Religions deny the finality of death, promising eternal paradise or a punishing hellscape depending on the lives we led. A supreme deity decides our ultimate fate and often dispenses rewards and penalties during our lifetimes. In moments of worry or fear we can pray for mercy, allowing that our requests may be ignored—who are we to question the will of our maker?
In this respect we are no different from age-old cultures. What the ancients could not comprehend, they assigned to a god. Bounty or calamity, the gods took credit for it and man, awaiting his fate, cowered below.
We can now explain thunder and rainbows and the moon’s effect on our tides, but most people still adhere to the notion of an apocryphal godhead to whom they pray, even if these prayers go unanswered. Perhaps this behavior is ancestral: the desire to belong, to be in a club, to sit shoulder to shoulder with like-minded brethren. Maybe this sense of belonging is amplified, validated, in the new mega churches swollen with righteous believers. How could so many be wrong?
If the world’s religions were self-contained, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, religions bleed into one another. Throughout human history, religious differences and dissension have led to untold atrocities, and the hostility is not ebbing. The more adamant the believer, the more intolerance he cultivates. Warring faiths, with their stringent dogma and divisive rhetoric, will not teach us how to be good.
Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in gods. Atheism is not nihilism, nor denial, nor is it contentious. It is simply a way of living without belief in deities. One may wish to have faith in a god and still be an atheist.
As I find atheism such a peaceful ethos, I have a hard time fathoming its relative lack of popularity—the most recent survey reveals that 80% of Americans believe in God. Christianity encompasses the largest demographic, which is another surprising fact given its bewildering foundation: one god split three ways, the immaculate conception, a contradictory and often savage bible.
Unable to accept the presence of a preeminent deity, I have no trouble seeing the holiness in everything from a tiny pebble to a blue whale. I am free to love whatever my eyes land on. The world is mine to worship.
When disasters occur, I don’t have to struggle with my faith; I don’t need to reconcile a beneficent god with a catastrophic hurricane, the suffering of children, birth defects or the Ebola virus.
And as for the fear of death, so what if there is no heaven or hell, no god pointing a damning finger? When the body fails and the brain goes offline, we lose consciousness. If we slip into nothingness, which seems the most likely scenario, what is there to fear?
Some cite “life after death” experiences as evidence of a divine dimension waiting for us. These accounts are not incompatible with secular views. Given the mind’s love of stories, flashbacks and images of loved ones strike me as perfectly reasonable. As the curtain closes, why wouldn’t the whole cast of characters be summoned? Why wouldn’t we see once more the people we loved the most?
Consciousness is the awareness of our existence. Being both subject and object, we cannot explain consciousness, we can only tune in or out of it. Many people near death have spoken of a mesmerizing white light which they are compelled to follow. Perhaps that tunnel of light is the trail of our consciousness, flaring one last wondrous time before darkness falls, in soft velvet folds, taking us back to the realm of pure possibility, where all that ever was begins and ends.
My questions, unanswered, hang in the heat. I want to know why change comes hard in the Deep South, why generation after generation accept the religious precepts they are handed as if each day were not studded with evidence that their god is neither just nor caring. I want to understand why making continual excuses for a cruel and capricious deity is easier than living without one, and why a skewed omnibus written thousands of years ago is considered an instruction manual today.
At this point, humanity appears to be a failed experiment. We have not learned to co-exist or curb our numbers, and the scale of our pollution has tipped the balance of life on earth. If there were enough of us committed to saving our species, we certainly could. Our brains are up to the challenge. Scientists could develop the means and the rest of us would only have to be decent human beings. Without the wedge of religion, we might achieve this. With minds to better our world and hearts to better ourselves, what do we need with deities and dogma that only drive us apart?
Alabama legislators just passed a bill that makes abortion a Class A felony. Women in this state have been stripped of the rights to their own bodies regardless of their situation. This legislation was approved by 25 white males and one female, the state’s governor Kaye Ivey. In contrast to her Christian rhetoric on the sanctity of life, Ivey opposes gun law reform, believing that Alabamians have the right to own assault weapons.
250,000 children live in poverty in Alabama, and the state ranks 49th in infant mortality. Meanwhile, firearm mortality rates put Alabama in the country’s top percentile.
If this bill becomes law, the consequences are obvious. Welfare programs will be forced to expand. More children will become victims of abuse. Impoverished women or those fearing exposure will have babies they don’t want and are not equipped to raise. Others will seek abortions out of state, adding to the risk and cost. Reputable doctors will discontinue their services while those with more dubious skills will set up facilities in unsafe locations and charge high prices. People across the state will exist in a miasma of secrecy and dread. All because 25 men and one woman decided that a woman’s body does not belong to her.
I don’t know how Governor Ivy reconciles her religious speak with her views on private ownership of semi-automatic weapons. I don’t know how she can allow adoption agencies to discriminate against the LGBT community. And what I really don’t understand is how a woman can take away the rights of other women and consider herself a beacon of virtue.
From her desk in the state’s capitol, Governor Ivy signed a bill—much easier than looking into the face of a frightened, desperate woman and telling her that what she wants does not matter, that you have eliminated her options. If you’re going to play God you need to keep a safe distance, as far as possible from reason and accountability.
When I was in college I took a class called “What is Religion?” Initially I brushed it off as a filler course, something I could snooze my way through. I wound up enthralled with the topics we discussed, and I can’t recall a class that impacted me more.
As the name indicates, we were attempting to define religion, and what we came up with was this: Religion is any means toward ultimate transformation. Given this definition, one can find religion via any number of routes, from the strictures of Roman Catholicism to the ecstasies of hallucinogens; even mind-blowing sex can be considered a kind of worship. What we bring our full attention to, what we immerse ourselves in, becomes our religion, our means of transcending stress and achieving bliss. A paleontologist might find his rapture digging for dinosaur bones; a painter becomes lost in her canvas; a rock star gets his glory on the stage. If you are deeply and actively interested in at least one thing, you can consider yourself religious (as long as this activity brings no harm to others—in defining religion I think we must make that distinction).
What I find most interesting here is the implication that transformation is necessary, that without religion we are unfinished, unsatisfied beings. When we are not engaged in our particular transcendent activity, where are we? What are we? Why do we not feel whole all the time, and why can’t we bring some of that passion into the rest of our lives?
Happiness, of course, is not sustainable. It touches us and moves on. Religion is more about awe, something we tend to lose as we grow into adults. Awe is surrender, total compliance—the apprehension of an overriding power. It is what I feel when I see a herd of horses run across a field or a single osprey dive for fish. Animals are my religion. When I behold them or think of them, my heart opens. I am wondering if this reverence can be summoned, if it can be worked like a muscle. To respect life in its entirety—that would be something.
So I have been trying. As often as I can remember, I slow down. This seems to be the key, the natural starting point. Walking, folding clothes, doing the dishes, I slow way down. I pick up a glass and consider its shape, or I fold a shirt with extra care, my fingers learning the fabric. I try to offer nothing more than admiration, and soon, like magic, I become calm. “Resist nothing,” Eckhart Tolle teaches. How peaceful this land is, this world stripped of me.
Maybe that’s the ultimate transformation, not so much a glorious ascent as a stepping aside. Maybe religion is nothing more than making way for wonder.