Three quotes that changed how I see religion

“I don’t understand how you can believe that,” I said. “I know,” he replied. “But that’s ok, right? I mean… you don’t always have to understand, do you?” Sometimes the right comment, from the right person, can change the way you see the world.

I’ve gone through a lot of changes in the way I feel about religion. Interestingly, my actual religious beliefs themselves haven’t changed very much. When it comes to the supernatural, morality, and the meaning of life, my basic core beliefs have been basically the same since I was very young. We live in a universe governed by constant physical principles, not the wills and whims of any conscious mind. Just because science doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean it can’t or never will. Meaning and consciousness are actions taken by the mind, not things “outside” ourselves. Morality comes from people and from life, not from books or spirit-beings. And so on.

These are the values that resonate deeply with how I see the world.

But when it comes of my beliefs about religion, per se, it is a totally different story.

I was brought up in a household that was not permeated by religion, but that did not avoid it. My mom is very spiritual, and believes in a God of some sort, just not the personal, willful, “I’m going to interfere with the daily affairs of people by talking to them” kind of God. My dad, on the other hand, is very much the stereotypical scientist atheist. His view about God is his view about everything else: if there is not enough evidence to support the hypothesis, then one should not believe the hypothesis.

Nonetheless, I went to church (both of my parents originally came from Christian families), and as a very young child even went to a Unitarian Sunday School. I learned the basics about Christianity, and even some of the basics of some other religions.  However, somewhere around middle school my parents decided that I was adult enough to make up my own mind about things. When they asked me, “Do you want to continue to go to church?” I said, “No thanks.”

In my mid teens, I went through what I now (in retrospect) call my “devote atheist phase”.  Maybe another term might be my “angry atheist phase”. I should point out, I was being rebellious in general.  I had my rebellious haircut and my rebellious clothes, and instead of running for student body government my friends and I ran around putting up “Anarchist Party” / “Vote for Nobody” signs that were promptly torn down by the janitorial staff of the high school. So during this time of “raging against the machine” it only makes sense that I raged against organized religion as well.

I don’t really need to repeat to you all of the arguments I made, I’m sure you have heard them all before. Look at the crusades and all of the violence religion has caused in history! Look at how much conflict it leads to! Look at how stupid some of its beliefs are! How can people be so stupid?

I even wrote a three-page long essay (which, incidentally, is really long for 15 year old) about all of the reasons that religion should be completely eradicated from society.

I think my mom read it.  Or perhaps she only heard me talk about it. I’m sure I pontificated about the topic incessantly. But there was a moment, when we were sitting in the living room of our house, when we had a conversation about it.

“My question is… what are you going to replace it with?” my mom said. “Religion is in every part of people’s lives. It’s everywhere in our culture. You can’t just tear something like that down, without having something else to put in its place. You can’t just leave an empty hole. Because you never know what could move in to fill that hole… it could be even worse.”

I was speechless–a rare thing for my 15 year old self. But that touched me to my very core. She was right, of course. Simply saying “Tear Down The Wall” (even though I loved that song when I was 15; surprise, surprise) isn’t a good way to approach the world. If you really want to change things for the better, you can’t replace structure with chaos. You’ve got to have at least some idea of what you want the new structure to be.

When I went off to college, I discovered all kinds of literature that expanded my horizons philosophically. I grew very attached to systems theory and cybernetics, and the strong philosophical movement from the 50’s and 60’s that talked about meaning and information and purpose in terms of mathematical and physical relationships in the world. So I was still an atheist, but I had my own kind of “mysticism” that gave beauty to the world: one based on fractals and chaos theory and distributed systems. I romanticized these things, and even when I did not entirely understand yet the mathematics behind what I was studying, I had an odd kind of faith that this way of looking at the world could explain everything that I needed to understand, from consciousness to meaning to beauty and beyond.

I was still a materialist (in the sense of not being a dualist, not in the sense of liking money), but the emotions that I felt when I contemplated the power of the emergent properties of large-scale cellular automata uplifted me and gave me a sense of warmth and purpose in the world. “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” by Gregory Bateson was my bible, and the mathematics of fractal geometry were my hymns.

I no longer wanted to “tear down” religion. However, I still had a kind of scorn for people who were dualists–especially religious dualists.  I was also a fan of history, and read literature on uncovering apocryphal books of the old testament and medieval writings about hermetism, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was looking at people primitive and alien. I was approaching religion as an anthropologist, but a very unenlightened kind of anthropologist: not the kind of anthropologist who wants to learn from the people he studies, but the cultural elitist who looks as those “poor primitive people” and chuckles at their silly tribal ways.

Then in graduate school, I met a real anthropologist. Her name was Sarah Caldwell, and she studied mystical experiences. She also had a very strong psychological background: in fact, we met through an interdisciplinary program between the psychology and anthropology departments at the University of Michigan, called the “Culture and Cognition” program.  (I’ve actually written about her once before). We had a number of conversations in which I tried to understand and theorize about the nature of mystical experiences.

Of course, my own bias (as you can imagine) was to explain mystical experiences away in terms of some kind of psychological dysfunction, perhaps a neurochemical imbalance of some sort that people “explained” by talking about it in spiritual terms. But Sarah repeatedly had to correct me on this point. We know, from very basic psychological experiments, that experiences are not just neurochemical states in the brain. Conscious experiences are driven by a combination of neurochemical states, beliefs about how those states arose, cultural symbolic interpretations about what those states mean, and social constraints on how we are supposed to act when we feel them. A full emotional experience, whether mystical or not, is intrinsically entwined with all of these things.

“If you live in a culture where having a certain feeling in a certain situation means that you are having a mystical experience, and the culture provides a framework for you to understand how to interpret it and how to act as a result, then that is what that experience is.”

A spiritual experience is like any emotional experience. A feeling of “embarrassment”, for example, in our culture, is a combination of a flushed physiological response, along with our own memory and interpretation about what caused us to have that physical feeling, along with cultural expectations about how we are supposed to react when we feel that way.  All emotional experiences are constructed this way, and a “mystical” experience is no different.  Having a “mystical experience” is no more unreal than feeling “embarrassed” or any other strong, complex emotion.

So I was able to leave graduate school understanding that my own world-view wasn’t as superior and privileged as I imagined. After all, all of my experiences are entwined with and immersed in culture and symbols and interpretation. If someone grew up with, and exists in, a culture where mystical experiences are part of the normal accepted and known social framework, then they are as real as any other feeling or emotion. Doesn’t that also hold, then, for most religious feelings?

That’s a great philosophy. It works well on paper.

But it takes a while to sink in. It’s really hard to completely accept people whose fundamental views of the world differ dramatically from your own.  I think I can speak for everyone in the human race when I say this, right? It’s just plain hard.  And although I was changed forever by what Sarah said to me, and it did make me more open-minded than I was before, I still struggled in my personal life whenever I had to deal with people who claimed to have experiences or feelings that I…. simply couldn’t understand.

For a while when I lived in Los Angeles, I dated a guy who was a devout Christian. We didn’t talk about it much: it was something that permeated the background of his life, but he didn’t make it the topic of every conversation.  He was a good southern boy, from Mississippi, so he was brought up knowing how to avoid controversial topics in social settings.

But once in a while, we would sit down and have The Conversation. He was not a “modernized” Christian, who thought the Bible was all metaphor. He believed that Christ was the incarnation of the Lord God, and he thought that he himself might be going to hell for being gay. He wasn’t certain on this last point, but he truly struggled with that issue in a serious way.

But I loved him, and so I couldn’t dismiss him. I couldn’t just be angry, or throw up my hands, and I couldn’t ridicule him. Instead, I tried so hard to understand. I tried to take the lessons from my mom, and from Dr. Caldwell, and see his “world view” as a completely legitimate constructed reality that he used to understand his life experience.  But finally, I despaired.

“I don’t understand how you can believe that,” I said.

“I know,” he said softly.  He looked me in the eyes, and then said in the most gentle voice you can imagine, “But that’s ok, right? I mean… you don’t always have to understand, do you?”

Once again, I was struck completely silent. What he said made sense. I’ve always been so analytical, and made such an issue out of understanding everything, that I forgot about one of the most important issues when it comes to the topic of religious belief:  it’s personal.

When someone disagrees with me, I don’t have to make them change (this is what my mom’s quote taught me).  I don’t have to look down on them for it (this is what Sarah’s quote taught me). But even beyond that: I don’t have to understand it.

I can live in a world with people–I can love them and laugh with them, I can play sports with them and go out to bars with them, I can respect and enjoy their company–without needing to understand why they believe every little thing that they believe.

That was my final lesson (at least so far) that really fundamentally changed the way I view religion.

Atheists and FundamentalistsIt’s put me in an interesting kind of “in between” position, defending theists and atheists with equal vehemence as the situation calls for it. Or sometimes, criticizing both theists and atheists, as the situation may call for it as well.

I do try, however, not to feel superior about it. 🙂

After all, the last lesson that I learned–the last of the three quotations that changed the way I view religion–is perhaps the most important when it comes to day-to-day living. It’s fine to have debates about philosophies, and it’s absolutely crucial to have discussions about the role of people’s beliefs in politics and public policy.

But in the end, a big part of learning how to live in the world is realizing that not everyone has to agree with you, and you don’t even really need to understand why they believe what they believe in order to share a world with them.



I’d like to give credit to Chris Stedman and his book Faitheist. The amazing manner in which he told of his own personal journey with religion in his life inspired me to reflect on my own, and was the main motivating force that got me to write this.