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Does Religion Poison Everything? Thoughts From A Somewhat Reluctant Athiest

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If I ever jump into the world of online dating, I will be checking the box “athiest.” Not even the “spiritual but not religious” box describes me, because I think that generally refers to those who think there is some sort of god out there but they do not like organized religion. I neither think religion is a net positive in the world nor do I believe that there is a god who man has yet to accurately describe.

One of the most interesting books I’ve read lately is Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. You can read professional reviews of it online; my purpose here is not to necessarily break it down, or get into every point he raises. Instead it’s more of a jumping off point for discussing my view of reality, a view that has been evolving and solidifying over the the last twenty years of my life. While this post certainly will not begin to cover what I believe are all of the logical reasons for not believing in god (nor will I get into, at this time, why throwing the word “faith” out there does not provide any sort of support for god), I wanted to spend some time discussing what has led me to not believe in any sort of diety. I think it is important to get down onto paper (or LCD screens, if you prefer) these thoughts, because I have found over the past few years that when it comes to public policy – which is where my real interests in life lie – religion, and the type of thinking that it often promotes, is the root of so many problems in society.

My parents are not particularly religious – or at least are not the type of religious parents who would force their beliefs on their children. However, when I was in late middle school / early high school I became involved in a youth group at the local church, which in retrospect makes me quite uncomfortable. I do not believe that adolescents are stupid, but I also think that the idea of religion is a bit too complex for a thirteen-year-old. Honestly, I think it is too complex for most adults, especially when you think about the mental gymnastics one needs to rationalize and reconcile what is written in religious texts and promoted by religious leaders.

Additionally, the ability of a teen to fully grasp the nuances and ask critical questions with judgemental peers around is underdeveloped, to say the least. Who is going to question the idea of the holy trinity with the cute girl from biology staring at him? I spent two years involved in ‘the church;’ however, thanks to some careful parenting I realized that some of the church’s stances – such as the idea that evolution is a hoax – did not have much relation to reality.

I still considered myself a Christian, although I clearly did not understand exactly the implications and obligations such a statement conveyed. I removed myself from the youth group, but during my third year in college, I attended a Bible study group. I figured, sure, why not, and that became a turning point for me. Even when I was attending that unhealthy youth group, I still believed that while there was a god, and probably a heaven, Christians certainly weren’t the only ones going there. That struck my fifteen-year-old mind as obvious. Clearly if there was a god, humans couldn’t know all about him or her anyway, so the arrogance involved in most religions was certainly on my radar.

At the second Bible study meeting I asked a question about other religions and whether the believers in those went to heaven too. The leader of the group sort of nodded, and instead of answering the question, said it was a good one, and then ‘reminded me’ that Satan likes to plant seeds of doubt in our minds.

Say WHAT? First off, the idea of a devil has always sturck me as absurd. Grown adults thinking there’s this horned man who gets all up in our heads to get us to do bad things seems more like the rationalizations of the child who cannot begin to understand the world, or who would rather not be held accountable for her actions. “It wasn’t me, it was SATAN!” Disturbing. Second, the implication from her comment was that the religious beliefs of billions of people existed because of the devil, and thus all of those folks were going to hell. That was enough for me; I was done.

At least, I was done with Bible study. I was not yet ready to be done with religion. Monotheism is the common western religious category, but I started to wonder about other ideas, so I read about a variety of them, from paganism to buddhism.

(As an aside, I still am not clear why believing in multiple gods, or gods that manifest themselves through nature, is any more bizarre than believing in a god who exists in three different forms, kills his own son [who is also him, and so is really committing suicide], and then demands that some of his followers eat his body and drink his blood every week. If that isn’t entirely odd, it is at least stranger than people chanting in the woods and exploring the possible healing properties of different plants.)

None of the religions really made any logical sense. There seemed to be so much effort spent explaining away certain parts of different ‘holy texts’ to make them fit what we know now. Evolution exists? Okay then – Genesis is not really talking about six 24-hour days; the days are metaphorical. But everything else is totally true! 

In the past couple of years, I’ve come to the realization that I do not believe in any sort of god. I am an atheist, although I find it so strange that I need to declare my non-belief in someone for whom there is no proof of existence. I do not believe in unicorns, but I do not see why it should be assumed that I do, or why I should have to make it clear that I do not.

I recognize that the unicorn / god analogy is putting it indelicately, and that I need to be careful to not offend my religious friends, lest they think I see them as less intelligent than me, or that I condescend to them when discussing these issues. That is not my goal, nor do I think my religious friends are stupid. People disagree about many things, from how to reduce poverty to who should be given civil rights.

That is why I find philosophy so fascinating. I have had many interesting conversations with religious folks about what is the right thing to do in a particular situation; however I do admit that I am not open to reasoning that starts with “in the Bible” or “in the Koran” if the textual quotes that follow are meant to serve as evidence supporting a particular position. My own exploration of the world, the inconsistencies in the tenets of religions, what they practice, and how members present themselves, coupled with much of what I have been studying in the past year, have helped me to understand and support my beliefs. 

In answer to the question posed in the title, I am still not sure that I am in agreement with Hitchens’ central thesis, because to accept it would be to accept that religion has poisoned all of my friends who choose to believe in some version of god. I do not think that is the case – some of the coolest, most interesting, kind people I know are religious. However, I do think so much of what Hitchens says – the points he makes, the evidence he provides, the inconsistencies he reveals – is valid, and should be examined by anyone who has made the choice to believe in god.

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