I’ve been asking myself some tough questions on religion lately, and I’d like to share them with you.
The thing is that I’ve seen religion make a lot of people really happy, and I don’t want to take that away. Sure, it makes people sad, too, and it licenses a lot of damaging views. But if the root of what I’m trying to do is reduce pain and suffering while maximizing happiness and joy in people’s lives, then why would I want to work hard to take away something from someone that gives them profound happiness, so long as it’s not hurting themselves and others? The key might be to encourage them to use their heart, appealing to it to discourage them from hurting other people.
And I think that might be possible. I’ve seen evidence that it is. I, for example, can’t think of “sin” without coming back to the repressive fundamentalist Christianity I grew up in. And that’s true for a lot of people. But I’ve also seen people who use the concept of “sin” in a much healthier way that I once didn’t think was possible by defining it as the aspects of life that don’t enable them to pursue the lives they ultimately wanted to pursue. Not the life other people want to impose on them against their will – the life THEY genuinely want. And it helps them organize their lives with a sense of compassion towards other people and a focus on the kind of self they personally want to be.
I think that might be somewhat healthy…as long as the ideal you’re pursuing is not preached as something you necessarily have to be. As long as it’s not something that’s forced on you, taking away your sense of happiness and value at a fundamental level. As long as it’s not hurting other people.
Because when it comes down to it, my main objection to belief in God is that it hurts people. And where it hurts people, where they’re crying because images of hell have been buried in their craniums by a preacher, where they’re suicidal because their church taught that the beautiful desires they feel were evil, where they struggle under the restrictions of the same rituals others may find beautiful…that’s where I have problems.
The problems seem to spring from the God made by men – a God who you can’t question – being forced onto you, extinguishing the person you genuinely want to be and are.
Let me put this another way: When I was a kid in the church pew, preachers talked often about how definitions of God were made up by men, and today Christians still tell me that the definitions of God that I was given were less than genuine. These false pictures of God, preachers once told me, would cripple me in various ways – either in the present life or in eternity. So I had to be discerning so that I didn’t accept unhealthy versions of God.
And even as an atheist – or, perhaps, even more so as an atheist – I still believe that. Manmade definitions of God that come from the outside, that are imposed on you (often against your will) can be deeply damaging and unhealthy.But I’ve seen another way of thinking from some people…
When I was a Christian, many people spoke of having a “personal relationship” with God. That strikes me – the undercurrent of that ideal seems to be that a personal relationship is one that other people don’t impose on you, but one that’s strictly between you and a God that is beyond human definition or coercive control. As a Christian, I tried to develop that relationship, and searched for it. As I did, the personal relationship that developed eventually deepened underneath all of what increasingly seemed to be a manmade God, and eventually I became convinced that it was all manmade, down to the core. So the relationship I thought I was trying to develop with God was ultimately, it seemed, one I was developing with myself. When I realized that, I became an atheist.
But even as an atheist, I’m wondering these days if there’s something to this “personal relationship.” Like, you can do rituals because the pastor or priest says that’s what you have to do, or you can do them because you choose to (without any pressure or guilt-tripping, which is vile in my opinion) and they personally make you happy, giving you a personal sense of comfort. Maybe that connection to what that personal relationship gives you can be thoroughly controlled by you and your thinking and empathy for other people.
Perhaps that paradigm shift is rare, but I think I’ve seen it in some places. And if it is possible for some to have a deeply personal relationship with God (or, for us atheists who think he doesn’t exist, with a god-concept) that gives some a sense of peace, that encourages them to have empathy with other people, that enables them to reach their goals, that encourages them to use their minds to make this world a better place…then it’s hard for me to be angry about it.
There might even be a beauty to it. Because, as an atheist, it is deeply inspiring for me to see people who have developed life philosophies that enable them to get through some of the jaw-dropping hardness and cruelty and stress that happens in life. It’s incredibly courageous and beautiful for me to see, especially knowing that there is no God, and that some people made up a concept, that they did that, in order to empower their minds, fuel them towards healthy goals, and enrich the hearts they have for other people.
So, this is part of why I’m not an anti-theist anymore. I’m more interested in making people happy and encouraging humanity to make progress that will lead to increased happiness than I am in getting rid of God. As an atheist, I wouldn’t mind particularly if a side effect to this happiness is that people drop their love for the concept of God for a love for people. But if there are god-accented roads to increased love for people and happiness in people that seem more promising in certain contexts or for certain people…maybe that’s OK, too.
Thanks for reading.