I’ve been going through some reflections on my religious beliefs/lack thereof, and for a while now I’ve been wanting to update you all. This past week I’ve been battling a nasty chest bug. Then my cassette player wasn’t working, so I got an even later start on writing the episode. I was really dissatisfied with where it was, but I wanted to post something interesting and religion related, so hopefully this is an adequate substitute. My sincerest apologies for the change.
So, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had an issue with the religion I had been raised with. That problem was an excess of bullshit. And to be clear, I’m not talking about all Christianity. I’m talking about the specific subculture of conservative, evangelical Christianity, which is anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-feminist and anti-civil rights, except the really popular ones, which may be supported in a milquetoast-y way that doesn’t challenge the traditional supremacy of old white men. You know. The bullshit Christianity.
But I hadn’t yet lost faith in the existence of some kind of higher being or afterlife or greater plan for the world. I just had no conception of what that all might look like. So I did some research, on Islam and Buddhism and Baha’i and non-bullshit Christianity, and everything else. I discovered two things.
First, every religion in existence has at least one bullshit version and at least one non-bullshit version. That is to say, there is at least one version where people believe in things that science has conclusively disproved, and also look down on at least one type of person who is, you know, not actually evil. And then there’s at least one version that doesn’t so much do that. I definitely knew that I wanted to follow a non-bullshit religion.
Second, none of the non-bullshit religions claimed to offer conclusive proof that their variation was correct. This was unsettling to me. I was used to claims of logical consistency, objective truth, and absolute confidence in being right. Sure, those claims turned out to be completely unfounded, but at least those claims meant I could eventually be certain of something. I was eventually certain that they were wrong. There’s something to be said for that.
I took to praying that God, the real God, wherever he/she/it was and whatever name he/she/it went by, would divinely offer me some kind of proof. Or, failing that, at least strong personal conviction.
No guidance came, so eventually I became an atheist.
If you’re reading this hoping for a decry of how foolish that was, I’m sorry to say you’ll be at least partially disappointed. I think it was exactly where I needed to be. After twenty years steeping in highly toxic religion, I needed a detox. I needed to see what life was like without passionate, fundamentalist belief, and I needed to know it would be okay.
And, you know, I was fine. I met some atheists who were real self-righteous dicks, and I met some who weren’t. Turns out atheism too has a bullshit and non-bullshit version. The non-bullshit version is people going, “I don’t believe in any God, and I’m fine with that. I find meaning enough without religion.” The bullshit one adds, “and that makes me an inherently better person than any non-atheists.” The bullshit atheists don’t come with any specific sub-denomination, so you have to just get to know people and see which one they are.
So all that was fine. I got some remedial science education in, started a cool blog series, and figured out how to be cool with the idea that my consciousness would probably end along with my body. Good stuff.
But over the last year or so, I’ve started to feel a little tug inside towards something more spiritual.
“Huh,” I went. “That’s weird and does not fit with my current conception of the world. It is probably nothing, and will go away on it’s own.”
So, back into the thinking and the researching I dove. One of the things I realized was that the thing we call “religion” has multiple functions. One is to explain the world around us. One is to provide moral guidelines. One is to provide supportive communities for personal growth. There may be others, but those are the big ones. Or the ones I am most interested in.
The trouble with the explanation aspect is that eventually science starts catching up and measuring things that were once based on faith. This upsets religion, quite a lot. Religion does not like being told that it’s random guess was wrong, and has been wrong for generations. Unfortunately, in these arguments, science usually has the receipts. Personally, I think religion should officially retire from this function, and delegate it to science.
Now, unlike many skeptical materialists, I don’t pretend science is perfect at this function. Science is a slow and complicated process. For example, we haven’t properly disproven an afterlife, or a soul. It’s just that neither of those are things that fit well into everything else we know about death and the human brain. But also there’s a lot we generally don’t know about those things, so, the honest scientific answer to “is there such a thing as an afterlife?” is “I dunno. It’s really hard to research that.”
Now, people don’t like “I don’t know yet” as an answer, especially to questions with such existentially profound implications. So people seize on either the few tests that confirm their pre-existing biases, or just dress up those biases with words that sound very sciencey. People on both sides of these kinds of questions do that. But I think, even with this caveat, science is better than religion at figuring out facts. We just need to get better at accepting incomplete answers.
I could write a whole post on that. On to the next function.
Religion, I think, does help communities form moral philosophies. It’s very hard to make moral arguments from purely scientific standpoints, because science doesn’t make value judgments. Value is something that comes from a human perspective. Religion is good at giving that subjective perspective equally subjective language, and then we can use that language to compare notes, and create an effective intersubjective framework.
But that said, the truly universal morals don’t need religion to get there. People arrive independently at them using very different contexts, and people of no religion are just as likely to be good people as those who are deeply religious. But I do think religion can be a useful tool, both for individuals and societies. It just becomes a problem when religious people create echo chambers, instead of working to broaden the reach of their religious framework, and create a generous, diverse moral community.
Again, I could write for ages on this. Let’s wrap up the final function; communities.
Religious communities can be great. You can also be a happy, complete and sociable person whose communities happen to all be non-religious. So long as you’re surrounding yourself with good, supportive people who work to make the world a better place, you do whatever works for you. I don’t think anybody should feel forced to join a religious community.
But that said, I want to join a religious community. I dunno, I guess it’s just that things that religious communities are into happen to really appeal to me? And frankly, even at the height of my atheism, I never felt good around atheist communities. I never clicked with them. Not even the communities that were pretty solidly non-bullshit. This isn’t a judgment, it’s just that I never got that, “yes, these are my people! I have no trouble being myself here!”
You know who is giving me that feeling right now? Wiccans and neopagans. I went to an event and did a lot of lurky reading, and it felt really awesome.
That doesn’t mean I’m an official warlock now. I’m exploring. After a bit more, I might find I’m out of place after all, and some other religious community suits me. Or that I am just destined to spend my life a nomad of various faith communities. I am cool with all of these options.
(and, not to get too deep into it, yes, wiccans and neopagans also come in bullshit and non-bullshit varieties. It’s almost like they are humans or something)
As I am still very much an ex-Christian, and specifically an ex-evangelical, I do still want to do my reviews of Adventures in Odyssey, as well as some more works of C. S. Lewis and a smattering of other bits of Christian pop culture. I have been thinking of a good title to replace “Reviews as an Atheist,” and I have settled on “Reviews as a Godless Heathen.” I like that phrase for myself. It sounds funny and self-depricating, but it’s also a pretty accurate description of where I am. I’m not a Christian and God isn’t really a part of my religious makeup, but other than that, I could be anything. I don’t really know, and I fully expect it will change over the years.
I’ll be updating the titles and tags accordingly, and I’ll post the next AIO review two weeks from now. Thanks as always for coming along on the journey, and take good care of yourself! You are awesome.