Devout Christians will probably always assume that atheists are simply denying publicly what they know deep within to be true: that God exists and watches over us all in a sort-of benign Big Brother bit. They will assume that atheists really do believe, but avoid admitting it for their own selfish, sick, sinful reasons. They will always believe that it is impossible to not-believe, that our god-created human minds are not capable of it.
For me, at least, they will always be wrong. For me, eventually, all the last shreds of belief, the last suspicion that there might be a god watching me and judging me, drained away and vanished.
I think many atheists aim merely for that vanishment, and work to keep their metaphorical mental vessel, the one in their heads formerly occupied by religion, carefully empty of anything. For them, not-belief is what atheism means, and is the final goal for which they aim.
But for me that vacancy was just the MIDWAY point. There was a next step, something beyond not-belief. Late in the process, after the last bits of belief had gone away, and the last fearful suspicion that I might be wrong and the fantastical constructs of Heaven and Judgment and an all-powerful Big Brother In The Sky might still be real, what began flowing into my head was … certainty.
The certainty was this: That all of that stuff was untrue — an active, definite, intentional lie. That religion as a phenomenon was “natural” in the sense that it fed off natural attributes of the human mind, but that it represented an unhealthy perversion of those attributes — something like cocaine addiction, or a gambling problem.
And what was behind it was nothing at all. Emptiness, blankness, absolute zero. An array of made-up gods and fantastical creations no more real than Tony Tiger, or the Geico Gecko. Sold to us by our parents and peers at the low end because of simple ignorance and superstition. Sold to us at the high end … well, basically because predators need weak victims.
The certainty, though some might insist it is not logically reachable, nevertheless has the useful side effect of providing a clearer view of the predator, what it is and what it does to us. In this instance:
Take note for a moment of the nature of both of these stories, Granny’s Hands and Travelin’ Dog.
My story about Travelin’ Dog was deliberately created to arouse your emotions (mine, initially, but then I put it out in public and aimed it at an audience), your feelings of sympathy or empathy for the dog, and beyond that for all those questing for something better in life — for love and for the comforts of home.
And that was it. I meant to get the reader thinking about the connections we all share. The things we want and need. And then I left it, ended it. I didn’t go on to say “And that’s why you should buy a Hallmark card,” or “The Love of Family. Campbell’s Soup. One and the same.”
The goal of such a story, if any, is to remind you of your own humanness, and one of our greatest human attributes, the ability to make connections and feel warmth for each other.
I think I can say my intention was to make writer and reader both better for a moment, for ourselves and for the people around us.
The other story, though, has a definite hook in it. Your emotions are tugged in the same way, with a build-up of this picture of an old woman, a dear family member, talking about her life and the roughness of it by dwelling on the ways it has touched her, and she has touched it, through her hands.
But then comes the product endorsement, and those emotions are diverted along a definite path. The piece is a deliberate sales pitch for god-belief.
For someone outside that belief — me — the thing seems to go on for some time, dragging the pitch out in exhausting detail: God, blessing, prayer, God, God, God. The sweetness of the story turns sticky-sweet, like a piece of over-frosted cake you have to wash your hands and face after eating, and that leaves you a little bit sick.
I think I can say we have these feelings for a reason. By which I mean “reason” in an evolutionary sense: something that developed and allowed us to survive as we are through our long history, but also something intellectually sound in the light of our understanding of the mechanics of evolution.
From the subjective side of that cold evolutionary equation, the feelings feel good – just as sex feels good, or eating a good meal feels good. We LOVE loving and being loved, and the more we can do it, and get the people around us to do it, the better.
In the case of Granny’s Hands, though, those feelings are tugged, brought to our attention, and then used as a leash to lead us all unwitting to the writer’s religion. Good, natural feelings — feelings that bring us closer to each other, to our human and animal loved ones — are diverted into Christianity.
The story attempts to bring us “closer to God” rather than to each other.
There’s a price for that unnatural diversion. It’s one of those things that’s so difficult to see, because we’ve been immersed in religion for so many thousands of years. But it’s a price which could be – I think it definitely IS – very, very large.
If feelings are a pipeline from our deepest selves meant to deliver interpersonal closeness in outward society, God is a diversion on that pipeline, a shunt that brings more money into church coffers, more influence into the hands of preachers and shamans, but a great deal less love and understanding to share among ourselves in the end.
This, to me, is yet another of the non-positive effects of religion.