First, a warning, I suppose.
I’ll be very surprised if anyone reads this the whole way through. Shocked even. It’s a bit long and more introspective than anything else. But there you have it.
I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’m not trying to challenge anyone’s beliefs. I’m simply musing on and considering the roots of my own lack of belief, as the “War on Christmas” (as fictional and a waste of time/effort as that is) folks start to come out of the woodwork. If you find my lack of belief a threat to your own beliefs, though, I’d suggest that you examine your own faith because it would seem to be pretty tenuous if it can be threatened by one person’s lack of faith.
Anyway, most of this is simply collecting and organizing my thoughts, one of the key purposes of writing in general. Perhaps some of it is explanation as well. I’m still thinking through some of these things, so they may be half formed thoughts or ideas that are still being revised. And there are probably few, if any, formal transitions between ideas here—sorry if that makes for a confusing piece.
To set the stage, I am a Catholic school survivor. I’ve studied, at least briefly, many sects of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism (and chatted with members of all five faiths). I’ve even touched very briefly on Shinto, Confucian(ism), and pre-Confucian Chinese faiths and chatted a little about faith with Sikhs. I’m well versed in Norse, Greco-Roman, and Celtic mythology, with a smattering of Egyptian thrown in. Comparative religion is a bit of an interest of mine.
But, I digress in setting the stage. I don’t want to get bogged down there.
Under religious beliefs, I call myself “Agnostic-Atheist”. What does this mean?
To me, this term means that, personally, I have no belief or faith in a “higher power” and therefore don’t believe that any such being(s) exist(s). However, I don’t think that my belief or lack thereof really has any bearing on the existence of any such beings (e.g. they don’t need me to believe in them in order to exist). Nor do I think that my own lack of belief necessarily invalidates anyone else’s faith or belief (if you disagree, see the third paragraph above).
I think that principle is important: just because I have never felt faith in a higher power and therefore do not believe that a god or gods exist in no way invalidates anyone else’s faith or belief. Nor does it necessarily mean that divinities don’t exist. It could mean they don’t exist, or that they do exist but don’t want me to believe in them. Now, I may be somewhat arrogant in certain respects and there are probably a few people I know who would level that charge, but I’m not arrogant enough to say that my own beliefs ought to be the standard for the remaining 5,999,999,999+ people in the world. Not to mention the potentially many more in the universe (yes, I do believe in intelligent extra-terrestrial life, as Carl Sagan once wrote: if there aren’t other species out there, the universe is an awful waste of space – paraphrased). Nor am I arrogant enough to say that the entire possibility of the existence of divinities is dependent on my belief. It could be cool if such things were true, but it would also be incredibly scary to possess that kind of power.
After thinking about this for a while (nearly 20 years really), I think my reasons for my lack of belief/faith break down into two categories:
I’ve studied a lot of history and a fair amount of comparative religion. This study has led me to a definite intellectual distrust of organized religion. The faiths themselves, in principle, are generally good (there are exceptions – such as Judeo-Christian-Muslims’ Leviticus). However, when an organization forms around the faith, and it acquires leaders, hierarchies, and bureaucracies, the faith almost invariably gets twisted (one exception here being the various branches of Buddhism, most of which have no definitive hierarchy anyway). That’s when highly negative things start to be done in the name of the faith—ex. the Inquisition, car bombings (Ireland, Israel, Palestine, etc.), sectarian in-fighting about how some prophet 2000 years ago said something (the Albigensian Crusade, Ireland, the Sunni-Shiite divide), and murders of those who do not follow the same faith and refuse to convert (which we still see today in more subtle ways—like “we’ll give you medical aid for your malaria, but only if you convert”).
On the last note, all of the top three major faiths have very bloody histories. I don’t wish to get bogged down in a “Who’s more violent” discussion or debate, in part because all three faiths have probably equally bloody histories and are continuing in that tradition—some more blatantly than others. Ironically, two of the three (Christianity and Islam) claim to be faiths of peace, only their predecessor (Judaism) does not. Some of the Eastern faiths, yes, also have associations with violent histories, but perhaps not to the same extent—and many, such as Buddhism and Taoism, have bloodless, or virtually so, histories (can’t think of anyone who has started a war or violent persecution in the name of Buddha or Lao Tzu).
From observation (8+ years of Catholic masses, a few years of Protestant services), it seems to me that most People of the Book (Judeo-Christian-Muslims)—and probably some of the more ritualized Eastern faiths—are simply going through the motions. That is, they follow ritual blindly, completely uncertain as to why they go through the rituals (if they even ask themselves). This is, I think, another flaw of organized religion: it becomes empty ritual devoid of meaning and true faith. Christ saw the potential for this problem himself—”And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. [. . .] when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret” (Matthew 6:5-6)—Zen Buddhists, I think, also see this potential and try to avoid it. Why do people do this? The charitable answer, I suppose, might be that they’ve been conditioned to do so, in other words, they do what is expected of them. Another possible answer, I would guess, is that they fear what others might think of them or do to them should they stop—by “do to them” I don’t mean physically, although that has happened, but rather socially, whether ostracism, disowning, or whatever. There are, I suspect, quite a few people who do not truly believe in the divinity they claim to while going through the motions of organized religion, but go through the motions for the social interaction and sense of security in belonging to a group. But, I could be mistaken.
I also think there’s a genetic component to faith. By this, I don’t mean to imply that a person can be genetically a Christian or Buddhist. Rather, I mean that I think there may be a genetic component to whether or not a person possesses “faith” or something genetic which influences whether or not faith manifests itself in the individual. Obviously, I’m not a biologist or a psychologist, so I have no major background in this area beyond freshman college biology/psych (17 years ago), but it seems to make sense based on observed experience.
Honestly (not that I’d consider being dishonest), I have gut-level problems with the idea of a single omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. I’m not sure why. I have no logical reason for that. It’s just a gut feeling. Besides which, if one divinity exists (say Jehovah-God-Allah), the odds are good that every other divinity ever conceived in the history of the world exists, thus removing the “only one, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, deity exists and there are no others” thing. I’ve often thought that if I had any sort of faith in a “higher power” I’d be more likely to go Buddhist or Norse pagan . . . as oddly opposed as those two are from each other (one focused on peace, serenity, and introspection; the other involving and afterlife of eating, drinking, and waiting for the big battle at the end of the world), but I digress.
The most important part on this level is that I’ve simply never felt any connection to any “higher power”. Therefore, with no such evidence that one exists, I have to conclude that no such being is out there. Either way, I don’t see that the existence or lack thereof has any bearing on my daily life, nor do I see any reason for such a being (if it existed) to care about what I do, since I’d be rather insignificant in comparison. That gets into some thoughts I’ve had on morality, especially in the context of religion, but that’s another set of thoughts for another time.
A few quotes I’ve liked over the years come to mind as well:
“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” –Stephen F. Roberts
“There is no conclusive evidence of life after death. But there is no evidence of any sort against it. Soon enough you will know. So why fret about it?” –Robert A. Heinlein