Auntie Fatcat's

Sit down, have a cookie, and chat for a spell.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Stuff We Don't Talk About: Religion

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
--Stephen Roberts

Do you believe in God?

The people who ask this question expect one of three answers: yes (theist), no (atheist), or I don't know (agnostic). As a kid, I was brought up to say yes; I recited the Apostles' Creed so many times I can still remember it word for word. In college, I was exposed to a variety of alternative beliefs and couldn't think of any good reason to believe they were less truthful than my own. So I briefly tried them all out: first simultaneously, then a Frankenstein's monster bits-and-pieces approach. Eventually I figured out that shopping for the most appealing religious beliefs wasn't a good method for arriving at truth, so I gave up and said I didn't know. Then I read somewhere--Marx, I think--that agnostics are just atheists who lack the courage of their convictions. While I doubt that's true for all agnostics, I decided it was for me. So my short answer is now no.

But my real answer is another question: Does it matter?

Most of the people I hear arguing for the necessity of belief in God claim that their primary reason is to save folks from going to hell. Now, as Presbyterian Sunday school taught it to me, lack of faith in a guy who refuses on principle to definitively demonstrate his own existence is enough to get me on God's bad-girl-go-to-hell list. And faith is a matter of belief, not of action; I must believe genuinely, on both intellectual and emotional levels. Merely professing to believe or acting as if it's true just in case--that doesn't count with God. (Which is fine by me; I wouldn't want lip service from people who were just hedging their bets either.)

Some folks do believe deep down in their hearts. If you're one of them, and it makes you a happier, better person, then good for you. I remember how that feels and honestly don't want to take that from you. But I need pretty clear evidence--the kind God specifically chooses not to provide--to continue believing things that deeply. Have you ever tried to make yourself truly believe something you had serious doubts about, even something you really wanted to believe? The only way to do it is to close your mind and heart to all possibility of contrary evidence. If you remain too open to wondering if you're wrong, then you can't commit fully to your belief. The foxes of doubt creep in and spoil the vineyard.

So according to the "believe, that thou might be saved" crowd, God wants--no, demands--that whenever I see a reason to question his existence, I must close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears, and sing "La la la" until it goes away. For me at least, persistent, willful self-delusion is worse than hell. It's hard enough to find truth when I'm looking for it; deliberately not looking isn't going to help. (Those of you, like my mother, who are now concerned about my eternal soul may take comfort in the fact that striving to keep my mind open means that if evidence of God does present itself, I'm more likely to see it. Eventually.) If mind-blindness is what it takes for me to be saved, then sign me up for the other place.

Another popular reason for believing in God is that it's necessary to make one a moral person, either because we need God to define what's right and wrong or because we need the carrot and stick of heaven and hell to motivate us. There's a grain of truth to that; belief in God and his rules probably does make moral behavior easier for people who either can't or don't care to ponder ethical issues for themselves. But it's hardly necessary. Right and wrong are not arbitrary; there are reasons why some acts are moral and others immoral, and those reasons are generally neither inscrutable nor ineffable. There's certainly room to argue about specifics and the validity of any given reason, but because there are reasons, I can figure out a basic code of ethics without divine aid. Then I can compare my thoughts to others' to continuously refine and expand my ethical ideals. And because I understand why various acts are right or wrong, I don't need the threat of punishment or promise of reward to motivate good behavior. I can be good simply because it makes sense.

So if I don't need to believe in God to save myself from hell or be a moral person, I come back to my question: Does it matter if I believe?

I noticed a funny thing on my careening path through the various stages of faith and skepticism: whatever changes I made in my beliefs about God didn't seem to have much effect on what I actually did. Okay, so I stopped going to church, I don't read the bible very often, and I no longer say my prayers (other than the occasional fervent "Please let it not be time to get up yet," directed presumably at my alarm clock). But I still have the same values, the same desire to improve myself, the same capacity for joy, the same ability to feel spiritually moved by art, nature, and the human world around me. All that changed was a few labels in my head, a sort of mental rearranging of furniture.

So no, I don't think it matters. And I'm glad, because it sucks not to be able to definitively answer a question that matters.


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