I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many of the world’s religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have. What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and educator, is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis of such experiences.
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape
If I listen to many of the folks I respect the most for their intellectual & spiritual work, from my Episcopalian wife to my favorite atheist thinker / neuroscientist quoted above, belief--of any sort-- is a thing of the present, a part of oneself that should always be in process, constantly held up to the light to consider, reconsider, & reconstitute. I’ve spent the last three years doing that, through gobs of self-reflection, rejuvenating engagement with Christians, & plenty of reading, as an atheist living at & surrounded by a seminary, as my wife pursued her Master of Divinity here in Austin, TX. When folks find out this division of belief, they expectedly ask, “How does that work?” My answer varies depending on which fragmented part of me is bubbling closest to the surface, but each variation holds a cone of cooperation & mutual respect for our individual, continuous intellectual pursuits, not to mention a comparable worldview & value system.
Recently, my wife declared that her religion, like her belief in theater, is currently an active symbolic system of meaning-making, rather than an empirical stone; similarly, my disavowal of gods doesn’t discount the need & preciousness of spirituality, mysticism, & contemplation. As Sam Harris’s opening quote highlights, my concern with religion only becomes frustrated when it is wielded as a weapon, when it interferes with what I believe to be the objective truth of human living--the necessity of cooperation between all creatures; otherwise, I engage with religion to understand why it exists & how I might better pursue important questions of living through scientific, artistic, philosophical, & psychological avenues.
My history with religion, namely the Midwest’s brand of fundamentalist Christianity, is as flawed & flimsy as many other parts of my identity have been over the years. Yes, we went to church on holidays & even regularly here or there--at the damp church across the railroad tracks, at the sleepy church in the stoplight-less town called Leisure just north, at the mega-church in Anderson, the home congregation of one Sandy Patty. But the actual engagement with the ideologies & cause/effects of the doctrine were as vapid as the t-shirt I rocked in sixth grade that declared: “Basketball is a game, but Jesus is life.”
My true belief never went further than hoping to be reunited with Grandma Tyner & Uncle Ricky in Heaven. Like Bill Burr, I could never get over the fact that the pastor in the pulpit was “just some guy,” as was the guy before him standing there before him, as was the guy before him who taught him what he knows of preaching, as was the guy before him who wrote the book. My total lack of faith in the people & their obviously flawed logic burst forth at a youth group in high school. We raised a hunk of cash through slipping whatever part of our teenage allowance wasn’t spent on KFC & condoms into the offering plate; now, the leaders offered two choices to us teens: donate it to an organization that frees child sex slaves or buy new skateboard ramps & rails for the parking lot. Our recreational pleasure was chosen over the well-being of others.
It’s funny that morality, then little more than gut feelings & random observations, was the push that toppled my chance at religious belief. When I first told my mom that I didn’t believe in God, she said, “So what keeps you from being bad?” Even as a teenager, I knew it wasn’t a god or an ancient text or a threat of Hell that made me be good, to not kill, to help the poor, etc. As Albert Einstein said in 1930 in a New York Times article, “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.”
But beyond my frustration with god’s people, how did my belief that God is a fiction come to be? It started with my friend in high school, HC, the first person I knew self-labeled an atheist. Just the possibility of a none-of-the-above option was freeing. Mostly through reading in college, I came to understand that god doesn’t exist & is a system man made up to control & console, mainly based on the wide understanding that religious documents have historically inaccurate & man-based origins, the West’s gods have gone demonstrably silent in the last couple thousand years, & science continues to upend many “facts” of religion through reasoned experiment (the age of the universe & the origins of man, in particular).
Never married to god or propped up by a religion’s tenets, thus I was never an angry atheist, the division not divorce, the way others I’ve known have experienced the feeling of being hoodwinked & betrayed. It is obvious that not all religions or its aspects are bad; if I’m going to acknowledge the significance of facts, I must not ignore both the local & global positive contributions various religions & their practices have had--from my mother’s church offering free, non-proselytizing dinners to the positive effects AA & similar church-based programs have had those with addiction issues. Particularly, I most admire the community religious institutions can create, groups that can find necessary, ethical contributions to help provide basic needs, like food, clothing, & emotional support for the needy of all varieties.
Instead, my natural combo of curiosity, empathy, & social draw have led me to rephrase the focus as such: the important question isn’t “does god exist”(since the answer is no), but “why--& in many cases, how--does god exist” (for certain people)? We know that why is a major, natural question in life as conscious creatures. As Bill Nye said on a recent episode of Armchair Expert, all kids are scientists, are driven by that natural curiosity; I am reminded of how Dean Young in The Art of Recklessness said something similar regarding children’s relationship to poetry prior to socialization, the natural inclination towards language & its experimentation. Religion has been harnessed for like impulses too, though unfortunately, nowadays it most often is utilized as a control system, ancient arbitrary standards for morality & worldly understanding.
The other day heading to Mississippi for our friends’ wedding, my wife & I loved listening to Marc Maron prod & poke fun at both our crews of belief--the silliness of Christian evangelicals & the annoyingness of atheist know-it-alls. In the midst of those bits, I heard him say, as have many other thinkers, that religion springs from our need to understand this body, this world, this spin we’ve found ourselves in, an itch to feel connected to something bigger than the self. In his book An Atheist's History of Belief, Matthew Kneale offers much better word count to the topic, but basically, it goes like this: once we had no idea what made the sun rise (literally & figuratively), what made the sun set (literally & figuratively), & nearly everything else in between, so over time we made up myths & models for how it might have happened, & as human pressures for power, survival, & meaning-making took hold, various webs tangled & toppled. Other scientific areas of study such as evolutionary theory have shown us how religion has guided our understanding of the world, the evolution of our cultures & communities, & the effects on social functioning.
My viewpoint, which isn’t novel but is important to note, is that we now have others more-reasoned, less-baggaged methods for those answers to the universe’s biggest questions, from science to philosophy, psychology to history. My worry is that in the wake of that lack of utility, left with religion as merely tradition, a protected cultural artifact can be a dangerous weapon against reason, against one another, in the name of power. In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett lays it out like this: “A hypothesis to consider seriously, then, is that all our “intrinsic” values started out as instrumental values, and now that their original purpose has lapsed, at least in our eyes, they remain as things we like just because we like them. (That would not mean that we are wrong to like them! It would mean--by definition--that we like them without needing any ulterior reason to like them.) (69).”
I hear this fondness often in my wife’s rationale for her continued attachment to Christianity, its mythologies, & its virtues; it circles back to how she feels, the symbolism & the stories as her chosen system to filter the trials, triumphs, & everyday of life. In exploring why humans are religious, one uncovers nearly-universal needs to have matters of mystery, storytelling, community, parameters, & some feeling of something bigger than you. It is no wonder then that religion has inspired some beautiful art, that human-specific mode of wrestling big questions, experimenting with reality, & growing the self. Art, like secularism, reframes the world around not as thing a god created for us, but this thing that literally created, sustains, & often, overwhelms us & everything we love. I actually prefer the term “secular humanist” over “atheist” these days, shifting the focus from higher power to this miraculous evolved conscious creature I find myself to be one of, to be among.
The bigger-than-me something is science, is the natural world, is the extraordinary abundance of people & creatures & objects & mess that sprung through time. Like for the poet Mei-Mei Brussenbrugge, “physical perception is the data of my embodiment.” I’ve talked about it before, but it’s why poetry is so important to me, as the playground to control the chaos. Sports once & often still does act that way for me, a rectangular container for the body’s firing synapses & muscle spasms, for the mind’s logical constraints & split-second decision-making, for humanity’s cooperation & need to be in relationship with ourselves, others, & the world around us.
That said, I’m not anti-religion like I once was, which is probably the main result of the openness of the seminary. I was able to see the wider scope of contemporary, progressive Christianity, one that leans more to the symbolic over the literal, thus creating space for necessary & ethical means of human-centrist acts like interfaith dialogue, including with secularists, & social justice reform. From the seminary’s trip to the border to greet & support migrants to my inclusion in sermons & community events, I’ve witnessed a needed progressiveness, in all people, in fighting that natural impulse that I learned from Harris who learned it from Slovic: to care more about a person than people, to not “grow more callous as the body count rises” (69).
Thus I’ve become more accepting of reframing religion as a symbolic system, as an acknowledged collection of metaphors and stories to guide us, like other systems. As David Shields tells us in Reality Hunger, “Reality is what is imposed on you; realness is what you impose back (287).” In America’s current faux-conservative climate & evangelical tyranny, it is clear the danger if the two are confused. Like my wife & her classmates have shown at the seminary, in the areas it is dangerous, we need to treat aggressive, harmful strains of religion the way we do other extreme hateful views or broken power structures. It must be interrogated, from the basis to the effects; Daniel Dennett put it best in Breaking the Spell: “You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether other religion, or not religion at all, does better (56).”
Like nearly everyone I know, I have “an anxious fear of future events,” to quote Hume, mine own panic revolving around the volatility of my still-slippery, fragmented person. When will my wife have enough of the episodes, the night terrors, the memory loss, etc.? When will I do something again that I can’t remember that debilitates someone I love? Why do I collapse every three months, seemingly destroying any progress I’ve made? In this anxiety, though, I find myself thankful for the progress away from religious worldviews to a more scientific, humanist perspective; personally, my Dissociative Identity Disorder would have been labeled demonic, a thing to exorcise with ritual & prayer, rather than a complex reality needed to be studied & addressed.
For me, a quiet god or ancient book provides no relief & no truth; instead, I am comforted by what we do know empirically & what we can explore through both science & art as a means of understanding & healing. I’m not a fuck-up (“God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck-ups,” sings Sarah Shook in my skull) & I’m not special; I’m a product of my own brain in the natural world, the particular chemical firings of just another guy.