Religion and me

I’ve been putting this off for a long time. It probably isn’t necessary at all; my loved ones and close friends know what I think. There’s no reason anyone else should care. I am absolutely not trying to pick a fight or convince anyone of anything. It’s not my place. We all have to make our own way and we don’t all come to the same understanding. But I feel the urge to put some thoughts down. And it’s my blog, so there.

It would be technically correct to call me an atheist. I don’t believe in gods. Any of them. None of the thousands men have invented through the ages. Everybody is an atheist about most of these gods. What puts me in the minority is that I include the current favorite.

However, I prefer the term nonbeliever, because it covers more territory. It’s not just wacky religious ideas I reject. I don’t believe in belief. It isn’t useful. It’s worthless as a way of getting at truth. Knowing beats guessing. Evidence beats speculation. Facts trump fiction. Things are not true because somebody says so, or because it is written, or because we wish them to be.

Of course there is a lot we don ‘t know and never will. All of us don’t know more than we know and we still manage to muddle through, mostly. I can live with that. Not knowing is okay. Filling in our ignorance with the god of the gaps, making up stories and claiming they’re Truth, are not okay.

I understand nonbelief as the default position; belief has to be taught. Whatever the claim, somebody has to make the case. The burden of proof is on the claimant. Rejecting a claim is not the same as making one.

In childhood, I was taken or sent to Sunday school, where I learned all the stories kids learn in Sunday school. Sometimes I would sit with Grandma in big church. It was her job to keep me from fidgeting too much. I remember once I got really excited when the man in the pulpit announced that Jesus was there.  I looked around.  “Where, Grandma?”  “You can’t see him, she replied.”  Why, I wondered.

At about age twelve I sat through a course of confirmation classes. Teacher put a lot of emphasis on the evils of Onanism. I guess he knew his audience. I memorized the Apostles Creed, got all the review answers right, and was sprinkled into fellowship by the Presbyterians. I don’t remember which brand.

Four years later I took up with the Southern Baptists. I now understand that was more about belonging than belief. (I think that’s true for a lot of people.) These were good folks. They were the first people I’d met who talked sincerely about their faith outside of church. They seemed to really care about each other. They were warm and welcoming. What’s not to like?

I was then properly dunked (“… sprinkled? That ain’t no baptism”) and raised to walk in newness of life.

I took that walk seriously for most of twenty-five years, along the way talking it up to anyone who would listen, serving as a Sunday school teacher, a deacon, and ultimately as vice president of a bible college.

Around my fortieth year, I changed my mind. Life experience had tempered my naiveté. I knew a lot more than I did as a teen. I had done a lot of reading and thinking and had developed a pretty good BS detector. I could no longer suspend disbelief and persuade myself to accept the supernatural claims and convoluted theology of Paul’s religion about Jesus.

By the way, wasn’t that Paul a piece of work? Here’s a guy who never met Jesus, who persuaded people he was an apostle based on his claims of visions and voices. Good trick. Smokin’ some pretty good stuff there, Paulie?

Pretty much single handedly, he cobbled together a hodgepodge of old myths, superstitions, supernatural nonsense, and political workarounds to package something that would appeal to a larger audience than just the Jews. “You gotta think BIG, guys!” Even James, brother of Jesus regarded him as something of a used chariot salesman.

Despite a long run and many happy customers (though none have updated their status since they stopped breathing), this victorious version of Christianity, (which left in the dust hundreds of other, earlier versions, thanks largely to the good offices of the emperor Constantine) had, for me, simply failed to make its case stick. To paraphrase Paul: as I matured, I put away things of my immaturity. I’m embarrassed it took me so long.

Today, I’m no fan of religion. One doesn’t need much history or many headlines to see the horrors visited on humanity by all brands of religious fanaticism. Even in twenty-first century America, with our constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, there are people who would enthusiastically do away with those freedoms and establish a theocracy. With themselves in charge, of course. That’s scary. Nowhere in the world, at any time in history, have human rights survived when religion was in charge. Religious liberty is an oxymoron. When kings and priests conspire, watch out.

I’m really annoyed, and a little alarmed, by the confluence and conflation of religion and politics, especially on the right, as if Jesus were a Republican.

I’m mystified and saddened that people are willing to so narrow their intellectual orbit that they are immune to scientific inquiry or anything that isn’t printed on gilt-edged paper or proclaimed from a pulpit. I wouldn’t mind so much if they came to their views independently and honestly. But it’s obvious they’re usually just punching somebody else’s orthodox checklist.

I have nothing but contempt for cynical manipulators (I use a coarser term in private conversation) posing as spiritual leaders, from TV’s polyester prophets to penny-ante storefront messiahs who exploit fear, guilt, weakness and gullibility for their own ego and greed. I don’t have room to get started on maggots who prey on kids from a position of power.

I recognize there are a lot of good people who do a lot of good things motivated by their faith. Most religious folks are good people trying to live good lives. I’ve known and appreciated many. Still do. These folks would be good and do good with or without religion.

And wouldn’t we be poorer without the art Christianity has inspired through the centuries? Especially the music! I still get goose-pimply listening to Handel’s Messiah (check out the definitive performance by the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus with Robert Shaw directing). I still have a soft spot for southern gospel music. And I rarely get up from my piano without picking out a few of the old three-chord hymn tunes I grew up with.

Oh, and I do miss those potluck suppers. Haven’t had whipped lime Jell-O salad in decades.

Christians are taught to trust and obey for there’s no other way, to gain heaven and avoid hell. Get right and live right. Hang in there and you’ll have pie in the sky by and by.

Well, I have no hope of heaven and no fear of hell. That medieval carrot-and-stick routine doesn’t work for me and I don’t respond well to believe-or-burn threats. Really? This is supposed to attract me to a loving god?

I don’t need a god to be good, or to live a good life; I just need to make semirational choices and don’t do stupid stuff. The big deal, it seems to me is, first, to do no harm. Try to get through life without hurting anyone. Don’t put ideas ahead of your fellow human beings. Help if you can. Be kind.

One of my heroes, Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) put it this way:

Happiness is the only good.

The time to be happy is now.

The place to be happy is here.

The way to be happy is to make others so.

August, 2014

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