I was sixteen when my father died. At that age you don’t have the strength to cope with such a loss. Mom was too overwhelmed by grief to provide much support.
Into the void stepped religion.
I was put through one ritual after another. I’m guessing they were intended to help, but they were so irrelevant to what I was feeling that they made me angry. I might as well have been ordered to respond to the biggest tragedy of my life by making shadow puppets.
I was lucky. Precisely when we become most susceptible to dogma, I learned that dogma couldn’t cure my pain.
I went to college a few years later. I often passed evangelizing Moonies on my way to a class on the Bible as literature. Professor Collins made us read the King James version, no obstacle for me after two semesters of Shakespeare. Reading both testaments led me to conclude that in its time, monotheistic religion (at least as manifested in Judaism and Christianity) was the best answer to the big questions: Why is there something instead of nothing? What are we supposed to do while we’re here? What happens after we’re not here?
But time had marched on, and with the advent of science and reason, humans had developed better answers to those questions. Clinging to the old answers seemed silly. Why hadn’t monotheism taken its place alongside the Greek pantheon as an intriguing but harmless cultural relic?
Not until several years later, after that epiphany on the way to work described in my first post, could I answer. Religious belief is both an explanation of and escape from that terrible vulnerability at the core of the human condition. It rationalizes our suffering and gives us the context, meaning, dignity, and stability we so desperately crave. Despite an innate resistance to change, western monotheism’s ability to fulfill these fundamental needs has allowed it to navigate centuries of tumult.
Religion is also perhaps the original authoritarian bargain: in exchange for obedience to your leaders (the deity and those who claim to speak for him) you will be relieved of your anxiety. For those battered and bewildered by pain, it can be too good a deal to pass up.
After my revelation on the walk to work, The Fabulous Wife and I re-read both Biblical testaments. One vivid example of authoritarianism that jumped out at me was Exodus 32:19–29. Moses descends from Mount Sinai bearing the tablets inscribed with the ten commandments. He sees the golden calf and demands an explanation from Aaron, who takes responsibility for the heresy. Rather than make an example of his head priest, though, Moses rallies the Levites to his side and orders them to “go through the camp from gate to gate and back again. Each of you kill his brother, his friend, his neighbor.” The Levites slaughter three thousand of their fellow Hebrews — no word on whether their victims were guilty or just in the wrong place at the wrong time — and Moses congratulates them. “Today you have consecrated yourselves to the Lord completely, because you have turned each against his own son and his own brother and so have this day brought a blessing upon yourselves.” [New English Bible translation.]
Whoa. They didn’t teach us about that in Hebrew School.
I’ve seen the passage explained as Moses mitigating Yahweh’s wrath, because earlier in Exodus 32, the sky god expresses an intent to “vent my anger” on his chosen people. (Because he hadn’t done that enough by subjecting them to four hundred years of slavery?) Better to have your goons massacre a few thousand family members than let the big guy murder even more.
Characterizing this sociopathic episode as a mercy is worse than contradictory: it’s horrifying and despicable. It works only by portraying the supposedly omnipotent, all-knowing, and loving deity as a tantrum thrower incapable of sympathy for subjects warped by centuries of insecurity and abuse. It’s much easier for me to believe that Moses, in his early days an abjurer of wealth dedicated to liberating the oppressed, devolved into a totalitarian dictator, a la Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and African despots too numerous to name.
I gave up religion for good and adopted spirituality.
The two are commonly linked, but shouldn’t be. Spirituality is a quest to better understand the universe, the earth, and humanity. It forces us to confront the element of uncertainty at the heart of the human condition. Religion, on the other hand, is an escape from that uncertainty, assuring us that as long as we believe and act as told by those who claim to speak for the favored supernatural force, we will rank among the righteous — and perhaps the immortal.
On a cloudless summer day in the late Eighties, The Fabulous Wife and I climbed the East Bay ridgeline. We could see the golden hills of Contra Costa County to the east and San Francisco Bay, spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge, to the west. We sat there a while and marveled.
Then I noticed an ant dragging a morsel through the grass below me. It, too, was at the top of the ridge, but had no way of comprehending the stunning vista. Poor ant, incapable of even suspecting the wonders at its feet!
And then it hit me: what about poor me? What magnificence, plain as open sky and sea below, was escaping my comprehension? Was it not a possibility, a probability, that just as the ant was oblivious to all I beheld, I was oblivious to something greater? We have five senses. Who is to say there aren’t more? We have formidable intellects. Who is to say they are sufficient to grasp ultimate truth?
From that moment I understood there is only one honest answer to the three big questions: I don’t know. And that there is only one way to confront the human condition: with as few delusions as possible.