Religion and Spirituality – An Atheist’s Perspective

atheismBy Astra Navigo

“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.” – George Bernard Shaw

“The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry. Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. ” — Richard Dawkins

“We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” — H.L. Mencken

It took me a while to write this, because I was too busy dealing with the reality of the third quote, above. As much as I’ve tried to write this in the spirit of ‘respecting others beliefs’, I can’t do it.

Y’see, in case you hadn’t figured this out by now – I’m an atheist.

That’s right. I don’t believe in imaginary friends, faeries, unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, a Living Elvis, or anything else that I can’t prove as fact.

When the publishers of this ‘zine asked me to drop my two-cents in the pickle-barrel on the subject of spirituality, I was given a few general parameters – but I found that my own philosophy operates far outside of them.

I can say, “In the spirit of ________,” – and mean it only in the theoretical sense; such as when I’m negotiating something with a customer (“….in the spirit of cooperation….”) The idea that there really is a disembodied phantom running about named “cooperation” is ludicrous to me.

Neighbors told me my house was haunted. I later found that most of what they were discussing dealt with odd noises – perfectly explainable in a home that’s sixty years old. I’ve never felt a ‘presence’ in the bedroom – just a draft; explainable by midcentury-modern transom-windows.

My first exposure to religion began when I was five; my Mother took my sister and I back to Virginia, the state of her own birth, to visit my maternal grandparents. While Grandpa was what modern-day kids would call ‘cool’ (he gave me and my sis rides in the tractor-bucket; smoked unfiltered Camels and smelled vaguely like the stuff in my Dad’s liquor-cabinet, courtesy of a flask he kept in his jacket), my Grandmother was the antithesis of such things, and treated my Grandfather like he was one step above Old Scratch, himself.

Grandma insisted that Mom take us kids to church with her one weekend, because she was convinced that we were going to Hell (being as one of our parents – my father – was also an atheist).

I remember smelling dust, age, and old paint – and seeing people gibber uncontrollably, fall down in the aisles and jerk like they had St. Vitus’ Dance. One started climbing the stovepipe (I could only marvel at what it would have been like had it been wintertime).

Pulling my Mom’s sleeve, I encouraged her to Do Something (Mom being a nurse, and just a little lower than the angels (if you’ll pardon the metaphor).

About a half-second after my five-year-old admonition to my mother, I felt Grandma’s hand up the back of my neck, with the words, “Keep quiet, young man! This is the Lord’s work!”

I decided right then and there that any ‘god’ which allowed my Grandmother to hit me wasn’t a very nice – well; whatever you called it. I also knew that I didn’t like my Grandmother, one little bit.

Later, when I was nineteen, I began to look at the world with the enormity of an unlived-life in front of me; the concept of ‘where-did-I-originate’, and ‘what-comes-after’ was a huge question which had never been fully answered. In spite of Mom’s Baptist ministrations, I’d never seen anything in her own belief-system which particularly answered any of those questions adequately; knowing that my Grandmother went to a Pentecostal loony-bin on Sunday up until a few weeks before she died only reinforced my opinion that my Grandmother’s belief system, whatever it was, belonged to people who needed both therapy and Thorazine.

I commenced a study of the world’s major religions – this was in addition to a full course-load in college (I was studying cultural anthropology and history). I began by reading the Bible, and checking out several of the study-guides in the library.

Before I learned the first thing about religion, I learned this: Most people are indoctrinated by their parents, and in spite of the ‘fact’ (which they swear up and down is ‘true’) that they ‘know why they’re a ________________ (fill in the name of your favorite religion) – the truth is that they’ve never done the research. They’ve been ‘raised up’ as a __________________(fill in that name again) – and, by and large, they’ve never questioned it at all.

After that revelation (you’ll pardon the pun),the first thing I learned was that one of the first courses they teach in Bible college is something called Christian Apologetics – in other words, “the-whole-thing-won’t-stand-on-its-own-so-we-have-to-teach-you-first-how-to-defend-what-you-already-suspect-isn’t-true. ” I viewed the concept as a huge red-flag; it smacked of the ‘How To Keep Your Employees Down” courses that we all suspected they taught behind closed-doors over at the business-school.

The second thing I learned was that the Bible was far from inerrant; in fact, the New Testament was an agglommeration of four ‘Gospels’ (ironically, the word ‘gospel’ means either ‘truth’, or ‘good news’, depending – and none of the four agreed on much), and several letters written by misogynistic racists to one early church or another – these guys couldn’t agree on much, either.

The third thing I learned was that the whole thing had been put together around 300-325CE by a fellow named Constantine, who locked a bunch of religious types in a room in a town called Nicaea and told them not to come out unless they agreed. There’s not much in the way of records on that one – how much arm-wrestling and other forms of decision-making went on is just not well-recorded. The only thing on which modern historians agree is that (a) the New Testament gospels weren’t written until at least 70-90 years after the events in them took place (imagine getting around to writing the first history of the attack on Pearl Harbor two years from now), and (b) the first copy of the Bible in its entirety leaves out a lot of crucial stuff which was ‘added’ over the centuries.

The fourth thing I learned was that no one agrees on the Bible – in fact, Bible ‘scholars’ (a corrupt term if I’ve ever heard one) argue to this day about the nuances and meanings of obscure and arcane verses.

The fifth thing I learned were the Smoking Guns (the Epic of Gilgamesh; the story of a great flood; of sin and redemption – only it was written about 2,000 years prior to Genesis; the Great Hymn to the Aten – which is a dead-ringer for the 104th Psalm, and written several hundred years prior -; the errors and omissions of the Sinai Codex – one of the copies of the Bible commissioned by Constantine, and the only complete original from ‘the day’ – the list went on.

The best summation was from my attorney (also an atheist), a few years ago: “Will, if the whole thing went to court tomorrow, the judge would throw it out because the parties couldn’t agree on their own evidence.”

I reached the same conclusion at age nineteen.

My study of Christianity naturally included Judaism. That was a far shorter discussion; it was almost impossible to find a practitioner of Judaism who actually followed all of the Torah and the laws contained within; in fact, I learned quickly that there was a separate book called the Talmud, which was basically a series of interpretations of what the Torah actually meant. Under Judaism, a person could be stoned to death for carrying firewood on Saturday. Far from explaining everything, it was (to me) the Ultimate Religion of Guilt – you could die for doing things you needed to do. Liberal Jews were quick to point out to me that “we don’t do things that way now” – but by that time, it didn’t matter to me.

I mean, what if a person ‘converted’, then the Head Jew (or whatever he’s called) decided, “Lookit! We’re goin’ back to the old ways – we’re gonna give a whole new meanin’ to the term, ‘kickin’ it old school!'” I’d be screwed. No thanks — breaking someone’s skull for heating their home in the middle of winter is wrong in its essence – not an explanation for the mysteries of the universe, at all.

Islam was the same way. Personally, I couldn’t see the use for one wife at age nineteen, let alone a whole house full of them. ‘god’, I reasoned, didn’t need a Place, either – so the notion of going to Mecca once in my life (or more, if I could) so’s I could throw symbolic stones at the Devil as one of the Pillars didn’t make sense, either. It went to reason and logic that if there was a ‘god’, it was a lead-pipe-cinch he didn’t stand on protocol, place, or the Right Words.

The rest of the religions were either so old that no one practiced them any longer (no temples to Iupiter Optimus Maximus on the streetcorner) or they had nothing to do with the notion of a ‘god’ or creative force – which pretty much ruled them out, in my book.

Buddhism was – more or less – simply “I’m OK / You’re OK” (or, if you prefer, “I love you; you love me”; made popular by a certain purple dinosaur about fifteen years after I went through this exercise). The current crop of Eastern religions all fell into this theme, more or less.

I couldn’t take the east Indian gods seriously. Seems if they were really in charge, Shiva’s arms and all, three-quarters of their sponsor-country wouldn’t be living in hovels, sucking gravel for nutrition.

The Dalai Lama briefly interested me – until I learned that he’d been fascinated by fascism at an early age – there’s even a photo of the guy, dressed up as a teenager in what looks like a Nazi uniform. Then, as now, he went around saying ‘Too much greed!’ – which is cool, if you’ve never had to balance a checkbook or hold a job. Mr. Lama is far from a representative of God on Earth – he’s just a case of arrested mental development.

Which brought me to science.

Science teaches us that (1) there’s no such thing as a miracle; (2) everyone is responsible for him/herself; (3) the most-logical explanation is usually the best; (4) life is as Thomas Hobbes described it – nasty; brutish, and short.

There’s no Rainbow Bridge, where you’ll meet the puppy what got turned into roadkill when you were seven; there’s no ‘kitty heaven’ for Fluffy, either. No baby-heaven, as heartwrenching as that might sound – nor any ‘grown folks heaven’ where you get a cosmic do-over when you die.

This is it, folks. We make the best of it, right now, because that’s all there is. Absent any great “Made in Heaven, by God” sign in the center of the earth, I’m not buying.

Having been exposed to ‘god’ at an early age, I didn’t reject the notion outright; I first observed the actions of His Followers – weighed them in the balance, and found them wanting (if you don’t mind the paraphrase of Daniel). Having been exposed to logical explanations, I found them far more plausible – even if I had to accept, as part-and-parcel of the deal, that I wasn’t going to Live Forever.

“But what of purpose?”, I was asked once. “How can you even get up in the morning, without ‘god’?” I patiently explained that I’d been getting up every morning since I could swing my legs out of bed; usually at two in the morning to terrorize my parents for a glass of water. It didn’t matter. The first time I learned of ‘god’, I went to bed that evening – and continued to get up the next day, just as if nothing had ever happened.

I can honestly say that learning to masturbate effectively had more of an impact on me than learning about ‘god’.

“But what about a moral compass? How do you know right from wrong, without ‘god’?” I was born with one; thank you very much. I knew instinctively that my Grandfather was a kind man with the patience of a – again; you’ll pardon me – a saint, for putting up with my godly Grandmother, who was a mean-spirited, unkind bitch. ‘god’ never did a damn thing for my Grandmother – – and only served to torture my poor Grandfather, who drank in order to deal.

Some things, I had to be taught — but getting sent to my room for hitting my sister wasn’t from ‘god’, for example – it was the practical proscription of my parents, who wanted me to learn that civilized people didn’t hit each other to solve a problem.

“But look at all of this beauty! ‘god’ had to create it!” Oh? Why? I’ll admit, it’s rare – statistically rare in the universe, even, due to a complex chain-of-events: A relatively new star within proximity to heat a recently-formed planet which had the hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen necessary to sustain a carbon-based form of life – but not impossible to replicate, given the size of the universe.

(I’ve learned that religious people like to play these games. I don’t.)

The beauty of life, to me, is the fact that it exists. Science has come the closest to explaining it in a manner that makes sense – and if you square the world’s religions with their rules and built-in hatreds, casus bellis and other nonsense – against the little real good they’ve done – then accepting any of them is laughable to me.

No, science doesn’t explain it all. However, in the spirit of discussion, I can say this:

It’s close enough – for me.