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.

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  1. ~ says:

    I don’t have respect for religions that manipulate people, make people have a bad attitude towards atheists and agnostics who actually use their common sense, and make people feel horrible for being gay
    Based on what I’ve observed, the harm from religion is more than the benefit
    There are also a lot of bad things in the Bible and the Quran which people either don’t even know about or like to ignore

  2. James says:

    Its funny how atheist say they must see something to believe it..they must have proof.

    Have you ever been to Mongolia? You accept testimony that it is there though ..dont you. No one has ever seen a quark–yet you believe in them dont you. Have you seen 20 left handed amino acids form the first proteins and build the DNA code? You do know the current probability of such an occurrence is 10 to the 40000th power dont you. Did you know that that is effectively impossible by more than 10 to the 3930 power? Do you understand what miracles you ARE willing accept?
    You accept that cells somehow knew there was something to see and hear when they designed the eye and the ear? Are you saying that a blind baby put on a deserted island could ever, during his entire lifetime, even begin to conceive that there was such a thing as light? A visible universe?

    You see, atheists are not about evidence because there is zero evidence for their beliefs. Their beliefs contradict everything they actually know about the world. They are about rejecting God and in turn their thoughts have become corrupted. Superior? The Norm of society defines what is logical. I sure hope a few percent of the entire human race throughout history who cant see what everyone else sees in seconds dont feel superior. But I think we know they do…which is a direct and identifiable attribute of rejecting God. Pride and arrogance have their price. But make no the end these words will never be uttered, “I had no idea”–because its certain they did have an idea.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I don’t really know where to begin with your comment, because you seem to have packed a large number of completely incorrect ideas about science into 2 paragraphs. I respect the fact that you have different opinions than I do, but if you’re going to critique science I think you should take some time to really understand what it is that you are critiquing.

      For example:
      1) No atheist I have ever met has said he needs to see something to believe in it. The criterion is always that something CAN be verified objectively by multiple observers making multiple independent observations… NOT that each individual “sees it for himself”.

      2) No scientist has ever postulated that DNA came together by “chance”. Throwing around probability numbers like the ones you cite are irrelevant, because no theory EVER has suggested that DNA formation was random. The scientific suggestion is that it is the outcome of a very long process of mechanical interactions of molecules that gradually have given rise to larger molecules of increasing complexity.

      3) No scientist has ever postulated that cells needed to “know” that there was light into order for an eye to evolve. All that needs to happen is that a random mutation create patches of cells on an organism that are sensitive to EM radiation, and that that sensitivity confers on the organism some kind of survival advantage. Then, over time the process of selection will lead to the gradual development of photosensitive spots, simple eye-holes, and eventually more complex eyeballs. No cells need to “know” anything in advance for this to happen.

      Anyway, I hope this has been helpful. But none of what I’m saying is new or earth-shattering. If you read and digested a simple book about science and evolution, you would understand these things…. and hopefully be able to come up with some better criticisms than the ones you’ve put forth here.

    • John Reagan says:

      “Its funny how atheist say they must see something to believe it..they must have proof. Have you ever been to Mongolia?”
      I’ve never been there. but I have been provided logical evidence that it exists. And I could hop a plane if I wanted. It’s funny how believers twist words to try to support their non-existent being.

      “You see, atheists are not about evidence because there is zero evidence for their beliefs.” Atheists don’t have to prove that imaginary things ‘don’t exist’. In fact there is a massive collection of mental aberrations you could try to disprove. By why bother when there is not one iota of evidence that any god or gods exist. In essence, ‘there is zero evidence’ for believing.

    • Niles Chandler says:

      Ah, James, James… if you really think (or, rather, assume) that all but a few percent of the people on Earth can “see in seconds” that there is a God, then you are doing what many devout believers seem to do: You are telling yourself an exaggeration about the universality of your belief, in an attempt to convince yourself that, ‘well, it MUST be true– after all, nearly everyone agrees that it is!’ Safety in numbers– ‘safety’ in the form of a certainty that you want to have.

      You have no way of verifying whether most people can “see in seconds” that God exists (apparently by looking at the world and just inherently ‘knowing’ that it’s self-evident). However, you obviously WANT this to be so, in the hope that it will help shield you from doubt. You want to think that everyone looks at the world and instantly sees the same cause-and-effect that you claim to see. But for many people their belief in a God comes more from being taught (literally ‘indoctrinated’) in childhood that there’s a deity that explains the existence of everything. Such instruction will then frame and direct their idea of what they see around them– or at least it’s intended to. So if they “see in seconds” that God exists, it doesn’t just happen naturally; they’ve been taught to interpret things that way, and to dismiss any other interpretation.

      A. J. Milne, in the essay “On Arrogance”, opines that people who insist on having the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance– words that were not originally included there– are doing so out of fear: a fear “that the only reason anyone believes in this god is they think everyone else does.”

      The arrogance HE describes is the arrogance of those who identify strongly with being in the majority, and who insist on putting “under God” in a public pledge of patriotism because– well, ‘everyone’ believes in God, you know, and as for people who don’t believe, we’re gonna make them pretend that they DO… because we claim to be steadfast in our belief but are actually not so secure, and therefore we want to imagine that nobody could have any doubts which conflict with our beliefs.

      And this causes people like me to become more and more convinced that your God is Santa Claus for adults. We notice that an awful lot of what’s in the Bible reads as if there were earthly people making up stories– repeating and adapting myths from ancient cultures– and pretending they were divinely inspired. We notice that an awful lot of people have a tremendous emotional dependence on believing their God exists, so that if “he” DIDN’T exist they would never be willing to admit it.

      And it makes us skeptical. The more we hear the desperation in the declarations of believers, the more we suspect that this God is something invented by humans to comfort themselves and provide some explanation for some of the ugliness in this difficult world. When you say we “reject God”– like some fundamentalists talk about people “hating God”– we say, You wish! As is often pointed out, “rejecting” or “accepting” something is irrelevant when that thing does not exist. What we actually reject is the human idea that EVERYONE should believe in the existence of this deity in order to avoid disturbing the comfort level of the many who are believers.

      If you think this makes me feel “superior,” listen up: I’m no more superior than the child who grows a little older, a little more sophisticated, and one day looks at the Santa Claus story and says, “Wait a minute. Come on, now. Really?!”

  3. Niles Chandler says:

    My problem with your third quote is… well, it depends. When you told your California friend “I don’t see how you can believe that”, were you talking about (A) his general belief in Christian doctrine, or (B) specifically his belief that he might go to hell for being gay? I hope you’ll clarify that, because I’m not sure exactly WHAT we “don’t always have to understand”.

    If it was (B), then it would be hard for me to agree and just “let go” of understanding the reasons for that belief, because (as you must know) it is not just some silly, innocuous notion– it has brought needless suffering to many, many people during the past two millennia. In other words, to the extent that a particular belief is harmful, we should not simply let-it-be and avoid analyzing it, deciphering its roots, deconstructing it, identifying the intentional deceptions and/or legitimate misunderstandings that brought it about.

    By holding onto the belief that he would go to hell for being gay, and telling you it was not necessary to examine that belief and judge it, your friend was defending his faith, his religion, by sacrificing himself to it. In defense of his religion’s doctrine, he was denying his own validity– not the validity of what he believes at a particular time, but the validity of what he IS at his core.

    That kind of self-denial (self-hate?) is not to be taken lightly, and it’s likely rooted in fear… but fear of what? Whatever it is, it apparently makes him afraid of digging too deep to figure it out. So his ancient religion, ever resistant to learning anything new from the truth of people’s lives, blithely goes about its age-old business of dividing and conquering people’s thoughts, to the detriment of him and, by extension, all of us.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      It’s tough to deal with a friend who is caught up in negative thoughts that are hurting him emotionally. It’s very tough — whether they are rooted in religion or not.

      I have been friends with drop-dead gorgeous male models who were torn up with insecurity, I have been friends with brilliant musicians who were afraid to play in public, and I have been friends with some of the smartest people in the world who worried that they might never accomplish anything in life. I think fear of being wrong, or not good enough, or having some kind of undefinable personal “flaw” that will condemn you to being miserable…. that fear doesn’t COME FROM religion, in my opinion. That fear comes from being human. Religion is just the skin that it wraps itself in, when that skin is available.

      Wrapping in skin? Where is my imagination today. LOL. I’ve been re-watching Harry Potter recently, so maybe I should say it like this: the fear of having a fundamental flaw that makes you inadequate and unable to be happy…. that is a boggart that lives within every person. If you are religious, that boggart will take the form of belief in sin and eternal damnation. But don’t think for a minute that if you are not religious, that boggart will go away. it will just shape-shift into a different form, and nag you in a different way.

      So how is that relevant to my last quote in the article? When he said, “You don’t have to understand, do you?” I think he was telling me something profound about how we deal with friends who are dealing with ANY kind of internal struggle. You don’t logic someone out of an insecurity… you simply exist to be there for them.

      If someone is struggling with the idea that he might be sent to hell for being gay, chances are that emotional struggle is inter-twingled with a lot more: fear of rejection from family, fear of one’s own future, and so on. You will not get him to stop fearing simply by saying, “Hey, bro… God doesn’t exist!!!” any more than I could get my insecure model friend to suddenly be at ease with himself by saying, “Hey, bro.. you’re hot, get over it!”

      • Warren says:


        As I read this article, as well as your posts on other subjects, I have to say, I’m moved by your open-minded attitude about things. I’m an active Latter Day Saint and I read a lot of hate-comments about us on the web, especially since the recent election. I think if more people of different faiths or of no faith at all (including people of my own faith) could have the type of journey you’ve had and were as accepting, the world would be a much better place.

        I also had to laugh about the Harry Potter analogy, since, as I read this, my wife is sitting at a desk behind me listening to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on audio tape while she works. That’s awesome.

      • Niles Chandler says:

        Whoa. Hey, props and all, but I gotta say, man, are you really sure about that?

        It’s one thing to point out that personal fears and insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, IN GENERAL, are part of the human condition, that they are common even in people who are very smart and talented. Certainly true enough.

        But to suggest that, therefore, the “boggart” of negative self-image carried by any one person will be essentially EQUAL in size and intensity to everyone else’s–

        and that the ratio of how much of it comes from inside a person, and how much from outside, is the same in all of us–

        and that, in fact, the insecurity comes entirely from within our individual selves, and will be essentially eternal and unchanging, except for the guise in which it appears–

        so that external forces (such as religion) possess no real power of their own to amplify and exaggerate said “boggart”, rather they are merely skins that we choose to dress it in…

        …well, that’s a HUGE leap.

        While self-doubts and insecurities are (probably) universal, it does not automatically follow that ALL of them are natural and inevitable.

        Think of people who have been emotionally abandoned during childhood– or emotionally abused, year after year, before they are old enough to defend themselves: “You’re so stupid– you’re never going to amount to anything!” Maybe add sexual abuse to the equation. Now imagine their boggart. How could we plausibly claim that NONE of it “came from” a source that was outside of them? Isn’t their abuse likely to saddle them with more insecurities and deeper feelings of worthlessness than would be felt by someone who grew up in a healthy, loving, supportive family?

        Now look at your friend’s situation. For decades I have heard radio preachers try to discredit homosexuality by saying, “Look at all the guilt and shame they carry around with them– it shows they know how wrong their lifestyle is.” My response, and that of many others, is: “Oh, yeah, right. You want us to assume that all of their guilt and shame is inherently ‘natural’ and justified. We’re not supposed to notice that religious sects like yours have worked hard to INDUCE gay people’s guilt and shame, for many centuries now, and it starts when they’re very young in your churches and don’t know how to defend themselves against your indoctrination!” Are we to believe that religious taboos and homophobia have had NO substantial effect on such feelings? That’s like giving an undeserved free pass to the institutional forces that push them on us.

        Your friend thought he was going to hell for being gay. It was no metaphor. As a devout Christian he believed he would LITERALLY suffer unspeakable torture and torment forever and ever, just for being and following what he was. We all have a baseline level of self-doubt and fear that we deal with as best we can… but this was in another league entirely.

        It’s so true that sometimes people just need us to “be there for them”, rather than try to use logic to find a solution to their problems. That’s something I have to keep in mind when friends need to unburden themselves, and thank you for the reminder. But… sometimes, even if only unconsciously, people are also hoping that we CAN “argue them out” of what they’re trapped in. (As is true of many who threaten suicide.) Maybe they don’t have the mental agility and emotional strength to figure it out themselves, and they sense that ours might be helpful.

        Your friend said, “You don’t always have to understand.” But was he also asking HIMSELF to stop doubting his own belief, a belief that was toxic to his well-being? In that statement I hear him telling himself, “Don’t try to analyze it, don’t try to judge it, just submit to it. Maybe it’s hurting me, but I don’t know what I’d do without the religion that it comes from. Try and find my way without that? No, it’s too scary to think about.”

        To a person immersed in a cult, a fundamentalist religion, or a toxic relationship, the beliefs to which he was expected to submit may initially have seemed like merely a different “skin” for his self-doubt and insecurity. But they can take on a life of their own and become a prison. They are more than just everyday existential baggage, and many people (such as women in abusive marriages) have been grateful that someone else helped get them out.

        For all that, the point you made, about just listening, was a useful one… but, in my view, it only applies SOMETIMES. Figuring out when– that’s the real tough part.

  4. Niles Chandler says:

    Your post is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and so are the three quotes… but a couple of those quotes raise red flags for me. First I’ll address the first.

    Your mother’s thought– “You can’t just leave an empty hole”– occurred to me a long time ago, but with more ambivalence. Yes, tearing down religion might indeed leave a huge hole in many people’s lives. But isn’t their religion partly responsible for CREATING that hole in the first place, or at least leaving it more empty?

    As I understand it, the repeated use of heroin creates addictive dependency by providing such a concentrated dose of “pleasure chemicals” that the brain more or less stops producing its own– so when a shot of the drug wears off, the user’s body no longer provides him with a base-line level of normal “okayness” to see him through the rest of the day.

    Organized religions– particularly the fundamentalist versions– may cause a similar problem. As you said in your post with the AOL analogy, they offer a one-stop supply of comfort and pre-determined “answers” for those who are desperate for a quick fix. As a result, their followers may lose the will or ability to provide their OWN comfort and look in multiple places for their OWN answers. So when their beliefs are seriously threatened or undermined, they may experience withdrawal symptoms… or may have learned to fear the possibility that they will.

    During a segment of Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect”, circa 2000, a devout Christian activist listened to a young actor, a “nonbeliever”, saying that when he dies he’ll simply cease to exist and will be recycled into the biosphere. The Christian responded, “If you believe that, I don’t see how you can bear to get up every morning.”

    I thought, “Wow. What that really tells us is, she thinks SHE couldn’t bear to get up and face each day without the crutch of believing that there’s a God and an afterlife waiting for her. That sounds a lot like the voice of clinical depression.” Or like a junkie imagining what it would be like to go cold turkey.

    It’s probably safe to say that the incredible agony of trying to kick heroin without any chemical assistance (see Miles Davis’ autobiography) is MORE intense than any despair or depression felt by addicts earlier in their lives,, i.e,. before they started using. So consider the “hole” that would be left in the lives of the devout if organized religion were taken away. Would it have become a broader and deeper hole than what they experienced day-to-day BEFORE joining the fold? And if so, might not the best course of action be to avoid the addiction of religious “certainty” in the first place?

    The Christian activist implied she couldn’t stand to live without her faith– but I wonder. Was she expressing her loyalty to her religion by exaggerating her inability to live without it? In other words, maybe the “hole” caused by losing religion wouldn’t be as big as she wants to think. Maybe she doesn’t actually need so much comfort from “answers” that are so black-and-white and so reassuring– but her religion keeps persuading her that she DOES, so that she’ll stay addicted to it.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Comparisons to junkies are stark and easy to make, but I don’t think they are completely fair, either. It is rare that a junkie finds a way to integrate junk into his life as a constructive element, so that while it is harmful in some ways it also provides a benefit as well. This is what most people do with religion: even if you think it’s “harmful” for them to have false believes, and some of those beliefs may very well be emotionally harmful to them, they also usually get something good out of it as well. And I don’t mean “good” in the sense of “mollifying”, I mean they can use it in a constructive and productive and self-building way. This is the bit of nuance that a lot of atheists miss: by focusing entirely on the harm and addictive aspects of religion, you ignore or overlook the positive role that it can also play in a person’s life and development.

      Funnily, I just thought of an odd example: William Burroughs. William Burroughs was a junkie who struggled with it his entire life. It definitely damaged him in some ways. But he also used his struggles and they became foundational to his writing and his artwork. He used his “relationship with junk” in a way that was both creative and productive in life. Now…… he’s obviously the exception rather than the rule. LOL. But I’m just saying, even THAT is possible.

      If you ask in some kind of fairy-tale hypothetical-land whether human culture “could exist” without religion, I would say that it’s not a particularly meaningful thought-experiment unless you also include a discussion about how one gets from here to there. I think that’s what my mom means when she said that you can’t just tear something down and leave a hole. Remember, she wasn’t saying “it’s impossible for human society to exist and progress without religion!” She simply said that you’ve got to be smart about how you go about addressing it: you don’t do a radical excision without having SOME idea of what will go in to fill in the gaps that end up needing filled.

  5. John B. Egan says:

    Nicely written and self exploratory. However, the vacuum caused by a loss of religion being filled with all sorts of evil is a typical religious argument and really means nothing. Even though we see all sorts of misery in the papers each day, human kindness and empathy do exist in a greater degree. Even Bonobo Apes share food with strangers and are concerned when one of them is injured. I like to think humans are more advanced than that. There is no reason to believe that a religious vacuum wouldn’t be ‘filled’ with anything more than humanity. Like to point out, that as an atheist, I do donate, I hand out money to homeless standing on street corners, I step in when there is a problem…And God is not standing over my shoulder telling me when to do it.

  6. encyclops says:

    First of all, I love this post — it’s filled with your usual articulateness and clear self-regard. I especially appreciate and mostly find myself in sync with your lessons about when someone disagrees with you.

    So I’m going to disagree just a little. 🙂 Not with you, maybe, but with the three quotes.

    Your mom’s quote is the one I agree with the most. As much as I dislike religion, it would be problematic to say the least if it vanished overnight (as though it could). That’s not to say that I find it difficult to imagine a life without religion. I grew up without it, for the most part. Life without Sunday School, for example, is just life without Sunday School. Of course, religion still entered my life in countless ways — through literature, at weddings and funerals, and of course through the people around me who believed in it and had it as part of their lives. But I can look to my life and it serves as a fine answer to “what would life without religion be like?” at least in suburban white America. Just because the answer to “what would you replace religion with?” is not a simple and obvious one doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. I think the main reason we’d even need to answer it is that it’s historically been there. It’s like asking, “If we didn’t watch The Y-Files on Sunday nights, what else would we do?” First of all, there are a million other things we could do. Second of all, The Y-Files isn’t a real show, so my question seems absurd and unnecessary; the only reason it would have any meaning at all would be if someone invented such a show and we all developed a habit of watching it.

    As to the second quote: I think the sticking point for me about mystical experiences isn’t so much whether the experience is “real” — that is, whether the person went through something strange and moving, e.g. seeing colored lights, having a strong dreamlike experience of recognizable events or impressions, being left with a powerful sense of having been commanded or enlightened or something — but their theories about where that experience came from and what it means about other things that exist in the world. It’s the interpretation of the cause part that may be “real” in the sense that a person’s beliefs and cultures lead them to read it that way, but not necessarily “real” in that their reading is evidence of anything outside their own imaginations.

    When I come up with some interpretation of the cause of my emotional state, I’m prepared for the possibility that I might be wrong. Maybe I think I’m depressed and cranky because the people around me are being jerks, but then I eat breakfast and realize that no one’s being a jerk except me and I was just moody through lack of food. So a mystical experience can be just as “real” as a hallucination or an epiphany, but I’m not convinced that makes the experience actually “mystical” or that we have to uncritically accept that interpretation (unless, of course, we want to have the peace of mind of not having to relentlessly challenge it).

    Your third quote…I agree up to a point. There’s something to be said for choosing your battles, especially regarding our relationships with individual people (as opposed to the roles of their beliefs in politics and public policy, as you pointed out). But there’s something about “we don’t have to understand” as a philosophy that gets at the heart of what worries me about religion. I think on some level it thrives because people are convinced that unexamined belief is a virtue, that analysis kills beauty, that an unsolved mystery is more wonderful than a solved one, and so on. It thrives because people are discouraged from examining their faith too closely, and on some level they don’t want to, because they derive too much satisfaction from the fiction. I wonder if your ex himself understood why he believed what he believed — whether this wasn’t just a case where you couldn’t relate to him, but where he himself couldn’t find the root of his brainwashing (my term, obviously).

    So I think your changed point of view here is ultimately a good thing, and will help you (and perhaps me) live in easier harmony with religious people. I just don’t feel entirely convinced that they’re reasons to temper my skepticism, and maybe you didn’t intend them to be.

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