This is a long post on religion. I’ve written about this before, but not as in depth. In one sense I didn’t think I should write this at all, but religion is surprisingly high on the list of things I think about.
Why didn’t I want to write this?
First, a surprising amount of people in my life are religious. In fact, most of the people on this planet believe in one god or another! I typically don’t speak to them about it because I don’t want to come off a certain way. I’m very much a “live how you want to live” person, but religion as a whole fascinates me.
Second, religion feels like a tired topic. What am I going to write here as a non-believer that the true believers haven’t already heard? Probably nothing. I’m aware that nothing in this post is particularly profound or original. However I do think the tide and attitude is shifting and I like putting my thoughts out there.
My Brief History With Religion
I was not religious growing up. While my parents were sort of religious (Christian), I never went to church and bar mitzvahs were just parties for kids, not religious rites of passage.
As an early teen I remember having the general thought of “people don’t actually believe this, do they?“.
As I moved into college and slightly beyond I went further, concluding that religion served zero purpose, added nothing to the world, and even questioned if I could be friends with someone who was genuinely religious, even though it never directly affected me.
As I got older, I softened. I saw some of the obvious pros of religion, and if people felt their lives were better because of it, who was I to stop them?
At 31 years old, I’m a firm non-believer, but the topic is a constant source of thought for me.
The Pros of Religion
Community, purpose, and structure are some of the most notable pros of religion. This is a valid argument. But in a hyper-connected world, these now seem fully accessible elsewhere. A group of people who share a certain hobby or feel passionate about a certain problem the world is having is a much better fit of community and purpose than two people who happen to both be raised X religion. With today’s knowledge and technology, it seems like the natural societal step to put religion aside and fill these needs with more fitting solutions.
Another big pro is tradition. I assume there are plenty of people who may not believe what their religion preaches, but the tradition is captivating. It’s cool to be part of something that has lasted thousands of years. But can the tradition carry on if no one actually believes what they’re saying? I don’t know.
The obvious final pro is eternal salvation. Most religions have the promise of an awesome afterlife if you abide by the rules. I can’t argue with this one! While I love running and feel like the running community is a huge part of my life, I know it won’t be ushering me into the afterlife.
I’m sure there are more, but these seem to be the main ones people cite.
Personally, I’ve always come back to this thought – how I can go through the check boxes of what a religion claims and not come out on the other side saying “this doesn’t add up“? There are too many disproven claims and contradictions to list, but in addition the two things I can never get past are:
1. Don’t Question It! – As evidence stacks against religion, it’s a sign of true faith to double down and even more blindly believe. “It’s part of His plan! God is testing you!“, etc. I personally see that line of thinking as manipulative and not leaving much room for logical explanations. In fact it can even discourage it! Why does the sun shine? “It’s god, don’t try to figure it out!” The easiest way to stop people from diving deeper is by telling them that’s what the devil wants them to do.
I know that’s oversimplifying, but the history of horror from so many religions should be enough to make most second guess. And there’s always some justification for it, “It’s not god’s fault, it’s humans’ inability to fight temptation, if anything it’s a sign that we need to obey god even more!“. The starting point for any thought or argument being “god exists, so how does that apply to XYZ” feels so limiting. I could never genuinely subscribe to a thought process like that.
2. Thousands of Religions – Humans have been creating gods for thousands of years. If it was 1000 BC and all someone knew was what they grew up with, I understand. They have no idea why the sun rises and falls, they don’t know why they’re here, and they probably haven’t heard of any other religions.
But now we know that there have been thousands of religions. Isn’t it much more likely that this is a pattern of human behavior than any actual story being true? How can anyone genuinely believe that theirs is right? Don’t you think if they grew up in a different country with a different religion that they’d be a full believer of that one instead of their current one?
And what would an outsider conclude if they heard all of the arguments for each religion? With zero evidence shown by every party, they would naturally assume that they’re all myths; simply stories humans have told as a species to grow together over time, but not the literal truth.
I don’t know if most religious people avoid the thoughts above or reconcile them in a different way. For me personally, being an atheist isn’t a choice, it’s just the default position my brain comes to. I cannot convince myself to believe.
If you are religious I imagine you’ve heard or read arguments like the above many times.
In a blog post, it’s easy for me to express my true thoughts since I’m not writing to anyone directly. But if I’m in person with a friend or family member, how do I respectfully have this conversation? It has to feel like an attack when my argument boils down to “There’s no evidence to support your belief, why are you willfully ignoring all the signs that you’re wrong?!” Even this post! I’ve rewritten nearly every part of this multiple times as to not come off too… harsh? And I still feel like it may be too aggressive even though no one is going to read it!
But if it’s never talked about, then neither party makes progress towards understanding.
The most recent dialogue I listened to on this was Lex Fridman speaking with Bishop Robert Barron. I was interested in their conversation, but it was less a discussion on if and more an understanding of what Catholics believe. Although insightful for me, nothing the bishop said convinced me that Christianity is anything more than a story created by humans.
I think that’s why people rarely have these conversations. I’ve spoke with multiple religious friends about the values and beliefs they gain from religion, and how it’s been a positive in their lives, but I’ve never brought up the aspect of “do you actually believe, and if so, why?”. It’s difficult. That answer typically comes to ‘faith‘ and then stops there. It’s kind of an ‘agree to disagree’ conclusion. I don’t know if it would be productive beyond that.
But if you want to talk, let me know! Truly none of this is meant to be an attack, just my observations as an atheist.
What’s My Problem?
Some people believe in X, others in Y, others nothing. Why do we need to ‘figure this out‘? Can’t we let bygones be bygones?
Putting aside some of the obvious (to us) faults like exiling gay people, my main issue is related to scientific progress and religion. Many people have made this point.
Religions have historically inhibited scientific progress. The easiest example is Christianity actively suppressing Galileo’s findings and putting him in jail. Eventually they gave in once the scientific evidence became so undeniable. Today’s religions largely avoid these topics because they’re so firmly proven wrong. Some have taken the tone that religion and science cover two distinct areas. To me this is a convenient stance to take now that science has come out on top of many of the previously not-understood debates between the two.
But it doesn’t help much to worry about what happened in 1600. Today, I still believe that human effort as well as physical resources devoted to religion are, for lack of a better term, misplaced. You could say this about drugs, video games, sex, etc. Again, I believe people should be able to do what they choose, but it’s more that people are being convinced NOT to work on ‘productive‘ things because of religion.
I’ve often heard that if you erased all of human history and started over, you would still end up with a mathematics text book, but you definitely wouldn’t get the Bible. I find that mildly compelling.
I can’t imagine how shitty it would feel to exist in a religious community despite not believing it. You’d disappoint your parents, friends, significant other, etc. if you came out. I imagine a lot of people simply say “it’s not worth it” and go on with life.
That’s where I struggle. What would I do in that situation? It’s easy for me to say I’d come out against it, but truly I probably wouldn’t risk the damage it would do. I’d believe in action only, not in mind.
I think this is a big reason why religion has faded in the last century or so. People aren’t convinced but just go along with it, then as they raise their own family, less is handed down. This continues through generations until nothing is left, which I am an example of.
Am I Out on the Joke?
Something I hadn’t thought about is that maybe lots of religious people would read this and say “very few of us actually think god or heaven or hell is real, it’s just a thing we all do“.
Maybe I’m completely missing the mark here by focusing on peoples’ literal belief in these religions. Like I said above, I think non-believing believers exist, but looking around the world, the belief in most seems pretty sincere.
What’s My Point?
Maybe a lot of you reading this generally agree but just don’t feel like it’s worth bringing up often. I’m not saying religion should be banned or anything like that. My main point is that for something this ubiquitous, there’s such little discussion about its legitimacy. That relates to the point I made earlier though; when you’re talking about unproveable things, discussions are just speculation, there may not be much to gain.
That’s why I didn’t want to write this. It’s uncouth to bring it up. There will be readers of this post who regularly go to church and I don’t know what they’ll think. But humans make progress by challenging! Although people like Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais exist, very few people I know personally express these thoughts. It’s always a taboo topic, but I don’t feel like it should be.
I really do believe that if humans survive the next thousand years, solve the climate crisis, populate Mars, etc., the leading groups will be firmly non-religious, and I don’t think that will be a coincidence.
Although I call myself an atheist, I think it’s totally possible there’s a higher power. Questions like ‘why does anything exist?‘ do not have good answers, and something like god is a reasonable answer. It’s just that all of the current attempts at this, to me, aren’t convincing.
The popular term here is “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual“. Something is out there pulling a few strings. I personally don’t think things happen for a reason, but if someone does and takes a freak occurrence as a sign to change their life, then I fully support it, who am I to say they’re wrong?
The seemingly unprovable nature of it all can feel like you’re going in circles after long enough, but it’s fun to think about!