I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but bear with me. A bit of confessional time.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m an atheist. To put it simply, I basically grew up and got over it. Religion, to me, is historically and psychologically interesting, but does not represent any kind of reality. The world, the universe, what have you, just doesn’t work that way, and for every example you can pull out of your hat of supposed “miracle” I can equal or better it with “shit happens” and just plain human synergy. That anecdotal game can go on and on with neither side really running out of examples, leading no where, but just the fact that most miracles can be explained by mundane models suggests to me that the miracle is actually occurring inside the witnesses skulls. (There’s this new one that is the presumed basis for the rapid beatification of Pope John Paul II concerning a nun with Parkinson’s Disease going into full remission two months after the Pope’s death because she prayed to him. Now, if I remember my Catholic history and so forth, a miracle that qualifies someone for sainthood is supposed to have taken place during the recipient’s lifetime and he or she had to have been in some way directly involved. This is clear evidence that the Catholic Church is undergoing a P.R. crisis and needs some new popular saints to bolster a flagging image. The swift beatification of Mother Theresa is such a case, because anyone who really looked at the way she ran her organization would have to have serious doubts that this woman was “saintly” in any way, shape, or form—but she appears saintly. Anyway. Remission from disease happens all the time, just most of it never gets to the level of being considered a miracle—the human body is a dynamic system and we still have a lot to learn about it.)
The more complex answer is, that the more I learn the less I am able to suspend incredulity that anything like the cosmogony suggested by religions—any of them, and I stress here that I see no valid reason why any one should be given preference over any other—makes any sense given the evidence at hand. Over time I saw religion as a strictly human enterprise, a kind of Swiss Army Knife approach to explaining the inexplicable that relied on fear and the human capacity to be amazed to instantiate a programmatic acceptance of authority-through-divinity. Basically, it’s a business. Not always to make money, you understand, but always to exercise power.
So I walked away. I became a student of history and an amateur appreciator of science and the more I see, read, and discover, the more I am convinced that religious acceptance is a pathology. It has become so deeply wired into human culture, that it appears normal and functions often quite benignly. It only becomes a problem when situations arise and questions are asked which religion is unsuited to deal with.
One of the great and, of late, underappreciated and often derided truly cool things about America is that we—you and I—don’t have to put up with that crap. We can walk away.
Now for most people, this translates into an easy freedom to change our stripes. There are no legal or, often, social barriers to moving from, say, Catholicism to Presbyterianism. Even among those two groups, eyebrows may rise, some tut-tuts may occur, but after an adjustment period, I imagine most folks even keep the same friends and might even go to each other’s church socials. (For some of the more aggressively evangelical religions, this gets a bit tougher, but the law does nothing about it*.)
For some of us, it means we can just stop believing what we regard as nonsense.
This morning I went to the grocery store. At my checkout lane, the cashier and another employee were engaged in what I quickly understood as a religious discussion, but one of those that make even some mainstream believers reflexively wince. The one was explaining how ardently she had been praying, while the cashier—clearly in the higher position of authority in this—was saying “It doesn’t matter how you pray, it’s that the Enemy attacks. You got to be aware that he’s always there, attacking. You can pray but you got to watch for the Enemy.”
I paid and left without saying a word and, I hope, without my face betraying my reaction, which was “Oh, a couple of nuts.”
Here’s a test. Next time any of these situations come up at a party or in casual conversation, see how you react in the first few moments.
“My cousin was abducted by aliens. They ran all kinds of tests on her. I wonder what it is they’re looking for when they do that?”
“Oh, I never use traditional medicine. It’s all poison, you know. I trust homeopathy.”
“There were at least two other shooters, one on the grassy knoll. It was a CIA plot.”
“The world is going to end in 2011, May, in fact.”
“My astrologer said my stars are badly aligned for a move to a new job. I hate where I’m at, but I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.”
Even if, within a minute, you recoup enough to either steer the conversation away from this or form some kind of cat’s cradle response that allows you to see this in some way other than at face value, I would bet you thought, however briefly, “Oh no, one of them.”
Which is interesting, because I realized that over the years my reaction to each and every one of these, plus the score more I didn’t mention, has been identical to my reaction to someone who feels compelled to testify to me. They are indulging a fantasy, basically, possibly one born out of a particular neurosis, and it is important for the maintenance of that fantasy that they co-opt others into supporting it. Either by politely agreeing to the possibilities implicit in each world-view being presented, or by buying into their argument. Either one lends credibility to their delusion, strengthens it, and reassures them that they are not, in fact, nuts.
To be sure, most of them likely aren’t nuts. Not in any clinical sense. Nothing medication will address. They are simply indulging the power of interpretation and organizing the world according to a set of precepts that allow them to navigate. And for many, many people it works just fine. In fact, at least in the case of religion, because these ideas are so entrenched, so much a part of what is generally called Culture, it works better than just fine, it is almost psychologically wholesome.
Except we seem to choose what level of it we’re comfortable with. I imagine even people with a regular religious component to their lives get uncomfortable when approached by some glassy-eyed evangelizer wanting to talk about their personal relationship with Jesus. Because, I suspect, on some level we all know this isn’t quite rational and the irrational troubles us.
Now, what I do—fiction writing—can be readily described as irrational. I find it interesting that some splinter religions deride fiction as sinful. It’s competition, in a sense, an attraction to some other form of exactly the same pathology that doesn’t have the same telos as religious fable. And I will cop to the charge, that making stories up is not, by certain metrics, rational. Humans are not wholly rational. If we were, there likely would be no art of any kind. What we are is aesthetic. We are beings of the senses. And what I do speaks directly to that. As does music and painting and sculpture, and dance.
What are all these depictions of the after life if not confabulations of the ideal sensual experience? (And by sensual I do not mean sexual, although in some religions that is very much a part of the whole Paradisical aesthetic.) It is the perfect embrace of the aesthetic, often without the filtering of the flesh, so to speak, which seems sometimes to transmit the signal incompletely or with unpleasant noise.
What I do in my head, though, when I create characters and world is very much like the whole architecture of a religion. The difference is, I do not then say my characters are Out There walking around. Their existence is in my head. And I do it for a specific and limited reason. I’m trying to share a given experience. The experience is the totality of it, though. (We have run into people, some of us, who have taken it the next step and so personified favorite characters that they really do think they live in the same world. What, may I ask, is the difference between that and the whole acceptance of religious constructs, other than in the former case we see these people as slightly off-beam and in the latter just “normal” folks?)
I will stipulate here that I think, for many people, as individuals, religion provides a quality of experience that is therapeutic. Whatever gets you through the night, as the song says. And as such it is not my place to criticize anyone’s choice of paradigms. It’s even clear that religion serves as a functional component in community activity. What is communal identity but an agreed-upon way of seeing the world? And agreement is the first step toward cooperation. So on and so forth.
But I also suggest that most peoples’ level of acceptance of religious claims is wholly conditional and contextual. We can see this in the negative reaction to claims that, by some quite literal interpretations of religious codes, disasters and tragedies are the direct result of a failure to embrace a given claim. New Orleans was swamped because we bar prayer in public schools. 9/11 happened because we tolerate homosexuality and some deity doesn’t like that. We know this is crazy talk. But it’s based on some of the same fundamental structures as the religion we may claim to believe.
So what does this, ultimately, have to do with the so-called real world? Well, by this point you should pick up on where I’m going, but let me be perfectly blunt: according to some religions, some people are second or third class citizens, not permitted to enjoy the same rights and privileges of the chosen. This is the real world manifestation of a pathology that draws its authority from a delusion. When it gets to that point, it’s no longer harmless. Or therapeutic. As when someone tells you, basically, that there’s nothing you can do, that no matter what your efforts may be, the Enemy is going to get you. Consequently, you live a life constantly constrained by fear.
We only get one life on this planet. It’s a crime to have it wasted being afraid of boogymen and ghosts and feeling like crap because of something that probably never happened. And, in some places, being forced to live your whole life severed from all the wonders of the world simply because of your genital arrangement. This is not wholesome, not therapeutic, and not right. Someone else’s pathology should not limit your life.
I should wrap this up now. If I continue, Vishnu may come down in his spaceship and abduct me and subject me to a severe audit with his E-meter.
*Although, sometimes the boundaries blur.