As a young man, a child, really, I already knew I was an atheist. I was raised a Catholic, which, however horrible it sounds, is probably one part why I did not believe. I think Penelope Cruz said it best in the Kevin Smith movie ‘Dogma’: “You Catholics don’t celebrate your religion, you mourn it!”
I think that’s a fairly accurate assessment. There isn’t anything in existence, or in this Universe more boring than sitting in a Catholic church, for a child, for one or two hours at a stretch. Litanies are boring, organ music sucks, and wearing Sunday formal is itchy and uncomfortable. The whole pomp and ceremony thing didn’t do it for me.
One other part of the equation was that my father was dispensed from church duties, which to me was incredibly unfair. Why should I be subjected to this nonsense while he got off scot-free? From the beginning, I think my mother thought it would be a great idea for us to do this so that I could get some sort of moral upbringing, or belong to a non-technological Borg Collective. Whatever the reason, I hated it.
Of course, there was my main objection, ever since I was young enough to think for myself: Why should I believe in one particular God, while so many had come before Him, and yet more had come after? It made literally no sense! You had to mentally cordon off millennia of History to accept that there truly was only one of those Supreme Beings roaming the Heavens, creating us, pele-mele, and then expecting us to believe in the One True One, whichever It or He or She, or a combination of all of the above, might be. Personally, I thought it was a complete waste of time adulating any of them, since, if they did exist, none of them manifested themselves in any tangible, provable may.
Even my priest, at my First Communion preparation, when I told him I didn’t want to partake in this farcical exercise of eating a dead man’s flesh, told me: “Do it for your mom.” Shit. You got me there, Father. So I remained a Catholic in name only until we changed church and I was old enough to attract the attention of the new priest, who wanted me as an altar boy.
Finally, it was my telling my mother this old man with the creepy grin and the wandering hands had completely turned me off of any pretense at religion that made her relent.
For years afterwards, though, I analyzed and studied what made these systems work, at the same time worrying if I, myself, was Lost, with a capital “L”. Those of the religious persuasion will nod their heads in agreement, that yes, I am a little lost sheep, and must be returned to the fold for my immortal soul to be saved. I beg to differ. I have no soul, and it is my freedom this burdensome imaginary body part that has finally freed me.
So, for many years, I did revel in my appetites, what religious people call “sins”. But I also continued to study, and to learn, and to have funny little “a-ha!” moments.
I came to many realizations, of course, the more I read about practically everything. You see, humanity fascinates me, and so I wanted to know what made us tick, and this is why I came to understand religion, as a system. When I say religion, I don’t take aim at any particular branch of the overall scheme, unless I mention some aspect of it that is particular to that branch. I mean solely the theoretical system comprised of tools, with the main theme and focus being a/many divinities overlooking human activity.
One of my main epiphanies was that it was not part and parcel of atheism to become a nihilist or an existentialist the way that most people thought it was (although existentialism has gotten a bad rap, through no fault of Mr. Sartre’s). I’d like to stop and take a moment to thank my mother for having encouraged me in my philosophical endeavours when I was twelve or thirteen and helped me acquire the myriad philosophy books I ingested over the next few years.
This may seem common knowledge to everyone else, but before the internet was populated with all this knowledge, and not having a formal university education at the time (or now, for that matter), I believed that what belonged to religion had to stay within religion, as if every virtue that one could have, could only be attained this means. Therefore, having given it up, I could not take part in virtues that I (erroneously) believed were the purview of the church.
To give you an example, and this was my greatest epiphany, I didn’t think I could ever Forgive, with a capital “F”. Of course I could take someone’s apology, but it took me an Earth-shattering realization to be able to forgive something I’d carried with me a very long time, therefore erase the harm I did to myself every time I thought of this event. Silly, I know, but I was thinking in terms of the whole system of religious “thought” being alien to me.
What made me smack my palm to my forehead was the conclusion that all religion had done was take human experience and appropriated it for itself, within an organized system, to regulate human behavior inside a society. For this it utilized a reward/punishment paradigm (Heaven/Hell), brilliantly, since no one could ever come back from the afterlife and tell others: “Hey, this Heaven thing is bull-pucky!”
So since the beginning of organized society, we’ve been manipulated to be “good”, not out of altruism, but out of fear. Remember, the afterlife is a terrible place for those who do wrong. This isn’t anything new for those who, like me, have looked at the overarching themes of Godliness, holiness, religion, etc.
What has changed, in the past few hundred years is that we’ve begun to base our assumptions on research and fact. We no longer were satisfied with: “Because I said so,” which was the official line of the churches.
Being a system of many tools, one of religions’ was the search for truth, originally. Why does it rain? Because God makes it so. Why did my wife and child die in child-birth? Because God’s ways are mysterious, and so on and so forth. We’ve been a superstitious lot for a long time now. Along comes this new way of thinking: why don’t we measure things? Why don’t we investigate? That’s novel.
So that measuring stick we used to see how long something was turned into a precision microscope. We have refined the tools (and continue to do so) that we first started off with. The main thing that changed, though, was turning away from: “Because I said so,” to “Hey, I wonder why that is, really.”
Another tool in the religious system is purpose, and that is one of the most important things human beings have. We need to find out who we are to find out what we are for. With religion, it’s easy: You are God’s creature and you are here to worship Him, Her, It, They, end of story.
With science, there is no such measure, since it is not a closed system. It is a system of exploration, and therefore, cannot tell you who you are. That is one of the main reasons for the title of this piece. My crisis of conscience comes from the fact that I am completely free. So what is my purpose, if it’s not to worship an imaginary God? That is entirely up to me, and that’s something that for a long time made me depressed. Why? Because of the infinite possibilities (within the realm of humanity, of course). It’s like looking into a deep well and becoming giddy at the idea of jumping.
There is also the lack of realization that to have a purpose brings something to your life.
So I come to this, the knot of the problem: why there is still so much religiosity, and a seeming lack of direction when it comes to Atheism.
No one wants to be rudderless on the open sea, especially in a storm. Religion provides the rudder, and the boat, and the hymns to sing until the storm abates. Atheism proposes none of these things.
Religion offers means and ways to deal with society which have been successful, if based on fallacies, for eons. Atheism leaves you stranded.
Atheism is by nature a kind of solitary endeavour because it is not organized, and no avowed purpose that its adherents (or non-adherents, if you prefer), do not believe in the supernatural. They believe in the provable, the empirical truths that science provides. They exist within the flotsam and jetsam of what little religious doctrine has been passed through their families, existing as “right” and “wrong”, but with no stronger conviction.
I propose that is the reason that, even though there is a lessening of the grip of religion on societies where its abuses have been the strongest, there is also a losing of a generalized sense of purpose in those societies. Because we don’t believe in God anymore, we don’t know what to believe in. So we turn to the worship of money, of sex, of objects, of power, and all those things religious scholars knew were wrong. That’s a valid point, I think.
The thing is, what should we believe in, what should we work toward, and how will we get there?
Well, that’s why I’ve written a treatise I call “Being Human”, and falls under the purview of Universal Sentience. I hope to make it entertaining and insightful, as well as proposing a roadmap to something positive and uplifting.
For now, I wish you a beautiful day. Fall is escaping, but I feel its last soft exhalations on the mountains from where I write, and I will go sit by the lake to contemplate beauty for a while. Sayonara!