I replied with a long letter which detailed, in a personal way, the changes I was experiencing. It's a long letter which probably won't appeal to most readers and may offend some, but it's honest, and the changes that occurred then remain with me today.



    I'm now about to make you sorry that ever you asked me about my religious beliefs. My attempts to explain my newfound disdain for religion have been admittedly vague, and I welcome your challenges, as they force me to think more clearly and pointedly about the matter. I do worry though, that in honing my arguments, I will paint myself into a corner--the more I make the case, the harder it will be for me to later dismiss my current frame of mind as a temporary loss of faith. That said, I can't resist an intellectual challenge, and I don’t like to permit myself to think fuzzily, so in place of attending services on the Day of Atonement, here I am at the café, fasting (save for tea) and writing a polemic against God. As always, I welcome your criticism, though I don't mean for you to feel any obligation to respond to it (or even to read it if you don't want to).

    In my previous e-mail to you, I tried to distinguish between two varieties of religious skepticism--doubt about the existence of God and doubt about the value of religious faith. These two kinds of doubt are often intertwined--either one may lead to the other--but they do represent distinct questions. Even if God doesn’t exist, religious faith may nonetheless be a valuable part of our social fabric.

    So let's begin with the existence of God. I haven't believed in the existence of God in any scientific sense for many years, if I ever did. I'll explain what I mean by the equivocation "in any scientific sense" shortly, but the bottom line is that I don't believe that there is any rational reason whatsoever for believing in God. I'm not sure whether it's worthwhile to delve into this matter, as I can't possibly do justice to the arguments of those who feel that they have good reason for believing, but perhaps I'll put down a couple paragraphs that at least outline why I believe as I do.

    I take it to be fairly obvious that no one will ever prove the existence of God, not unless he actually shows up in all his fiery glory (think of the money he could make on endorsements). The modern-day arguments for the existence of God which I have heard or read usually tend to be of the "there's no other explanation" variety, i.e. How could the world contain such beauty, order, intricacy, or mystery unless there were an intelligent creator behind it? Someone I knew once explained to me that he saw evidence for God every time he looked at the pretty mountains. The serious creationists offer a variation: animal species, including human beings, are far too complex or well-adapted to their surroundings to have evolved through natural selection; an intelligent designer must have played a part.

    But in contrast with classic scientific explanation, these reflections do not really explain anything. Rather, they consist in a metaphysical shrug of the shoulders--"I can't explain it; therefore God". God is the non-explanation explanation. In addition to the vacuity of the explanation, the argument itself is specious. It simply doesn't follow from the fact that we cannot satisfactorily explain a mystery that God must be behind it. Case in point: once upon a time, people couldn't explain the existence or nature of the stars, so they invented various mystical explanations. They were wrong. We've come a long way since then, but we will never explain everything about the world. Without perfect knowledge, there will always be mysteries, but the fact that we don't have perfect knowledge does not entail that God exists, so the fact that there are many things that we cannot currently explain doesn't entail God's existence either.

    Yet suppose that the argument is valid, that there is an intelligent creator. What does that have to do with the specific religions of the world? Why should the existence of a creator lead us to prefer Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Falon Gong? Maybe we're just the science project of some pre-adolescent deity--the sea-monkeys of the universe. Or maybe the Greeks got it right, and Saddam Hussein is the personal favorite of Ares, the war god, while Athena, goddess of wisdom, prefers the U.S. There's no reason whatsoever to believe in the God of Abraham unless you believe the what's written in Genesis, but there's no reason to believe what's written in Genesis unless you believe in the God of Abraham--totally circular.

    There are those who feel that all religions are true in some way, with each representing a different manifestation of God, but that has always seemed silly to me, a copout. I won't, however, try to rebut this argument right now. Let's just say that I don't buy it.

    Isn't it much more likely that human beings simply have a deep-seated need to believe in something greater than ourselves, that it's just too depressing to think that we live and die with no cosmic purpose and no one to look out for us, so we invent all these myths? Human beings certainly do seem to take great comfort in the idea of God. Moreover, isolated societies have come up with very different notions of divinity. If God is really sending us messages, they're getting pretty garbled on the way down. But if we're just inventing our gods, then it makes perfect sense that isolated societies would make up different myths.

    So perhaps rational justification for the existence of God isn't the way to go. To believe in God, one must simply have faith. In fact, I think that most religious people take this path. It's not my path, though, or if it is, I've been walking on the shoulder. To have faith is to blinker one's critical faculties, to admit that there are no reasons but to believe nonetheless. Why would people voluntarily hobble their rational thought processes? Not to find the truth. There are many ways to find the truth; stopping one's ears and refusing to listen to the voice of reason isn't one of them. I can only conclude that faith provides other benefits that make it all worthwhile.

    What are those benefits? I suppose that they are different for everyone, but I expect that the top contenders include: security, the feeling that we will be protected in life and perhaps even in death; purpose, the feeling that our life has some teleological meaning, that we were put here for a reason; and justice, the feeling that ultimately the good guys will be rewarded and the bad guys will be punished, or if not, that there will be an awfully good reason for it. To keep it simple, let's just say that faith helps people to cope with their fears and torments.

    Such advantages might be more than sufficient for some people to abandon critical reason without hesitation, but I, at least, can't bring myself to do it. I feel almost morally obligated to pursue the truth regardless of how unpleasant. It's arrogant to think that way, I suppose, but I don't mean to say that I am more intelligent than religious believers--many of whom are brilliant--simply more dogged in refusing to suspend my critical faculties. I actually admire hardcore atheists because I feel that they do a better job of standing by difficult convictions than I do.

    Which brings me to my "non-scientific" belief in God. One thing the rabbi said last night in his sermon pretty well describes the way I used to feel. The rabbi asked rhetorically: What if the belief system of our Jewish ancestors was simply a grand delusion? His response: So what--why not carry on their delusion? His suggestion, as I understood him, was that Jewish metaphysics may not sit fit well with our rationalistic view of the world, but it provides something that this view lacks and that the delusion is worth it. In an attempt to have my cake and eat it too, I decided back in college, during a pensive Yom Kippur hike, that I would allow myself to be deluded. I continued to deny the existence of God from a scientific point of view, but allowed myself to act at times as if God existed. In other words, I prayed to him, atoned to him, and thanked him for his blessings--even though I didn't really believe that he existed. I indulged myself in a delusion for the sense of purpose, hope, and community it provided me, and I knew exactly what I was doing. If you asked me, I would happily admit to it. Sound a little twisted? Perhaps, but given my skepticism, it was the only way for me to approach Jewish faith, and for the most part, it worked for me.

    And there's the rub. It doesn't work for me anymore. It's a tough act to sustain in the first place, and I always felt a bit hypocritical, but the real problem is that since 9/11, I've been wondering whether the self-delusion is such a good thing after all. Which brings me to the second question: What is the value of religion? The question really breaks into two parts: 1) Would the world be better off without religious belief? 2) Would I be better off without religious beliefs?

    The first question is really impossible to answer satisfactorily. If you tried to count up all the acts of goodness performed in the name of religion and compare it to all the acts of evil, I believe that evil would win handily. Even with all the acts of religious charity that have ever been performed and the shorter list of acts of religious righteousness (e.g. Quaker opposition to American slavery), I just don't think it can compare to the incredible violence and persecution performed throughout history in the name of religion, not to mention the oppression of women, the suppression of intellectuals, the encouragement of elitism and slavery, and the utter waste of human resources. Without the horrors that the world's religions sanctioned, many of the righteous religious acts might not have even been necessary.

    That said, who knows what the world would have been like without religion. Perhaps the perpetrators of evil would have found other excuses--the last century certainly witnessed many acts of horror performed in the names of ideology, nationality, and race. Moreover, religion has pervaded history so profoundly, that it's impossible to know the extent of its role. One could easily argue that in the absence of organized religion, civilization might never have developed at all.

    Perhaps there could also be some middle ground available, moderate religions that inhibit fanaticism while retaining the core belief structures and traditions. I actually think that Western societies have, at least for the present, neutralized the ability of religion to engage in tyranny. Religions are allowed to flourish, but their power is heavily curtailed. European governments are no longer beholden to the Catholic Church, and the U.S. was perhaps the first nation to explicitly exclude religion from a role in government. It's not that we don't have fanatics, but our fanatics are marginalized. They have difficult time influencing government policy, they do not run our schools or our courts, and we have laws to protect against religious repression and intolerance.

    In any case, I won't try to argue that the world would be better off without religion. That leaves me with the personal question, which is really the core of my dilemma. Would I be better off without religion or at least, without religious belief? Should I give up the delusion that I have until now permitted myself? In terms of pros and cons, there is a still a strong case to be made for faith. The benefits that I derive from my pseudo-faith, the sense of security and meaning for example, should not have changed since 9/11, and the disadvantages are limited. My faith could never be strong enough to cause me to do anyone harm on it's behalf (so you can rest easy)--I don't even keep kosher. I am somewhat troubled by the hypocrisy of knowingly accepting a delusion, but I have been able to deal with that for years. Furthermore, I haven't discovered in 9/11 and its aftermath any new reasons to doubt the existence of God, so my sense of hypocrisy shouldn't be any worse than it was before.

    The pros and cons of religious faith is not really the issue, however. The problem is not that religious belief is bad for me but rather that since 9/11, religious faith has become increasingly distasteful to me. It's not unlike the feeling of learning that a role model or someone you have admired is a schmuck. I have been able to delude myself into believing what I don't truly believe, but I don't seem to be able to delude myself into respecting what I don't truly respect. 9/11 and its aftermath have tainted religion for me.

    One answer, which you proposed, is to draw a distinction between right and wrong applications of religion. Religious fanatics may be terrible, but that need not condemn religious faith on the whole. One could go further and argue that the fanatics do not actually behave religiously at all; they only cloak themselves in the mantle of religion.

    The latter claim, while appealing, certainly goes too far. While the West has developed a culture of widespread moderate religious faith, and we think of such moderation as normal, it is my understanding of history that our culture is an exception to the rule. Certainly, the births of modern Western religions (at least those whose births have been recorded) have been characterized by fanatical devotion. Christianity featured martyrs being eaten by lions rather than give up proselytizing. The first Muslims waged war on the infidels and forced them to choose between Allah and death. The early Reform Christians were as strict as, um, Calvinists. Mormonism, which is relatively speaking very young, is still pretty extreme.

    Moreover, all the major religions glorify the extremists. Religious heroes and role models are always represented as devout. For example, most of the Catholic saints are martyrs, crusaders, ascetics, or at least true believers. Buddhism certainly reveres the ascetics. Judaism provides a great case in point: Abraham proved his piety and secured the future of all his descendents by his willingness to sacrifice his child. How horrible is that? (I do like Moses better--he seemed to have more difficulty following orders.) Likewise, the great rabbis were very wise, but they were also very pious.

    In consequence, I maintain that extremism is so closely tied to the history and doctrines of the major religions that you cannot simply exclude it without completely redefining the nature of those religions. On the other hand, perhaps it's still possible embrace the moderate religious faith that is so popular among 21st century Americans, to say, "Well, religious faith may be a mixed bag, but I can at least respect the good bits." To extend my role model analogy, one might similarly say, "Well so-and-so may be a schmuck in his personal life, but he's still a great thinker," or statesman or athlete, whatever. The thing is, you can certainly say it and even believe it, but if you can't respect the whole person, it's not really admiration in the same sense.

    But is my analogy a fair one? Religions are not individuals. Just as one shouldn't blame an entire nation or ethnicity for the actions of individual members, perhaps I should not condemn religious faith in general for the actions of history's extremists. I certainly cannot hold all Muslims responsible for Bin Laden's crime, so how can I presume to condemn the religion of Islam, let alone all the world's religions, for the crimes of fanatics?

    Here's how: I do not blame all Germans for the crimes of the Holocaust, but I do blame the German nation, at least the German nation at the time. Hitler was not a marginalized extremist. He was a wildly popular leader of the nation; his actions represented the actions of Germany. Now despite Bin Laden's apparent popularity among Muslims, he hardly represents Islam in the way that Hitler represented Germany, but he is not so very different from the religious extremists who do represent Islam or those who represent the rest of the world's religions. Mohammed was a fanatical warrior. Peter and Paul gave their lives to spread the word of Jesus. (Jesus, of course, was also a martyr, but at least his sacrifice is represented as an act of altruism rather than devotion.) Joshua conducted an unprovoked war on the Canaanites so that the Jews could live in the "Promised Land". Abraham was willing to murder his own son.

    If the majority of practicing Catholics wholly rejected Catholicism's history and heroes, not only the pogroms and crusades but also the proselytizers, the popes, the martyrs, and the apostles themselves; if they believed that the greatest Christians were not those who sacrificed everything for God but rather those who practiced their faith with tolerance and moderation, then Catholic faith would earn my respect. If most practicing Muslims disavowed not only Bin Laden and the Taliban, but also the whole notion of jihad, the strict religious codes, the repression of women, and one of their more violent and fanatical heroes, the prophet Mohammed, then Muslim faith would earn my respect. If most practicing Jews believed that the Hasidim were an embarrassment, that our great rabbis who lived out their lives in strict obedience to every law were not role models but rather misguided fanatics, and that Abraham, when commanded to sacrifice Isaac, should have told God to go fuck himself, then Jewish faith would earn my respect.

    But such a Catholicism would not really be Catholicism, such an Islam would not really be Islam, and such a Judaism would not really be Judaism. They would also probably lose much of value in the bargain. Nonetheless, such as they are (and, I believe, such as religion will always be to a great degree), I cannot respect their doctrines, though those doctrines include many worthy principles. If I do not respect my religion's doctrines, I don't want to have faith in my religion's God, and the desire for faith was the only reason that I had any faith in the first place.

    I will always be a Jew. It's an essential part of my identity, and there is much in the religion and the culture that I still value, though I am rejecting its theology. I'm sure that I will always celebrate the holidays, attend services every so often, and perhaps even continue to fast on Yom Kippur. I will try to marry someone Jewish and certainly intend to raise Jewish children. But I don't think that I want to have faith any more. If I atone next year on Yom Kippur, it won't be to God. After so many years of resistance, I think that I have finally become an atheist.



    G, thanks for posting this.  It was a great read.  It may provoke me to share some of my own related views and experiences on the subject in the near future.

    On a bit of a tangent, have you had a chance yet to see Bill Maher's "Religulous"?  I saw it when it opened a week ago and you may enjoy the levity if this sort of thing is on your mind (although I will warn of a somewhat heavy-handed, if very brief, punctuation).

    I've only read about halfway through this post and somehow felt compared to share my own experience.  Hope noone minds. 

    I was raised somewhere between agnostic and atheist.  My mom was a Catholic from New England, and my dad was a navy brat who'd been raised Episcopalian because his parents -- practically-minded, culturally conservative atheists or agnostics themselves -- believed it was important to raise children with the framework of a religion, so that they'd have a choice later in life.  My dad's choice was to reject religion entirely; my mom's, to continue to believe in God, or at least a Great Spirit of some kind, but reject the formal trappings of organized religion.  She did, however, never let go of her Catholic guilt.

    My largely agnostic childhood was occasionally peppered with reminders of religion: a visit to an Episcopalian church one Easter so I'd "have the experience"; a handful of services with Father John, the former Catholic priest who'd been excommunicated for getting married.  Then, when I was a few years older (maybe 8 or 9), I somehow began to read children's bible stories.  And I started to worry: was I not "good" enough?  Did I need to follow certain rules more strictly, or make up for misbehavior among my family so that they, too, could be "saved"?  For about three weeks, I became a devout Christian.  (Or at least a Theist.  I'm not sure whether the bible stories were Old Testament or New.)  As I continued to explore the best ways to live my life and make my own decisions, I started to wonder: why, if there was a god, would he care so much about the details of my actions that he would judge me for not following his dictums, if I still acted in the best interest of other people?  (I didn't understand the concept of ethics, then, but that's what I meant.)  And if there was such a god, who demanded specific behaviors and a prescribed moral code, who would somehow condemn you if your behavior was well-intention but you simply didn't believe in him, then how could I justify belief in such a diety?  So to my mind, god was either generous and just, and wouldn't care about my beliefs but judge me on my character and my actions; or god was an evil vindictive megalomaniac would neither inspired my trust nor deserved my faith.  I made a decision, then, that barring evidence to the contrary, there was no god; and my own conscious should be more than sufficient guidance.

    My views have been refined somewhat since then; I've thought more about the scientific understand of what god might or might not be, and I've explored my own instincts for the workings of the universe and found that it makes much more sense, to me, to see it all as one beautiful, collossal, inevitable accident than as anything constructed or assembled.  The basic idea that I settled on when I was young, though, still feels true to me.

    I wasn't quite sure how to classify this on digg. I hope I didn't mess up

    I think you get to the heart of the matter when you say that we all ant to believe that we are here for a purpose, the need to believe we are part of something with purpose, that there is such a thing as absolute justice and rewards for virtue. It is that sense of not being able to get away with even small transgressions or ethical lapses that helps people behave in a civilized manner toward each other. Without those ethical brakes, we'd be nothing more than ants, or beasts.

    In that sense, Religion and the belief in God has advanced man from a lowly animal to a being capable of great things collectively and individually. (Although some of us can be classified as the lowest animal--see Samuel Clemmons) Whereas I have a deep faith in what I think of as a benevolent great spirit that can be tapped into and nourished, I also agree that it is not necessarily an entity seperate from our ownselves. I just know it's there, for reasons that I have never been comfortable stating. It is between me and the power I perceive there.

    I think you have to remember that the folk tales and parables were meant for an intellect not unlike a five year olds, I agree that for religion to stay viable as an infuence, it must evolve. Perhaps in 500 years the major religions will do as you say, it seems to me that in countries with highly educated populaces that it has, bu until we act on those ideals, there will always be those that will use religion to exploit the ignorant and vunerable for their own selfish ends. Those are the ones that we must go after. To rid the world of that will take every weapon we have. Religion as it is now can be used to that end as well, and has been.

    I think you get to the heart of the matter when you say that we all want to believe that we are here for a purpose, the need to believe we are part of something with purpose, that there is such a thing as absolute justice and rewards for virtue.

    Hmmm... I haven't done the anthropological research, so I don't now how true the above is for humanity.  But for me, it sounds strange.  Weird.  False.  My immediate reaction is, "We do?  Why?"

    Or, more to the point, why is an external sense of purpose necessary?  Isn't the purpose of our lives in its (sometimes painfully) apparent impact on other people more than enough?  We live, we struggle, we die.  But in how we struggle, we can shape the joys and pains of people around us.  Even after we're dead, the impact of our own lives continues.  For me -- and maybe I am just a crazy, emotionless nitwit -- but for me, that's enough.

    Hmmm. Do I hear a contradiction here? You say that your impact bad and good on those around you is enough, and have, (pardon) faith that your life will continue to have an impact after you die? But this sounds umlikely, (I won't say "false",) to me because then I would ask "why". You say your own conscious is your guide, but what is your conscious, and where did you get it? Did it spring fully formed at your birth, or did it comee into being as you say, as a child? Our core beliefs do tend to be formed at that point, I'd guess, but how?

    I'd think it was hardly a singularly internal process. It is indeed "enough" for most people to live their lives in what is known as a virtuous manner. That is, to treat others as you would like to be treated, and for most that is enough. Some people question where those notions came from, and why we have them. Some ask questions, like why are we here, and to what purpose? They have been asking that question for thousands of years, some quite famously. For many the answer is to do ones part to make the world better, less harsh, more just. For some, religion is the answer to why they should, and in doing so, attribute their reasons to a much larger thing than themselves

    Thinking of oneself as a part of this effort is not belttling, it is empowering. It perhaps has more to do with secular humanism, but they are goals and ethics shared by both the religious and the non-religious alike. I like to think that the sacrifices of many who came before me and after me is the reason that so many live so well, but when people stop claiming to have faith in that collective good and make it all about themselves and their individual virtues, I tend to turn off. Their individual virtues are the product of everyones collective virtue. I tend to give the credit there, rather than to my own somewhat paltry efforts.


    I am possibly not being entirely cogent.  Pre-coffee, and all that.

    I was not attempting to the diminish the power of concerted effort, of contributing to a larger, tangible goal, of being part of a group.  It's the idea ascribed purpose, by another being, entity, or network of electrons that I both chafe against and question.

    I guess I just don't understand. For me it appears you are saying that you turned on a tap and thus made water flow out of the hose. I'd say, because of many, many, people, who I don't know personally, but certainly do exist, the water flows when I turn on the tap.

    I don't think our individual conscious has as much to do with our behavior as do the forces of societal norms, which were formed by this idea of the collective good. You might not like to give credit to that bunch of electrons floating out there, but I am uncomfortable giving credit to myself. Maybe it's as Genghis says, a form of insecurity.



    It's not crediting the electrons I have trouble with; it's assuming that they act intentionally. I believe in chaos on a grand scale, I suppose.

    Like with the hose. I turn the nob, and water comes out. Why? It's not because some mysterious conscious entity knew that I would be needing water at that moment. It's because many people, acting to address both their own immediate needs and the immediate needs of their communities discovered, invented, and built the principles and equipment that make water flowing from my tap possible.

    The Romans built aquaducts (and roads) becuase it was an efficient way for them to control civilations. They weren't thinking about California water policy, and, I'm arguing, neither was anyone or anything else. I think that what appears as design is merely the inevitable process of one action building on another.

    And as to a common sense of purpose, all I'm saying is that there is no greater purpose imposed on us individually or a as a society than that which we have created ourselves. (And yes, I'm most definitely including the collective purpose.) What I'm arguing is that the origin of our nature is essentially irrelevant. We are as we are; and because of that, there's every reason to continue to work together as a group and improve our lot, and to struggle through the definitions of what that improvement might actually be. So I view "where did we come from?" and "what were we intended to do?" as interesting philosophical excercises; but "what can we do now, and what impact will that have?" and "what have those who came before us accomplished" as the important questions.

    I think, fundamentally, you and I actually agree on a great deal of "how the world works;" we just disagree on how it got to that state -- or at least the relevance of asking how it got there.

    Bee, you said: 


    It is that sense of not being able to get away with even small transgressions or ethical lapses that helps people behave in a civilized manner toward each other. Without those ethical brakes, we'd be nothing more than ants, or beasts.

    In that sense, Religion and the belief in God has advanced man from a lowly animal to a being capable of great things collectively and individually.


    Do you allow for the possibility that organized religions have taken advantage of our innate need to act collectively? Many species have this need: dogs run in packs, birds in flocks, penguins in cute little tuxedoed groups. But in the animal world, I think the rules are much more straightforward sometimes. There is an alpha dog and if you displease him, he bites you. Because dogs don't need to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. That, I think, is a totally human construct. Maybe religion is borne out of that. Or maybe relgion is borne out of a desire to control and harness that.


    These days, I tend to think it's the latter. For some background, until I was six years old, I went to an Episcopalian church. The same church that my mother had been a member of her whole life. In the early 70s, when I was just 3, my mom got divorced, which was quite scandalous for a small town in the midwest. She was on the front end of the divorce wave. When she and my step-dad married, three years later, the Espicopalian church excommunicated her for commiting adultry. This is the church where she had grown up attending weekly services, where she had developed a close, personal relationship with the priest that she would continue until his death decades later, where her only child (ME) had been baptized. It hurt her deeply and for three more years, we stayed away from church.


    Then, we moved to a new state and we chose a new church, this time Lutheran (the fun lutherans, not the crazy ones). It is in the Lutheran church that I took my first communion and I was confirmed. I went to church because it was what people did. I studied my bible for my confirmation classes. I tried to pray. I sang in the choir. I went on retreats. I tried to feel God. Nothing doing.


    When I returned to live in the small town where I was born, I was 16 and in tenth grade. For about three months, I attended a Baptist church with the first friend I made. One night, at a youth group meeting, the pastor, who was very personable, drew three columns on the blackboard. In one column, he drew a picture of the Torah. In another, a picture of the Book of Mormon. In the center column, he drew the Bible. Then he said, "I know Jews. I know Mormons. They are good people. They are my friends. And they are going to hell."


    That night, my disdain for hypocrisy and dogma was born. Although I didn't realize it until a couple weeks later. The youth group took a trip to Chicago, to an anti-abortion rally. I honestly can't remember what I felt during the hour and a half drive to the city. I guess I thought I was anti-abortion, because I somehow found myself in the van. But during the program, I became increasingly uncomfortable as people who called themselves Christians stood on stage condemning strangers. At one point, some famous Christian singer lady came out and said that God came to her in a vision and told her to sing a song. Fine. At that point, I was still kind of hoping God would come to me in a vision so I would have proof that he existed. But then she started singing. She didn't say, in her song, God told me to tell you this or that. She sang the song like she was God. Pretty fucking presumptuous, I thought. The kicker was the display case with a real aborted fetus that they had at one of the exits. The people I was with practically mauled each other to reach the case first. I went through a side exit, thoroughly disgusted and thoroughly pro-choice.


    I've never been back to the Baptist church or any other, save for weddings and funerals.


    But, I'm not an atheist. Because as soon as I stopped trying so hard to find God and as soon as I started wondering about all of those other religions and those millions upon millions of people who were supposedly going to hell, I started to see evidence of a sort of guiding hand in my life. Not always, and not in any vision-tastic sort of way. 


    I'm not even super comfortable talking about it, because for me it is an intensely personal experience that feels false if I try to express it through attending an organized religious meeting. It's like my little relationship with the universe or something. 


    It is faith. Faith that we are all connected, if not to some higher being, than to each other, in ways we don't understand. But in ways that impact us, nonetheless. 


    I think that organized religion has taken advantage of that connection to wreak great destruction and pain. At its core, organized religion is about division more than anything else. We are different from you and therefore we are better than you. And since that day the pastor said Jews and Mormons are going to hell, I've always thought that sort of thinking was crap.

    Thanks for sharing, O!  I share much of your disgust with religious hypocrisy, and I know that colors my perception of religion in general.  I used to see the American flag as a symbol of bigotry, too, since my youthful experience was of kind, smart community-focused pacifists and flag-waving, gun-toting, Rush Limbaugh listeners.  I've since learned that there's much more to symbols of America and American history than bigotry and hypocrisy and that patriotism isn't always a facade for those behaviors.  And I'm starting to understand emotionally what I've accepted intellectually for a while -- that religion isn't always evil, either.

    And there certainly is more going on in this world than our puny little brains can comprehend.

    Orlando, you and I agree, basically. I most certainly was disenchaned with the Catholic Church at an early age, and, like you, tried the Lutherans. (I was treated as a curiousity at first, the new member with the small child who thought that perhaps since she made a living from the craft of Guttenburg that she might find a spititual home with them. I found out fairly quickly that being a curiousity isn't very rewarding.)  I did manage to get LisD baptized there, but  it is no fun being constantly snubbed. Like you, if anything my relationship with the universe has been strengthened, and is quite personal, and I, personally,  have no use for organized religion. I do not belittle those who take their comfort and strength from it. There are scores of people better than me, in every sense of that word, that do.

    What I was defending was its place in the development of civilization. As with so many things, the good ideas endure, and the not so good ones are replaced with better ones. Did heinous acts occur because of Religion? Of course. But many of the teachings are ones we still revere and accept. Many heinous acts occured in the name of governments, but I see no calls to reject that.

    I think I'm kind of where Genghis is in that I will respect those traditions that tie me to my family, like holidays, but respect them for different reasons.

    As for religion taking advantage of our pack instincts, I'd argue that pack instincts don't account for advancing the greater good. They tend to be narrow and extend to only that which can be seen. Alturistic impulses come from somewhere, our very instinct to do good rather than harm also comes from something bigger than us as individuals. Some call it the collective consciousness, some call it God, but I see it as being the same thing that many of us do feel on a personal level. That feeling of inter-connectedness, with eachother, as well as with all things. I have noticed that when a person is under a great deal of stress or duress that they tend to sense it more than at other times. Perhaps it is when we need that reassurance that it becomes more tangible.

    Where I seem to be disagreeing with Paige is that I think it is a force that is undefinable but real enough, and where I seem to be miscommunicating with you is by defending the role of religion in civilization, that you seem to think I somehow condone it having power over people. I think people have the responsibility to sort the wheat from the chaff. So to speak.

    At any rate, I'm not really the best person to express these ideas. Obviously. I don't see that the rejection of all things religious makes any more sense than the rejection of all things secular. I live in the confused middle.


    The confused middle is a crowded place! I think most of us are there. I try not to belittle individual faith either, but as I said, I abhor dogma. If somebody can honestly defend their faith, even in an "I just believe" sort of way, that's one thing. But where they lose me is the absolute certainty that leaves no room for doubt. Not just my doubt, but their own. They don't ask any questions or have any concern for the non-believers past their own need to convert them to the One True Way.


    My friend's father is a non-denominational pastor and she says that when people start to get dogmatic, he asks, "Do you think that God isn't strong enough to handle doubt?" I think it's a nice way of putting it.


    I certainly don't place you in the dogmatic group, but I thought your idea about religion advancing civilization was interesting. It never occurred to me before and it made me wonder if maybe the opposite was true: that religion is a parasite that feeds on civilization. The bigger, or more advanced, civilization gets, the more drunk off its blood relgion becomes.

    Yes, the abscence of doubt is alien to me. Once, when in my 20s, two Jehova's witnesses came to my door and asked me if I didn't think that "God was mad at us." I was truly shocked and replied that I'd never presume to know what "God thinks." It left them speechless. It may be the one time in my life I answered any question so effectively.


    As for the contribution of religion to civilization, I have this picture in my mind of tonsured, snot-nosed monks copying ancient tomes in order to preserve and distribute knowledge. That alone was laudable. That is one aspect of "religion" that is a keeper, that tangible effort to teach and the respect of knowledge. Pity that there are so many destructive aspects of religion as well. Those destructive and controlling aspects are the ones that seem to be rearing their ugly heads, and in that sense, I agree that as civilization moves forward they are desperately trying to cling to past glories without a clue as to what those glories actually are.


    I don't think that religion lacks positive contributions, for individuals or humanity, but it's not my sense that those outweigh the negative contributions. Not that this is something that one can really quantify.

    Well, I think it can be quantified in what has endured. The idea of turning the other cheek has, that murder is abhorrant. Don't the things that have endured weigh more than those things which have been rejected?

    I think of this as a bit of a chicken/egg argument. Did religion create right and wrong or did religion explain two already existing innate human characteristics as good and evil and spin stories around them?


    It's not something that can be known, of course, but I tend to think it's the later.  We have certain feelings about individuals and communities that are common, almost regardless of culture (cannibals being a notable exception). I think religious leaders over the years take advantage of this human nature to gain power and control over the masses. Not to say that I don't believe in some kind of force. I'm comfortable calling it God, because that's the tradition I grew up in, but I define it way outside of Christian norms.

    I think you just crystalized my thinking. I'm just not sure that it matters which came first, it's what has endured.

    Moral rules--don't steal, don't lie, don't kill, don't cheat, etc.--are fairly consistent across cultures and throughout history. Religious doctrine, by contrast, varies widely. Behavior that appears to be consistent with human morality has also been observed in higher primates. Religious behavior has not.


    I don't doubt that it is hard to understand certainty.

    Are you sure?


    Somehow, I find that comforting. Weird. isn't it?

    Where I seem to be disagreeing with Paige is that I think it is a force that is undefinable but real enough...

    For what it's worth, I think that's a fairly accurate statement.  I do believe in some sort of fundamental interconnectedness; I just don't think that a real (if undefineable) force is necessary to explain that interconnectedness.

    But, like you both say about your own experiences, that's a personal belief more than a philosophical one.

    So the interconnectedness is "just" there?


    Hmmm. That which has no name, just is. Sounds vaguely familiar.

    Yes, "there" without out intent.  But not without organic growth.  Chaotic, accidental, organic growth.  An ecology of interconnectedness, if you will.  I hold that rather than requiring a "force" as an explanation for things to develop, it would have been impossible for creatures and features of this planet to have developed without some amount of interconnectedness.  That's simply because we not only evolved from the same sort of organic materials but also within the same physical environment.

    So it's due to our common cells? That is a sort of explanation, but I do not see it as being a better or more complete answer. It may be part of the answer, though. We are connected because of our common elements and that the more you break down our physical form, the more we have in common with the birds, the bees, the air.

    I do believe that random chaos is a real force, but I think collectively we all are an opposing force to chaos. We are a force for order, and I do think that there is an intelligence to our order, as opposed to the lack of intelligence in chaos.

    At any rate, I know enough to know I don't know anything. In this we all have to go with what feels "right," I'd guess.


    ...but I do not see it as being a better or more complete answer....

    I think this exactly where we split from logical debate into our own hunches about what the world is and how it got to be that way.  I am not trying to suggest that there is anything in your perceived force that is incorrect; I am just saying that I do not understand the world in that way.  My intuition and my perception, here, diverge from yours.

    Well, My final thought on this is that the intent is tangible. The fact is that laws that influence and anchor us haven't changed all that much. One can trace some of our "modern laws" back to the bible, and to the greeks, and to other ancient civilizations. If that doesn't suggest intent, I don't know what does.

    I believe that is also part of the ties that bind, be they molecular in their structure, (as is everything), or more nebulous, like the idea of a "conscious" that "guides" us.

    Well, Bee, I think we've distilled this one to its essence.  I do not think that the intent of the universe (or a force that binds) is tangible.  But I respect that you do.

    I never lost my religion - I never had any, so things have been simple for me.

    Several posters have touched on this... Many or most people have a need to belong, a need for a larger, shared purpose; a psychologist could no doubt explain this. The point is, something is going to fill this need. Religion, ideology, nationalism, or quite possibly some mix thereof.

    This leads me to believe that without religion, human history would not have been all that different. People would have simply found some other righteous reason to bash each other's heads in. I also don't think there were many wars that were purely religious - usually there were economic, social and/or ethnic conflicts in the mix. So while I'm not a fan of organized religion, I am also very skeptical that we'd be radically better off without it.

    As for faith in God... I can't bring myself to believe in God whose existence is so difficult to prove that it's utterly indistinguishable from nonexistence. Most arguments for the existence of God are laughably weak. We don't know where the Universe came from, therefore God must have created it... what's that supposed to explain? Where did God come from? It's the ultimate non-explanation, answering a question with even bigger question.

    I should add that different people may have fairly radically different concepts of 'God'. The more specific ones are the easiest to debunk (and their proponents least likely to listen to reason). The most vague ones may be flexible enough to be true in some sense.

    The greatest danger of religion in my opinion is that it teaches people not to think. If God gave us brains, surely He wanted us to use them?

    This leads me to believe that without religion, human history would not have been all that different. People would have simply found some other righteous reason to bash each other's heads in.


    That's depressingly true. And so is this:


    The greatest danger of religion in my opinion is that it teaches people not to think.

    Heh, that is something I've said to many a fellow christian, "God gave you a brain, use it!" Of course it's easier to discuss these things with people who were brought up under similar circumstances. Religion was certainly a bigger part of my upbringing than you young 'uns. We even said the Lord's Prayer when I was in elementary school.

    Perhaps in 30 or 40 years, the remaining believers will be viewed much as those early christians viewed pagans. What I wonder is what will it be that takes it's place?


    Many or most people have a need to belong, a need for a larger, shared purpose; a psychologist could no doubt explain this. The point is, something is going to fill this need. Religion, ideology, nationalism, or quite possibly some mix thereof.

    But do "many or most" people have a need to mindlessly belong?  As you point out, that's the most dangerous aspect of religion.  The same can be said for Nationalism. ("My country, right or wrong," for example.) 

    Does being part of something bigger than oneself really require tearing down something else?  Seems to me the answer to that is "no." But I'm not sure human history bears out that optimism.


    I think people do have a need, or at least a propensity, to needlessly belong. It's the mob mentality. I've participated in it. Not proudly, but still. It's easy to get caught up in something and the more people caught up in the same thing, the easier it is to believe that it's right or true or just or whatever. I think that's why conversion is such an important part of many religions. If I have the numbers on my side, I must be right.

    Oops. I meant "to mindlessly belong."

    It's not something people choose consciously, especially when they are introduced into religion as children. But when the group they belong to for whatever reason gets into conflict with another group, what are they going to do? They are not going to stop and think, hmm, did I really want to be part of this? In a conflict, the sense of belonging is probably stronger than usual in fact.

    No, I don't think being part of something bigger than oneself requires tearing down something else. That's just what often happens. The only way out of that would be a single worldwide group that everyone could belong to (which I'm not sure is necessarily a good, let alone workable, idea).

    The point is, something is going to fill this need. Religion, ideology, nationalism, or quite possibly some mix thereof. This leads me to believe that without religion, human history would not have been all that different. People would have simply found some other righteous reason to bash each other's heads in.

    Of course. Nationalism, racism, and political ideology have all filled this role. But they are not as potent as religion. Racism requires genetic homogenaiety. Nationalism is more difficult to create and requires more central organization, which is why it's such a relatively new phenomenon. Political ideology has been as effective a motivator. But religious is the perfect vessel--it spreads like a virus, turns any conflict into a battle between good and evil, and diminishes the value of life by promising immortality. For best results, comine religion with racism, nationalism, and ideology. Mix well. There would surely be war without religion, but it would be that much harder for the manipulators to raise armies.

    Moreover, racism, nationalism, and extremist ideology are not causes I recommend.

    So what would you recommend to 'fill this role.'

    Just asking

    I would prefer that nothing fill the role of war catalyst.

    I was refering to the original comment about peoples need to belong.

    Oh gawd!

    Must be a man thing. They always bring Him up at the most inappropriate times.

    I'm psyched that this post generated such an excellent discussion. I've been out in the woods all day and have no time to join in right now but will try to participate later.

    Ooooo... "in the woods all day" sounds much better than "trying to work but getting sucked into discusion about religion instead!"  Looking forward to your thoughts, G.

    It's a rare weekend in the mountains with my brother and friends. Great to get away.

    When I was a child I had all manner of superstitions, mostly taught to me by adults who half believed and half thought they were cute.  I believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  I had a lucky penny and a rabbit's foot.  Friday the 13th, four leafed clovers, black cats and ladders were all part of my youthful collection of folk superstition.  I "learned" to vaguely believe in astrology, the Tarot and I Ching as forms of deliberate superstition, although never with much enthusiasm.  I was also taught a superstition principally on Sundays.  That one was more intense, but not particularly different.

    All of these cultural quirks still rattle around in my mind, but with little effect.  They are cute, but that's about all.  When used to make real decisions, they can be very dangerous.

    I am sure that I am still a creature of cultural superstitions I just don't recognize, but those that I do recognize are of no use to me.

    Religion involves superstition, but to equate the two trivializes the former, both it's postiive and negative attributes. People don't fight wars over four-leaf clovers, erect massive monuments to black cats, or spend several hours a day practicing with Tarot cards.

    Hum, folks that tell fortunes probably do. As for wars being waged for trivial reasons, I beg to differ.

    But that's another conversation.

    Glad you are in the Mountains. A very nice place to be.

    Oh, I left out that other - especially American - superstition, which is the unbriddled goodness of the "free" market.  Extraordinarily good.  Except when when prostitutes go on the market.  Or... When the the credit markets freeze. Or... other little things like that.

    What was that you were saying about folks never fighting wars over superstitions?

    I believe in an inherent goodness.  I believe that everything, if left alone, will work towards doing good, being good, doing its work happily.

    Take the spider.  You knock down its web, and it doesn't hold a grudge.  It just rebuilds.

    Always reminds me of the joke about the snail.  But I'll leave that for another day.

    I don't adhere to any one religion, but I love what their good points are.  Be good to oneself.  Be good to others.  Don't hurt anything if you can help it.  Help one another.  Love one another.

    All the rest, well....it's just bullshit.


    Thanks for giving me a new post idea.


    I meant this for Genghis.

    Contrary to popular belief, I don't talk to myself. Heh.

    I'd get stricken down for being a witch by Palin's witchfinder otherwise.  Heh.


    I would agree that the major religions all share many of the good ideas, and good intent. what divides them tends to be things that are petty and should be discarded.

    One thing I am grateful for was that in High School, we did study world religion, that impression has been with me since then, which is why I dislike public displays of religion, ot religuosity, that it is on our money, etc. I do believe that people's realations wih their beliefs is a private thing and should always stay that way

    Not that individuals can't discuss it, just that it shouldn't b a part of governance. Ever.

    I tend not to worry about all that stuff, Bee.  I tend to think that a lot of worked up people worry about God every day enough as it is.

    I don't worry about what's on my dollar bill.  I'd prefer not to use a dollar bill.  I'd prefer to trade in blades of grass or in beads.  But alas, I have a 401(K) to worry about at the same time.

    So I stay good and hope everyone else will too, and I don't worry about the big inner workings of the big ugly money and government machines.  Cuz Obama is going to take over, and so are we, right alongside him.

    The grass roots that have been on the Obama train this past year know that we all have to start picking apart things from a local level, and trickle it on up.

    At least, I HOPE that's what folks have gathered from this, anyway.


    Rest assured that after seeing my neighbors up one block get flooded out two months ago, and seeing some of them rebuild nice new basements while seeing others not able to do so, I'm going to be standing in on my town council meetings from here on out.


    I just ate a s'more

    Was it a religious experience? I know it is for me.

    That was cruel.

    I just ate an effigy of you.  It had a flashing shirt.  Now it's gone.


    But it tasted yummy.


    Now I'm going to smoke something. Not a marshmallow.

    Anyone who smokes marshmallows, in my hallowed opinion, is truly suspect.

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