I’m going to make a slight departure from the format of the previous ‘But How?‘ posts. So far, all of them dealt with how different concepts worked just fine without religion as an explanation, but this one will deal with the personal impact of leaving it behind. While I have no reason nor desire to swell the ranks of atheists, save for the beneficial affect it would have on the idiocy of religious persecution and privilege, I feel somewhat motivated to address some of the misconceptions and assumptions about discarding belief. Even more than most posts, this is from my own perspective, so while not everyone may have the same experience, it still serves as an answer to a question all too often asked: but what will I replace religion with?
First off, let’s get something out of the way: it’s not like atheism or agnosticism is a forced effort, with press gangs taking people away from their religion like refugees from their homeland. When you leave, it’s because you want to leave, because the thought of participating in the charade actually galls you. The respect is gone, like that for a once-liked actor who has revealed him or her self to be a douchecanoe. When the New/Gnu/Nv/Nouveaux Atheists speak out against religion, it isn’t intended to recruit new followers, but to eradicate the heavily biased privilege and poor rationales of behavior that have become too accepted within our cultures.
Now, despite the attitude demonstrated in countless other posts here, I was actually raised religious – relatively low-impact ‘moderate’ catholic, but with a friend-induced period in my early teens of fundamentalist baptist. I not only possessed the mindset that god had brought it all into being but, for a short while anyway, believed that judgment and ultimate consequences were very real and imminent. All of that is gone now, and none of it is missed in the least. Many of the posts on this blog are actually demonstrations that I find doing without them is distinctly more functional. There was no ‘hole’ to fill; instead, everything started making a whole lot more sense.
To a certain extent, many scriptural accounts never rang true, never approached being convincing. I can only speculate here, but I suspect most people find the idea of a worldwide flood and two of every animal housed on a boat for a year (no, it only rained for 40 days – the water had to recede afterwards) to be particularly hard to grasp. Most of the creation details, in fact, correlate poorly (as in, not at all) with what we have been finding out about the world for the past several centuries. While some might either ignore the misgivings in the back of their mind over such details, or simply dismiss them entirely in favor of scriptural accuracy claims, I was one of many who found that more answers were needed. Religion possessed a disconnect with what I could see every day, and it did not help that every answer provided for this referred to a realm of mystical unknown properties.
The entire time that I found the lack of decent answers to be curious, and eventually evidence of error (compounded to no small amount by the abject lies spread by religious leaders and a growing knowledge of scriptural history,) the realm of useful science was not only omnipresent, but continuing to grow. I found, or perhaps always knew, that science is simply observation and testing, not in any way an agenda-based ideology as it is so often portrayed by those immersed in, coincidentally, agenda-based ideologies. The only things that lay hidden in the realm of mystical unknown properties were openly admitted to be curious, such as quantum physics and dark energy, yet the evidence behind what we did know about them was readily available. Meanwhile, the remarkable nature of evolution, physics, cosmology, et al provided not just answers, but mutually interconnecting disciplines that even now continues to fascinate me. And more distinctly, human behavior began to make such utter sense in the realm of evolved traits that contributed to our species’ survival, as reflected in the tagline I chose for the billboard campaign of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
As this disparity in function and value impinged on my consciousness it resulted in, as overused as this phrase is now, a paradigm shift. Religion revealed its apparent attempts at manipulation, denial, dodgy word games, and crass emotional appeal – this was not promoted in the least by science or anyone’s agenda, it was simply demonstrated by the contrast with scientific inquiry. It’s a bit like always thinking that your family or town is typical, until you see others. Examining the fervency of other beliefs was also instructional; religions the world over, throughout history, also claimed to possess “The Truth™” yet somehow so few of them agreed, and none provided much in the way of value. There was no sense of emptiness; there was instead a malignant growth to be removed in order to stay healthy. I had no problem with abandoning any rituals – let’s face it, any activity is only a ‘ritual’ because of the idea underlying it, the supposed importance, and when that’s gone, it just becomes a pointless exercise. As for the churches, I’ve had far more ‘community’ from the places I’ve worked, and have still been able to cope with leaving them behind in the interests of seeking better employment. Moreover, when you no longer agree with anyone’s worldview, you aren’t motivated to associate with them anyway.
Now, there is a difference in perspective that needs to be recognized here. I, like many, found it important to seek real answers and explanations, to gain a better understanding of the world and human behavior, so it was easy to ‘find comfort’ in that which provided the most accurate and useful knowledge. But what about those who find religion important from an emotional standpoint? Those who take comfort in such concepts as the afterlife, ultimate justice and reward, designed purpose, alignment with ‘good’ as an absolute, a beneficent overseer, and so many others provided by religion? When anyone asks about replacements and ‘holes,’ more often than not they are referring to the appeasement provided by such concepts.
However, these aren’t significantly different from answers of a more direct, scientific nature. Religions’ ability to provide these emotional comforts relies solely on claims; there is nothing concrete or demonstrable about these in any way, and it is this realization, in part, that helps spur the movement away from religious thought in the first place (to be sure, it is often the observed contradictions between religious claims and reality, like ‘good christians’ who are self-centered assholes and thousands that die in disasters even as they pray for deliverance, that gets people wondering about godly influences.) Just like the lack of real-world explanations, the crumbling of the emotional portion of religion means that there is little reluctance to abandon it. When anyone recognizes that they’ve been fooling themselves, they’re usually well motivated to stop.
Alongside these thoughts lies a nasty, far-too-common assumption that it’s disturbing to keep seeing in our species. It is often argued that, regardless of accuracy or functionality, religion makes people feel good, so they’re justified in maintaining it. But emotional appeasement is a remarkably feeble and lazy reason to maintain a worldview, and claiming that anyone needs it is implying that they’ve failed to develop emotionally past the age of five. In what other aspect of our lives do we ever find it okay to foster irrational beliefs because they’re soothing? Correct me if I’m wrong, but we consider this fantasy, and while this might be a pleasant (and perhaps even therapeutic) pasttime, when it forms the backbone of someone’s worldview we generally consider this a serious problem.
Usually following close on the heels of such arguments is another familiar one: religion is a personal choice. And believe it or not, I’m just fine with this argument; feel absolutely free to maintain any taste in deity, music, cuisine, or hairstyle that you like. However, such arguments are blatantly fraudulent, because it is not the personal expression that causes any problems whatsoever, but the idea that someone’s particular personal choice should have the faintest affect on anyone else. Nobody’s ‘personal choice’ forms the basis of their moral superiority, arrogance, and privilege, nor is it ever used to influence legislature and prejudice, and it’s insulting to keep hearing this. You will notice that the personal choice argument curiously disappears when it comes to abortion and homosexuality, nor is it ever fostered in children. And of course, what kind of mindless idiot would favor a politician based on something like their hairstyle or favorite song? Yet their piety – that’s a personal choice that’s significant somehow! It would be nice if, as important as most religious folk believe honesty to be, they tried not to keep perpetuating some of the obvious lies.
Another consideration among the emotional stumbling blocks is the concept of eternal life and judgment. Few people really have any issue with judgment being left behind, since it’s a source of no small amount of anxiety. The idea, however, of receiving a magnificent reward at the end is an appealing thought if your life is pretty miserable – no wonder, then, that churches often target disadvantaged and emotionally vulnerable people, and that religiosity is often higher in areas with low standards of living. As long as no one recognizes that such ‘tests’ of our mortal existence actually means we’re pawns in a game played by god, or that eternal reward is also a silly and pointless concept, and especially that recruiting tools always require the promise of a big payoff, then maybe there’s something to be said for the afterlife.
It also may be very hard to consider that death is a distinctive end – yet I’m not sure all that many people aren’t already on board with this. Funerals are not happy or mellow occasions for the devout, any more than among anyone else, and I suspect that the religious promotion of afterlife, besides being an attempted motivator of good behavior, is wielded more as a salve against the remorse of death than as an actual denial of it. The acceptance of oblivion, among atheists, is in part due to the ludicrousness [it really should be “ludicrosity”] of perpetual afterlife and its attendant fallacies, such as the idea that rewards and punishments are intended to influence future behavior, and the recognition that every emotion we have is a trait to help us thrive as a species. As many have pointed out, you have no more knowledge of oblivion at death than you did of pre-life before you were born. It is perfectly reasonable to fear death – all of the things that we enjoy and treasure, that we look forward to or want to accomplish, vanish at that point – but what we might desire to be the case doesn’t have any effect on how true it might be, and denial isn’t a trait that many want to engage in. One must consider, too, that if we had perpetual life, we would accomplish nothing – it is our limited time on earth that makes us strive to reach certain goals (and provides our sense of satisfaction when we do.)
Other people may simply be too influenced by longstanding culture, afraid to appear in any way different from their neighbors, worried about what they might think. This aspect has more affect than many think, because the cultural acceptance of religion, and the peculiar belief that respect should be automatic rather than earned, causes many to defer to social conformity rather than a rationally-supportable viewpoint. Ironically, this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, since we are a species that benefits greatly from social cohesion, but it’s unfortunate that many people give so much weight to subconscious emotional reactions that they never stop to consider whether a standpoint is reasonable, or even functional.
This even applies to an unknown number of people who really are atheists, but make no public recognition of such for fear of consequences, which strikes me as a very conflicted way of existing. When you cannot be true to yourself and your reason, can you still derive benefit from the façade, or maintain self-respect? If it helps, I personally have seen minimal negative consequences from being openly atheistic – it might cut down on my photo students – but very few people have ever tried being directly disrespectful or derogatory toward me, even online. I admit that I was well away from giving a shit what other people thought before I left high school, so that probably helped, but it likely depends more on whether or not one is more comfortable being honest with themselves than in worrying about the opinions of others. And in my experience overall, religious bigots remain sequestered away in their own circles 99% of the time, and can rarely handle engagement over, for instance, many of the failures of religion that I’ve just related. Moreover, in the cases where you are challenged to defend your views, it becomes easier as you go along, as you get more experience spotting fallacies and recognizing how flawed thinking works – which also improves your own critical thinking and can help you feel confident that you’re, at the very least, applying due diligence towards your own views. The only way we can ensure that we’re not wrong is by first realizing that it is eminently possible.
Again, much of this is admittedly personal experience, and anyone else might see something different. What I’m (hopefully) demonstrating is that the idea of a “hole” or a feeling of loss is probably more of an assumption than a reality, and that at least some people find more liberation and confidence when religious thought is left behind. And as a final note, how curious is it that the question even exists, that people could contemplate their worldview from the perspective of the way it makes them feel rather than whether or not it is actually believable?