These days I seem to spend a lot of time, IRL and online, with people who have a variety of religious and/or spiritual beliefs. I often wonder why I have no beliefs along these lines and others do. Then I wonder how it can be that so many people get so much from these beliefs and yet I feel no lack.
I often wonder if some of the framework of morality and ethics that a religious upbringing provides, I got from the atheist, politically aware family that I was raised in. We didn’t have faith but we did have beliefs and these, I think, are why I felt so secure in knowing right from wrong, in my childhood. I was certainly brought up to think that we all have duties towards each other – as well as rights. This is one of the things that irritates me when people blame the ‘breakdown of society’ on the decline of religious observance. There was an article along those lines in our local paper today. I object to the notion that my children will be inherently 'worse' than children raised with faith.
But, for many of my friends, their beliefs are about way more than a code of conduct. They feel immense comfort in the notion of a divine or cosmic being or essence that is watching over them. I’ve never felt that to be anything other than a creepy notion. I certainly do have moments of despair about the self-destructive impulses of my species but I feel comforted by the thought of the vast universe. We are just one little rock. It is sad that we can cause ourselves, each other and other creatures such pain. It is rather shameful that we appear intent on destroying our planet. But the planet will adapt and something else will happen.
My personal fate is of little importance. I find death a rather comforting thought. I am a little creature that lives for a very short time and then I’m gone. Everlasting life sounds exhausting to me! I’m not after heaven or salvation. Let me be gone when I’ve had my time. I find it re-assuring that just as there is a limit to the pleasure any human can experience, so there is to the pain – for me and for everyone else. I miss people that I have lost but they are dead. I have a human brain, which means I have a bank of memories and the people I have loved are in my mind. Over generations they will be forgotten and that’s ok too.
Maybe I’m shallow. Maybe the fact that a beautiful sunset or a flawless beach are just that to me, shows that I’m lacking something. But they are just that and they can still move me to tears. They don’t move me to tears as evidence of divine creation or cosmic energy but as the place I’m lucky enough to call home. I’m an animal with the capacity to appreciate beauty. How cool is that? (as my dd would say...)
My lack of spiritual beliefs means that I do believe that there are people entirely alone, suffering. It is a harsh world, in many ways. But there are also many, many examples of what a Christian friend of mine would call fellowship. I’m frequently amazed by people’s goodwill towards each other and their capacity for empathy when others are going through a hard time.
I do understand the offence caused by people who condemn religion – even if I have my moments of nodding along with them sometimes. There is nothing to be gained from ranting at people about all the things you find offensive, or plain ridiculous, about their beliefs. It’s not like anyone is going to suddenly throw up their hands and say, “hey, you’re right, it’s a silly idea.” It’s arrogant and unpleasant to listen to. Mind you, I say the same about people who want to accost me in the street, or on my doorstep, to let me know I’m doomed to everlasting hell unless I agree with them. Oh yeah, and most of them would like me to live a celibate life and renounce the love of my life too.
I sometimes have to cough down a comment or two when I fear that people I care about are damaging themselves through adherence to a spiritual or religious belief I don’t share. But I remind myself that they are probably doing the same thing when watching me go my merry way. In the end, I believe in freedom more than ‘being right’ – way more.
One of the things that age has changed in me is the fact that I now have far more faith in human capacity to get things wrong than I ever did when I was a young woman. I wanted to find a formula that could be applied to ensure a better world and for me that was a political quest. Now I believe that one of the few things we can rely on is that whatever we do, there will be unintended consequences. This has killed the revolutionary in me (she was always rather tentative anyway!) and made me feel that the best change is done in small steps with plenty of opportunity to rectify the messes that you will, inevitably, make along the way. But that’s all dependent on there being a will in the first place and that demands the recognition that we will be best served by caring for each other and the world around us – rather than seeking to win the race or get the biggest heap of gold. But, just as I no longer believe in a political formula for a better world, so I don’t believe in a religious one. Because I don’t believe in God/spiritual forces I think that religions are human constructions and so they will be full of error. Unintended consequences abound! If we start with an idea that the first thing that must happen is that everyone adopt the exact same belief system we’re off on the merry path to witch burning and stoning. I don’t want to go there.
I don’t anticipate a death-bed conversion to any religion. But I never say never. That’s something else that I think I’ve learned over the last twenty years or so. We are changing creatures and people do the most surprising things. But I think that spending a childhood with no God, no religion, makes it more likely I’ll live and die that way. People who are raised with faith often do tend to miss it if they go without later on, I’ve observed. We’ll see.
This evening we’ve all been talking about religion. I was trying to explain that Jesus is both God and the Son of God. Pearlie raised an eyebrow and said, “that must have been a complicated family tree.”