109. how

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The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella,
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.
— Lord Charles Bowen (attrib.)

Someone asked me the other night, “what harm can religion do?”

In the context of last night, it was about a recent episode of A Gifted Man, in which a shaman who volunteers at the clinic that Patrick Wilson’s character works at wants to perform a blessing on a baby that was abandoned. The argument was that the baby is too young to really register what’s going on, or to be negatively affected. Yes, it’s nonsense, but there are people in America even who really believe in that idiotic nonsense—that there are spirits in the world that can be entreated, summoned and appeased.

In keeping with my New Years quasi-resolution, I’m trying to not be a wet blanket when it comes to religion, especially considering some of my previous blogs and letters on the subject, and the fact that I’m striving not to alienate the religious friends that I still have who want me to be a part of their community.

… I’m just not 100% sure how that’s supposed to work.

In another episode of A Gifted Man, this same shaman character tells a hypochondriac boy who is side struck by lightening and suffers traumatic brain injury that lightning strikes are often ways of calling a person to be a shaman, a variation on the “everything happens for a reason” theme. “What harm can that really do?” To a boy morbidly terrified of the world, how can such a notion not do harm? It’s assuring him that there is a spirit force guiding his steps, and introducing the notion to him that he too could share this nonsense with others.

Yesterday I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from season five, “The Body,” in which Buffy’s mother Joyce suddenly dies and everyone reels from the fallout. Throughout the episode everyone asks why it happened, and at one point the character Anya (a vengeance demon divested of her powers, reduced to a human, and exhibits a Temperance Bones-like understanding of humanity) explodes,

“I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s– there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.”

This is why religion is damaging—because the answers it gives to these huge questions beg more questions. We know why people die. We are fragile, organic beings, susceptible to the elements and to physical damage. We don’t know for sure what happens after death, but it’s more than probable that consciousness is tied to the brain, that it too is a biological function which will cease to exist like all other bodily functions. Neuroscience, in its quest to identify the origins of human consciousness, is increasingly finding that we are our brains, and that “I” can be altered by traumatic injury or physical changes to certain areas of the brain. One episode of WNYC’s RadioLab tells the story of a woman who suffered a major aneurysm and basically woke up a completely different person.

There is no evidence in the world that anything happens other than for the reason that it happens. A 30 kiloampere bolt of lightning strikes a gnat flying through the air at the moment of the discharge. A boulder is dislodged from a mountain after the wind and the rain works upon the stone for thousands of years, and it rolls down the steep incline where it crushes a car that is driving through the pass, killing everyone in the car. We are human. We are subject to same conditions as every other life form on the planet.

My friend Emily told me to wait until I’ve experienced death personally a few times before passing judgement on those who choose to find comfort in religion, and perhaps she’s right. My friends and family are still alive (knock on wood), and I’ve never experienced the kind of loss that violently tears away a person’s sense of security in the world and brings you face to face with human mortality as someone you’ve known your entire life ceases to exist.

I have thought about this. Someday I will inevitably be faced with the death of the man I love more than anything else in the world. Someday everyone I have ever known will die, and someday I too will be tapped on the shoulder and told that it’s time to take leave of the party, which invariably will go on without me.

We are born to die, and while this thought may drive many to despair (theists and non-theists alike), for many atheists this makes our present life all the more meaningful. Our mortality drives us to make every moment on earth count, for we will never be presented with another of its like. It makes the wine a deeper red, for it is the only wine of its kind that has ever been set before us. It makes the sunset that much richer, for it is the only sunset of its kind that will ever pass before our eyes. It makes the kiss that much sweeter, for it is the only kiss of its kind that will brush our lips. Religion robs us those moments, for it tells us that there is a greater reality to come that causes all present experiences to pale in comparison.

Bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad.

The rain rains on the just and the unjust.

Religion tells us this isn’t so.

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5 thoughts on “109. how

  1. Rachel

    hey 🙂

    I have experienced the death of a close loved one- my father. At the time he and my mother were divorcing and I was so angry at them both, and then suddenly one day I found out I’d never speak to or see my father ever again.

    I tried to believe that he was in heaven, but I just couldn’t. I knew it wasn’t true. That was horrible, because there were so many things I needed to say to him and apologise for. I needed him to know that I wasn’t angry at him, and that I didn’t hate him, but there was no way for me to tell him those things.

    I knew that he was dead and gone, and that he was incapable of hearing anything from anyone.

    Over time I realised that my father’s love for me and mine for him was much deeper than those few months of distress and fighting. He had always loved me, and I had always loved him- that didn’t change simply because we were fighting occasionally, and I didn’t stop loving him when he was gone. But more importantly, deep down he knew I loved him so much. He knew I would be sad if he was ever gone.

    What comforts me is that we made the most of the time we had together. We had great times growing up, and we were there for each other. He was there for me when it counted, and although he wasn’t the perfect dad, he was still wonderful. And so now I’m okay with him being gone.

    I don’t think people live on in heaven or hell, I think they live on through the memories they make with other people, and the impact they have on their lives. I don’t regret that there is no heaven because I have happy memories of my loved ones, and plan to make many more memories with others so they will remember me when I die.

    So I’m okay with death simply being The End

  2. So what do you propose, I wonder. Religion is only damaging to the extent it is false. If what I believe is true, then passing along my faith is not merely “not damaging” – keeping it to myself is downright wicked. If what I believe is false, then passing it along may or may not be damaging; false comfort may be of value to some, of harm to others. To which side do we err, and on what basis?

    I have my own answers, but am curious about yours.

    As to meaning, each moment I have on earth is more meaningful to me because I see it as a gift from God. There is also nothing inherently “robbed” from this life by looking forward to the next anymore than the specialness of courting is robbed by the dreams of the future marriage.

    I can see very clearly how faith can inform meaning just as deeply for me as atheism/agnosticism does for others. Same question, completely different answers & perspectives. The way I’m wired, if there’s no “ever after” beyond death, I would see no meaning at all – nothing would matter long-term, everything we find joy would be arbitrary, and whatever meaning I’d manufacture would be an illusion. Color me depressing, I suppose, but sans (true) faith the only purpose I can see is selfish hedonism. We were made for more than that.

    • David

      Ron,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I simply don’t understand this “lack of faith” = “selfish hedonism.” You may not be able to fathom a world without god, but that doesn’t mean that those of us who don’t believe are nihilistic libertines who are taking all we can. Many atheists are engaged in world relief, social work, and humanitarian/philanthropic projects. We are trying to make this world a better place for ourselves, our neighbors and for our children and their children since we don’t believe in any World To Come, or a Jesus who is going to whisk us away into the clouds.

      Perhaps it really does come down to the fact that some of us are “wired” for faith whereas some of us are not.

      What I propose is that children be raised in such a way as to be able to make their own decisions regarding faith and religion. Had I been given the choice and the alternative earlier on, I probably would’ve become an atheist much sooner in life. But I also wouldn’t want a child of mine to feel obligated to take up atheism any more than they would to be homosexual when they grew up. Given my own experiences, I’d want them to make their own decisions based on how my husband and I raised them to think and reason for themselves, and their ability to know and be true to themselves. It is the duty of a parent to pass on what knowledge they have accumulated, but also to prepare the child to live in the world and to make good choices.

  3. Fair enough – I think you and I have agreed on this in the past: parents should teach critical thinking skills; they are lacking in too much of the populace today as evidenced by the manner by which most people arrive at political and theological positions. That said, to deny one’s own faith (or lack thereof) when teaching one’s children is nigh on impossible, and highly unrealistic. I encourage my daughters to ask questions, then explain my point of view and how I arrive at the conclusion. We also keep our kids in the ol’ public school system and from time to time let them watch *gasp* non-Veggie Tales movies/television. I reiterate, though, that because I hold my faith pretty strongly, and because my faith leads me to certain conclusions that I think have eternal consequences, I also advocate for my faith. Just makes no sense not to.

    As to the hedonism comment, I am fully aware that non-theists, and non-agreeing theists (e.g., Orthodox Jews, Muslims, etc…) act morally and selflessly. So perhaps my comment was too strong, although the reasons that I think the non-theist would act selflessly would differ from yours (i.e., general grace, and some other reasons). I was speaking only from my view, that without God I don’t see anything that makes sense other than selfish hedonism, even if constrained by the survival fears of not wanting to tick off those who could do me in. If nothing really matters in the end, then logically I see very little that makes me want to try and build a legacy of niceness. YMMV, of course.

    • David

      Resounding yes to fostering critical thinking skills. However, are you providing your children with the means to make their own choices, or are you making their belief choices for them? It’s one thing to hold your faith strongly; but suppose, as in the case of my parents, that one of your children decides that they don’t believe in god? Would you be able to accept that choice, and to support them to be true to themselves, or attempt to win them back to “the faith”?

      And what then do you make of my non-faith and the fact that I do not believe in eternal consequences? We can’t both be right on that point, and on this we have also agreed in the past.

      As for hedonism, I understand that you can’t see how one could be an atheist and act in a truly selfless way. Surely you can’t deny that there are Christians who act in just as selfish, hedonistic ways though. In fact, I’d say that there are (statistically, based on sheer numbers) probably a greater number of Christians who act selfishly than there are atheists. But you’re equating atheism with nihilism. Yes, nothing may technically “matter in the end,” but that doesn’t mean that we still don’t try to make things better. We recognize that we have to live in the same world as others, and that we all have a responsibility to try and make that world the best possible one for ourselves and for future generations. Here our motives are hardly ulterior. We admit that we act selfishly, because we are animal and everything we do is ultimately selfish; but we can attempt to work towards the good of others at the same time. None of us hang separately, to quote good ol’ Ben Franklin.

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