Discover more from This Is Not What I Expected
Let's Talk About Religion!
or how an atheist avoids debilitating nihilism and depression
Let’s talk about religion. Because nothing says lighthearted and uncontentious like asking someone if they believe in God. I used to do this with people a lot in college. I took a class called “Philosophy of Religion,” which turned out to be the philosophy of WESTERN religion, but that nevertheless led to some lively discussions in lab groups. But it’s been a long time, and I’ve missed it. Let’s get started!
Okay, so that first paragraph was misleading.
I’m actually going to talk about lack of religion because, unlike a lot of the people I grew up amongst and many of the other middle-class white women in suburbia, my childhood home had zero religion.
Here are some nifty Gallup statistics that show, while church attendance is declining in the U.S., most people still identify with some sort of religion. During my formative years, close to 90 percent called themselves Christians.
I went to church with my paternal grandparents sometimes; they were Episcopalian, a sect sometimes referred to as “Catholic light.” I liked the little velvet benches for kneeling and was curious about why I didn’t get to go up and eat the cookies and sip the grape juice like everyone else. (Do they still do that in these days of COVID??)
I occasionally attended both Methodist and Baptist services with friends. Mostly it washed over me like a light drizzle over a well-insulated raincoat. Sometimes, something soaked through the seams, like when I heard a preacher say, “You can’t not know what you believe.” I don’t know what the context was because I was only half paying attention. Still, I remember thinking, Well, that’s just bullshit because I don’t know what I believe, religion-wise, and I felt solid about that ambiguity. In my childhood years, the jury was firmly out on God.
I may have decided he had a reasonable point if I’d listened to the sentences on either side of that statement, but I was fourteen and more concerned with the boyfriend with whom I was attending this congregation. Later that same day, while touring the church, I would smack my forehead so hard on a low-hanging beam, my vision would go dark around the edges, and I’d blurt “FUCK!” in front of the youth pastor. I found it mildly embarrassing, but I’m sure it was nothing he hadn’t heard before.
When I asked my parents what they “were,” seeking a label like “Christian” or whatever, Mom said she was an atheist, and Dad said he was agnostic. They are very practical people who don’t truck with tarot cards or horoscopes anymore than with midnight mass, Ash Wednesday or the blood of Christ.
Side Note: One of my dad’s favorite comedic bits is Eddie Izzard likening the blood of Christ to vampirism:
The idea of God seemed to be an attempt to explain the universe, so I periodically turned to science for answers.
When I asked my Dad how the universe could go on infinitely because I couldn’t wrap my eight-year-old head around it, and I naively thought an adult person could, he shrugged. “But to go on forever, it would have to keep growing,” I insisted. Dad seemed disinterested, and as a child who still thought my parents knew everything, I was sure he knew how the universe worked and just didn’t want to tell me.
Later in life, I would argue with him about things I didn’t understand very well in hopes he could enlighten me — relativity, quantum physics, string theory. These things fascinate me, but Dad doesn’t waste time on what he sees as wild-ass theories we can’t prove. And it turns out he doesn’t grasp them any better than I do, which I discovered around the time I was 35 and had my own kids.
Those theories’ unprovability, the mystery of it, was the very reason they did fascinate me — the possibilities you could contemplate based on circumstantial, enigmatic, currently incomplete scientific clues. All that thinking and reading led me to the idea that we humans can’t perceive the true nature of the universe with our limited senses; we can only glimpse it.
Side Note: If you want to have your mind logically and convincingly blown by the limits of our human perceptions, check out The Case Against Reality by Donald Hoffman.
Side Side Note: Here’s a link to my Goodreads profile. If you click on my science or philosophy shelf, you’ll see more of the material that influences my thoughts.
So that’s the backstory.
Today, I call myself a literal atheist.
I added the “literal” after one friend asked, “So you’re an atheist but you believe in a higher power, right, just not a god? Or you only believe in hard science?”
And I was like, “No, I don’t believe in any sort of higher power unless you’re talking about the physics of the universe itself. I don’t believe there is a sentient being with a plan pulling the strings or directing things down here. I don’t believe there’s an all-knowing, all-powerful god who set us in motion. A-theist literally means, according to dictionary.com, “a person who does not believe in the existence of a supreme being or deity.” However, what an atheist DOES believe can vary wildly from atheist to atheist.
It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in mystery.
It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in things beyond what science can prove. It doesn’t mean I don’t think people occasionally experience unexplainable phenomena like ghosts or a sense of clairvoyance. I just don’t think those experiences have anything to do with a god.
Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet.
~ Arthur C. Clarke
I’d add to that quote, “And some of it, we may never understand.”
We humans have a problem with “I don’t know.”
It’s why there are gods in the first place. People wanted explanations for unsettling phenomena like thunder, tides and eclipses. Science eventually explained those things, so we no longer look to Poseidon when the seas get rough. We talk about the moon’s pull on the Earth.
But as for our reason for being here on Earth and our purpose, science has some compelling evidence for the “how” but not so much for the “why.” And so we turn to God or horoscopes in an attempt to both define and control our purpose for being here.
I’ll admit, I read horoscopes; I enjoy them and get something out of them — inspiration or themes to contemplate — but I don’t believe we can predict people’s lives by looking to the stars. If we were beings with brains billions of times more powerful, maybe we could, but as it is, we can only glimpse. And just as some of us are more prone to scientific epiphanies, like Einstein, perhaps some are more prone to glimpsing those unexplained phenomena, too.
As a person incapable of believing in a god, a higher power or the vagueries of “spirituality,” whatever that means, how do I cope?
How do I find meaning in my existence?
Honestly, sometimes I don’t. Occasionally, especially when the perimenopausal hormone fluctuations are battering me like an ancient ship beset by an angry sea god, I fall into nihilism and cynicism. My oldest child said it best when he was five years old:
“But if the sun is going to explode one day, and all of this will be gone, what is the point in ever doing anything?”
That is the question I have been asking myself most of my life. Buddhism has held some answers, in its basic philosophical form. It has helped me come to, if not THE answer, at least AN answer I can live with.
Side Note: I stole that sentence structure from Robert Jordan, who, in The Wheel of Time series, often starts stories with, “It wasn’t the beginning, but it was a beginning.” I love that.
Back to answers.
The point of our existence is our existence. The purpose of our being is to be. The answer is in the question. When I sit with myself and practice being in the moment, letting all of the mental trappings of civilization fall away, I feel it — the core truth of it. I am doing a lousy job of explaining it because I am not a Buddhist philosopher, but if you’re interested…
I was always looking to the next big thing when I was younger. I’ll be happy when Christmas gets here, when school is out, when I graduate, when I get married, when I get the job I’ve always wanted. Somewhere along the way, I realized, with dismay, that I was never going to arrive at a magic point where everything was good, every task done. To quote Swearengen from Deadwood, “Life is one vile task after another.”
But in studying Buddhism, I found another way to look at that realization:
I was arriving in every moment, constantly.
And so, the next question becomes, What am I going to do with those moments?
Life is not about being happy. Life can be “nasty, brutish and short” (Thomas Hobbes), in case you hadn’t had enough cynical life quotes out of me today. But life is about a search for satisfaction. For feeling satisfied that you have been true to yourself and others, done your best and soaked up all the pleasure and pain along the way.
I feel compelled to do things for other people, to be considerate and thoughtful and to help where I can not because a higher being dictates, but because doing good for others is good for me and for us all. We are all separate beings, and we are all connected. So, I don’t really have a purpose, or at least not one driven by a higher conscious being.
(Unless we’re all like ants in a giant ant farm being watched and manipulated by inconceivably large aliens who like to swirl their fingers in the water to stir up hurricanes just to see what will happen and who occasionally forget to feed us.)
I’m just doing my best to cherish the moments, even the hard ones, and to make this world a gratifying place to live for myself, my family, my friends and the people who ripple out from those circles in my humble way.
So there you have it.
This is why when people ask me about my religious beliefs, I have a hard time giving a one-sentence answer. I don’t really have any religious beliefs, but I do have beliefs. It’s complex. I’m an atheist who believes in the magic of the unknown and the interconnectedness of humans and all life.
I have embraced the “I don’t know” aspect of the universe mostly because I delight in contemplating answers like the giant alien example above. It’s why I love a good dystopian future story, even when it’s bleak. I find all the possibilities fascinating, not just the happy ones. (I just started Margaret Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, Testaments.)
In all those possibilities, though, I find the one, all-knowing god-with-a-plan explanation the least plausible and the least useful. We’ve deposed the pagan gods of old unceremoniously with scientific explanations. We’ll likely do the same with the one god we’ve got now.
But, maybe one day, when I die, I’ll stand before the pearly gates, and St. Peter will cross his arms and scowl down at me from his impossibly tall, looming golden desk. I’ll cower there, blushing and staring at my feet submerged in the hazy top layer of a fluffy white cloud. He’ll boom in a surly, authoritative voice,
“WELL, WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF?”
I’ll shrug sheepishly, peer up at him and say, “Ummmmm, I was wrong?”